The Woods(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 10.3.2006)
Lucky McKee's The Woods is probably best known for forcing M. Night Shyamalan to change the title of his 2004 film from The Woods to The Village but, upon viewing both, it becomes clear that the two movies share more than a title. Each are period pieces about cloistered communities in which redheaded spitfires clash with elders who warn their charges about the surrounding forest. The good news is that McKee and screenwriter David Ross don't undercut their film with a ludicrous twist ending like Shyamalan and that their film is better than its direct-to-DVD status would suggest. The bad news is that, following his creepy and offbeat debut with 2002's revelatory May, McKee seems to have gone too far in the other direction, creating an overly plaintive and dour period piece that's lacking in scares, gore, and narrative focus.
In 1965 New England, after nearly burning down her family's house, a teenage girl (Agnes Bruckner) is taken by her insouciant mother and reluctant father (Bruce Campbell) to an insular all-girls boarding school run by a chilly headmistress (Patricia Clarkson). Once there, she runs afoul of a group of mean girls and learns the tale of three sisters who mysteriously emerged from the woods, were embraced by the school, but then exiled as witches and called to the woods for vengeance. Soon, girls begin disappearing and Heather must unlock the mysteries of the school, the woods, and the sisters.
The film's greatest virtue is its soundtrack, which includes Lesley Gore `60s pop standards like "Young and Foolish" and "You Don't Own Me," which set a nice period vibe and serve as subtext to the characters' actions. There's also May composer Jaye Barnes Luckett's choral track that's first sung by the student choir and later persistently repeated to more wicked effect. That said, both John R. Leonettis' cinematography and Ross' screenplay are a bit too murky, never drumming up enough interest in any of the characters' fates or the plot's thorny resolution. Also, the film's main special effects consist of victims being entangled by garish CGI tree branches that compare poorly to Sam Raimi's low tech work in The Evil Dead.
Of course, The Evil Dead introduced the world to B-movie god Bruce Campbell's patented overacting, but while he's listed third on the cover, he's only briefly in the film at the beginning and end. Furthermore, he gives perhaps the most dialed-down performance of his career. Meanwhile, the usually reliable Clarkson is unusually listless and Bruckner -- who gave such a nuanced performance in Blue Car -- fails to imbue her character with much texture. The actors almost seem bored with the material, a reaction most audiences will likely share.
The film is presented in a decent 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. However, the disc is pretty much bare bones with the only "special" features consisting of some previews for other Sony releases. -- Colin Miller