The Woods sat around unreleased for three years, and I can see why. It’s one of those movies that earns the term lackluster, a word I generally avoid, but here it’s all too appropriate. There’s a premise just waiting to catch fire here, but someone forgot to bring the matches.
Funny that the movie should open up with, what else, the setting of a fire. Heather (Agnes Bruckner, very good) has rebelled a little too violently against her self-absorbed mother and indifferent father, and has been sent to cool her jets at a private all-girls boarding school. This is some school: there’s so much fog blowing around the place, so many windows rattling and tree branches outlined against the moon that the witches’ coven / dance academy in Suspiria looks like a far more urbane alternative.
The Woods takes the usual repressed-girl's-school algebra and
tries admirably to hitch it to a tale about witches (a la Dario Argento)...
Heather doesn’t fit in, of course. The head of the local gang of girl bullies, Samantha (Rachel Nichols, also excellent) calls her “fire-crotch”, although Heather dishes it out about as good as she gets it. She does manage to make friends with one of the other misfits (who shares her transistor radio), and since this is 1965 New England, their closeness is of course seen as lesbian attraction by the other girls. As you can guess, there’s all sorts of conformity / repression tropes churning within the story, and what makes The Woods more interesting than your usual material in this vein is how it tries to hitch all this stuff to a more supernatural batch of goings-on.
The bad news is that it simply doesn’t work. For one, the story takes far too long to get off the ground — the first solid hour of the movie feels like it’s repeating the same three notes to the point of almost complete redundancy, and there are only so many times you can see the forest outside the school whispering to Heather before it gets faintly silly. Director Lucky McKee (of the cult sleeper May) does his best — if there’s one thing I can’t complain about, it’s his skillful shepherding of the actors through some truly unlikely material — but the script needed another pass to smooth out its rough corners and fill in its dead spots.
It’s a shame, because there are signs of real life here. I always want to be able to say good things about a fine movie that simply never got its day in the sun, but The Woods just isn’t one of those projects. It does give me hope that McKee will be able to not only live up to what he started with May but surpass it.
Postscript: Those of you attracted to this project because of the billed presence of Bruce Campbell will be disappointed to know that he barely appears at all save for the last portion of the film — and it’s up to you as to whether seeing him channel his Evil Dead persona for that short a time is worth the slog through the rest of the movie.