Thursday, April 21, 2016


The woods --alternately uncanny and familiar--are a 'free' way to draw value from trees that's less damaging than clear-cutting. Shit in the woods = archaic. Lost in the woods = easy to happen. Conclusion: shit in the woods and if only the bears hear it, you know you're fucked. I got lost once in the heart of NYC, just trying to get across the upper wild swaths of Central Park one lonesome afternoon. If you've been up there in the wilds of the Northern sections you know how creepy and forlorn it can get and how fast; I wound up going in a big ass circle for a full hour. Nothing more heartbreaking than walking ever more quickly with a mild panic generating in your stomach only to find you're right back where you started, still no one in sight to ask for help or direction, just some snooty squirrel that stands there staring, mocking you.

Blair Witch Project is still the high benchmark for that kind of unease. Those kids might have literally been a mere half mile from a highway and never known it. Once we lose our orientation in amidst the deep woods, it doesn't matter if civilization is right around the next hill or a hundred miles away; we're on our own.

(2002) Dir. Neil Marshall

You think it's easy to be a straight male, age 11-55, when it comes to movies, TV, and commercials? Watching a movie on Syfy like Underworld: Awakening for the 100th time, and still not liking it, but sticking with it because it quenches some weird fanboy desire for monsters, sexy pale skin brunettes, violence, and car crashes (a need catered to with pandering directness, punctuated with bro-demo-angling commercials for fantasy football gambling sites, and chips flavored to taste like bacon). Kate Beckinsale, all smokin' crystal blue eyes, in a skin tight leather catsuit wielding twin .45 automatics: it's all for us, SMs age 14-55: for our stunted adolescent minds.  No matter how much our higher self sighs in disdain, we can't resist.

Hoping to galvanize rather than indulge, director Neil Marshall's 2002 debut is a Hawksian, darkly comic male group camaraderie version of his better-known female camaraderie DESCENT (2003). It's a gory, playfully macho, riveting, terse, gory, slightly cheeky 'werewolves vs. British infantry squad on maneuvers' sort of SOUTHERN COMFORT meets the initial 'moors' sequence of AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON sort of thing. Like THE DESCENT, it ends with an all-out balls-to-the-wall brawl, dwindling down the numbers on both sides until only the true toughies remain. While they last, the cast is tops, especially the cool-in-a-crisis, Max von Sydow-esque Pvt. Cooper (Kevin McKidd) and the bullet-headed badass Sgt. Harry Wells (Sean Pertwee, a kind of Michael Caine, Jason Statham, and Bob Hoskins bolted together with oily lug nuts). Their manly rapport and gives the film an adrenalin savagery-switchpoint boost. Hawksians wit, esprit de corps and armament savvy ("three-round bursts!") provides an outside-the-box form of survivalist enlightenment that overflows the boundaries of both the werewolf and survival-behind-the-lines genre parameters. Some choice dialogue worthy of Leigh Bracket ("I hope I give you the shits, you wimp!") flows in natural, overlapping style (clearly the result of diligent training and rehearsing as an ensemble). There's even a Hawksian woman (Emma Cleasby - top)--a local who takes the boys to the rustic soon-besieged cabin--who'd be right at home in THE DESCENT and it's great to see a strong woman rescue a squad of men rather than the reverse.

Mark Thomas's orchestral theme is mostly good though gets a little to bouncy for horror and at times seems remarkably similar David Julyan's in THE DESCENT... Marshall clearly needs to hear all the great retro-analog synth stuff being done these days, they would have helped, his nonetheless underrated and very Carpenterian DOOMSDAY). The special effects are first rate, creating a blackly comic Howling-esque body horror element without sacrificing terse vivid something-at-stake realness;  and the thick old growth of mountainous Luxembourg (filling in for Northern Scotland) makes ideal territory for such isolated do-or-die standing, and Marshall's gritty 16mm camera swoops around capturing events with an intriguing if washed-out low-light immediacy that evokes early films by Cronenberg, Stanley, Craven, Raimi, Barker, and Romero, and compares well against all of them. Final note: considering the shoddy treatment of dogs in horror films, I thought I should mention that the shifty MI-6 guy (Liam Cunningham) who tries to make Cooper shoot a dog to toughen him up in the intro (and kicks Cooper out of his elite squad when he won't) gets his canine comeuppance, so don't let that moment throw you.

(1980) Dir. Graydon Clark

There's a few things we need to get straight right now: I know this post is collecting cool woodsy horror flicks, and no one loves scary woods in movies more than me. But honey, this film's woods--supposedly dark and deep and perfect for hunters--looks like the scrub where all the cheap LA cop shows film bodies being dumped and cars pulling over to hand-off ransom money. There are almost no trees, just dry desert shrubbery, yet these woods hold not only bivouacking cub scouts led by a Patton-paraphrasing scoutmaster (Larry Storch), sets of necking teens, a greasy Cameron Mitchell using a very anachronistic blue collar Brooklyn goomba accent while trying to make a grouse-killer of his pacifist son, and a pre-Pedator alien who's been hunting the most dangerous game, using a nearby groundskeeper shed as his trophy room. If you watch Final Terror (reviewed below)--with its great old growth and beautiful stark photography--as I did, right before this, the thoroughly second-rate look of Without Warning can be a tough adjustment. Carpenter cameraman Dean Cundey knocks out a nice magic hour and the occasional Steadicam fleeing (and a funky bat shuriken POV), but couldn't they at least get a permit to shoot at Bronson Canyon like everybody else? And while David Caruso is one of the first-killed teens (during sex in a "lagoon" lower right), his death is mostly off camera! Why else are we here if not to see him die? Worse, the script includes enough strangely-emphatic anti-hunting oratory to count as passive-aggressive screed, even if the landscape looks like all it might yield is a stray golf ball or a shopping cart full of cans as far as game.

But hey, once-top drawer B-list stalwarts like Ralph Meeker, Jack Palance, Neville Brand and Martin Landau enter the story, via a Bodega Bay-ish bar of colorful drunks and eccentric locals, all of whom refuse to believe the outlandish story of our frantic college boy hero, well, things get quite tolerable, and so vividly rendered by Cundey's camera you can smell the blend of musty naugahyde, cigarettes and stale beer. And as much as the other older actors may be phoning it in or hamming it up (Landau especially is awful), Palance-as the big game hunting gas station herald who sees the chance to hunt the alien as a kind of two-way intergalactic Most Dangerous Game--is terrific. Palance never phoned it in or shouted it from across the street in his life, and here he's in his B-list element.

Thou shalt not suffer a ginger in a magic hour pond to live! 
But now to the one real liability (or strength depending on your frame of mind): the teenage male lead, Christopher S. Nelson, a kid who makes Zach Galligan seem like Humphrey Bogart by comparison. One can imagine an acting teacher showing this film as an example of "What Not to Do" in film acting. You can see the way he overthinks and sabotages himself time and again. Sometimes he'll fall into the swing of a scene almost by chance, helped along by the skill of the good actors around him--he'll just 'be' in the scene and not consciously trying to remember his lines---then you see the thought cross his eyes, oops, I forgot where I was! And with a sudden frenetic lurch he starts 'acting' again and you can feel the crew slap their heads and roll their eyes, and then just decide well, 45 takes are enough - we'll roll that one. Such spastic terribleness works when his character is supposed to be wildly unsteady, hysterical with fear, such as laughing maniacally when the windshield wipers knock off the monsters, or paralyzed by nervous confusion (and he does a good job in a scene spinning paranoid tales of world domination to stall paranoid psycho Landau) but everywhere else it seems more like he's auditioning for a student film or trying to make his acting teacher kill himself. He's very pretty though, and, I hate to say it, but Landau's performance is almost just as bad!

Hard to believe? See this film! And realize the way older character actors were valued in the late 70s-early 80s in ways they're not now. Once, nearly every old star could still get work for scale as expository landlords on TV movies or old timer sheriffs on cop shows, or barflies mouthing old timer-style exposition to frightened kids. As long as they weren't too proud--in Dinner at Eight parlance--to play the beachcomber, they were working. But where are they now, aside from dead?

Final girl Tarah Nutter rocks cute braids (above) but her character is such a useless cringing liberal you'll want to jab her with an NRA button 
Things really pick up in the last few reels, even if it never quite gets to its feet. The idea that Invasion of the Body Snatchers-meets-Red Dawn 'nam paranoia would turn Landau into a second threat ("Sarge, you are not in the army no more." shouts the barkeep) is pretty original, as far as it goes, so it's too bad the posters show off the alien right off the bat, squashing the big reveal. But hey, if you've seen Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster as many times as I have, you may appreciate the strength of Without Warning's destitute delusions. Many of my fellow writers saw it and loved it as kids in the early-early 80s on late-night cable (at a time where there often weren't even movie descriptions in the TV Guide, let alone spoiler-alert posters). I never saw Without Warning back then, but I can pretend.

If only I could pretend its canyon scrub was actual woods.

(1983) Dir. Andrew Davis

If, to savor WW's Corman-like deadpan self-aware humor and adherence to a beloved formula, you sometimes need to let go of any sense of atmosphere, coherence, or quality, it's just the opposite with The Final Terror. Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) not only directs, he does the cinematography, and very well, so there's a total harmony between atmosphere and actors one rarely sees outside, say, John Boorman. This is partly because Davis shipped his cast and crew up to Northern California's old growth forest for his film, and what could be too dark (especially in muddy VHS) or too washed out due to the canopy is--instead--just right on Blu-ray: gorgeous yet ominous, claustrophobic yet Wagnerianly vast.

It’s the tale of some young park rangers rafting downriver with their girlfriends and enjoying a week of freedom from parental restrictions (sleeping bag fornication unfettered) that--as might be inferred-- turns mighty terrifying as someone starts killing them off. A religiously uptight local boy-- played with the usual zest by a miscast Joe Pantoliano--is their chief suspect but, well, I can't spoil the events further except to note that the real message at work isn't the usual slasher covert return to conservative values (i.e. sex leaves you very vulnerable to attack, so return to repression) but the reverse, a realization that no uptight slasher can stand a chance against a crew of outdoorsy young people with some basic training (National Guard, ROTC) under their belt if they stick together.

In other words it's almost a a 'response' to the slasher craze rather than a part of that craze. It's certainly quieter. The cast is a-brim with both future stars (Rachel Ward, Daryl Hannah) and semi-familiar faces (Lewis "Perfect Tommy" Smith, and Mark "Is that a pledge pin? On your uniform?!!" Metcalf) but some unknown named John Friedrich steals the show after he avails himself of too many of the killers' psilocybe cubensis mushrooms and starts oscillating between being the group's military tactician savior and biggest liability (shades of Patton!). He'll evoke Harold Wayne Jones in The Crazies for you one minute, and the next you'll wish there were more guys like them in these kinds of movies, dudes who illustrate how he who protects you from outside evil can't save you from the evil of themselves.

I don’t want to give too much away, but you know that, queasy feminist that I am, if I can enjoy a film in this disreputable subgenre it’s only because there’s no sexual assaults, unnecessary cruelty, terrible gore effects, or shitty dialogue. Final Terror does not have those things... in spades. If it has little else either, hey, the old growth woods look literally dark and deep; the skulking killer's camouflage leaf jacket blends so well into the surrounding vegetation that it’s startling when a filthy hand emerges to smooth a sleeping girl's hair in the early dawn; Susan Justin’s weird piano and atonal synth score hits the right notes every scene... except one... and Daryl Hannah.

(2015) Dir Corin Hardy

Irish horror--drawing on their national arts funding, eerie emerald-colored landscape (often enhanced with green tints and filters), and dark Celtic folk tales--is on a roll these days and THE HALLOW is a worthy example. Bojana Novakovic and Joseph Mawle star as new parents moving into a woebegone house at the edge of a foreboding Irish forest and the ominous trouble starts the moment mom takes down the window bars. The locals tell the dad--a botanist intent on researching local tree blight--not to wander too deep off the path through the woods, and to take nothing he finds home with him. But he needs samples, and it looked like blight, so no woodland sprite might object to some tree blight being scraped off. But is it blight?

Not according to the legends.

But who believes auld legends these days? Only the spooked locals with their allegedly ignorant tradition. So the wife takes down the bars and charms from around the windows to let in what passes for sunshine in Ireland and dad finds, as you might imagine, some mighty strange black mold samples to bring home. That night they're besieged by an array of Irish faerie lore-originated spooky tricks, the worst of which is the swapping out human babies with weird changelings, raising the human kids in the woods (like the changeling in MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM so coveted by Oberon) and generating weird suspicion betwixt the couple, and tracking mold all over the walls and floor.

They told ye not to go into those damn woods, ya bómán! Ye auld Leathcheann! 

The feature debut of Corin Hardy. The Hallow is not quite the resounding announcement of 'I am here, I am now!' horror genius we got with Jennifer Kent's BABADOOK or Robert Egger's THE WITCH or David Robert Mitchell's IT FOLLOWS, but it's close enough, and the monsters are interesting fusions of trees, mold and people (like the 1951 THING coupled to the hyper-evolutionary mutation ability in the remake), and the idea of the changeling is very subtle and creepily represented, as Clare must decide if it's her infanticidal husband (mutating from woodland fairy venom infection) or the baby (which she dredged up from the bottom of the lake) who's still 'real.'

Despite semi-strange interludes toward the end (which decency forbids me to explain) everything is fairly believable and all fast moving in the kind of tight kinetic 'all in a single long late afternoon-through-to-dawn' (tick-tock) momentum. You might come away only mildly plussed when all's said and done but it's quite a ride. I didn't get up to refill my drink or have a slash once during the whole 90-minute running-time. The lighting is moody and the acting terrific - I mean Novakovic and Mawle are committed, and at times seem like--institutionally-speaking--they literally should be. They're more terrifying than the monsters crawling through their vents, and their veins, and vice versa.

And like all the films discussed here, the woods are a major element --psychologically and diegetically. Filmed with an ingenious palette of murky green colors seemingly culled from the depth of darkness, they've never looked so creepy and gorgeous. Best of all, there's no gibbering rapists, claustrophobic abductions or sadistic cruelty, all which I'm bloody sick of. I like my horror to be supernatural and trading on deep unconscious drives rather than brutal true crime torture porn. Our world is bad enough on its own! No wonder the trees want to leave.

But in Ireland, aye, the trees seem to be coming back... le bhfeice!

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