Monday, November 17, 2008

The Woods & Its Daemonaic Reality

Or A charming tale of three witches and a girl with an axe to grind.

"How many football players put it in you before your mom got sick of having another tramp around the house?"
- Heather Fasulo, The Woods (2006)

"Destroy what destroys you."

It's rare that I enjoy a fairly recent horror movie these days. It takes a certain type of person, I rather suspect, to enjoy the genre. That's why horror fans always seem to recognize one another and have a strange, grudging respect for a fellow aficionado. For the last decade or two Hollywood has cranked out innumerable re-makes or at least pillaged the same plot repeatedly beyond the point of cliche and to such a degree that I rarely bother.

Case in point, the last three semi-recent horror flicks I enjoyed were all Lovecraftian in nature and all were B-rated films. (Dagon, The Call of Cthulhu, and The Attic Explorations. I almost enjoyed Beyond the Wall of Sleep... But it was complete crap. Mostly I liked the crazily evil children chanting eerie nursery rhymes with Sumerian glyphs flashing in the background as they danced.)

The Woods was an odd exception. And I almost passed it by until I read a review by a fellow horror lover. The mainstream reviews are all complete crap. I want to preface this with an explaination. When I was twelve or thirteen, I was firmly banned from reading horror novels. Especially novels containing the following: witches, demons, familiars, curses, or anything vaguely magically related. The reasons were two-fold: at some point my mother re-coverted to her Southern Baptist lineage and decided to take after her parents in ways and methods related to retardation revolving around fiction and Bible thumping. The second reason was that when I was six or seven, a friend read me a story (I could not actually read more than "Bearenstein Bears" prior to being eight; yes, I know. It's shocking--I jumped from "The Bears" to Tolkien and within a year or two, Shakespeare's Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream) from Scariest Stories to Read in the Dark involving a madman who thought he was a vampire. What ensued were months, if not a year or two, of nightmares and fears involving all things spooky as fuck. I recall fleeing to my parents' bedroom through the hall I thought was filled with werewolves. This was, of course, to get away from the vampire-madman leering through the window obscenely with a lust for my virgin boy's bloooood. And I recall this with a slight grin, because in a way, it was fun. I rather suspect my parents felt otherwise.

It was thus with a certain taboo pleasure that I discovered Alfred Hitchcock's compendiums of short horror stories in my middle school library. I devoured them in 7th grade. Within a year, and with the aid of a used book seller, my mother finally relented and let me read Stephen King. King, paradoxically, led to Lovecraft. Then Stoker. I've never been quite the same since. (And I am the better - or at least more macabre - for it! Bwahahahahaha.)

The movie was directed by Lucky McKee (who also filmed the amazingly macabre May). It stars Agnes Bruckner (Heather Fasulo), Emma Campbell (Heather's mother--and a wonderfully repulsive mother in the film), Bruce Campbell (Heather's father--he has less than 20 minutes of screen time but is fairly pivotal to the plot), Patricia Clarkson (yes, that Patricia Clarkson... and she's the Headmistress), and Lauren Birkell (Heater's best friend).

The movie was shelved for about three years, during which M. Night Shyamalan threw a veritable hissy-fit because he had to change the title of the movie that would become The Village. (Which, by the way, I loathed. I wanted a goddamn were-wolf flick and he gave me complete crap with his desire for a "twist ending". Fuck you, Shyamalan.)

Synopsis & Review Warning: Contains Spoilers.

The movie starts out fairly normally.

The year is 1965 and Heather Fasulo is a rebellious teenager who nearly burned down her house after setting fire to a tree out back following a fight with her rather repulsive mother. For her "crimes" she's shipped to an all girls' school in the woodlands of New England, a school which hosts a fairly academic program of progress and is considered "one of the best schools in the country for girls." Heather's father is "not as well-off as he presents himself," so upon arriving she's given an aptitude test to find out if she's "special." Upon passing (for untold - but later revealed - reasons) she's admitted with a scholarship.

Her first day doesn't go well. She sits next to Marcy Turner, who's a complete reject, for lunch. In doing so she inspires the spite of the blonde Samantha, a proto-typical "rich-girl" type bully. (There's some stiff acting from Samantha's character in the first thirty to forty minutes or so). On her first night, she either dreams or attempts to run away from the school and into the woods surrounding it... Only to be plagued by "voices" and images and return to find the school-teachers are all outside. She then heads into the dorms to sleep and has a fitfull night's sleep including omenic nightmares involving a smaller blonde girl with slit wrists and blood dripping onto the floor. Upon approaching the girl in the nightmare, the girl turns and glares at her and says in a demonically male voice, "this bed is mine." There are then flashes of girl's with axes, and Heather awakens to the dawn's light.

Heather moves towards integrating to the school with the aid of Marcy as the section progresses, which is something special to see in and of itself.

A week or so later the girls warn Heather about going into the woods with a tale from a century ago involving three orphans that showed up who turned out to be witches. Having been shunned when they were discovered to be "odd" the girls were sent forth into the woods where they reaped horrible vengeance upon their persecutors. In making a pact with the spirits of the woods, the girls then returned to control the school and its inhabitants...

"If you go out in the woods, they might find you," she's told. One of the girls asks Heather about the fact she'd fled into them and Heather smirks (in an incredibly hot and foxy red-head manner) and asks the girl if she's ever been into them. The challenge thus issued, the girls all set out to watch to see if the challenged girl will go into the woods. But before she can, the teachers arrive and break up the conflagration.

This is what I consider phase one which takes place mostly in consensus reality. Thus does phase two begin.

Heather's scholarship is dependent on "special courses" which she must attend if she wishes to keep it. These courses can be demanded of her at any time. She's taken to a garden room to meet with the Head-mistress who begins to question her relationship with her mother. "Being cut off from one's child is like losing a limb," she's told by the up-right (but slightly odd) Patricia Clarkson. "Why did she send you here... Are you... 'different'?"

Heather freaks out and begins rocking in her chair, muttering denials until Clarkson asks: "do you hear voices?"

Heather stops rocking and her chair suddenly balances on its two back legs as she stares in shock. Clarkson mumbles: "I'm sorry if I upset you," as Heather flees the room.

Phase two of the film, I would say, involves "assessment of reality". Heather believes she's going insane and eventually alienates even Marcy.

One climactic and cool scene here involves Heather telekinetically causing a pencil to stand on its own while a class goes on. It ends with the alienation of Marcy, and a scene where Heather smashes the small radio Marcy owns... And as she collapses on a hurt ankle, all the pieces stand straight up. This section - though dull at times - is quite cool.

Phase three begins when Samantha warns Heather that she's been trying to get rid of her to save everyone. "It's all true," she tells her after pinning her down. Rather than before - when she was filmed looking glamorous and rich - she looks disheveled and somewhat mad. She tells Heather that she's called her father and convinced him to come and get her. Samantha then hangs herself. The Head-mistress, upon finding out, asks Heather what Samantha discussed with her. Heather hits her with the truth. "You're special," the Head-mistress says... Right before Bruce Campbell walks back into the film to save her.


Heather is returned to school because that night the stars are right and the ritual is about to begin. Trees burst through the windows and control the students, attempt to drain them of their precious life-force. ... And Heather is a "blossoming" witch of a sort. They need her to help them re-enter the world and break the binding to the spirits and school that they've used for centuries.

Her father arrives wielding an axe to save her... The climax involves Heather picking up the axe and deciding to stop it all. Hello gore! It's well done, and I loved it.


Over all, I loved the movie. Only one review did the movie justice; likely because the concepts involved stumped most reviewers. These same reviewers obviously lacked my childhood and fondness for folklore involving witches (thank you, Mr. Hitchcock!) and fondness for occult subjects. One such reviewer (Christopher Null) stated: "When Heather's dad (Bruce Campbell, who has about five minutes of screen time) appears to rescue his daughter, the film turns psycho-bizarre, as we realize the school is not at all what we thought it was. You see, we thought it was just a school run by a bunch of loonies, but it's really a school run by killer trees. To try to explain what happens next (which involves Heather balancing things like pencils on their ends and people coughing up twigs and leaves) would not only "spoil" what's left of the picture, but you probably wouldn't believe me. The Woods is complete nonsense for the latter half of the film, which is a nice change only because it's so boring before then."

First, yes, the first two phases of the movie are slow. But they actually build story nicely. Second, he obviously paid no attention to the dream sequences or the ten-to-fifteen minutes of the film dedicated to discussing the witch-folklore in the beginning. It's obvious what happened. (See above.) If he had any inkling what-so-ever, he wouldn't be confused. Mr. Null, at least pretend you paid attention before heaping derision. Oh, and your review sucks.

In the end I loved the movie because it's so blatant with its symbolism (a second watch shows elements of the end through-out the movie--from a girl mumbling "why do I have twigs in my hair" on Heather's second morning at the school to the pervasive blood magick of the witches - check out the cut hand of the woman serving milk at lunch through-out the movie and the scene involving the Head-mistress and the hospitalized Bruce Campbell). Some of the acting is stiff at first, but it fluffs out. The dialogue isn't perfect. But concerning its contents, the movie is fantastic. I plan to buy it as soon as I have the cash.

The movie isn't out and out horror. But the nightmare scenes have the creep factor. The spookiness of the aesthetic is pleasing. And the end is pure horror with a bit of well-done gore--something that's rare these days. I especially love the foxy red-haired Heather facing down the witches at the end. It was pure "Babalon" if you ask me. "Before she was the woman with a girt sword, she was a girl with an axe." That's just cool. And, y'know, hot.

The trailer can be viewed here. The movie can be streamed online here (in semi-decent quality). And bought here.

(Typos to be blamed on whiskey and sleep deprivation.)

1 comment:

Simianus Alef said...

1--Just discovered your blog here. It's great.

2--I just watched The Woods on your recommendation. Damn was it good. I didn't find much boring in it: there was something going on in the soundtrack, something weird and witchy (or that turned me on--oh yeah, same thing) in just about every scene. Thanks.