Lucky McKee thanks God for little girls, for without them he would have no muse, no “raison d’Ãªtre” as Maurice Chevalier might have said. He would also have made no films at all since the three he’s made on his own, “May”, the “Masters of Horror” episode “Sick Girl” and now, finally, “The Woods” are about nothing if not the trials and tribulations of little girls.
I’m not saying that McKee is some kind of cinematic pedophile. That position has already been filled by the director of “Jeepers Creepers”. No, McKee actually loves and respects girls; he wants to learn about their worlds, their secrets, heartbreaks and hidden desires. He has a special girl in mind, too. She’s not the Queen Bee, not the popular one screwing the football team after cheerleading practice. No, she’s the other one; the one that watches this parade as it goes by — never the star — always the extra in her own life. But she’s special, dammit, and one day everyone will know it.
The beginnings of this character archetype must lie in “Cinderella”, but I am certain that McKee has watched Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” a few thousand times. He may have even read the book. He most certainly learned a few things from the movie, though, and “The Woods” in particular has benefited from the schooling.
I’ve been hearing about this movie since way back when M. Night Shyamalan was forced to change the title of his movie from “The Woods” to “The Village” because of it. McKee won that battle, but it seems as though he lost all of the others because while Night’s film has come and gone, McKee’s sat on some studio shelf like one of the castaways on the island of misfit toys. It’s now been moved from the studio’s shelf to the shelf of your local video store, sharing space with the Van Dammes, Seagals and whatever Godawful thing Asylum films is releasing this week. But “The Woods” is better than this, dammit, and one day everyone will know it.
The film is set in 1965 and is filmed in the candy colors of a Rock Hudson-Doris Day confection. Actually, the reel reference here is more likely the three strip Technicolor effect of Dario Argento’s primal masterpiece “Suspiria”, which McKee does what he can with his small budget to capture. There’s little doubt that screenwriter David Ross had “Suspiria” on freeze frame mode to study it carefully as he laid out his story, but he also had another movie in mind as well, a movie that McKee would know was De Palma’s follow up to “Carrie”, the wild film version of John Farris’ “The Fury”. There’s more than a little “Fury” in these “Woods”.
Agnes Bruckner plays Heather, a troubled red headed teenager who is dropped off at a very exclusive girl’s school deep in the dark woods as punishment for starting some kind of ambiguous fire at home. She does not like her mother, who in turn seems to actively hate her. Or is she just afraid of her? Since her father is Bruce Campbell (“Evil Dead”), you would expect he already knows there is something out there in those woods. But he seems to have been emasculated by his shrill wife and knows better than to offer advice.
Heather meets her new headmistress, Ms. Traverse, played by Patricia Clarkson, who has made it her business to play scary mother figures lately. Ms. Traverse thinks that Heather has some special gift, and we soon learn that this is no ordinary school, but rather the dark side of Hogwarts, where magic is the order of the day and anyone who gets in the way of the schoolmarm’s plans to wake up some ancient trees is going to get chopped down before they can say, “I saw ‘The Guardian’, too!”
That’s another film tossed into this blender. William Friedkin’s awful 1990 horror “The Guardian” was no “Exorcist”, but remains one of the few films ever made on the subject of killer trees. Until this one, which is actually pretty good. What they called in the old days a “sleeper”. McKee is an excellent director of actors and has his focus set on telling this story through the characters, and without the epileptic editing and pacing of most current horror films.
In fact, much of “The Woods” plays like a classic Val Lewton film of the 1940’s, where the emphasis was on telling a good yarn without much ado and wrapping it all up in a tightly wound 70 minutes. “The Woods” is just a little longer, and it only outstays its welcome in the concluding few minutes, when a little too much “Craft”-y mumbo jumbo leaves me to think that the screenwriter ran out of classic horror DVDs to help him along.
The cast is a real delight here. When was the last time you could say that about a “horror” film? While Rachel Nichols, Lauren Birkell and Ivana Shein all do very good work, it’s Agnes Bruckner who stands out, once again in another film likely to be ignored. She was excellent in “Blue Car” and in “Rick”, that crazy updating of “Rigoletto” starring Bill Pullman. Neither film gained much distribution, and one can only hope that she will not be lost among the rabble of bad actresses who keep getting cast in high profile movies. Bruckner has a face more interesting than the standard beauty, in that there seems to be something interesting going on behind those intense eyes, which is a rarity among the bubblehead brigade of Hollywood starlets.
While not a dazzling stylist like Argento, McKee rises to the occasion in several horrific scenes, but saves his most stylish and original work for a dreamy slow motion montage sequence of Heather slowly settling into the routines of the school scored to Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”. It reminds us once again how much McKee loves these girls, as he obsessively films the beautiful cast in their dirty/innocent school uniforms bouncing down the stairs as though they were moving underwater, their hair undulating in magical ways, smiling and whispering secrets to each other in silence. Secrets that Lucky McKee is dying to know. What makes him an interesting filmmaker is that he can make us curious too.
Lucky McKee (director) / David Ross (screenplay)
CAST: Agnes Bruckner …. Heather
Patricia Clarkson …. Ms. Traverse
Bruce Campbell …. Joe Fasulo
Rachel Nichols …. Samantha
Lauren Birkell …. Marcy Turner
Emma Campbell …. Alice Fasulo
Marcia Bennett …. Ms. Mackinaw
Gordon Currie …. Sheriff
Jude Beny …. School Nurse