Lucky McKee made a more than auspicious directorial debut in 2002 with May, a quiet but seriously disturbing, effective and sad horror film. His follow-up film, The Woods, was perhaps doomed from the start, as May is a hard movie to top or follow. Finished in 2003, The Woods was promptly shelved and sat around three years gathering dust before it finally went direct to DVD, where it was and still is generally met with total disdain or high critical kudos. Both extremes are, however, unwarranted, for while The Woods is a well-directed, finely acted and effectively moody psychological horror tale, it also fails to pack a truly convincing punch and the ending feels more than rushed and unresolved.
Still, McKee's film is a far more engaging and engrossing film than many other bigger budgeted horror releases that have made it to the big screen without problems – say, anything by M. Night Shyamalan since The Sixth Sense (1999 / trailer) and most of the untold number of Hollywood remakes of Asian horror films that have flooded the market since The Ring (2002 / trailer); as such The Woods is more than worth putting into your DVD player. But don’t expect blood, gore and T&A: despite its girl's school setting (which would seem to lend itself perfectly to sexploitive horror), The Woods is as low on exploitation as it is high in restrained dread and a slowly growing sense of unavoidable doom. There is, in the end, far more of the original (and best) version of The Haunting (1963 / trailer) in The Woods than, say, Suspiria (1977 / trailer), the film that probably inspired it.
Unlike in Suspiria, in which a young dancer (played by Jessica Harper) goes to a dance school in 1970s Rome and discovers it to be run by witches, the heroine of The Woods is a troubled teenager in 1965 who is sent by her parents to a private school called Falburn Academy located deep in the forests of New England that is, she slowly discovers, run by witches. The troubled girl in question, Heather (Agnes Bruckner), is estranged from her parents Alice (Emma Campbell) and Joe (Bruce Campbell) since she burnt down the tree in the backyard. At the school, she is quickly christened Fire-Crotch and finds it difficult to find her place between her teasing classmates and the decidedly odd spinsters that work there. (Hmm, did they actually call unmarried women "Ms." In 1965? I seem to recall still having to differentiate between "Miss" and "Mrs" all the way up to the 80s.) An attempt to escape through the forest proves only to be a nightmare experience, and soon thereafter she learns the scary legend of the school about a trio of young girls with special powers that killed the original head mistress way back when…
Thing is, Heather has special powers, too. Students disappear, and then the hot blonde bitch that’s been harassing her (Rachel Nichols as Samantha) "kills herself" after revealing to Heather that she is in danger. Daddy and Mommy come to take Heather away, but the woods prevent them and in no time flat Mommy is dead, Daddy is a hexed catatonic and Heather is back in school in the clutches of Head Mistress Traverse (Patricia Clarkson, who since her feature film debut as the wife of Eliot Ness in The Untouchables [1987 / trailer] has become the US version of Alice Krige – i.e., a classy and excellent actress that’ll star in anything). At this point the film becomes a bit muddled as it rushes towards its climax in which… well, watch the film yourself and find out.
As mentioned above, The Woods is not the bloodiest of films – although the final ax fight does allow for some slight blood and innards – nor is it the most action packed, but then neither was May. And like May, The Woods is full well acted and engaging, if not far less depressing. The biggest narrative flaw is that the what and the why behind the actions of the witches is hard to follow, but if you’re satisfied with the simple explanation that the girls are needed for the witches to become freed, then that shouldn't bother you any. (Still, one would think that a school active for over 100 years at which girls keep disappearing would gain some infamy and notice.)
In short: Though flawed, The Woods is another interesting, effective, dread-laden and well made and acted film by Lucky McKee that can easily be watched with the gore-disdaining other-half. The original Suspiria, by the way, is currently going through pre-production hell so as to be remade in the near future; currently (Oct 14, 2009) David Gordon Green, the director of Pineapple Express (2008 / trailer) is set to direct.