Woods, The (2006)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/18/06 16:56:31

"Someone get this film into theaters, please!"
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I'll admit it; I've been waiting for "The Woods" because a favorite actor has a supporting role. I'd recognized director Lucky McKee's skill at building atmosphere and creeping out the audience in "May", but it was just too much for me; there just didn't seem to be any particular reason to get to the end of that movie. Here, he's working from a script by another writer, and I think it helps make for a more mainstream, but still creepy, work of horror.

The year is 1965, and Heather Fasulo (Agnes Bruckner) is being sent to an exclusive girls' school after a few instances of acting out, including setting a fire in the front yard which nearly destroyed an old oak tree. The headmistress, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson) informs her that since her father (Bruce Campbell) isn't quite so well-off financially as he appears, she will be tested for a scholarship, which she receives. The school is isolated by trees in every direction, so there's no relief from the usual girls' school issues - she sticks up for a picked on classmate, Marcy (Lauren Birkell), thus earning the enmity of blonde queen bee Samantha (Rachel Nichols). Another girl, Ann (Kathleen Mackey) has just returned from the hospital. As with any old institution, the school has accumulated creepy stories, but Heather is starting to get the impression that they're much more than just stories.

Aside from being McKee's follow-up to May, which certainly got people's attention when it appeared four years ago, The Woods has gained the stigma for being stuck in a studio vault which is unfair. Almost every film on MGM/UA and Columbia's schedule has had its schedule messed with by Sony's purchase of MGM, though few have suffered as badly as The Woods - it's been in the can for at least two years; and just compare Rachel Nichols in this film to her recent work - no way she can play a teenager any more, and she probably wasn't well known enough (from two separate TV series) to have third billing (first under the title) when this was originally planned for release. Bruckner seemed like an up-and-comer back when the film was expected to be released in August 2004; now her star has faded a little. It's the sort of film a studio has issues with, too - it's centered around teenage characters but is set forty years ago and has an R rating, so they spend a lot of time trying to make it more salable. According to McKee, the version screened is his preferred cut and will probably be the one to come out if and when the studio ever releases it.

(Incidentally, it's disenheartening to see the director just seem to be worn down by his dealings with with the studio. He didn't even sound interested in trying to get a theatrical release any more; he just seems to want a DVD to put on his shelf to have it over with.)

All that aside, it's a darn good movie. Ross and McKee set up characters at the school who could be interesting to watch even without the supernatural elements, and the young cast happily digs into their roles. Take the scene where Heather has had enough and wants to go home: Ms. Traverse lets her call home only to reach her mother (Emma Campbell) entertaining and quite unconcerned with her daughter's worries. Ms. Bruckner reacts to this evidence of her character's mother's indifference like she's been punched in the gut, and it puts what direction she'll move in next in flux, because as much as she's been sarcastic and sort of passively defiant (she's polite, but doesn't worry too much about things like being late), she's also been genuinely miserable and homesick. Patricia Clarkson is great in that scene, too; her character knows how this his going to play out and how this will let her mould Heather; it starts to move our perception of her from purely malevolent to maybe being an educator not worried about hurting her charges' feelings in the short term. There's potentially a good teacher-student story going on with these characters.

Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is turning in good work, too. Rachel Nichols gets her bitch on as Samantha, and I like how the film realizes that bullies aren't a particularly clever lot, even when they're girls trying to hurt each other with words rather than boys with fists. Samantha's got one insult - "firecrotch", referring to Heather's red hair - and it's not even really insulting except that she keeps harping on it. We get the impression that her favorite target before Heather arrived was Marcy, who Ms. Birkell makes sweet and timid and such a good friend that when she and Heather have a falling out, something must be terribly wrong.

This is, after all, a horror movie. What's going on with the teachers, students, and woods is more than a little peculiar, but is at least a creative motivation for a horror movie villain to be doing its thing (especially this particular one). Certainly, McKee and his crew do a great job of making the woods a literally hostile environment, with fun and creepy special effects as it overpowers the school. Genre fans will be glad to see Bruce Campbell on hand as Heather's father; he initially plays against type, buttoned up tight and not even having a line when Heather is first brought to the school. The festival audience let out a whoop at the times when the film payed homage to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films (which Campbell starred in), but you don't need to get the reference to enjoy those scenes. John Leonetti's cinematography is dark and moody while still letting the audience see what's going on, and even Lesley Gore's appearance on the soundtrack becomes eerie.

It's a real shame this has gotten buried; it's atmospheric, suspenseful, and has a great cast. McKee creates a great aura of mystery that keeps the tension high even during the more conventional sections. It's a nifty, creepy piece for those who like getting creeped out.

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