Woods, The (2006)

The Woods reviewStarring Patricia Clarkson, Agnes Bruckner, Marcia Bennet, Rachel Nichols, Lauren Birkell, Bruce Campbell

Directed by Lucky McKee

With his individual flair for blood stained empathy, Lucky McKee has been gaining fans ever since he wooed the genre with the inimitable Angela Bettis in 2002’s ghastly yet poignantly moving May, and now, with his latest feature, it’s obvious that his talent is still evolving.

Set in 1965 to the tune of whitebread girlhood gone a little awry, The Woods introduces us to Heather Fasulo, a fiery redhead with an equally fiery disposition that has finally landed her in sleepaway detention masquerading as academic purgatory.

It’s no secret that growing up isn’t easy and the business of school is more often an uncomfortable hazing process rather than an institution of learning and growth. Many of us have no problems recalling our worst academic experiences over our best, and had The Woods been wrought solely with the harsh threads of adolescent hardship, I’d still be inclined to call it a horror film. Sternly delivered into the waiting hands of Headmistress Ms. Traverse, what follows is Heather’s immersion into life at boarding school, and the process is awkwardly difficult at best, unsympathetic and unyielding at worst.

Not only is Heather severed against her will from the familiarity and comforts of home, but her parents have been replaced by heavily authoritative matrons, and the student social circle is practically a dictatorship… alienation and betrayal are only the beginning.

As Heather learns to adjust and maintain a tenuous coexistence between faculty and students, she begins to realize that all the unpleasant trappings of school life are further darkened by a constant air of suspicion, secrecy, and fear. Something’s up with the teachers and something is definitely wrong with the woods surrounding her remote home away from home. Ultimately, simply getting out of school is the least of her worries.

At first glance The Woods is neither intricate nor even particularly scary, but the simplicity of the story is elevated from banality by the way in which it is told. The outstanding performances from the entire cast add charismatic depth and detail to what might otherwise be typical characters, and the stylishly macabre camera work and deliberate yet casual pacing allow for an easy tread between teenaged angst and supernatural malevolence.

In light of such steady pacing throughout almost the entire film, it’s unfortunate that the final showdown culminates almost too quickly, leaving the last act a little breathless from the rush. The ultimate reveal of Ms. Traverse and her sisterhood of tree huggers also remains vague, more open to speculation than most audiences are willing to accept I’m afraid.

Nevertheless, The Woods is solid and satisfying. Chillingly punctuated by vivid nightmare sequences and harrowing confrontations between students, teachers, and the woods themselves, the flow of fear heads in only one direction… off the proverbial beaten path where it’s happy to reveal the sinister fairytale that lies at the heart of every darkened forest.

NOTE: Unfortunately, while the wonderful folk responsible for the Fantasia Film Festival have begun the process of righting a wrong with the North American premiere of The Woods, the film’s future is still unclear. As of this writing, even limited distribution has yet to be determined.

3 1/2 out of 5

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Jon Condit