Friday, September 14, 2007

Lucky McKee, "The Woods" (2006)

Every once in awhile a new American filmmaker hits the scene, and horror fans nationwide proclaim the emergence of a future star. In 2002, California-native Lucky McKee released May- a nasty little flick (with an initially limited theatrical release) that captivated viewers with its low budget creativity. It featured female lead Angela Bettis, who proved more than capable of portraying a socially maladaptive young woman with psychopathic tendencies. The depiction of a budding love affair between an unsuspecting mechanic and a highly disordered victim of childhood abuse struck chords with an audience eager for an obscure cult hit. It gained notoriety following its video and DVD release. While McKee claimed to have been inspired by Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, May was a breath of fresh air for those left frustrated and numb by Hollywood remakes and sequels. Mckee was heralded for his quirky and original script, as well as his deft touch as director.

In fact Lucky McKee was recognized by the horror film cognoscenti, and was rewarded with the opportunity to make an episode of Masters of Horror. While his selection among such genre masters as John Carpenter, Dario Argento , Tobe Hooper and Stuart Gordon stunned some observers, his fans believed that he would inevitably fulfill his great promise. His entry(Sick Girl) is said to be an homage to David Cronenberg, and includes a nasty insectoid monster wreaking gory havoc in an apartment building. I haven't seen it, and I most likely never will. But the ratings were mildly favorable and Mckee's star continued to rise. He went on to star in Roman- a film for which he both wrote the script and played the lead role. For that project he turned the directorial reins over to Angela Bettis.

Despite his growing fame, McKee had not yet released a feature length follow-up to his startling debut. Some now began to suspect that he was a one-hit wonder. But unbeknownst to the masses, the director had already completed The Woods for United Artists. Unfortunately the film was shelved when Metro Goldwyn bought UA, and it sat without an official release date for three whole years. Finally it was put out on DVD and video, and mostly remained unnoticed. I hadn't even realized that it existed until I randomly discovered it on Amazon. The few reviews that were posted seemed intriguing enough for me to pick it up, and I looked forward to finding some time to watch it.

Last night seemed like an appropriate opportunity to watch a spooky horror flick. The temperature had dropped with Autumn's first approach, suggesting an eerie moodiness. M. had no idea what we'd be watching, and from the very first images we knew we were in for a chilling ride. The setting is a girl's boarding school in 1965. The facility was built in the late 1800's, and sits in what should be a pleasantly bucolic wooded setting. But there is something about the atmosphere of the old stone building, and the forest surrpounding it, that unsettles lead character Heather Fasulo (played aptly by Agnes Bruckner). Heather was forced to come to the school by circumstances largely of her own creation, and resents her mother for not allowing her to stay at home. The all-female staff, led by headmistress Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), works to overcome Heather's resistance through a strategy of stern guidance.

The girls that make up the student body are largely unwelcoming, and Heather casts her lot with another outcast. Even beyond the mundane bullying of snotty blonde Samantha (Rachel Wise), there's obviously something afoot at the school. The girls are warned to stay out of the woods, the staff is adamant that the students drink their milk, and people are disappearing. Of course we are meant to wonder who is responsible for the strange occurrences, and it really isn't that difficult to figure it out. Frankly, the plot is not one of the main assets of The Woods. If you want to enjoy the film, you must suspend your disbelief. And even then you have to be forgiving of some of the cheesier effects that appear repeatedly. Having said that... if you can focus on the performances of the cast and the creepy charms of the setting- you will probably enjoy watching the madness enfold.

While The Woods delivers more charms than you'd expect from the typical straight-to-video thriller, I was struck by how derivative it is. McKee's choice to include Bruce Campbell in a work that blatantly rips off Evil Dead is telling. Additionally, there is no doubt in my mind that McKee is a big fan of genuine "Master of Horror" Dario Argento. This is almost a loose remake of Suspiria. Yet whereas that classic shares a certain shabbiness of plot with The Woods, it more than compensates with its incredible aesthetics, cinematography, set design, score and editing. McKee's film is simply entertaining.

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