(director: Lucky McKee; screenwriter: David Ross; cinematographer: John R. Leonetti; editors: Dan Lebental/Joel Plotch ; music: John Frizzell/Jaye Barnes Luckett; cast: Agnes Bruckner (Heather Fasulo), Patricia Clarkson (Ms. Traverse), Rachel Nichols (Samantha Wise), Lauren Birkell (Marcy Turner), Emma Campbell (Alice Fasulo), Marcia Bennett (Ms. Mackinaw), Gordon Currie (The Sheriff), Jude Beny (School Nurse), Bruce Campbell (Joe Fasulo), Jane Gilchrist (Ms. Cross), Catherine Colvey (Ms. Leland), Kathleen Mackey (Ann Whales), Cary Lawrence (Ms. Charevoix), Colleen Williams (Ms. Arbor), Melissa Altro (Barb), Angela Bettis (Voice in the Woods), Linda Pine (Voiceover); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Bryan Furst/Sean Furst; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; 2006)

“Never justifies the witches’ tale it was spinning.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

After a few film festivals, a straight-to-DVD release for this standard issue girls school horror pic derivative of such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock and the stylish Suspira. This well-acted creepy horror/psychological thriller provides excellent craftsmanship, scary imagery and stunning photography, but director Lucky McKee (“May”) and writer David Ross though giving it a sinister fairy tale flavor and a penetrating look at womanhood’s threatened psyche (such as being victimized or bullied by their own sex) nevertheless can never manage to come up with a story that’s free of implausibilities, complete, or feels emotionally fulfilling. It ended up as satisfying as watching a beautiful woman stranger from a distance briefly pass by, but without stopping off for a chat or a chance to know her better she is too easily forgotten.

The anti-social teenager Heather Fasulo (Agnes Bruckner) after setting fires in her house is sent in 1965 to a secluded elite boarding school for girls in the woods of New England, Falburn Academy, by her inattentive parents, the overbearing callous mother Alice (Emma Campbell) and the henpecked meaning well father Joe (Bruce Campbell). After driving Heather up there and dumping her there without caring whether she wanted this or not, the parents fail to listen later to their daughter’s complaints of how the school is a horror story where she’s taunted by both students and teachers and finds the chilly headmistress, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), to be a witch (which later will turn out to be literally true). Soon Heather discovers in the lush surrounding woods voices calling out to her in which only she can hear and that there’s a mysterious force emanating from it. When two school girls, one suicidal and the other extremely timid (Kathleen Mackey & Lauren Birkell), turn up missing and the resident bully (Rachel Nichols) soon after hangs herself in the dining hall, the Fasulos drive up to remove Heather from the school but find it’s not so easy to leave the haunted school grounds as it was for their Heather to win a scholarship there.

The filmmaker smoothly mixes in Lesley Gore songs with the girls’ choir performances, and though I don’t quite know if that’s a hint at lesbianism or not; or, perhaps, some other symbolic proto-feminist meaning, it at least sounded good. But despite many good points the film never justifies the witches’ tale it was spinning, as the climactic scene ends in confusion and the viewer is given too little back story to mull over what the hell all the hokey Blair Witch-like special effects in the woods are supposed to mean. For all I could ascertain, maybe the filmmaker was doing another version of the Little Red Riding Hood story. Yet for those willing to take it on its own murky terms and can get off with just the foreplay of suspense and tension and are willing to forgo a climax to resolve things, then you got deeper into the “woods” than I ever did.

The Woods Poster