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Monday, December 5, 2011

THE WOODS -- movie review by porfle

Heather (Agnes Bruckner) is a troubled girl who doesn't get along with her mom.  One day she decides to express her pent-up feelings by setting fire to the woods next to her house, almost burning it down.  Now her bitchy, self-centered mom (Emma Campbell) and her sympathetic dad (the redoubtable Bruce Campbell) are taking her to an exclusive and very secluded girls' boarding school in the middle of a dense, dark forest.  Here, in this strict and highly regimented atmosphere deep in THE WOODS (2006), it is hoped that Heather will learn to be a proper young lady who doesn't set things on fire.

Things begin to look creepy right away; the school is a large, foreboding building that is hundreds of years old and has vines growing through all the windows and across the walls, all the teachers are spinsterish former students who are weird, and the headmistress, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), is a strange woman who always looks like there's something dark and ominous on her mind.  She gives Heather a peculiar aptitude test, ostensibly to determine whether or not she qualifies for a scholarship.  But, as it turns out later, this test is for a far different purpose altogether.

Heather makes friends with a timid girl named Marcy (Lauren Birkell) and enemies with the school bitch, Samantha (Rachel Nichols), while doing her best to alienate her teachers enough to get sent home.  Meanwhile, she begins to have frightening nightmares about wandering through the dark woods and encountering ghostly figures that come after her.  She also notices that a particular bed in the corner, about four bunks down from hers, is always empty.  It belongs to Ann, a girl who supposedly tried to kill herself a few weeks earlier. 

When Ann finally returns, her wrists wrapped in gauze, she appears haunted and deeply disturbed.  Heather awakens that night to see a thick tangle of vines creeping over the floor toward Ann's bed, covered by a blanket of mist. Was this a dream?  In any case, the next morning Ann's bed is empty once again, save for a pile of leaves shaped like a human body.  Woo-OOO-ooo...!

And things are just getting started.  THE WOODS is an engaging and very well-rendered spook tale that has a few elements in common with SUSPIRIA, and although it isn't quite as scary or as beautiful as Dario Argento's masterpiece, it's still directed with great care and skill by Lucky McKee (MAY) and exquisitely photographed and edited.  It also reminds me of some of those atmospheric Canadian horror flicks I used to watch on cable and VHS back in the early 80s.  And the fact that it's a period piece, taking place in 1965 and featuring some cool Leslie Gore songs including the classic "You Don't Own Me", gives it added ambience. 

It doesn't rely on blood and gore for its scares, but doesn't shy away from it, either--there are some pretty splattery scenes here and there, especially when certain characters start to wield a big, red axe that figures prominently throughout.  And when the woods attack and it's time to crank up the old CGI, it actually looks fairly convincing for a change.

The mystery behind the school deepens as Heather discovers more about its history--mainly the story of three strange girls who emerged from the woods one day about a hundred years earlier and were taken in.  They later turned out to be witches, and began to exert their evil influence in bad ways.  The headmistress at the time tried to stop them, and the main witch introduced her to the big, red axe.  Now, Heather realizes that the school is still in the witch business and is recruiting girls who excell in Ms. Traverse's "aptitude test", and who can hear the voices in the woods calling to them as Heather does. 

In fact, as it turns out, "the force" is particularly strong with Heather and Ms. Traverse has something especially bad planned for her.  And as bad turns to worse, Heather is eventually told that it's her turn to sleep in the empty bed in the corner.  Woo-OOO-ooo...!  (Okay, I'll stop doing that now.)

Agnes Bruckner is an appealing young actress and does a fine job as Heather, and the rest of the cast, both young and old, are outstanding as well.  As Ms. Traverse, Patricia Clarkson is just as good at playing restrained, understated creepiness as she was as Margaret White in the excellent TV remake of CARRIE.  And Bruce Campbell...well, he's Bruce Campbell.  He's great as good ol' Dad, eventually racing to his daughter's rescue as she's trapped in the horrific culmination of the witches' evil machinations.  He even gets to wield the big, red axe!  But watch out, Scotty tried to tell you way back in THE EVIL DEAD:  "But the trees, Ash.  They know.  Don't you see, Ash?  They're alive!"

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