Posted on May 18, 2016

The Devil’s Woods (2015)

Dawn

Summary: Provocative blend of folk horror and slasher traditions

Synopsis: Four friends (Keith, Jen, Jay, and Katie) head from Dublin to a music festival in the country, with the intent of camping in the woods. On the way, they run afoul of some unfriendly locals in the wonderfully-named local pub, The Hatchet Inn, and then, once in the woods, they are inexplicably terrorized by strange figures in masks.

Here’s the trailer:

The main cast of Devil’s Woods is excellent—and I’d especially single out Stephen Cromwell (Keith), Danielle Keaney (Jen), and Daniel Mahoney (Jay). They all do a great job of playing rather shiftless and totally ill-equipped urban young people who drive into terrain they know nothing about, taking their problems (including some serious relationship issues) into landscapes (and situations) that dwarf their lives, and about which they are completely unknowing. When things take a turn for the terrifying, their fear and confusion is palpable and authentic.

1, Devils Woods, ruin

I like The Devil’s Woods—was compelled by its story, acting, and cinematography to keep watching. Indeed, what I loved about it, and what makes it pretty much unique, was the way in which it combined British folk horror from the early 1970s (eg., The Blood on Satan’s Claw [1971] and The Wicker Man [1973]) with the early American slasher tradition (eg., Texas Chain Saw Massacre [1974] and Friday the 13th [1980]). Kudos to director and writer Anthony White, then, for the way he so clearly positions Devil’s Woods in the horror tradition.

The creepy and beautifully-filmed ruined castle the four friends briefly explore evokes, in particular, the final scene in Blood on Satan’s Claw, a film that famously involves bloody sacrificial rites in the shadow of an eerily similar ruin. And in general, The Devil’s Woods hearkens back to the entire lineage of British folk horror—the encounter with an isolated community, immersion in an overwhelming natural landscape, pagan beliefs, sacrifice. The scene in The Hatchet Inn shows the four friends regarded by the locals with suspicion escalating to outright hostility for no apparent reason, just like moments in The Wicker Man and the more recent Eden Lake (2008). And then, near the end of the film, the same locals don animal masks (as in The Wicker Man and the lesser-known The Blood Lands [2014]) for what seems to be some kind of pagan ritual.

2. Devil's Woods, pub

Overlaid onto this British horror tradition is the American slasher—especially Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The intercut extreme close-ups of nature (trees, symbolically-laden shots of insects trapped in spider webs) and discordant music both explicitly evoke Texas Chain Saw, as does one scene in which Jen is briefly confined in and attempts to escape from an isolated house. White cleverly includes some creepy subjective point-of-view shots of the group from behind trees, as in Friday the 13th.

3. Devils Woods, tree

There are even more (less explicit) interwoven textual references in Devil’s Woods, picking up, again, on both American and British horror traditions. The film evokes The Blair Witch Project (1999) and some British hoodie horror (like Eden Lake), as well, at the end, as offering an interesting inversion, perhaps, of Eli Roth’s Hostel films (2005, 2007). Keith and Jay make repeated jokes about Deliverance (1972)—and maybe their contempt does explains some of the hostility on the part of the locals. By far the more interesting references, though, are more covert, conveyed through the camera not the dialogue.

4. Devils Woods, ruin2

So while Devil’s Wood’s self-conscious and persistent reference to the horror tradition is definitely one of its main strengths, while much of the visual narrative establishes this connection beautifully, and while the way it brings traditions together is innovative, the references to other horror films actually spotlight the greatest flaw in this film—its relative lack of depth. In short, the greatest strength of Devil’s Woods is also its greatest weakness.

The films that Devil’s Woods most insistently references—The Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have rich and substantial meanings. (Texas Chain Saw speaks volumes, for instance, about the shift to mechanized slaughter and the human costs of the masses of people put out of work.) But The Devil’s Woods too often pays only lip-service to its predecessors without saying anything meaningful itself. The dialogue among the characters is too often wasted on rather idiotic conversation—and the film has scant resonance, missing the opportunity to say something about Ireland, about the split between the rural part of the country and cities like Dublin, and about the lives of rural people. We barely get any sense of who these locals are—what they do, what they believe, why they act the way they do.

5. Devil's Woods, Keith and Jen

Keith tells a local legend at one point about the ruined castle—about nobles and the rape of village girls, tapping, I think, into the great Irish gothic story by Bram Stoker—Dracula (1897)—but this story is too isolated to the one moment and doesn’t resonate throughout the film, as it could and should have.

Despite its flaws, though, despite what it could have been, The Devil’s Woods is a film worth seeing: it was a compulsively watchable film; it was well-directed and filmed, extremely well-acted, and is in general a thought-provoking independent addition to the horror tradition.

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