"Centuries ago, a peaceful woodsman realised that the beloved forest he called home was in grave danger. Desperate to protect his family, with nowhere else to turn, he negotiated a deal with the DEVIL. In exchange for the preservation of the woods, he offered his soul. The Devil agreed and the gates of Hell were opened".
This text, which I don't fully comprehend if I'm being completely honest, opens ROOTWOOD.
So, let's meet the film's present-day protagonists: student bloggers Jess (Elissa Dowling) and Will (Tyler Gallant), whose podcast "The Spooky Hour" bases itself around all things paranormal and urban legend-related.
When we first meet them, Will announces on air that they've been approached by successful horror film producer Laura (Felissa Rose) to help her make a documentary about a local myth. Jess is initially surprised by this information, but the offer sounds so promising that they're soon on their way driving to West Hollywood. Will decides to film as much as he possibly can, even including the drive up there.
They arrive later that day (Day 1, as the inter-titles tell us) at Laura's Hollywood set and, once they get past her unfriendly assistant Brenda (Tiffani West), they're introduced to their new benefactor. They're told they're going to make a documentary about a local legend they've never even heard of before: "the curse of The Wooden Devil". Laura elaborates, explaining how a forest ranger unwisely made a pact with Satan and subsequently went insane with the powers this arrangement bestowed upon him, murdering anyone who set foot in his beloved forest without prejudice.
Enlisting the help of hopelessly vain friend Erin (Sarah French), Will and Jess begin to plan their approach to their film. They decide a sceptical stance will be best. By Day 4, the three of them are packed up and ready to make their way towards Rootwood forest in a particularly ropy-looking camper van.
Four hours later, they arrive at their destination by day and begin to check their surroundings out. A little mundane airtime ensues: Will struggling to pitch a tent up, a conversation where Erin reveals to Jess that she's previously slept with Will etc. But then night falls and everyone's spooked out. Remember, everything is being filmed and we're occasionally getting this video diary-style.
The following day is a sunny one and so our intrepid trio venture out into the forest, in search of something spooky and, by default, fame. What they come across is a strange colourful memorial, with the names of people known to have gone missing in the area daubed on it in what appears to be blood. To make matters worse, Erin discovers a rope noose hidden inside a nearby tree; this ties in with a story Will tells them about how the Wooden Devil's first known victim was a little girl found hanging from a forest tree.
Foolishly, this threesome decides to stay on into the evening. Of course, things can only get worse once the sun goes down. Major spookiness and inter-group paranoia ensues, all under the dim light of a full moon. Could there be any truth behind the urban legend of the Wooden Devil after all?
From the get-go, director Marcel Walz's film is on a mission to scare you. I mean, it really wants to scare you - the first thing we hear is a woman's piercing screams, following by her stood alone in the dark, panicked. Then there's a jarringly abrupt edit where the film's title appears on the screen, complemented by loud music akin to a thousand nails being dragged across the length of a blackboard. During earlier expositional scenes, such as when Will is scouting the forest upon arrival, the score is incessantly eerie with its guttural bass piano strokes and FRIDAY THE 13TH-esque "cha cha cha" vibes.
Performances are generally good throughout, and the main three protagonists come across as likeable. They largely refrain from the constant bickering and negativity that made Heather and pals hard to warm to in the superficially similar THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Rather, there's some good chemistry going on here and a sense of camaraderie in the early scenes which helps Will, Jess and Erin become relatable - which definitely helps Walz mount a fair degree of tension later into proceedings. Even if Mario von Czapiewski's screenplay inflicts some painfully dumb decisions upon them.
Snappily paced and edited, ROOTWOOD is a likeable film even if it's never as spooky as it so desperately wants to be. Gore is very restrained, Walz favouring atmosphere and a mounting sense of unease over cheap shocks - a change of tact from the man who directed SEED 2 and the BLOOD FEAST remake. It's a better film for it.
I appreciated how, although Will and co film everything, this refrains from the large part from being a "found footage" flick. Rather, Walz's camera is more likely to peer over Will's shoulder as he captures events on his digicam. We do get the first-hand shaky footage at times, certainly, and this comes in various forms - on mobile phones, professional cameras provided by the shifty Laura and so on.
There are no less than three twist endings, one of which comes several seconds after the closing titles have begun (so keep watching).
We were sent an online screener link for review purposes. The widescreen presentation promises a sharp, bright picture with top-notch detail for the most part. Obviously the ratio and image quality varies whenever we're seeing the action through the characters' handheld camcorder or 'phones. English audio is clear at all times.
At 88 minutes and 16 seconds long, this is the uncut version of the film.
ROOTWOOD is available to buy on DVD or stream on demand (specifically, via Amazon or iTunes), courtesy of High Octane Pictures, from April 7th 2020.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by High Octane Pictures|