REVIEW: Don't Go in the Woods — Unless You're Up for Something Cheap, Cheerful and Seemingly Unfinished
If horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that you can lead teenagers to a big red sign that reads “DON’T GO IN THE WOODS,” but you can’t make them not go in the woods anyway. Actor Vincent D’Onofrio nods to this and other slasher clichés in Don’t Go in the Woods, his feature directing debut -- that is, when he’s not nodding to clichés native to the musical and the old “star is born” storyline.
All that nodding gives a new definition to the term "genre-friendly," and if a film could get by on its cheap and cheerful vibe alone, this one certainly would. Unfortunately, outside of the proxy satisfaction it will give those who are dying to see the grim reaper let loose on the set of a very special episode of Glee, the pleasures of Don’t Go in the Woods can’t quite compensate for its straggly bits.
Casting five unknown musicians to play the band at the center of the film was logical enough: Slasher actors are not known for their Juilliard pedigrees, so prioritizing their musical skill makes sense. The story has the band decamping into the woods to try and write that elusive hit record without the usual distractions (D’Onofrio’s pointed removal of one of them, the cell phone, seems to channel the modern horror director’s frustration with those little plot spoilers). And the songs they do come up with are tuneful in a strangled yet twinkly, Fleet Foxes kind of way. Musician and director Sam Bisbee (who took home a 2010 Oscar for The New Tenant, a short film he worked on with D’Onofrio) wrote all of the music, and the boys’ performances are high points, in part because if they’re singing it means no one on-screen is attempting to act.
Well, no one but the psychotically focused group leader Nick (Matt Sbeglia). Nick has disproportionately big blue eyes and a hipster cloche of dark hair, and during his numbers he usually strays from the campfire to emote in private. Nick rides the rest of the guys -- played by Casey Smith, Soomin Lee, Nick Thorpe and Jorgen Jorgensen -- like they’re pack mules, and at least one reason why they might put up with it emerges. Their camping spot is the same one Nick used to visit with a now-deceased brother (actually, it was shot on D’Onofrio’s Woodstock, N.Y., property), though presumably the forest’s resident Sledgehammer Guy was not a problem back in those less gruesome times.
Did I mention Sledgehammer Guy? Oh, he’s around. He just makes noises that everyone shrugs off for a while, but when the band’s groupie crew shows up to join the party (and make Nick popping mad, naturally), Sledgehammer Guy gets cracking. The kill sequences are quick and not very scary -- more like pulling weeds than serial murder -- and though some of the ladies get to warble out a few evocatively shot bars before they’re beaned to death, most of the jam sessions are directed like stand-alone videos.
A story about the clash of creative and destructive drives set in the wilderness and starring a bunch of scruffy but ambitious kids has big themes and genre toys to play with. Though obviously aware of the potential and prepared to really go for it, D’Onofrio came up with something that feels unfinished -- an interesting harmony that needs a better bridge.