“A group of college friends reunite for a trip to the forest, but encounter a menacing presence in the woods that’s stalking them.” — IMDb
I won’t lie, I went into this one with low expectations. Can you blame me? That familiar synopsis above could be used to describe SO many lackluster thrillers. And while this certainly didn’t blow me away, I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. Though it proved that director David Bruckner (V/H/S, The Signal) is definitely too smart for such a cliché storyline.
** SPOILERS! **
I think the minds behind this movie made one of the most common mistakes for films of this type: they chose a format that would require us to really engage and relate to the characters, but didn’t spend much time offering us reasons to do so. We get to know some of Luke’s (Rafe Spall) pain when we see him watch in frozen horror as one of their friend group, Robert (Paul Reid), is bludgeoned to death by robbers at the beginning of the movie. We actually see quite a bit of him re-living that grief and intense guilt. But as for the rest of the guys, they’re basically blank slates. We know they are also connected to that grief, and that at least one of them feels anger and blame towards Luke, but that’s about it. So I definitely wish we had a deeper connection — when I see people get dragged off into the woods, I want to FEEL something about it, ya know?
That being said, the visual representations of Luke being swallowed by his guilt were pretty awesome, and one of the reasons I think Bruckner is going to wow me someday soon. The mugging scene itself was pretty brutal — you keep thinking Luke is going to jump in any moment, but… nope. Frozen in fear and self-preservation. But his first “nightmare” recounting the event — it’s never really clear if these are truly nightmares conjured or implanted by the creature stalking them or what is going on exactly — when the lightning sort of freezes and he steps outside of the cabin to find himself back inside the liquor store… oof. Or another nightmare when his dead friend warns “you can’t run”. Or when he’s finally running from the creature and the woods almost merge with the liquor store — a row of fluorescent lights hang between the trees, and scattered shelves of alcohol stand, lonely and out of place. I liked the added complexity of him alternating between running from this pain, from this regret, and fighting, eventually standing up against it with passion in the form of him screaming back at the creature before he escapes.
There was a natural amount of comic relief that didn’t feel cheesy, which I appreciated. Things like one of the guys muttering “fuck every hill in the world” as they sweat their way up an incline, or Hutch (Robert James-Collier) pouring one out for their deceased friend and awkwardly waiting for the liquid to stop flowing, or another guy sarcastically referring to their group as “four twats in a forest”. It just felt like natural rapport.
There are LOTS of cliche bits throughout, unsurprisingly. The whole concept of “four old college buddies who are ultimately growing apart in many ways but determined to stay pals so they go on a trip to build their character” is a cliche in itself. The slow, brooding shots of dark, empty woods. The music and sound effects (I had the closed captioning on and at one point it literally described the sounds as “rattled breathing” and I was like, YEP). The group doing things like taking a shortcut through the thick forest because of one of them injured himself, or staying the night in a creepy abandoned cabin.
But the idea of being not only lost but stalked in the woods is ALWAYS going to creep me out, so I think I tend to forgive some of that repetition. Just a simple shot of someone shining a flashlight into the pitch darkness of night is enough to give me chills.
We only see hints of the creature — again, per usual — until a bit later on. For me, the reveal wasn’t particularly impressive, though it wasn’t bad either (aside from the shot of it silhouetted by the raging house fire — that was awesome). It looked kind of like an oversized elk with a razorback, except its whole head area was… oddly human (except not just a human head but like it had a whole human body or two freakishly intertwined). I think the explanation for what it was impressed me more. They come across a small group of cultists who worship the creature, and one of them explains:
A god. Ancient. One of the Jötunn. A bastard offspring of Loki. We do not say its name. We worship it. It keeps us here. Let us live beyond natural life. No more pain. No more death. Your ritual begins tonight. It is a privilege to worship. You will kneel before the god. If not, it will hang you from the trees.
The ending felt… okay. I can’t really explain why it wasn’t totally satisfying. But it made more sense than any other ending, really, considering Luke was the only character they really fleshed out to any degree, so naturally he’d be the one to fight for his escape.
Overall I enjoyed it more than I expected to — some decent acting and well-done cinematography boosted it up beyond what it might have been — but I’ll still be keeping my eye on Bruckner for some more daring projects down the line!
Rating: 6.5/10 | Director: David Bruckner | Writer: Joe Barton (screenplay), Adam Nevill (novel) | Music: Ben Lovett | Cinematography: Andrew Shulkind | Starring: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Maria Erwolter