The Woods (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Heather (Agnes Bruckner) almost sets her family’s house on fire so her mother (Emma Campbell) and father (Bruce Campbell) send her to an isolated all-girls boarding school. Upon Heather’s arrival, the headmistress, soft-spoken Mrs. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), gives her an aptitude test that consists of mysterious symbols for a potential scholarship. Mrs. Traverse is impressed because Heather passes with flying colors. During Heather’s stay, girls start to disappear. There is rumor going around that the missing students have been killed in the woods.
Written by David Ross and directed by Lucky McKee, “The Woods” might have been an interesting story about a girl’s discovery that she has a natural ability to perform witchcraft if the technical aspects are less scattered and more controlled. For a horror movie about a school located right next to a creepy forest with a lot of strange history, it just isn’t scary.
Perhaps the problem is that the filmmakers do not bother to establish a more sinister mood. The teachers are weird and mean but we do not even know their names. What do they teach? I had no idea. We know they are teachers because they are taller (and older) than everyone else and they keep secrets because of the way they give each other knowing looks. The place itself harbors no tension. I always felt like I was watching actors acting on set.
The characters need not and should not remind us constantly that the place is evil. Assuming that every piece manages to fall into its rightful place, the audience should feel it for themselves. There are several scenes where Heather becomes highly emotional because she misses home, is bullied by a blonde girl (Rachel Nichols), calling her names like “fire-crotch,” and has nightmares involving the missing girls. But for what? Instead of allowing us to root for her, she just comes off unstable. She does no smart detective work. When fellow students warn her not to do certain things (and end up dead the next day), she does exactly the opposite. Why is she our protagonist? What makes her special enough to enable us to see the story through her eyes?
The tone toward the end, when Heather’s parents finally come to pick her up, experiences a sudden but welcome shift. Instead of the film desperately holding onto a serious, somber tone that leads nowhere, it allows a bit of humor to seep through. The movie suddenly feels alive. Sure, the tone, as a whole, feels elliptical and almost out of place, but it is better than boring.
With the aid of actors like Campbell, who made a career by starring in horror-comedies, the funny moments feel effortless. I wished the entire picture embraced taking more risks like that. When a script does not have strong underlying messages (it does not bother establishing parallels, let alone nuance, between puberty and witchcraft), being playful with other aspects like our expectations of the characters or the genre can make up for it. In the end, the film is just a silly romp in the woods where you desperately want to be scared but there is actually nothing out there but the wind and some dry leaves.