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Monday, April 24, 2023

Into ‘The Woods’ We Go – Why Lucky McKee’s Coming-of-Rage Movie Demands a Revisit 17 Years Later

Danger, not safety, comes with the act of conforming in The Woods. In Lucky McKee’s sophomore film, a troubled teenager is sent away because of her disruptive behavior. Asking questions, going against norms and not abiding by the rules, however, are ultimately what saves her from an early death.

This 2006 film is indeed set in 1965 New England, but the story’s central message is timeless. When first meeting the rebellious Heather Fasulo (Agnes Bruckner), the teen is en route to a remote boarding school for young women. Her parents are visibly split on the matter; the prim Mrs. Fasulo (Emma Campbell) thinks Falburn Academy will straighten out her daughter after a small incident of arson, whereas the reluctant Mr. Fasulo (Bruce Campbell) bites his tongue.

When first walking down the halls of Falburn Academy, only the audience seems to notice the overgrowth of vines everywhere. This old structure sits so close to the film’s namesake that the neighboring plants have made themselves at home. Over time, tendrils crept in through windows and cracks in the walls, and now they are as ubiquitous as the furniture and other décor. Their numbers gradually swell over the film’s course in an effort to manifest the story’s feeling of intrusion. The dangerous outside is coming in, and no one can do a thing to stop it.

The Woods

Image: United Artists/MGM

The outwardly things about Heather that set her apart from everyone else are stripped away once her parents drop her off at Falburn. Her coppery hair, glowing skin and vivid attire are all diminished or simply replaced; Heather’s complexion soon matches that of her pallid peers, her bob hairdo takes on a significantly less bright shade of red, and a dark and drab school uniform stamps out any residual feeling of individuality. In a film with such a verdant setting, the neutral color scheme is strange, yet the visual choice emphasizes a sense of sameness and hints at the teachers’ surreptitious activities.

Bruckner, who was not much older than Heather at the time of filming, delivers a stellar performance that makes her abrasive but misunderstood character sympathetic and compelling. And without explicitly saying why Heather acts out in so many words, The Woods uses indirect dialogue and substantial actions to convey the protagonist’s growing discontent. The dean, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), and the other menacing adults at Falburn are not nearly as developed as their newest pupil, yet no one can be reduced to a cliché. Others at the school, particularly Heather’s one and only ally Marcy (Lauren Birkell) and resident mean girl Samantha (Rachel Nichols), could easily be dismissed as character types, however McKee and screenwriter David Ross make them come across as real and considerable.

Standing out, especially in a time like the sixties, lands Heather in trouble all throughout the film. Not only did her results on a surprise entrance exam catch the attention of the dean — Heather arbitrarily circling symbols on this aptitude test was really a demonstration of her untapped magical gifts — her general sense of newness is an attractant for unwanted attention and torment. There is no rest for the new girl who, after being rejected by her parents, is pegged and targeted as an outsider. Heather’s arrival also serves as a kind of situational echo; the students whisper of three young girls who supposedly came to this same school long ago and turned out to be witches.

Comparisons between The Woods and Dario Argento’s Suspiria are unavoidable, given these two horror films’ parallel setups, slow-burning atmospheres and chaotic conclusions. Where they immediately differ is, of course, their appearance. Argento’s film is an assembly of intense hues, shades and neons, whereas McKee desaturates the near entirety of Heather’s ordeal. Nevertheless, color (or the lack thereof) plays a crucial role here, and the longer the story goes on, the more the colors go the way of leaves on a withering tree. Color only starts to return once Heather fights back against the system that hopes to control her.

the woods

Image: United Artists/MGM

The Woods is, overall, more grave in tone than McKee’s debut May, but moments like Samantha nicknaming Heather “fire-crotch,” or Heather telling her blonde bully to point her “torpedoes” south show signs of the director’s familiar wit. Otherwise, this story has an austere mood to match its environment. And with The Woods being centered on female characters and set in 1965, it should be no surprise that the film would become a metaphorical battle between tradition and progress. Heather is typically at odds with anyone who aims to oppress her, be it her estranged mother, her stern teachers, or the bullying Samantha. Heather’s refusal to sit still and be pretty frustrates those women around her, but in the end, it is her glaring disobedience that brings about necessary change in an antiquated and harsh institution.

The Woods wears a cloak of mystery at any given time, and its refusal to spell out everything will not satisfy everybody. Although, there are enough clues here and there that can be pieced together into a workable theory about the missing students and other goings-on. In addition, the unusually colorful flashbacks of Falburn’s haunted past help untangle the events seen in the frenzied finale. The ending, among other things, is one long, fantastic set piece with remarkable displays of sepia-soaked gore and tendril terror. This showy and grisly climax, which already smells a bit of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, only disappoints when Bruce Campbell’s repentant character pulls an ax from the woodshed rather than a chainsaw.

Beautiful and deliberately paced, this film stands out in Lucky McKee’s output so far; it blends formative fantasy with horror as well as acts like a gothic allegory in the vein of Carlos Enrique Taboada’s oeuvre. The Woods greatly warns of social conformity and the harms of not questioning authority, yet it also offers a distinct aesthetic, a cast of intriguing characters, and notable performances. And after going unnoticed for most of its life, this curious coming-of-rage tale is finally finding itself an audience. Particularly one that relates to the rebel who will no longer stay quiet in the face of oppression.

Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios.

The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.

the woods

Poster: United Artists/MGM

The post Into ‘The Woods’ We Go – Why Lucky McKee’s Coming-of-Rage Movie Demands a Revisit 17 Years Later appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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