The October Project, Day 9: The Woods (2006)

I only know the name Lucky McKee from his episode of Masters of Horror, if I’m not mistaken. A horror-loving friend may (ahem) have mentioned May to me (or an issue of Fango or something), but nothing really settled. The Woods got iffy reviews, but I saw it was his, combined that with the vague ruminations on his reputation that I know I heard somewhere (but had no viewings from me to match up with), and picked this one up cheap forever ago. Which, to be fair, is the story of basically all of my “sight-unseen” purchases.

Heather Fasulo (Agnes Bruckner) is taken by her parents (Emma and Bruce Campbell–no relation, though) to the Falburn Academy after a troubled (ie, arsonist) history. Taken in by Mrs. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson) and her staff, Heather finds herself bonding somewhat with the timid Marcy (Lauren Birkell), while constantly confronted with the bullying of Samantha (Rachel Nichols), while a school legend about the past and some increasingly peculiar events and dreams swirl around the lot of them.

I’ve not written movie reviews this constantly in a very long time (around five years or so), and this was the first time I found myself briefly perusing other comments on one–afterward, of course. While there’s a curious air of dismissive distaste–the kind that says the movie is absolute garbage, terrible, awful, etc–and this is fascinating in-and-of itself (in that I can’t really believe it as much more than hyperbole), it was far more interesting to see that my own flashes of Suspiria were seen by more people than I expected. Not that I imagine I’m unique in seeing Suspiria, obviously, but I thought it was a silly connection for my brain to make. Perhaps not, it seems!

The cast is really in top form here, with everyone selling the dimensions of their characters–Marcy’s timidity is not shed in a final burst of revenge against bullying, but in a more realistic place, for instance–and Bruckner definitely keeps a grip on her leading role without faltering. Bruce actually gets to be an actor, too, rather than Bruce Campbell™, which is nice, particularly because he doesn’t flop at it.

Really, though, it’s what comes out of David Ross’s script and McKee’s direction that makes the movie something interesting. For the first ten minutes, four characters are on-screen, but only two of them speak, even when the others are asked questions. Alice (Heather’s mother) and Mrs. Traverse let neither Joe (Bruce) nor Heather get in a word edgewise, and the two of them seem to largely accept this. It’s a nice way of establishing the poor nature of Heather’s relationship with her mother, and why it’s the one that dominates her home life. That kind of unstated short-hand informs a lot of the movie’s movement, with its aversion to explicitly laying out many things, particularly the more supernatural elements.

Shots are distinctive and thoughtful, with low angles, Dutch angles, and very methodical, ponderous camerawork building up a lot of it–but never in a distracting, disorienting sort of fashion. It comes out very naturalistic, and the choice of odd shots is used very clearly as a means of story-telling, to inform about the character or setting in-frame. This means that an early, rather unpleasant dream of Heather’s was really quite well-done, in a fashion that I can’t readily recall feeling so taken aback by in quite some time, if at all. It’s not some kind of masterwork moment from which everyone should learn, but its comfortable placement in non-dream story could be legitimately helpful all the same. It avoids drowning it in a soup of “DREAM” effects (wobbliness, blur, echoes–that sort of thing) and jump cuts, but doesn’t lose sight of the strange and illogical progressions from which dreams are made, either.

Some folks I saw were inclined to, somewhat justifiably, rate the style and atmosphere of the movie over its plot, but I felt like the way it was carried out sold the story, and kept itself just off-the-norm enough to not feel too incredibly tired. It’s still a supernatural movie about a boarding school and all that, so some very minor points are inevitable, and it certainly forms its normal elements from much of the expected conflict to be derived from that setting, but the way that it tells the story with the grace of plenty of dialogue deadspace, relying on visuals, and avoiding spelling out how the supernatural works (something to which I remain largely opposed), it ends up propping itself up quite nicely. It’s not, again, some kind of revelatory masterpiece, but neither is it a boring re-tread of any kind.

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