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Night in the Woods, A

Tribeca Film Festival // Unrated // February 11, 2014
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 7, 2014 | E-mail the Author

You can't really say that Leo (Andrew Hawley) is the third wheel on this camping trip, exactly. See, Kerry (Anna Skellern) has gotten so sick of her American boyfriend Brody (Scoot McNairy) shoving his camcorder in her face for the six months they've been dating that she thinks of that damned camera as the third wheel, and her long-lost cousin Leo evens it out to a double date. The four...errr, three of them head out to the dense forests around Dartmoor for a night in the woods, shrugging off all the locals' nonsense about witches and lynchings and all that. This being a found footage horror flick and all, chances are you can guess what happens next.

A Night in the Woods is split pretty much down the middle into two acts. The first, naturally, is setup and character
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development. This is where you get the locals in the pub weaving stories about ancient evils and warning them to keep off the moors and stick to the roadsagainst camping in the woods. Brody would rather wrap his hands around his camcorder than his ridiculously foxy girlfriend, so Kerry groans for the 84,629th time that he needs to put that camera away. Every found footage horror movie has to have at least one of those people, y'know. Brody's the snarky American who scoffs and sneers at just about everything he comes across in the British countryside, Kerry's the spunky girlfriend who puts up with it all, and Leo hangs back as a shady figure from Kerry's past. Writer/director Richard Parry tries to generate some intrigue by revealing that all three of this twentysomethings have their share of dark, sticky secrets. Instead of drawing me in as a viewer -- wondering why each of them is behaving so strangely; aching to find out what'll happen when the others find out what's lurking just beneath the surface -- it made me kind of just actively dislike everybody. Brody and Leo in particular quickly get to be nails-on-chalkboard. No charisma, no menace, an inability to elevate the middling material...just a gaping void of nothing. Anna Skellern at least has the chops and presence to make for a reasonably compelling lead when the movie remembers it's supposed to be a horror flick a little after halfway through.

This is where I'm supposed to start delving into the genre half of A Night in the Woods, but you're probably way ahead of me. Two guys. One woman. Two cameras. Shaky photography. Lotsa black and white footage. Creepy locals spinning stories about a witch. Hopelessly remote forest backdrop. A "based on a true story" disclaimer as part of the whole found footage thing. Yeah, it's The Blair Witch Project with a British accent. I'll give credit where credit's due, though. Despite A Night in the Woods' inability to generate any meaningful tension or suspense, it does unleash several extremely effective jump scares. The occasional first-person camerawork does make it easier for me to escape into certain sequences. I appreciate the sense of isolation, quickly separating Kerry from the rest of the pack when things start to go south. The forests around Dartmoor are breathtakingly gorgeous, setting themselves apart from most Blair Witch knockoffs. Parry tries to seize full advantage of the found footage device: the unnerving sounds of something happening just outside the frame, not knowing who or what just lifted the camera, and cutting to black while the microphone continues to capture Kerry's horrified reactions.

At the end of the day, though, A Night in the Woods is about three not-terribly-compelling characters retreading the same scares we saw when The Blair Witch Project was making the rounds in theaters right at fifteen years ago. There's no chemistry anywhere between the three leads. Leo and Brody are so actively repulsive that I have no idea why Kerry willingly subjects herself to being around them. Hell, that entire soap opera is basically dead air. The sparse scares don't make up for the lack of atmosphere and suspense. The first half of the movie isn't engaging, but at least there's a story; can't say the same about the aimless, repetitive last half hour and change. The pacing is excruciatingly sluggish, leaving this 82 minute movie feel as if it's dragging on for a couple of hours. If you're game for forty minutes of people stumbling around in the dark and screaming, click on that "Buy Me!" link in the sidebar over there. Otherwise...? Skip It.

This found footage horror flick is supposed to look as if it was shot on a consumer-grade HD camcorder and a tiny point-and-shoot digital camera. I mean, you know what your home movies look like. Colors can be very striking under the bright of day. Focus isn't necessarily oriented towards what you'd expect. As sharp as the image often is, definition can be dodgy, not especially detailed with portions of what's on-screen coming across as somewhat smudged. Interiors struggle under limited light. Digital artifacting is rampant, and there are several bursts of heavy posterization. A Night in the Woods wheels out the same glitchy, skipping video as pretty much every other found footage horror movie when the climax rolls around. Just about all of that is deliberate and/or unavoidable with the aesthetic that A Night in the Woods goes for. This presentation hasn't exactly been polished to a gleaming sheen, but it's noticeably high-def just the same, and I'm certain it's representative of what director Richard Parry and company were aiming for here.

A Night in the Woods is presented at its native aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and it's dished out on a single layer platter. The AVC encode isn't given as much headroom as usual, but it's unclear how much of the artifacting is from the original photography and how much is from bit starvation, so I guess it all works out in the end. This is a combo pack, so there's an anamorphic widescreen DVD along for the ride as well.

A Night in the Woods features a pair of 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: one in stereo and the other in 5.1. I can't say I spent a lot of time toggling back and forth between them, but I wouldn't expect too much of a difference. Like a lot of found footage horror, all of the audio is completely diagetic, with the idea being that everything
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you hear has been recorded via the chintzy little mic on the camcorder. Accordingly, dialogue often has a boxy, somewhat strained quality to it. There's a moment near the climax when the microphone is halfway disconnected, briefly sounding shrill and scratchy as a result. There are a few moments that take advantage of the 5.1 setup -- a jet soaring overhead, the sound of underbrush and smashed branches as Kerry frantically dashes through the woods, chirping crickets, a light rainfall, modest gusts of wind in the background, and Brody blasting his iPod -- but the overwhelming majority of the time, you're listening to a straightahead stereo track. The surround channels only sporadically make their presence known, and the subwoofer never belches out any particularly low frequencies. I'm surprised by how limited atmospherics are and how the rears aren't more effectively used to ratchet up the intensity. At least there's plenty of stereo separation up front. Underwhelming, even after grading on a found footage curve.

The only other audio option is a set of English subtitles.

Absolutely nothing.

For what it's worth, you do get an anamorphic widescreen DVD and a slipcover out of the deal.

The Final Word
A found footage fright flick as unremarkable as A Night in the Woods would be a tough sell no matter what. Heap on the complete lack of extras, an undemanding presentation, and very limited replay value, and you might as well just stream it on Amazon Instant Video or Netflix instead. ...or, better yet, Skip It.
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