The feature film directorial debut of renowned actor Vincent D'Onofrio was shot between projects and on a low budget basically with what he had around him at the time - a few musicians, a big backyard full of woods, and a small crew. The results are Don't Go In The Woods, a film that has nothing to do whatsoever with the 1981 backwoods slasher cult film of the same name - in fact, this 2010 picture is, of all things, a horror musical. Still there? Okay...
When the movie begins a guy named Nick (Matt Sbeglia) and his bandmates - Carlo (Jorgen Jorgensen), Johnny (Soomin Lee), Anton (Casey Smith) and Robbie (Nick Thorp) - are jammin' out a song about their love for another man on the way to the woods. Why are they jammin' out a song about their love for another man? Because that man is Jesus, and loving is his game. This more or less sets the stage for what's to come. At any rate, we soon learn that in hopes of scoring that big record deal every hard working band wants, they've decided, at Nick's request, to head up to the woods he loved as a child and remove themselves from any worldly distractions. This means they'll be out there camping alone without cell phones, without girlfriends and without the influence of drugs or alcohol. The fact that upon their arrival they walk past a sign that says 'DO NOT GO IN THE WOODS' doesn't stop them and before you know it, Nick has taken all of their phones and smashed them with an axe. Their manager, Carson (Bo Boddie), was supposed to meet up with them, but that doesn't happen because he winds up the first victim of a killer who stashes his body in a trunk.
Unaware that Carson is dead, the guys jam and then jam some more, each one getting a chance to work on a song or two and strut their stuff with bass, guitar, bongos, vocals or whatever instrument strikes their fancy. It's all going just fine and much to Nick's liking until it turns out that various girlfriends have followed them to the woods. We all know what happens next, right? Right. More singing and more jamming! You thought it was going to be the systematic slaughter of the various characters that populate the movie? No, wrong. That doesn't happen until about sixty-five minutes into this eighty-five minute movie (and that eighty-five minutes includes the end credits so it's really only the last fifteen minutes that mean much). It does happen, and when it does it is done well, allowing writer/director D'Onofrio to show off some skill for crafting tension, atmosphere and staging creepy kill scenes but it's all too little too late.
D'Onofrio gets points for trying something different here. After all, it's not often that you blend Brooklyn based hipster music culture with an otherwise fairly traditional backwoods stalk and slash horror picture. Unfortunately, the pay off isn't worth sitting through what is essentially an hour's worth of band practice footage. It's possible that if you're into emo/indy rock stuff you'll get more mileage out of this and won't find the songs as irritating as they really are but unless you fall into that category, this one can be though to sit through, and that's a shame. The finale is strong, it pulls you in and makes you wonder what's going to happen and actually crafts some disturbing moments that mix in strange ways with some effective black comedy. There's definitely a lot of skill behind the camera here, and the movie is well shot and makes good use of its woodsy locations. The gore effects are all done with what look to be practical effects (there's no noticeable CGI here) and the cast aren't half bad in their respective roles once the different (and blatantly obnoxious) personalities within the band are established. Unfortunately, the predictability of the storyline (you will know exactly who the killer is very early on in this movie), the poor characterization and the pacing issues drag this one down a lot.
Don't Go In The Woods looks fine on DVD framed here at 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen. The movie was shot digitally and on a low budget but the cinematography is good and the transfer benefits from this. Mild compression artifacts pop up in a few of the darker scenes but aside from that the picture is clean, crisp and colorful. Detail is pretty decent and the reds that become more important in the latter half of the movie are reproduced without any color bleeding. All in all, not an amazing transfer but certainly a good one.
A text card opens the film, instructing us to 'play this movie loud' (possibly as an homage to Abel Ferrera's Driller Killer?) - whether you opt to do that is, of course, up to you but the English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track included on the DVD is a good one. There's some great channel separation during the kill scenes in the last twenty minutes of the movie and the countless musical numbers that populate the movie sound fine in terms of clarity and balance. Dialogue is easy to follow and the mix is well down, there are no problems with hiss or distortion. An optional English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is included that also sounds fine but which lacks the depth of the 5.1 mix. No alternate language dubs, subtitles or closed captioning of any kind is available.
Aside from a few trailers that play before the main menu loads, each of which is preceded by the same irritating American Express branding, the disc contains a fifteen minute behind the scenes featurette that is made up of on-set footage, presented fly-on-the-wall style, and interviews with the cast and with D'Onofrio. In a separate eight minute interview, D'Onofrio talks about making this film in his backyard upstate on a low budget and completely independent of any major studio interference using what he had available to him at the time.
Don't Go In The Woods is an interesting, albeit very imperfect, experiment. D'Onofrio shows plenty of promise behind the camera and directs with enough style and control that we should all have interest in future projects - but the film is mired down by irritating characters and even more irritating music. The kill scenes are well done and the last ten minutes or so are tense and unique by the standards of the backwoods slasher, but the first hour or so of the film is a goofy jam session and it's honestly a chore to get through. Skip it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.