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Don't Go in the Woods...Alone!

Vinegar Syndrome // R // March 10, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 9, 2015 | E-mail the Author
"What's the third thing, Colonel Crockett?"
"First, don't panic. Second, go up, not down. What's the third?"
"Actually the most important of all. Say you'll never forget it. Never, never go into the woods alone."

I mean, he's not wrong:

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There's bad, there's good, there's so-bad-it's-good, and then there's Don't Go in the Woods...Alone!, which scientists are still stringing together a bunch of Latin words in a feeble attempt to classify. If you're looking for a plot synopsis, "backwoods slasher" pretty much sums it up. Four hikers -- and, okay, a dozen or so other hapless bastards -- set out for a weekend of rest and relaxation in a sprawling Utah state park, only to be savagely slaughtered one-by-one by a feral mountain man wielding a stabby jingle-stick. Jingle bells or whatever aside, that might sound kind of routine for a slasher from the class of 1981, but Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! delivers anything but more of the same.

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The idea was that a different slasher flick was storming into theaters practically every week, and director James Bryan wanted Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! to be one of 'em. With $12,000 in his pocket, a handwritten script, and the sprawling majesty of Lance Canyon for a set, that's exactly what he did, and the end result ranks among the most gloriously off-kilter entries from the Golden Age of Slashers. Before Bryan had even cast any of the leads, he'd trot out into the woods with friends and local actors every weekend to film a bunch of the kills. Generally nameless and saddled with no dialogue whatsoever, these characters are almost always hacked apart in the same scene where they're introduced. That leaves Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! feeling kind of vignette-y, leaping to one random red shirt after another rather than sticking with our core group of campers. The acting is dreadful even by the standards of a no-budget regional slasher, and it doesn't help that tin-eared dialogue like this was entirely recorded after the fact:
"Uh, don't...don't worry about it. Let me...let me take care of it. Let me take care of it. I'll take care of it. Huh?"
"Don't go. Don't go!"
"Get in the back."
"Don't leave me alone."
"Let me get my gun. Let me get my gun. Give me the keys. Give me the keys. Give me the keys. Okay, I'll take care of you. I said I'd protect you. I...I just want the chance to prove you've got nothing to worry about while I'm around. This little baby does all the talkin' for me when the Peeping Toms come around. I'm afraid of nothing on two feet."

Masterfully crafted it's not, so much. Once you skip past the title page and list of characters, the dialogue script in this disc's extras isn't even thirty full pages long. The editing can be choppy and disjointed, although...well, how could it not be? A bunch of the action is really clumsily staged, and the premise doesn't make an enormous amount of sense either. This lunatic isn't given any sort of backstory or even a name, but he's clearly been detached from civilization for decades and racks up a double-digit body count in a weekend. Since he's obviously been at this for a while, why has no one noticed until now? Our hiker heroes have only gone a few hours without eating, so why are they foraging for food in the garbage as if weeks had passed? Why is a guy in a wheelchair trying to push himself up cliffs and shit by himself? The score is just...there aren't words, although I sure did cackle with glee every time James Bryan would unleash his slapstickish sense of humor and this finger-wagglingly wacky music cue would sqwawk from a Minimoog somewhere. Oh, and stick around through the end credits for the movie's "wait, what?" version of "Teddy Bears' Picnic".

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That may read like some endless laundry list of complaints, but it's all part of the reason why I truly, sincerely love Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! It's inept to the point of being charming. The kills unleash geysers of blood -- Kraft barbecue sauce dyed with red food coloring, as it turns out -- and can get dementedly imaginative, such as a bear trap to the face. As scattershot as the movie may feel as it incessantly cuts away to characters with no bearing on anything else that's going on, that also means it hardly ever has a chance to drag its feet. There's something gruesome or gonzo lurking around every bend. Unlike the "well, here are some trees, and there's a lake over yonder" locations of a bunch of low-rent slashers, Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! boasts some genuinely stunning vistas. Eat your heart out, Camp Crystal Lake:

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Most of the havoc wrought here is swift, brutal, sopping with blood, and, okay, maybe unintentionally funny. Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! can be unnervingly intense, though, particularly one sequence in which the nameless madman tortures and torments a victim who strays a little too close to his home. How all of this slunk by with an R rating, I have no idea. So many other slashers of the era were shamelessly ripping off one another, to the point where prospective screenwriters would march into the drive-in with a notepad and a stopwatch to figure out the formula. Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! prefers instead to upend all of those conventions. Rather than starting slow and building to some gloriously gruesome crescendo, the movie immediately goes for the jugular. At the point where most slashers would fade to black and roll credits, Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! still has a half hour to go. Its final act is surprisingly sluggish in comparison to the rest of the flick, but I still found myself in awe of how wildly it breaks from convention. The final denouement might be the most unrelenting and most savage of any slasher I've ever come across.

Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! is awful, but, well, it's my kind of awful: an unhinged slasher delivering eightysomeodd minutes of blood-drenched, barely coherent, I-can't-even-fathom-what-they-were-thinking fun. It's such essential viewing for adventurous slasher fanatics that you don't even need me to recommend it; you already have a copy of Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! on the shelf anyway. If you haven't gotten around to picking up Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray release, though, this is as definitive an edition as I could ever hope to see. If you've somehow managed to make it this far in the review, we're obviously talking about a disc that comes very Highly Recommended.

Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! was shot on expired short ends that were about to be junked, and that's apparently part of the reason why earlier releases were saddled with anemic black levels and a wonky color palette. What Vinegar Syndrome has accomplished with this high-def presentation -- newly-remastered in 2K from a 35mm interpositive -- is borderline-miraculous. While the quality is unavoidably erratic, Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! at its best can stand toe to toe with any early '80s slasher on Blu-ray. I repeatedly found myself struck by how crisp and richly detailed the image can be, and its colors are frequently a knockout, especially when the sun's beaming overhead. Other sequences look duller and grimier by comparison, especially the interiors of the madman's cabin, and grain spikes during a couple of fuzzy sequences that were apparently the most the lab was able to salvage. Between its D.P. who had never worked on a 35mm feature and being patched together with short ends rejected by another production, it's remarkable that Vinegar Syndrome was able to achieve this level of consistency. Though there is some light bleed and a modest amount of damage -- one sequence is so heavily peppered with scratches that it almost looks like rain -- that somehow works to the movie's benefit, coming across as character rather than any sort of flaw. Honestly, I'd rather see wear like that than excessive noise reduction or mishandled scratch removal, and I appreciate this more filmic approach. By and large, Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! eclipses what I walked in expecting to see, and I'm deeply impressed by what Vinegar Syndrome was able to accomplish here.

Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! has been pillarboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and the movie and its extras seize hold of just about every last byte on this single-layer Blu-ray disc. Riding shotgun in this combo pack is an anamorphic widescreen DVD.

The disc's 24-bit, monaural DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is better still. Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! was shot wild, and basically everything you're hearing in the movie -- from footsteps to clumsily delivered dialogue -- wound up being recorded after the fact. That approach certainly has its downsides -- there are plenty of stretches with no dialogue at all to keep costs down, and the acting's worse than it probably would've been if sync sound on-set had been practical -- but that also means nearly every bit of it was recorded in ritzy recording studios. Everything in the mix is impressively pristine, without any hiss, clicks, pops, or dropouts ever threatening to intrude. Sometimes the mixing of the dialogue is uneven -- kind of meek in one scene and louder in the next, even though everyone's seemingly speaking at the same volume -- but that doesn't get in the way too much. Some lines sound a little edgy as well, but again, it's not really a nuisance in practice. Once again, this is tremendous work from Vinegar Syndrome.

There aren't any subtitles, not that you'd be missing out on much anyway. A slew of commentary tracks round out the audio options.

Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! has been lavished with the special edition treatment and then some, carrying over all of the extras from Code Red's DVD and heaping on a slew of new ones to boot.

  • Audio Commentaries: There are -- whew! -- three commentary tracks for Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! Director James Bryan leads the two from the Code Red DVD, fielding one by himself and joined in the other by actress Mary Gail Artz and superfans Deron Miller and Dave Mosca. Bryan proves himself more than capable of carrying a commentary on his own, maintaining a steady flow of discussion for nearly an hour and a half straight. Among my favorite notes are how bad taste in clothing is a harbinger of doom, Ken Carter wearing his own ill-fitting uniform as the sheriff, cinematographer Hank Zinman getting some wild shots by taping a camera to his arm, and how the movie landed distribution by a couple of guys who only watched the first and last reels. Bryan does a terrific job establishing a sense of time and place, offering scores of little anecdotes about the cast, where things were shot, and how challenging the weather and dizzyingly high altitudes proved to be. There's more background noise than I'd like, and I wish the film's dialogue weren't mixed quite so high, but this is still well-worth setting aside 82 minutes to give a listen.

    Miller and Mosca ask some phenomenal questions during the group commentary, such as why the film's characters are so prone to asking "huh?", why Angie Brown is credited inside a box, why there's no nudity in an exploitation flick like this, and even why the MPAA gave Don't Go in the Woods...Alone!'s gore a pass in the wake of the Friday the 13th backlash. They also get Bryan to chat a bit about his background directing softcore porn, and he speaks at greater length about budget and distribution than in any of the disc's other extras. This conversation complements Bryan's solo commentary remarkably well.

    Exclusive to this Blu-ray disc is a commentary by the folks behind The Hysteria Continues podcast: Justin Kerswell, Joseph Henson, Nathan Johnson, and Erik Threlfall. The transatlantic conversation is a bit more Skype-y than I'd like in quality, with some participants sounding crystal clear and others on the rough side, but it's perfectly listenable just the same. The four of them give Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! the half-tribute/half-skewering treatment it deserves. They approach the film from a slasher scholar standpoint -- comparing/contrasting with other backwood body count flicks and other "Don't..."s of the era -- while also dissecting its oddball organ score, its transcendental incoherence, its off-kilter sense of humor, and its wildly unconventional third act. It helps that there's a sincerely rabid fan onboard who's directly spoken with some of the movie's cast and crew, covering territory not addressed elsewhere on the disc. There is a lot of overlap with other extras, though -- not just in terms of subject matter, but directly referencing these extras, and that can get kind of exhausting if you're finishing up a marathon viewing of Don't Go in the Woods...Alone!'s bells and whistles like I was. Not a must-listen the way the other two commentaries are but still worth a spin.
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  • Cast and Crew Featurette (57 min.; SD): Right at a full decade ago, James Bryan produced his own hour-long Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! retrospective, catching up with a small army of the talent on both sides of the camera: screenwriter Garth Eliassen, cinematographer Hank Zinman, composer H. Kingsley Thurber, production designer S.K. James, producer/costume designer Suzette Gomez and her son, and actors Mary Gail Artz, James P. Hayden, Angie Brown, Tom Drury, Gerry Klein, and Frank Millen. Though this collection of interviews is maybe a little too infatuated with discussion of writer's agent Peter Turner who's since vanished off the face of the earth, it's otherwise infectiously fun and essential viewing for anyone picking up this Blu-ray disc. Bryan brings out the best in his interviewees, all of whom are clearly having a blast in front of the camera. There are entirely too many highlights to list, but if I had to pick just a few...? Millen shows off the original jingle-stick (and takes a blow to the head along the way!), we learn about why the Mormon Mafia has some of the film's crew on their hit list, Eliassen marvels at not being asked to make any changes to his screenplay, and Klein tells a really hysterical story about laughing at the less fortunate...errr, himself. The quality's kind of rough, looking as if it had been shot on a Hi-8 camcorder or something, but don't let that stop you. Love it, love it, love it.

  • TV Promo Compilation (14 min.; SD): James Bryan made the rounds promoting Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! around Salt Lake City in 1981, and three of those interviews are featured here. Among the highlights are details on the length of the shoot and the dozen-strong crew behind it, how much time passed between receiving the script and having a finished film in the can, and promoting the movie locally with a spookhouse.

  • Autograph Signing Party (29 min.; SD): A ventriloquist dummy named Splinters chats up some of the folks behind Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! during a DVD release party: director James Bryan and his wife, the film's foreign distributor (whose name I didn't quite catch), actors James P. Hayden, Tom Drury, Mary Gail Artz, and Gerry Klein, fans Deron Miller and Felissa Rose, and a couple of completely unrelated indie horror filmmakers just for the hell of it. The conversations are snarky and kind of fun, although Splinters keeps hammering home some of the same gags into the ground, and any horror host who doesn't know who Felissa Rose is! It's not right, and I won't stand for it.

  • Script: Though Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! was shot with a handwritten script on-set, this abbreviated screenplay -- around 30 pages -- looks like it might be a guide for the looped dialogue. The scans are immaculate, by the way.

  • Galleries: There are two image galleries on this disc. The first piles on 64 high-res stills snapped during production, and the other collects 44 promotional photos, artwork, and scans from the press kit.

  • Trailer (1 min.; HD): Last up is a high-def trailer with some tremendous narration by Leon Brown Jr., who you might remember as one of the maniac's many victims.

Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! is coded for all-regions, and an anamorphic widescreen DVD is along for the ride as well.

The Final Word
There's nothing else out there quite like Don't Go in the Woods...Alone!, and I guess it's up to you whether or not that's a check in the 'Win' column. If you're aching for a taut, unnervingly suspenseful slasher, then...well, I guess you scrolled down to the bottom of this review a little too quickly 'cause that's not on the menu here. On the other hand, if you have a taste for the offbeat, Don't Go in the Woods...Alone! is a hell of a lot of fun, and Vinegar Syndrome has pulled out all the stops with their definitive release of this early '80s slasher trashterpiece. It's an odd duck that's only likely to appeal to a select few, but if you're similarly afflicted...? Highly Recommended.
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