Shortly after her arrival at the all-girl Falburn Academy, Heather (Agnes Bruckner) is given the un-affectionate nickname ‘fire crotch’ by the school’s resident bitch, Samantha, on account of her natural red hair.
It’s not quite what you’d expect from a story set in 1964.
It’s very hard to create effective witches in a horror film; magic spells are inherently ridiculous, so making them scary is quite the task. Further, their representation usually falls into either the ugly old crone, or the sexy witch categories, cliches which make them even harder to take seriously. What director Lucky McKee and writer David Ross have managed to do with The Woods is craft a form of witchcraft that seems almost natural. The trick is that it’s indirect. The witches don’t chant spells or mix potions themselves, but instead call on the forest surrounding the school to do their bidding. It’s true that an evil, moving forest presents its own believability problems; but the way the witches are grounded in reality almost makes up for it.
Heather is sent to the mysterious private school after setting fire to the woods around her home. This appears to be mostly at the behest of her mother, while her father (played by horror legend Bruce Campbell) is just acquiescing to his wife’s nagging. Heather is immediately targeted by the school’s bully, which is odd, seeing as she’s a ‘bad girl’ herself, and you’d expect them to be natural allies. Instead, Heather befriends the school’s other outcast, Marcy; and the two spend countless hours listening to Marcy’s radio together; in particular, the Leslie Gore song, ‘You Don’t Own Me.’ The song, about a woman telling off her controlling boyfriend, is representative of Heather’s personality and rebellious nature.
A number of girls start disappearing from the school, leaving only a pile of leaves in their place. Heather is the only one who cares; as the school’s officials try to cover it up, and the other students are too afraid to challenge them. There’s something very classic about the way this film presents its horror. There is some graphic violence when needed; but for the most part, it relies on mood and atmosphere. A pile of leaves isn’t something you’d expect to be scary, but it works so well in creating a tone that it ends up being far creepier than a pool of blood would have been.
The main drawback to The Woods is the ending act, in which all the things that were suggested or hinted at suddenly become too literal. It’s like the director was fighting the whole way against making a traditional horror film, but then couldn’t think of a good ending and fell back into the old cliches. It’s not a horrible ending in its own right; but it’s not as good as the build up.
That said, the film as a whole more than makes up for the shortcomings with its ending. The Woods is a beautifully shot film with a genuinely creepy feel that has rarely been seen in a horror movie for the last 50 years.