The Horror Honeys: Witch Month: Beware the Whispers in the Woods

Witch Month: Beware the Whispers in the Woods

A Sci-Fi Honey “Witch Month” Review by Katie

The Woods (2006)

As fans of horror film and literature, we all know the places that we are cautioned against venturing time and again: creaky attics, leaky cellars, darkened alleyways, underground parking garages, and upstairs – if you’re being chased by a knife-wielding maniac, of course. But one place in particular comes up in the horror genre seemingly more than any other: the shadowy and enigmatic woods, a cluster of trees that hold within their branches the sins and secrets of centuries past. Such is the titular setting for Lucky McKee’s witchy parable The Woods; a throwback to classic folklore-based horror with some modern-day slasher sensibilities thrown in to appeal to a modern crowd. While one element of the film works more than the other, the final product is a decently crafted spooker that should please fans of both witchcraft lore and bewitching tales set deep within an impenetrable wood.

I know what you’re thinking: isn’t this that Meryl Streep musical that came out a few years ago, where everyone sings about wandering “into the woods”? Though similarly titled, this fairy tale is more akin to Grimm than Disney – and these witches are more interested in ritualistic chanting than singing. The Meryl figure of this film is the incomparable Patricia Clarkson, who glides on screen as Ms. Traverse, headmistress of a prestigious yet secluded school for young women. It’s the year 1965, and Heather (Agnes Bruckner) is a new arrival at Falburn Academy, sent away by her parents (Bruce Campbell and Emma Campbell, no relation) as penance for committing arson on their property. Heather is given the usual ‘new girl’ reception at the school: openly mocked by the blonde Queen Bee bully, befriended by the sullen mousy-haired weirdo, and getting into trouble with abusive and domineering teaching staff. It isn’t long before Heather hears a tale about the school’s former involvement with a trio of witches, who emerged from the surrounding woods to steal the souls of unwitting pupils – the same woods that whisper to Heather at night, and plague her nightmares with blood-soaked visions of ghastly murder. Clearly this is not the ideal place to get a first-rate education in anything other than the dark arts.

Patricia Clarkson and her glorious Resting Witch face. 
Falburn Academy quickly begins to resemble the coven-ruled ballet school of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which serves as inspiration for the The Woods’ greatest asset: an unnerving sense of dread that permeates the atmosphere in nearly every scene. The woods that that loom menacingly at the periphery of the school grounds are plagued by shrouds of mist or ominous winds that accentuate the nefarious legend surrounding Falburn’s origins. Ms. Traverse and her faculty speak in measured tones that always signify something underhanded beneath the surface, contributing to the mystery of the setting with something as simple as a sidelong glance or faint whisper. There is even a decent scare or two within the school walls that resemble the eerily supernatural tone of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, when it is still unclear whether Heather’s visions are ghostly apparitions, portents of the future, or unconscious night terrors.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep; but I have miles to go before I sleep...
As the film pieces together more of the puzzle and the true nature of all involved are revealed, the film loses its footing somewhat – and quickly ends up mired elbow-deep in blood and gore. Splatter films have their unique place in the horror genre, but rarely does this scare style cross over into witchcraft tales rooted in preternatural practices of the occult. Alas, the climax of the film resorts to swinging an axe as a protector from black magic; a physical defender against the metaphysical that only serves to somewhat diminish the otherworldly atmosphere that the rest of the film sought to achieve. Still, the epilogue to The Woods alludes to an enduring quality about the woods themselves that is older than the events of the film, and that will linger long after. It is rare that a modern manmade tool can protect you from the immortal lore of a place cursed by centuries of spilled blood.

But an axe will do in a pinch.
Nearly a decade before Robert Eggers’ New England Folktale The Witch received praise for the atmospheric horror of living in an environment plagued with devil worship and black magic, Lucky McKee’s The Woods achieved a similar tone set within a mid-century girls’ school. Just as Eggers’ film is most chilling when the sense of danger is ambiguous, perceived only as a mysterious presence in one’s surroundings, The Woods is more effective when the focus is placed on establishing this mood. By the time every scene is assaulted with buckets of viscera, The Woods stumbles into Evil Dead-esque territory – becoming ultimately more silly than scary, but worth the trip nevertheless. Just make sure you bring your crucifix as well as your compass when venturing into The Woods.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Three-and-a-half schoolgirl covens out of five

The Woods is available via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, Google Play, & DVD

What do you think of this witchy parable?
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