I’m still waiting to learn whether a bear goes in the woods.
Don’t Go in the Woods is both a slasher film and a musical. Upon reading that, you’ve already decided whether you want to see this, haven’t you?
A bunch of guys in a band head into the woods for a weekend of camping, with the goal to write some new songs, free of outside distractions. Their girlfriends show up, and the serious songwriting turns into partying. All the while, a mysterious stranger has been following them, killing them off one by one.
Upon learning that this is a slasher musical, I assumed it would be a spoof, poking silly fun at both genres. Instead, the movie plays it mostly straight, with both songs and scares. That made me sit up and take notice, as it’s a more daring, more interesting thing to attempt. Unfortunately, the film does not meet its lofty ambitions.
As horror, there’s nothing here we haven’t already seen. There’s group of good-looking 20-somethings in a remote location, with a shadowy killer gradually picking them off. The characters are all one-note (heh), with few distinctions among them. We get a little bit of personal drama in their relationships, the comic relief guy loves his marijuana, and so on. The most interesting character is the blind guy, but, sadly, he only stands out because he’s blind. Once the carnage kicks in, the karo syrup flows freely, and there’s screaming and running through the forest, but, again, it’s nothing horror fans haven’t already seen dozens of times. It’s very likely that actor-turned-director Vincent D’Onofrio (Law and Order: Criminal Intent) has done this intentionally, playing up the various clichés so the audience is on the joke. Too bad that other recent movies, such as Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, have so creatively and successfully deconstructed the genre, that the meta layers of Don’t Go in the Woods feel a lot less meta.
How, then, does the movie work as a musical? Again, not as well as it could. The songs, composed by songwriter Sam Bisbee, who also gets executive producer and co-screenwriter credits, are all in the same alt-acoustic-rock style. Most of the songs are performed with the characters strumming their guitars around the campfire, or strumming their guitars while leaning back against a tree, or strumming their guitars while strolling down a forest path, etc. The musical numbers don’t really let us get to know the characters in a new light, and they don’t move the plot forward in any real ways. It’s one of those cases where the movie just stops all momentum so the filmmakers can squeeze in another song. One number, though, does stand out. When one of the girls feels spurned, she sings about how she feels while on her way back to the car. She’s walking forward, looking right into the camera as she sings. It’s at night, and the gloomy, shadowy forest makes up the background. It might sound simple, but the scene’s staging shows real creativity and the actress’s performance is intense and heartfelt. At that moment, we get a glimpse of the dark and powerful movie Don’t Go in the Woods could have been. But then, it’s back to stoner jokes and fake blood.
The quality of the standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is good, though there’s no hiding the film’s low-budget shot-on-video look. Audio fares much better, with the Dolby 5.1 Surround mix portraying the songs with clarity and nice balance across all the speakers. Extras are made up of cast interviews and an interview with D’Onofrio that’s “presented by” American Express.
Don’t Go in the Woods attempts to draw an parallel between horror and art, saying that great art is created when people are pushed to their absolute extremes—fear, in this case. The villain drives the characters to the brink, in the hopes that their terror will generate a masterpiece. This concept could be spun into a truly terrifying and unique horror film. How sad, then, that the filmmakers spend more of their time rehashing slasher clichés rather than treading their own path.