Directed by Lucky McKee, 2006
Notice that year above. Do I put 2003, the year The Woods went into production and forced M. Night Shyamalan to re-title his then-new film to The Village? Or do I put 2006, the year that the foolishly shelved film finally saw the light of release, albeit it at a thimble full of festivals before its inevitable DVD obscurity?
The year matters because Lucky McKee’s The Woods is the most blissfully artistic horror film I’ve seen in years – I’m just torn as to which year’s top 10 list to place it on.
High praise, I know, but considering the horror market of the last several years has been saturated with remakes, re-imaginings and regurgitations, something as bold and original as The Woods stands out like a guiding light towards better filmmaking.
Scripted by David Ross, The Woods‘ initial plot and setting does breathe an aura of familiarity. The new, independent girl arrives at an all female boarding school chock full of strict head teachers whose eerie rigidity is definitely otherworldly. However, as trodden as the script’s walking grounds may be, McKee’s direction deftly surpasses any de ja vu, and nestles the film into a world of askew uniformity that while never hide-under-the-bed scary is persistently creepy and unsettling.
Agnes Bruckner is a dream as Heather, the new, gifted student, and the supporting cast all deliver performances that hark back to genre days when character quirks were king. This includes a deadpan Bruce Campbell as Heather’s reluctant but protective father and Marcia Bennett as a twitchy authoritarian.
The film’s only flaw is a script that suffers marginally from the things that do feel familiar. The first person who befriends Heather is the meek girl who shys away from the popular group and, of course, her first antagonizer is the blonde bitch of the school. But, yet again, a quirky cast of characters, edgier dialogue/action and McKee’s hypnotic visual style are all more than enough to keep you interested and invested, even as the film’s own legendary story about witches from within the woods becomes a bit murky. I’m willing to take a stab, though, and guess that any post-climax lack of plot cohesion is due to the same studio intervention that let the print collect dust for three years instead of the screenwriter or director.
John R. Leonetti’s cinematography is the best I’ve seen from the genre in, well, longer than I can remember. This is a movie where shadows actually look like shadows and night looks like night. There are no excusatory sources of light that exists to brighten up a bit more of the set, which is a pitfall of most studio horror these days (god forbid horror movies should actually hide things perpetually in darkness). If Lucky McKee doesn’t want you to see it until it is right in your face, you aren’t going to see it until it is right in your face.
Stack the dominating lighting scheme and subdued color palette with a ’60s era soundtrack and you have one stylish crawler. The effects are impressive, both practical and digital. McKee isn’t afraid to show some bloody arterial spray, but only when necessary, and the digital behind the living forest is an expert mix of makeup and CGI that really is seamless in a way most lower-budgeted films just never achieve.
Even with its imperfections, I truly loved The Woods and respect the hell out of its director for it. This is real filmmaking, not just someone satisfying a contractual obligation. It further proves that Lucky McKee is one of the most visionary men of the horror/fantasy resurgence and should not give up this touch-and-go genre just because studios consistently underestimate the intelligence of their market.
The Woods finally comes out on DVD on October 3rd. You need to go buy it. And if you haven’t seen McKee’s first film, May, you need to do yourself a favor and pick that up as well.