Ever since he delivered the widely-adored cult horror movie May (which I say is one of the finest genre films of the last decade), the fright freaks and gorehounds have been eagerly anticipating the sophomore effort from young filmmaker Lucky McKee. (He also directed one of the best Masters of Horror episodes, which goes by the name of Sick Girl). But it seems like the studio who bankrolled McKee's The Woods wasn't as excited about the flick as the May-fans were. The Woods ended up as a casulaty of studio politics, what with MGM being purchased by Sony and Fox getting involved on the home video front.
So there we sat for months on end: Passionate genre fans who simply wanted to see a new movie from the director of a flick we liked a whole lot. And then Sony announced that The Woods would make its debut on video -- and then came additional word that the previously-announced extra features would be hitting the trash heap. Wonderful.
But ultimately it all comes down to the movie itself, whether it's being played on a big screen or a DVD player. And Lucky McKee's The Woods is finally going to see the light of day.
Not at all surprisingly, the movie's pretty damn good.
The year is 1965 as we open in a car filled with tension: Prissy Mom and Mute Dad have had enough with young Heather. The unhappy teenager has a small problem with pyromania, and so she's being shipped off to an isolated girls' school that's jammed in the middle of a foreboding forest. Obviously Heather is not happy about the situation, what with the creepy headmistress (Patricia Clarkson) and the dozens of unfriendly young faces. After reluctantly settling in at the school, Heather realizes she has a lot more to worry about besides homesickness and unpopularity.
This is a school that has a nasty tendency of "misplacing" its more troublesome students, and that's all you're getting out of me, plot-wise, because I had most of The Woods spoiled for me about a year ago -- and I'd rather just recommend the flick and let you discover its surprises for yourself.
As he did so smoothly and effectively in May, McKee shows a surprising amount of empathy and insight where the plight of lonely young women is concerned. Heather begins the film as a fairly unpleasant little grump, and yet we're able to sympathize with her situation almost immediately. The rest of the young ladies, from the soft-spoken outcast to the brazen bitch ball-buster, are brought to life with an impressive amount of reality; just when you think you have the caricatures figured out, McKee pulls a fast one and gives his girls something unexpected to do.
The cast is uniformly excellent throughout; Agnes Bruckner delivers a quietly commanding lead performance while Patricia Clarkson sinks her teeth into a witchy role and is clearly having some good fun while doing it. Emma Campbell provides a chilly turn as Heather's unfeeling mama, and genre demigod Bruce Campbell adds his own patented brand of color to the proceedings (especially during the finalé!) Young actresses Lauren Birkell, Rachel Nichols, and Ivana Shein contribute exceedingly fine support work.
Beautifully shot, filled with great music (both the score and the handful of Lesley Gore tunes) and effectively edited (save for some of Act II, which really does get a little bit repetitive), The Woods is in no way superior to McKee's masterful May, but the guy's second effort stands as clear indication that we're dealing with one talented genre filmmaker.
If only McKee could find a distributor who likes his films as much as the fans do...
Video: The film is presented in a rather crisp and moody anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) format. It's not exactly a flawless transfer (the darker moments get a little sketchy), but it's pretty darn solid all the same. Also included is a fullscreen transfer, but who really gives a damn about that?
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English (which is excellent) or DD 2.0 French. Optional subtitles are available in the same two languages.
Extras: Normally I'd type out a list of all the trailers, but I'm really pissed at Sony for tossing the director's commentary and featurettes into the trash bin, so forget that.
The Woods feels like it's 90% McKee's film and 10% studio monkey-work. Gossip indicates that the flick was cut and re-cut by its various owners, but not nearly enough to dilute what McKee and screenwriter David Ross have to say. Those expecting a shock-a-minute gore-fest will most likely walk away scratching their head, but as a respectful and impressive semi-homage to Dario Argento's Suspiria (which the flick resembles to a dizzying degree), The Woods is a quiet, crafty, and creepy little winner.