McKee's 'Woods' Casts Atmospheric Spell, Lacks Innovation

Directed by: Lucky McKee; Runtime: 91 minutes
Grade: C+

Lucky McKee quietly crept onto the horror scene with the unnerving, disturbingly metaphorical genre-bender May, depicting an odd girl's social peculiarities and exclusion stitched together with the trappings of a slasher flick and a gothic fable in the vein of Mary Shelley. Despite its barely-there theatrical release, the hidden gem garnered largely positive critical marks and developed a cult following, building modest anticipation for what the director might concoct next. Comparatively, The Woods is tamer and more bound to formula than McKee's previous film, generously borrowing the occultism, isolation, and vague supernatural surroundings from classics of the genre in hopes that its time-period mood and the people within might offset the familiarity. That isn't really the case for the director's follow-up effort, lacking both effective scares and a streak of innovation, but its low-key supernatural essence and enigmatic characterization still forms into an understated, moody chiller.

Set in the mid-'60s, The Woods immediately drops problem child Heather (Agnes Bruckner) on the steps of Falburn Academy following an incident back home, one that demanded the attention of her fed-up mother (Emma Campbell) and her loving, yet submissive father (Bruce Campbell). Upon arrival of the arcane-looking school nestled in the surrounding forest, she's greeted by the lithe and mysterious headmaster, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), who shoos Heather off to the dorms following an entrance evaluation. There, Heather endures the highs and lows one would expect of being a new student at a remote private school, reluctantly making friends with other standoffish girls and coping with the harassment of bratty in-group leader Samantha (Rachel Nichols). Something's different about the school, though, especially in the woods surrounding it that seem like they're speaking through the wind in the trees, harboring a history that Heather unravels as some of the students start to vanish from the grounds.

Director McKee warps the mystery of Falburn Academy into an earthen twist on Dario Argento's Suspiria, one that's less concerned with macabre hysteria and more focused on a consistent grounded atmosphere, hinged on the school's history and position amid the enigmatic forests. A tense surreal attitude can be felt throughout the musty, shadowy grounds and on the faces of the stern instructors, building an ominous aura all around Heather as she acclimates to her new surroundings. Ambiguity distorts the scary stories about the school's past, the harsh treatment from Patricia Clarkson's quietly sinister Ms. Traverse and her gaggle of teachers, and the disappearing girls who have been chalked up as runaways, elevated by the film's purposeful focus on the students' burdened behaviors. McKee walks the line between psychological drama and burgeoning horror a tad too carefully here, though, evoking a gothic style without enough palpable dread to grow its horror inclinations -- excluding the scattered scenes where the girls actually enter the forest.

Instead, The Woods feeds off that eeriness to deepen Heather's discovery of her mystical "gifts" and her acclimation as the new girl in a strange place, opening plenty of doors for it to transform into a mystical character drama. There's a concerning period early on in the film where Heather doesn't say much of anything as she sulks within her new surroundings, suggesting that she might take on the pedestrian withdrawn qualities of Carrie or someone similar. Fortunately, that eventually dissipates when she unleashes her no-nonsense attitude, given a brazen downhearted energy by the concentrated gazes and devil-may-care verbal defenses emboldened by Agnes Bruckner, more in line with one of the girls from The Craft than a sheepish pariah. The predictability of the schoolyard drama and the special student instruction might weigh down the tempo, despite an appropriately bratty and despondent performance from Continuum's Rachel Nichols, but the ambience created in how Heather attunes to the mysterious climate gives it all a purpose ... and plants the seeds for a few surprises.

Eventually, those supernatural elements of Falburn Academy take control of The Woods, but with the spread of traditional horror-movie trappings -- computer-generated roots and branches unearthing the school's mysteries -- also comes a loosening grasp on level-headed storytelling. The ominous tone of Lucky MeKee's direction can't make the film's escapes from paranormal danger or convenient aversions of civilization appear any less absurd, even if he does keep the menacing vibes and macabre developments at a constant level of immersion, down to the twisted imagery and elusive prophetic undertones of its ending. Unlike the dark little triumphs found throughout McKee's previous film, there's never a point where The Woods fully shakes off the been-there, done-that vinery of the influences and genre familiarities holding it down, something that shows even more since it focuses so much on casting a subtle, vintage spell around its characters instead of distracting with upfront thrills.

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