We open to the distressing footage of a woman parking her car at the opening of a stretch of woods, and wandering into the forage ... only to be accosted by a would-be rapist in a hoodie. His attack is curtailed by an unseen assailant who pulls him off the screaming girl and stoves his head in good and proper.
Next, we meet Keith (Stephen Cromwell) who, having scored drugs from an old pal, is all set to attend a rural music festival with his girlfriend, Jennifer (Danielle Keaney). Hoping to reconnect with their fellow revellers, friends Jay (Daniel Mahony) and Katie (Caoimhe Cassidy), their intention - as Keith puts it - is to enjoy "three days of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll".
The girls aren't too pleased with the lads' intention of plying themselves with drugs all weekend; Katie isn't happy about the idea of camping either. In fact, she's not too chuffed about anything - it's apparent from the off that her relationship with Jay is under strain. The tension is hardly alleviated by the foursome hitting "something" during their drive to the back of beyond - resulting in blood spattered across Keith's windscreen.
Along the way, the usual tropes are taken in: a stop at a pub where all the locals stare ominously at the outsiders; a lack of mobile 'phone signal; stories of the woods they'll be setting up camp in being blighted by a history of murder and supposed hauntings.
Katie and Jennifer are a little miffed when the group finally reach their forest destination (an overnight stop-off prior to reaching their intended gig) and the boys reveal the surroundings' dubious legacy. As a comeback, they conspire to give the lads a scare by pretending to have been chased by something of unspeakably evil origins.
Unbeknownst to them, however, a serial killer is also loitering in the area, having already picked off six women in recent months. But that's not all (no spoilers!). Relationships fray in the meantime, revelations bring tempers to the fore and for a while it seems the biggest threat this quartet face is each other. But, no...
With a strong hint of the occult implied from the start - check out the pagan mask witnessed in the boot of the first victim's car - THE DEVIL'S WOODS knows its audience and, despite feeling clichéd at times, does a good job of keeping us on our toes. There's a balance of creepy Gothic-tinged folk horror (including reference to the Hellfire Club) and traditional slasher fare, all of which is handled with an unexpected amount of deftness.
The central players are all good. Some of the peripheral players let the side down, granted, but never enough to undermine the agreeable atmosphere mustered by writer-director Anthony White.
I didn't expect much from this Irish production. The trailer, which I watched prior to the film in order to get a feel for what I was going into, suggests that we're in for a cheap knock-off of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE with a hint of KILL LIST thrown in for good measure. On the contrary, this 70-minute effort succeeds in using its locations well and builds upon its characters in an assured, unrushed fashion which greatly benefits the payoff. The digital HD photography sometimes struggles to convince as cinema, granted, but White does a good job of utilising imaginative angles and day-for-night set-ups to his advantage.
The soundtrack, a combined effort between Paul Scott and Stillroom, is very good too: ambient, discordant, sinister.
No rules are being broken and no new ground is being covered. But THE DEVIL'S WOODS is far better than I expected it to be. Apparently made for less than £1,000, this suggests that debut feature director White could go on to great things.
THE DEVIL'S WOODS comes to UK DVD courtesy of our friends at Left Films. It's presented uncut and in its original 2.35:1 ratio. The picture is sharp, colourful and 16x9 enhanced. The clean digital photography handles darker scenes well, while day scenes are unsurprisingly pristine.
English 2.0 audio is a solid, clear and consistent proposition throughout.
This region 2 disc opens to a static main menu page. From there, an animated scene selection menu allows access to the film via 8 chapters.
Extras begin with an audio commentary from White. He's a likeable chap and, thankfully, manages to keep things ticking over nicely without the aid of a moderator. He's quick to point out locations used and clue us in on the sequence of shooting (for instance, the opening scene was one of the last things he shot). White's honest enough to highlight elements of the film that didn't turn out the way he'd planned - moments where the lighting isn't too great, action sequences that don't quite work etc - and is kind enough to point out his own cameos (the first occurs about 20 minutes into the film; the second much later in). White knows his horror, and isn't shy when it comes to pointing out moments of homage: A BAY OF BLOOD, IRREVERSIBLE and THE WICKER MAN are among the films cited, along with Nicholas Winding Refn's excellent non-horror opus DRIVE.
We also get the film's original "theatrical" trailer. At 65 seconds in length, this doesn't offer a great deal - and, as mentioned earlier in this review, it fails to sell the film as anything other than a derivative load of drivel.
The disc is defaulted to open with trailers for SCREAM PARK, CONSUMPTION and JONAH LIVES. These are also featured in a trailer reel stored in the disc's extras menu, along with previews for CLASSROOM 6, INVOKED and BIND.
If you happen upon the trailer for this film, don't pay it any heed. If you read the synopsis and think it sounds shit, disregard that. THE DEVIL'S WOODS - ignoring its generic title and anonymous cover which appears to be hoping to hop on the back of THE WITCH's popularity - is actually well worth a look.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Left Films|
|see main review|