By now most hep to the jive filmgoers are well aware of the tropes of the so-called found footage horror movie; to wit, they’re considered found footage pieces because one or more of the central characters responsible for the footage existing in the first place have surely met with a horrific, if not ambiguous ending and we the audience are witnessing the visual fruits of their labors (usually in pursuit of some mythical piece of folklore that turns out to be all too genuine) before they pulled the great Lindy Hop and skedaddled out of existence. This style of show and tell horror meets The Real World first came into vogue back in 1999 in the Mount Everest of all found footage horror flicks, The Blair Witch Project, although the genre was alive and well far earlier in such films as 1998’s The Last Broadcast or in 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust. The good ones, I mean the really good ones, evoke the most base sense of dread and foreboding that is inherent in the human psyche and touch on primordial fears that go back to the Dawn of Man when our species collectively holed up in caves and feared the night as if it were an actual entity. Films such as the original Paranormal Activity and Willow Creek masterfully ply their wares in the realization that, at the end of the day sans social media devices and faux politically correct outrage, we’re all really still just those scared little kids sitting around a campfire exchanging creepy ghost stories.
The creators behind the new film She Walks the Woods have studied the above lessons well and know what is effective (and not) in their pursuit of telling all of us a really scary ghost story. Beginning with a white knuckle opener that immediately places its audience in the middle of some very bad juju before cutting to a title card a la Sanchez’ and Myrick’s aforementioned Blair Witch Project (“Over 1600 people have gone missing in our country’s national parks. Some are found alive with no memory of what happened. Some are found dead, their bodies in odd places. Some are never found at all.”) then flipping us back into the recent past to uncover just what series of unfortunate incidents brought about the nail biting opening.
The story is simple enough: Three friends produce a survival web-series called Ultimate Survival which is one part Survivor Man mashed up with some of the over the top personalities and shenanigans of Ghost Adventures. As the plot unfolds, the three are en route to meet with a woman named Hope (the sharp as a tack actress Vivienne Eldridge), a fan of the boys and a former school friend of one of the group who is kind enough to provide a cabin for the intrepid adventurers, with one caveat: She wants to tag along with the crew and participate in an actual episode. The film masterfully pulls off the deceptively simple act of introducing the main characters and setting up a slow yet growing dread. Even as things start off sunshine and saffron, there is a hint of bad times on the immediate horizon, of something that isn’t quite right. One of the secrets of a good horror film, let alone a horror film that also happens to be found footage style, is audience empathy and relatability to the characters that we’re settling in to spend the next one to two hours with. A smart filmmaker knows that we’d better like our de facto stand-ins and luckily that’s what is on display here, thanks in no small part to the subtle and understated acting of all of the principals. To be for sure they are dudes, but they’re likeable dudes and excellently essayed by actors-writers Danny Bohnen and Scotty Bohnen and Jason Potter.
When they all arrive at the remote and secluded cabin, bits and pieces of the backstory of the surrounding woods becomes introduced through a masterful bit of exposition by Hope, the character who is most familiar with the area. Ominously, and appropriately for a horror movie, simple everyday things like cell phones and electricity don’t work in this remote corner of the world. Shadows begin to fall on our characters even early on, and eerily enough all of them are so wrapped up in the exorcise of producing another episode of Ultimate Survival that no one notices things are wrong until it’s too late; A missing couple leaving behind all of their belongings in the cabin as if in a hurry, a burned out van and a mysterious and abandoned tee-pee are all warning posts ignored by the foursome.
Weenie roasts and late night lovemaking by a crackling fire soon gives way to unabated horror as weird noises begin to emanate from the pitch black forest and in lesser hands the transition from light to heavy might not have fared as well as they do in She Walks the Woods. The filmmakers know that the unbilled fifth performer in their macabre tale is the forest itself which is cold and dead and ethereally still as our protagonists steadfastly pursue the odd noises. There is no loud soundtrack or trick jump cuts on hand here, just down and dirty and very potent gorilla filmmaking and a confidence by the writer and the director to allow quiet – unnatural and eerie quiet – to take center stage. They recognize that it’s the not knowing what’s out in the woods that is far scarier than the actual knowing itself.
When their first full day in the woods presents itself the Survival crew comes across a rather vicious set of claw marks embedded in a tree and they begin to labor under the assumption that what they’re dealing with is a mountain lion. It’s not that simple and it’s much more frightening.
Without revealing the tense and frightening final half an hour of She Walks the Woods, I’ll say that a descent begins for the four characters that is right out of Lovecraft by way of the Marquis de Sade and might just be instrumental in changing that camping trip you’ve been planning for some time. There’s no concrete mythology pinned on whatever is happening in these woods and it’s given no name until the end credits, and maybe because of that the events are even more chilling and unsettling. Credit screenwriters Danny Bohnen, Scotty Bohnen and Robert O’Neal for knowing just how much to reveal and not to reveal.
Director’s Brian McCulley’s and John Crockett’s She Walks the Woods is an exercise in terror with a superlative front half that, even if it stumbles ever so slightly as it gasps its way towards the end, is well worth tracking down for those in need of a good scare, found footage style.
There is a lot to say about the Oscars this year as an awards delivery …