Directed By: Lucky McKee
Written By: David Ross
Produced By: Bryan Furst, Sean Furst
Cast: Agnes Bruckner, Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Birkell, Rachel Nichols, Bruce Campbell
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 91 minutes
Review Date: December 8, 2010
Every month, at least one movie is quietly shuffled onto DVD despite having major stars and intriguing premises. Bargain Bin seeks to find the direct-to-video features unjustly buried by studios.
Admittedly, The Woods barely holds the minimum requirements for a Bargain Bin column. Individually, there is no member of the cast who I would say it’s a shock to see in a direct-to-DVD feature. But combining them all in one feature without even the briefest of a theatrical release is somewhat surprising. Given how long the film sat on the shelf before being quietly slipped to the home video market with a barebones DVD, you would think it was a true stinker, an embarrassment that the better known members of the cast would quietly drop from their résumés. The truth is the exact opposite.
The film takes place in 1965. Heather (Agnes Bruckner) is a sullen teenager who is shipped off to a boarding school by her parents (Emma Campbell, Bruce Campbell) after numerous fights with her mother finally lead her to set fire to a tree in their yard. The school, a large gothic building, sits in the middle of an overgrown patch of woods. The woods have actually grown so close to the school that vines extend through the windows and along the interior walls while dead leaves blow through the hallways. If not for the students and teachers, the school would appear to be deserted.
Once dumped at the school, Heather finds herself the subject of special attention by the headmistress, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson) and the uppity school bully, Samantha (Rachel Nichols). Ms Traverse conducts special one-on-one sessions with Heather that are supposedly a requirement of her scholarship. These sessions find Ms. Traverse asking Heather to do everything from balancing rocks to answering personally invasive questions designed to draw out emotional responses. Meanwhile, Samantha makes it her mission to make Heather’s life a living hell and drive her from the school. While she initially comes across as a stereotypical “mean girl,” Samantha is eventually revealed to have very logical motives for her behavior that are best learned from watching the film and not by a spoiler in a review.
Unhappy at being dumped at the school, creeped out by Ms. Traverse’s special attention, and pissed off by Samantha’s taunts and threats, Heather quickly becomes an outcast. She quietly connects with Marcy (Lauren Birkell), another outcast at the school. Through Marcy and the other girls, Heather learns of a bloody legend that the school was violently overtaken by a sisterhood of witches a hundred years earlier. While she says nothing to the teachers or other students, Heather has had terrible nightmares about the woods and a mysterious student who tried to commit suicide. When combined with an effective sequence where she becomes lost in the woods, hears whispering voices, and sees figures darting among the trees, the legend takes on a disturbing plausibility to Heather.
The script by David Ross is rather derivative. With a story centered on the new girl in a boarding school that may be run by witches, it lifts whole chunks of the plot to Suspiria, leaving behind (most of) the graphic violence of Dario Argento’s Technicolor nightmare. But Ross manages to make the familiar story work by giving true dimensions to Heather, Samantha, and Ms. Traverse. Even the seemingly clichéd roles of the ineffectual parents are afforded extra shading to make them more than they initially appear. For most of the first two acts, the film focuses more on building the characters and creating an atmosphere of decay and desperation among the teachers.
It’s the commitment to character building and slowly ratcheting up the tension that makes the film stand out as a superior horror film. This is not surprising considering that director Lucky McKee made one of the best horror films of the decade with May, another female-centric film that focused on an outsider as she dealt with coming-of-age issues complicated by the demands of the horror genre. Like May, The Woods depends heavily on a stellar lead performance to anchor the film’s melancholy tone, leisurely pace, and drops of dark humor. Bruckner is more than up to the job. She’s able to handle Heather’s hardboiled, tough-girl dialogue with panache while maintaining audience sympathy. Unlike many other actresses her age, she’s also not afraid to let Heather show off complex emotions. She plays Heather’s friendship with Marcy tenderly, allowing furtive smiles to break up her normal tough-as-nails exterior. When she and Marcy have a falling out, it’s that much more upsetting for the audience when Heather destroys the most symbolic object of their bond. Their friendship feels real because of the complex emotions that Bruckner and Birkell play so well.
This complexity carries over to the supporting characters. Just when you think you have them pegged as a “type,” characters are revealed to have unexpected subtlety or hidden reasons for behaving the way they do. This applies not just to Samantha, but also Ms. Traverse (who is a tad underwritten, but Clarkson’s performance balances out the character’s inherent menace with a surprising amount of sympathy), Marcy, and Heather’s parents as the plot ensnares them in the final act. It’s a real credit to McKee, Ross, and the actors that the characters all feel so real and don’t fall victim to the normal horror movie clichés.
The Woods was completed and ready for release in 2004. At that time, Agnes Bruckner and Rachel Nichols were both considered rising stars; Patricia Clarkson was coming off an Oscar nomination for Pieces of April; and Bruce Campbell had already secured his place as a legendary cult favorite by starring in the Evil Dead films and the TV show The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., among many other titles. Bruckner had risen from doing soap operas as a child actor to guest roles on 24 and Alias to high-profile indies Blue Car, Haven, and Stateside. Nichols had a memorable supporting role in the otherwise forgettable Amityville Horror remake and was getting ready to start a high-profile role on Alias. While Bruckner has continued to work steadily, she has yet to blossom into the star so many expected her to be just a few short years ago. Nichols has built her career with a lead role in the horror film P2 and prominent roles in Star Trek and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Clarkson has continued to be one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood. Campbell has arguably achieved his most widespread fame as one of the stars of Burn Notice. So why hasn’t The Woods achieved the cult status it deserves?
I believe the simple answer is that it’s too good. When you step back and take a look at the plot from the point of view of a video store customer looking for a cheap thrill, The Woods has to feel disappointing. It’s a horror film that takes its cues from slow-burn classics like Rosemary’s Baby and the original The Haunting. It revolves around an all-girls boarding school, without sexualizing or fetishizing the students. Aside from a nearly surreal climax that finds an axe being put to effective use against the skulls of various evildoers, there is next to no gore. When what is expected to be a trashy movie to watch with friends while consuming a six pack and a pizza turns out to be a thoughtful, character-based exercise in sustained mood and suspense, the word-of-mouth can become toxic.
Which is yet another shame that the movie missed the theatrical release that might have garnered it the art-house audience that would have appreciated it. A victim of United Artists’ and MGM’s financial woes, McKee never directed the film to be a straight-to-DVD release. Given a reported $10-$12 million budget, every dollar is on the screen in terrific production design with elaborate period details, pristine photography by veteran cinematographer John R. Leonetti, and the impressive cast. This is the type of film that the horror genre desperately needed at the time of its production (and still needs to this day). It’s ripe for discovery and deserves recognition as an under-seen mini-classic.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.