The Woods is a 2006 horror film from director Lucky McKee. McKee garnered some attention for himself with his debut film, the 2001 zombie-revenge flick, All Cheerleaders Die (which McKee remade to what most consider lesser effect in 2013), but had really come to the attention of horror fans and media outlets with the release of the “unhinged social misfit” film May in 2002. Although shot in 2004, The Woods would finally make its debut at Montreal’s Fantastic Film Fest in 2006. Although May was unsuccessful at the box office, a theatrical release was originally planned for The Woods. However, the film was relegated to home video release when the film’s production company, United Artists, was acquired by Sony in their purchase of MGM (in 2004).
Set in 1965 (as evidenced by the Leslie Gore-heavy soundtrack), The Woods tells the story of Heather (Agnes Bruckner – Blood and Chocolate, 2005’s Venom), a teenager who is sent to Falburn Academy (a strict girls-only boarding school) by her parents after setting a fire at her home in retaliation to growing difficulties in the relationship with her superficial, materialistic mother (Emma Campbell – Xchange, Feardotcom). Horror icon Bruce Campbell is cast as Heather’s father, who knows that most of the family’s issues stem from his wife, but sheepishly refuses to stand up to or disagree with the bitch… I mean “woman”.
Initially, Heather only makes one friend at Falburn; Marcy (Lauren Birkell – Cast Away, The Babysitters), a quiet, outcast type with few (if any) other friends. Heather also draws the attention of Samantha (Rachel Nichols – P2, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra); a tall, thin blonde, who (for lack of a better term) serves as the school bully. As Marcy is frequently the target of Samantha’s tormenting, Heather has now made herself one as well, due to her newfound association. Thanks to her being born a redhead, Heather has earned the not-so-affectionate nickname of “Fire-Crotch” from Samantha, which I can only assume was much more offensive and troubling in 1965 than it seems to be today.
While attempting to adjust to her new life at Falburn, Heather soon discovers that the school has something of a “track record” when it comes to students running away or mysteriously disappearing, which somehow has not drawn much attention or suspicion from the local police. She also hears stories, and even begins having visions, that the school may have been the site of grisly axe murders over a century prior.
As expected, sinister forces are at play at the school. Most of the supporting characters are exposed to have some involvement in the dire plot, some unwittingly and others benevolent. Eventually, it comes down to Heather to not only save her own life, but the lives of her family and fellow students… or to be the key to their demise.
The Woods features a fairly well-thought out, methodically driven story at its core. There were some elements that reminded me of older Gothic horror films, and even some Hammer-esque flair, as set and costume design help set the stage just as much as the woods providing the school’s exterior. However, even at only 91 minutes long, The Woods does more than occasionally feel like it’s dragging its heels, making the experience feel much longer than it actually is.
Overall, the casts’ performances are quite solid as well, with Nichols possibly being the standout as the vicious “Samantha”, who may have a hidden agenda of her own. Bruce Campbell helps give the film some horror cred and an extra dose of name recognition. Even in a smaller supporting role, he still plays it somewhat campy, but never presents much of a distraction to the tone of the film.
If I have one major complaint regarding this film, it’s with the CG effects used to make the numerous (and damn, are there a lot!!) vines, branches, and limbs of the surrounding woods seemingly come to life at various points within the film, and heavily used in the film’s climax (spoiler alert or something). While I do understand that pulling off such an effects-heavy sequence convincingly with practical effects may have been difficult to achieve on the film’s somewhat-moderate budget ($12 million), the digital effects used here just weren’t all that “special” in 2006, and 15 years of age and technological advancement surely haven’t done them any favors.
While not exactly a “misfire”, it’s very fair to say that The Woods was not as well received by critics and fans as McKee’s previous film had been. Nor can one really argue that The Woods is now seen as the “cult classic” that May (and to a much lesser extent, All Cheerleaders Die) has become, but it is somewhat fair to say that The Woods was more “studio” and “commercial” than either of McKee’s previous films, which may have served as a turn-off for some. While I personally do not see The Woods as a “step down” for the then-young director and more as a step in a different direction, I definitely do not consider the film to be as memorable as May. As for Cheerleaders, I’ve never really been much of a fan.
I first watched The Woods upon purchasing a DVD copy of the film, sometime back in 2006 or 2007. I very clearly remember enjoying the film, or at least enjoying it enough that I didn’t immediately try to flip it on eBay. However, the DVD had since sat untouched on my shelf for these last 14-15 years. In fact, this review only exists so as to give myself a justifiable reason to watch the film once again. While, for the most part, I did still enjoy the film on this re-watch, I can assure you that my old DVD copy will NOT be going back on the shelf for another 14-15 years, for the picture quality on that release has also aged quite poorly. If (for any reason) you choose to purchase yourself a copy of the film today, do yourself a favor and buy a blu-ray copy! You can find them for fairly cheap!