It All Happens In The Dark

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To the woodshed.

The Woods (2006)

It is 1965 and Heather (Agnes Brucker, looking like Alicia Witt’s younger sister) is on her way to Falburn Academy. Her uptight, blond, pink pill hat wearing mother, Alice (Emma Campbell channeling Elisabeth Hasselbeck) has had it with Heather’s out of control behavior. The last straw was when after the two had an argument Heather set fire to a tree and nearly burnt their house down. Heather’s father, Joe (the cooler than cool, hotter than hot Bruce Campbell) isn’t really on board with the whole shipping Heather off to boarding school thing but Alice wears the pants in this family and so it is hasta luego, Heather. Arriving at Falburn, Heather is greeted by the head mistress, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson, who appears dazed throughout).

Heather is a teenager, she’s angry, she’s just been dumped by her parents and sure isn’t going to win any awards for her interpersonal skills. She doesn’t really fit in at Falburn, but she doesn’t really try to either. Still, she does eventually form a friendship with Marcy (Lauren Birkell) who she sits next to one day at lunch and who has the bed beside her in the dormitory. Their friendship is sealed one night after lights out when they bond while listening to Lesley Gore on Marcy’s prized transistor radio.

But just because Heather has now made a friend doesn’t mean she is happy at Falburn. The teachers are all odd, everyone seems to operate according to an unspoken set of rules, drinking the milk in the dining hall is a major big deal  – and not because it helps build strong bones. Also, because Heather’s mother requested financial aid, Heather is required to take an extremely bizarre “special” class – a one on one with Ms. Traverse that involves the head mistress asking a bunch of really personal and none-of-her-business questions.

After an especially difficult day that drives her to the brink, Heather phones her mother and begs to be allowed to return home. When her mother won’t hear of it, Heather decides to run away and sets off into the woods. But in the dark of forest Heather finds she may be worse off than ever. She becomes disoriented and begins to panic when she hears strange sounds and sees what appears to be something or someone moving among the trees. She makes a run for it and emerges from the woods to finds that she is right back at Falburn – and everyone is gathered outside, having found Heather was missing. None of the teachers look pleased to see her and Ms. Traverse gives her an especially unsympathetic glare.

The next night in the dormitory a few of the girls tease Heather about her runaway attempt, which leads to talk about the woods. There is an old story that is told about them, which all the girls have heard except Heather. It goes something like this – one day, a long time ago, three young girls came out of the woods and were taken in by the school. Sometime later a few of the students found the three in an empty classroom – doing some sort of spell or ritual. Branding the trio witches, the students shunned and tormented the three, and one day the girls were chased into the woods by the students. And there the threesome called upon the woods for revenge and and in return offered up the souls of the student body. The spirit of the woods took possession of the students and when they all finally came back out of the woods, they were lead by head hexer, Clara, whose first order of business was to kill the headmistress with an ax.

Heather doesn’t take this tale too seriously – she isn’t phased, OK? But she is having nightmares – about the one empty bed in the dorm – about something that comes slithering in through the windows as the girls sleep. Heather asks about the vacant bed and is told that the girl who it belongs to is in the hospital – she had an “accident.” Ooooh, sinister vagueness!

As it goes, girls begin disappearing, their beds found to be covered with leaves, some sneaky vines right out of The Ruins show up, Heather gets all suspicious about the school and what is really going on and we do not get a single jeweled peacock with tail feathers that can be removed to serve as a weapon, not one secret passage and nothing even close to being as cool as a room filled with barbed wire.

We do get is a scene that is lifted directly from The Craft, though - remember the part when Robin Tunney is sitting in class and she takes her pencil and kind of makes it float on her desk? Well, big woo, Heather can do that, too.

There are two bits I did like. Heather’s father finally puts his foot down and decides to take Heather out of Falburn and back home. He drives with grumpy mom in tow, collects his daughter, and the three drive off, leaving the school behind. Silly Heather, she really does think she’s home free here. Well, the woods aren’t ready to give her up and so seize the car, flip it, pull Heather’s mother out a window and drop her to her death. After this ordeal Heather wakes up in a hospital and finds her father is alive and in another room. In frenetic cuts we go between Heather screaming and struggling as she is held down and tied to a bed and her father with Ms. Traverse who is doing… well, something to him. I am unclear as to what exactly this something she does is and I cannot explain it. At first I thought she was smothering him, but no, we see him not dead later when Heather is taken out of the hospital. He appears to be in some kind of catatonic state. The dueling back and forth of Heather’s ordeal and that of her father is well done and the only time the film is even remotely effective.

The other part I liked for a very different reason is when Joe comes out of whatever spell he was under and promptly pukes up some black goo and a small piece of twig. He looks at what his body has just expelled and then looks up and around the room he is in, which we see is filled with patients that have fallen silent and stopped what they were doing to stare in disgust and disbelief. Sadly this is really the only opportunity Bruce Campbell gets to shine. He is sorely underused in a thankless role – barely in the film at all and the brief time he is on screen he is given absolutely nothing to do. This is the only moment in the film that could be called humorous. The Woods takes itself way, way too seriously.

Quite clearly Suspira and to a lesser degree The Evil Dead are being referenced here. Yet not once does The Woods manage to muster up anything that makes it worthy of being compared to either.

This was director Lucky McKee’s follow up to the cult hit May. I was looking forward to seeing it. The cast is full of talented individuals, the story sounded old school nifty and McKee had already demonstrated himself capable of pulling off a solid genre piece – and even one that mixed it up a bit and didn’t always stay inside the lines. He seemed also, to have the heart of a horror fan. In May we not only see a character reading a magazine with a picture from Argento’s Opera in it, but later the same character says they are going to see a showing of Trauma. McKee seems to know his stuff, right? The plot of The Woods could not be more similar to Suspiria. This could almost qualify as a remake that dropped the dance academy and replaced it with an all girls school.

And don’t even get me started on that ending – what a joke. It could be said that the climax The Woods offers up is no more bare bones than the finale of Suspiria. I will admit that film’s climax is a little underwhelming but I think the style and fever dream flamboyance with which it is done more than compensates for any slightness.

The first time I saw this film, I threw the DVD across the room when it was over. I detested it. I didn’t like anything about it. I don’t loathe it with as much active hostility now, but watching it a second time hasn’t changed my opinion about what a dud it is. I definitely don’t recommend it. It is quite unsatisfying. What went so wrong? I think I read about problems behind the scenes. Was there studio tampering? This was supposed to be released in 2004. I remember only because M. Night Shyamalan was working on The Village at the same time and The Village was originally called The Woods before the tile was changed to avoid confusion. The Woods wasn’t released until two years later when it went straight to DVD.

It is all just so routine and spiritless – where is the passion, where is that extra little oomph? The entire cast seems to be sleepwalking through their parts. Patricia Clarkson, such a gifted actress, comes off like she’s heavily sedated. The fault is not really hers but more the role itself – Ms. Traverse is extremely underwritten – never is she menacing or bewitching as such a character should be.

So, there you have it. I watched it so you don’t have to. If for some reason you do decide to take a walk through The Woods even after my valiant and selfless attempts to discourage you then you have only yourself to blame. C-

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