DVD Review: A Night in the Woods (2011)
Review by Tristan Bishop
The Blair Witch Project. There, I said it. Back in 1999 a micro-budgeted film was catapulted into the mainstream, riding on a brilliant publicity campaign making use of the internet, then still quite the novelty in some circles, to fuel its ‘is it, isn’t it?’ appeal. Although taking some cues from Ruggero Deodato’s Italian gut-munching classic Cannibal Holocaust (1980) in its use of supposedly ‘found footage’, Blair Witch felt new, more raw, more real than what we were used to seeing in the cinemas – here was something that could well be a document of the tragic circumstances befalling a bunch of friends who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time – the power of it came from how little it looked and felt like the Hollywood teen horror films that were being churned out at the time. Blair Witch is a long way from I Know What You Did Last Summer.
The massive mainstream success of the film (especially in relation to its miniscule budget) has inspired many imitators – from the occasionally-effective Paranormal Activity films, to the bafflingly popular Cloverfield, to the actually pretty awesome Trollhunter, yet also a slew of others which have purported to be the real footage left behind at the scene of whatever gruesome event is being portrayed. The reasons for its popularity are twofold – firstly Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity were massive hits, and massive hits tend to get copied lots. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, your basic found footage film is very cheap to make – you generally have a small cast, there is often a lot of improvisation at work, and your special effects budget can be lowered as you won’t often get a clear shot of your effect or creature. Also, you are probably shooting on handheld cameras, which brings the cost down enormously.
Unfortunately, when you’ve seen a few films shot this way the impact lessens – we’re now 13 years on from The Blair Witch (now I feel old!) and we’ve seen serial killers, giant monsters, devil worshippers, aliens and ghosts treated in this way, and even, in the case of Apollo 18, a found footage film set on the Moon!
The law of diminishing returns aside, have you tried to watch Blair Witch a second time? A couple of years ago I did. I’ll admit to be terrified of the film on my first viewing – I saw it in the cinema and managed to let myself go completely and it did its job well – I hardly slept that night! But watching it at home with someone who hadn’t seen it was, well, boring – there was no surprise or tension, the script is hardly dynamite, and the rough visuals, whilst necessary for attaining the original shock effect, are not exactly eye candy, so it was with great trepidation that I viewed A Night In The Woods – a film which is being touted as The British Blair Witch.
The scenario (I won’t use the word ‘plot’ here as I don’t think it deserves to be deemed as such) is as thus – a couple, Brody (an American, played by Scoot McNairy) and Kerry (English, although played by Aussie actress Anna Skellern) go for a camping expedition to Dartmoor, taking along Kerry’s cousin Leo, who Brody seems to have taken an instant dislike to. Brody (luckily for the director) seems to have an irritating obsession with filming EVERYTHING with his camera – which is remarkably good at cutting out background noise – and so we watch as Brody’s jealousies take over – but is he in some way justified? Is Leo what he claims to be? And is there something else lurking in the woods?
If this seems to be a short synopsis, that’s because there really isn’t much to say about this film – the first 45 minutes have no spooky activity whatsoever, just the characters talking and Brody getting increasingly suspicious of Leo. This in itself is excusable – I am quite tolerant of slow films, as I think building atmosphere and character is far more effective than false scares or layering on the gore from the word go (although that can be acceptable too!) The problem here is, when the spooky stuff starts happening, the character building stops – in contrast to the first half, the second is pretty much people with flashlights running around screaming in black and white (night vision setting on the camera!) – so we feel like we’ve been built up to something which never pays off. Earlier in the film we are given various hints as to what COULD be lurking in the woods. Could it be escaped mental patients? Pixies? Satan worshippers? Some kind of woodland hunter spirit? And what does it turn out to be? Um… dunno. Any clues? Nope. It certainly doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the rest of the film or offer any kind of satisfactory conclusion, and this reviewer, for one, felt rather cheated and annoyed at wasting time he could have spent sleeping. Like Blair Witch, nothing is actually shown (apart from a throat injury to one of the characters, which isn’t explained either). There is one effective sequence where we aren’t quite sure who is filming Kerry in night vision (and it is too dark for her to discern also), but this is soon over, and we are back to black & white footage of people running about screaming in the distance.
It’s a real shame the film is so poor, as Anna Skellern is actually a very promising actor, and I have previously enjoyed her work in Sirens and The Descent Part 2, and what acting is on display here is certainly realistic and believable, but A Night In The Woods is one of the dullest and least effective films I have ever seen, and that’s quite a claim, given the amount of bad films I watch.
A Night in the Woods opens at selected UK cinemas on 7th September and will be available on DVD and download on 10th September, from Vertigo Films.