The Woods

A well-placed axe can solve most problems in life
Lucky McKee
Agnes Bruckner, Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Birkell, Rachel Nichols, Bruce Campbell
The Setup: 
Girl goes to all-female boarding school where witchcraft may or may not be happening.

I saw one good review of this, then one rave review of it, so what the hell, I threw it at the top of my list. This is by the same director as the well-regarded May [which I will totally be watching very soon now], and apparently was completed three years ago, but Sony held onto it, then finally dumped it out straight to video, not even bothering with a theatrical release. It’s too bad.

One reviewer on the IMDb says “It’s fine if you like spooky, but not scary.” Which may be true, but it’s too bad that ‘spooky’ is out of style—or at least won’t bring in enough money to bother releasing to theaters. I guess The Jacket and Skeleton Key were spooky, but they both had stars. Of course, I have for some time thought that horror should go the art-movie route and become very dry and abstract and released only in art houses and demand that people take them seriously… but you know, no one listens to me. Anyway, I for one am fully in favor of ‘spooky,’ and wish this one was given a little more attention, as it’s quite a solid little movie with a good story and great performances.

We begin with Agnes Bruckner as Heather on her way to this private girls’ school, being driven by her mega-bitch mother and her dad, Bruce Campbell. Bruce’s face has gotten thick and heavy, and to me at made him look quite interesting, and it was nice to see him acting in a irony-free way. It seems that Heather is in trouble for trying to burn down her parent’s home.

As her parents are fussing in the trunk Heather sees Patricia Clarkson as Miss Traverse [I love heavy-handed names, don’t you?] approaching from the woods. There’s a shot of her reflection over Heather’s face as she’s sitting in the car that’s good, and sets Traverse up as the villain right away. This movie makes it fairly obvious from the start that the women in charge of the school are big trouble, but you don’t mind because the rest of it is all handled so well, and you don’t really know what their evil plan is.

Traverse gives Heather a quiz of very abstract questions along the lines of “which one of these pictures represents nature?” Heather gets a paper cut on the quiz, staining it with her blood. Then her parents leave, her mother’s parting advice to her daughter being: “Don’t let you nails get out of control.”

Heather soon makes friends with Marcy, a nerdy girl, and is made fun of by uber-bitch Samantha, who is a total blast with her petty tormenting. She does things like knock over Heather’s milk and then go “Oh, I’m SOOOO sorry.” For a while spooky stuff is happening or Heather is reacting to Samantha, but invariably Heather is blamed for it and gets in trouble. At one point she demands to call her mother and be taken home, Traverse plops the phone right in front of her and tells her go ahead. Her mother is at a party [read: her parents are partying since she’s gone] and not listening to her.

Meanwhile mysterious stuff is happening, voices from the woods, ghosts, etc. Naturally, since we’re talking about a girls’ school, there must be a montage with lesbian overtones, and it is well-handled here, with deft use of a song by Lesley Gore [did I mention that this movie takes place in 1965?]. At some point we find out that about 100 years ago three witches came out of the woods and took over the school, killing the headmistress with an axe. Meanwhile, every now and then Traverse pulls Heather into these little mind-meld sessions that is part of her “special training,” and we also find out that Heather can balance non-balanceable materials using some kind of mental powers.

Soon girls start disappearing, and things are getting spookier and more violent. Eventually it turns out that Samantha the bitch was actually trying to warn Heather and scare her off—her knocking the milk over was intentional, as the witches put blood in the milk to control the girls’ minds. Eventually Heather’s parents show up to pick her up, but don’t get very far. It all climaxes with some sort of ritual with the witches that involves all of the girls at the school [as victims], but Heather’s dad interrupts it with an axe [Heather’s mom has already been killed], and eventually Heather applies the axe to Traverse’s neck, ending the spell. Heather then burns the school down and leads all the girls out.

I didn’t want to tell you the ending, but one thing you notice is the typical Electra complex thing wherein Heather’s mom dies, and her dad, who has been distant, absent and ineffectual this whole time, suddenly starts to trust his daughter, and with Mom out of the way, the two of them can end up together. You will also notice that Heather was sent to the girls’ school for trying to burn her house down—the house of her mother. At the end, she destroys the mother-figure of the new house [the school], and again burns the house down, only this time her burning it is approved by her father, who now trusts in his daughter’s instincts and abilities.

In fact, now that I think about it, the whole thing makes sense that way. Heather’s mother is a bitch and her father in ineffectual. They send her to a school, which is a replacement house with a REPLACEMENT MOTHER [we can’t have Heather kill her own mother and still be our heroine]. She defeats the replacement mother, who was controlling her father through witchcraft [just as it may seem to Heather that her real mother uses her “witchcraft” to control her father]. The real mother dies, and her father now pays attention to her and respects her. A similar thing happens in the original Nightmare on Elm Street.

It was very good. There are very few CGI effects for the first hour [they go crazy in the last 15 minutes], and when they are used they are quite effective. I also liked that the witchcraft effects stayed very earthy and natural [trees, leaves, branches, stones], it just made it seemed a little more plausible. The performances throughout are good, especially Bruckner and Clarkson. The only complaint I might have is that it seemed a little easy and straightforward [and disappointingly physical] to kill the villain and set everything right. But since this movie exists mainly for the atmosphere and creeps along the way, one doesn’t feel gypped. Here’s to spookiness!

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s very well-done and spooky throughout.

MAY is the director’s previous movie, a well-regarded horror film starring Angela Bettis. It’s pretty good, but I found this to be a better film.