Sunday, October 11, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: Don't Go In the Woods

 M. Night Shyamalan once famously tried to "re-brand" The Happening as a "B Movie" after audiences (and critics) had a chance to see how terribly inept it was. At one point, I had to prove to a friend of a friend that it wasn't the case by showing them the special features on the Blu-Ray, which has Shyamalan lauding his cast and crew on what a terrifying thriller they were making, one that would open people's eyes. Now, I suppose, it's possible that when he saw the finished cut, he revised his strategy, but given his typical stance of believing his turds are golden eggs, I think it was studio pressure to salvage his eco-disasterpiece. But that's just my theory. The Happening does all of the heavy lifting by itself - you decide if this was supposed to be schlocky or just ended up that way as a result of gross incompetence.

 What bearing does this have on Don't Go in the Woods (sometimes with "...Alone!" at the end)? As I learned after watching this 1981 slasher movie, director James Bryan intended the film to be a comedy, and not just a "me too" entry into the subgenre. That would put the film in the same company as Student Bodies, but the problem with this characterization of Don't Go in the Woods is that it's almost impossible to tell while watching the film. Bryan seems (well, seemed - I won't pretend I'm familiar with his filmography) to lack any basic semblance of pacing, editing, or sensible shot composition, and somehow makes a movie that's barely 81 minutes feel twice that long. It doesn't work as a comedy or as a slasher film, and yet, is oddly appealing in fits and (blood) spurts.

 One wouldn't be mistaken in assuming there's no plot to be had during the first twenty minutes of Don't Go in the Woods, as Bryan haphazardly jumps from one hastily cobbled together "kill" to the next, in rapid succession. Other than the fact that someone - or some thing - is hunting anyone who wanders into the forest outside of Park City, Utah, there's no connective tissue whatsoever that can be identified. Bryan's notion of setting up a "kill" is to throw a character on screen, without any sense of context, cut to hand-held "POV" shoots of the murderer, and then go straight for the gore. If you get a kick out of seeing the camera run into branches, lose balance, and then unexpectedly cut to a guy losing his arm, Don't Go in the Woods has you covered. We eventually learn that he was an ornithologist (McCormick Dalton), which is relevant in no real capacity, but that is the only one of Bryan's procession of victims we have any sense of back story for.

 Also wandering around in the woods, presumably just to be murdered, are a girl running around (Alma Ramos), a newlywed couple in their customized shag van (pun intended) (Carolyn Braza and Frank Millen), an artist (Cecilia Fannon), a tourist (Dale Angell), his mother (Ruth Grose), a fisherman (Hank Zinman), and a guy in a wheelchair (Gerry Klein) who is, inexplicably, slowly rolling himself up a dirt road. His struggle, including at least two times when his chair tips over, are agonizingly cross-cut with the final showdown between our heroes, the police, and the killer. For the record, my favorite theory about the killer prior to discovering it was just a Killbilly was that it was a "bear with a knife," which is really what it looks like when the artist dies and her toddler-aged daughter disappears.

 Yes, I did mention "heroes," didn't I? Eventually, in the midst of all of this random killing for killing's sake, we do actually meet the four twenty-somethings that one expects to find in a slasher movie: Craig (James P. Hayden) Ingrid (Mary Gail Artz), Joanne (Angie Brown), and Peter (Jack McClelland). Craig is leading the expedition out to a cabin in the woods - relax, we never see it, and it is never mentioned again once the killer shows up - with the rest in tow. He's the natural leader, Boy Scout type, and Peter is the "tenderfoot" who makes mistakes and resents Craig. Ingrid and Joanne are, um, the girls. One of them has short hair and the other one doesn't. To be honest, without looking at them in the movie, I can't remember which is which, but I think Ingrid is the one who lives at the end (SPOILER). Since I'm SPOILING, this breaks with the at-the-time nascent concept of "Final Girl" theory by also having Peter survive, but Craig and Joanne are long dead. Like the rest of the murders, there's no real rhyme or reason for this decision.

 I should mention that in the midst of hiking to a cabin, they spend the night in the woods twice, despite the fact that the cabin is close enough to walk to "by mid-day tomorrow." The killer isn't even stalking them at that point - he's instead murdering another group of campers (Leon Brown, Jr. and Linda Brown, although I could have sworn there were more people). It might have been a clever "bait-and-switch" if it were possible to tell what the hell was going on in Don't Go in the Woods. By that point, Bryan is stretching the story out in all possible directions, also including the morbidly obese Sheriff (Ken Carter). He's responding to the missing ornithologist report, until he just decides to give up in the middle of flying over the woods. No, really, that's what happens. He requests a plane to fly over, in the hopes of seeing, um, something, and then tells the pilot they'll never find the guy, he probably went home. But don't worry, the police and a local militia will be back for the "big" finale.

 Perhaps Bryan's notion that Don't Go in the Woods being a "comedy" comes from the sensory overload of ridiculous, bloody murders that make up the first half of the film. If so, he failed miserably, because there's nothing particularly comical about having the tourist's dead body lying on a rock just above two frolicking teenagers - a shot he returns to after killing the mother. There's nothing particularly tragic or ironic about it, either, because the composition is so in-artful. The closest thing to outright comical happens during the honeymoon - and honestly, you can't even tell they're married until you see it on the side of the van - when, after the couple is slashed thoroughly, the killer decides to flip the van over, into a ravine. And it explodes. I laughed at the audacity, and again when somehow nobody noticed that this happened, despite what is clearly a crowded forest.

 To be fair, I go into most slasher films with a healthy suspension of disbelief. The ridiculous nature of murder set pieces were part and parcel of the subgenre, even in 1981. I can even put up with sometimes amateurish execution, as long as the payoff is worthwhile. What's difficult to reconcile about Don't Go in the Woods is the stunning lack of tension. We barely have time to register that someone is on camera before they're being stalked and summarily slaughtered, and none of it is done with any degree of flair. There's no suspense in the film because there's no sense of geography for the characters, or any attempt to set up anything. If you'd like to make a case that the killer's M.O. resembles the Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and his cabin is clearly designed to) and therefore is somehow meant to make it "random," I'd listen, but then you'd have to explain the ending as something less coherent than "repeating the cycle." What begins as a slasher film slowly devolves into a mishmash of The Hills Have Eyes, but with random asides not unlike the police subplot in The Last House on the Left. And I somehow doubt that Wes Craven or Tobe Hooper would be happy to have their films compared to Don't Go in the Woods.

 And yet, I did say I kind of enjoyed it, didn't I? Well, that is true. It's an excruciatingly boring movie from the halfway point onward, but the random killings at the beginning are amusing in and of themselves. It's a little bit like that DVD, Boogeymen: The Killer Compilation, which was just clips of famous monster movies without any semblance placement within their respective films, crammed together. It's not the ideal way to watch a slasher, but the sheer willingness to throw narrative away and just randomly murder people with no rhyme or reason is amusing. And I reiterate: whether intentional or not, the fact that the killer pushes a van off of a cliff (sideways) is humorous. Some of Don't Go in the Woods is so stupid that you can't help but chuckle. The "score," by H. Kingsley Thurber (Frozen Scream), is a synth-heavy cacophony of "was that the right choice?" Every now and then he provides the punch line for a joke, which is funny in all the wrong ways, especially for the musical "fart" that accompanies Peter soiling himself.

 So, in fairness, while Don't Go in the Woods is frequently an interminable bore, there are moments of sheer stupidity, of incompetence in the direction and writing (how could I leave out Garth Eliasson, he who wrote the story and the script?), that will make you chuckle. If it had, oh, a sense of pacing, let alone a better sense of one, I would be inclined to recommend it, because some of the kills are decent, and before you know what the killer is, there's a sense of baffling confusion. As it stands, I would only recommend it to slasher die-hards who have exhausted most of the better offerings. Don't Go in the Woods isn't bottom of the barrel - it is watchable, if nothing else - but you might find yourself struggling against seeing how much time you have left.

No comments: