Forest Frights! by Kristin Battestella
Here’s a round up of wooded perils and forest fears – as if the ticks weren’t bad enough!
Bird Box – Foreboding radio reports, risky rapids, blindfolds, and children not allowed to talk belie the lovely rivers and still forests of this 2018 Netflix thriller directed by Susanne Bie (The Night Manager) starring Sandra Bullock (Practical Magic), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), John Malkovich (Shadow of the Vampire), and B.D. Wong (Awake).
Nothingness point of views from behind the blindfold accent the backpacks, lead lines, titular pets, riverside boats, and rowing toward the dangers unknown. If you look you will die, and mom means business as fog and water perils add to the lack of sight unease. Five years before, our mom-to-be is arguing with her sister and painting art full of disconnected, lonely people.
These women have realistic conversations with layered dialogue and familial quips, but the relatable doubts about motherhood and everyday big decisions degrade into mass crowds, suicide reports, sudden hysteria, and panic as something seen by some but not others results in slow motion car accidents, road rage, and shocking deaths. Unlikely strangers fearing demons or religious judgment and arming themselves are thrust together amid busy signals, screaming cell phone calls, no media, and no military help. Is this some new biological warfare making people see something that kills themselves?
Birds sense the danger and a faint growling, but cameras are to no avail and our family on the river will only remove their blindfolds when huddled under blankets as the story goes back and forth between their journey with static on the radio and our previously housebound survivors concerned with rationing and the pregnant women among them. It’s tough to think about baby names when electricity, supplies, and shotgun shells won’t last. No one was prepared for the apocalypse to happen that day. Do they let others inside their abode or listen to voices on the riverbank saying it is okay to take off the blindfolds? Desperate runs to the nearby supermarket for essentials such as canned goods, toilet paper, diapers, booze, and electronics use GPS only, with windows blacked out, tape over the cameras, and proximity sensors to warn when something comes near.
The slow burn suspense allows time for these disparate strangers to forge late friendships amid fears they are all going to die and debates about living versus surviving in these topsy-turvy circumstances. Some briefly consider staying in the supermarket – leaving others behind while they maintain all they need despite the escalating violence outside. Whiskey talking admits how bleak the situation is while others hope things may get better.
However, five years later our mother is still rowing toward the unknown possibility of safety as the family dangers on the boat increase. Of course, a few people do some foolish things, and there may have been other options than taking the most dangerous course of action. The supposedly helpful birds are useful or forgotten as needed alongside somewhat obvious metaphors about the people being who’s actually box-bound and resorting to new, heightened senses. Understandably, the tension escalates when outside influences are let in – one by one people are lost as suspicious newcomers knock and hopeful possibilities end with appropriately blunt gunfire and shootouts. Training to survive without sight becomes paramount while terror in the home, outdoor separations, and family sacrifices test the temptation to look.
Thanks to the courage and drama here with frights real and fantastic, there’s no need for any spoon fed twist, toppers, scary movie cliches, or bombastic horror in your face. The multi-layered studies and suspense are well-interwoven, progressing naturally as the isolated settings allow the performances and storytelling to carry the must see intensity.
It Comes at Night – Gas masks, bodies in the wheel barrow, and backyard executions open this 2017 thriller as rough and bearded Joel Edgerton (Loving) does what he has to do for his wife and son. It’s excellent to see an interracial family front and center – horror needs to stop being blonde babes all the time – but we know things won’t bode well for the family dog! The lone lantern light and shadows traveling through the expansive but boarded up log cabin add a certain sadness to match the sans electricity, long dark hallways, plastic sheeting, and one red door to enter or exit.
Pictures of good times line the walls – the days before this unexplained plague necessitated rifles, the defending of one’s castle, and shoot first ask questions later mentalities. What do you do when another family of three is in need of food and shelter? Flashlights, outdoor sweeps, and night time blues aide the tense family protection amid gory dream scares, body horror, and tied up intruders. Interrogations provide talk of precious water, sickness in the city, going off the grid, and trading for supplies. Men can understand these desperate measures when seeing to their families, but can they trust each other? A family conference votes to welcome the new trio in their secure homestead, yet the skeptical, suspicious, on guard feelings remain thanks to the desolate roads, car crashes, and gunshots outside.
There are rules to the home, too: they eat together, always travel in pairs, and never go out at night.The families bond over chores and even laugh when reminiscing about desserts or liquor, but barking, noises in the woods, and sleepwalking encounters keep everyone on edge. Testy accusations lead to separations and putting others at risk to save one’s own family. No one here is a bad person, but such extreme situations make good people do terrible things.
This claustrophobic parable remains tense and doesn’t overstay its welcome – but it didn’t need the extra horrors or double dream fake outs as the social examination scares and siege stress are enough. Although the unexplained elements continue the debate after the picture ends, it also seems like important staples go unclarified. Were they sick all along? Is there something supernatural at work or not? Some audiences may find the lack of answers a waste, but the subdued chills and bleak statements remain intriguing.
The Passion of Darkly Noon – The titular Brendan Fraser stumbles injured upon the unwittingly tempting Ashley Judd and her mute but charming boyfriend Viggo Mortensen in a surreal wood for this 1995 psychological thriller. While the DVD has low volume and an odd aspect ratio, there’s a golden glow and crisp country white to match the pretty outdoors and should be quaint cottage. Minimal music parallels the natural cricket sounds and rainstorms – but the idyllic springs and hidden grotto are no match for ostracized Judd’s tight tops, tiny dresses, and sweaty mellow.
“Extremist Ma and Pa picked my name from the Bible,” Fraser stutters over past cult persecutions. We don’t see the trauma he recounts but immediately sense the disturbed attraction and late blooming Oedipal complex as “Lee” remains buttoned up in the heat and standoffish, not hearing the notion to leave strict religious groveling for not necessarily sinful ideals.
There’s much to explore, a fresh start on a new homestead, but he’s too distracted by the nineties Skinamax. The naughty atmosphere rises with obsession turning into mea culpa harm, but Viggo (“He is Vigo! You are like the buzzing of flies to him!”) does well with no dialogue as the tensions mount. Backwoods colloquialisms add to the kooky yet friendly characters, but what’s with the literally flaming, giant, glittering shoe floating down the river? A Circus, elephants, apples, religious stewing – viewers must be in the right mood to digest this slow burn symbolism.
Hear tell of who’s crazy; a witch, or the monster of the woods adds to the secrets and rival testimonies. Is it an evil bewitchment when your husband has a heart attack over a tempting woman appearing in the forest? Fear mongering, curses for one’s sins, justice, punishment – where’s the happy medium beyond the escalating blood, barbed wire, and bizarre visions?
The brooding drama becomes increasingly unreliable as this purgatory cycle repeats, for each fanatical person entering this Eden-like grove ruins it a little more. A savage siege leads to red warpaint, hellish flames, and howling in a fine performance from Fraser, who is perhaps more known for his comedies rather than dramas. While this could have been totally horror or straight steamy, some serious, tender, or scary scenes are dated, laughable, and bemusingly infantile. Fortunately, this character study on passion as both sex and sacrifice is an interesting in limbo morality play with saucy fun and tempting extremes perfect for a late night trippy.
Pyewacket – Playing the daughter, Nicole Munoz (Defiance) invokes the eponymous evil to kill mom, Laurie Holden (The Walking Dead) in this 2017 Canadian parable featuring creaking forests, goth rebels, and can’t take it back terrors. Our widowed mother is doing her best to keep it together and wants a fresh start, but moving is the worst thing for a teen with awkward crushes and an inseparable BFF.
Relatable conversations on support versus instability, transferring schools, driving, and bad influences endear both ladies to the audience – even her friends insist parents are just as screwed up as teenagers. Music is in the background rather than overwhelming viewers, a realistic rather than Hollywood choice. As the camera follows this goth gang through the school hallways. We’re the fifth member of the group and caught in the middle from the backseat as the vengeful spell casting looms.
Pizza, a relatively small cabin, mom needing a weekend job, and say hey, a Latina lead, yes please – it’s as if writer and director Adam MacDonald (Backcountry) had a list of horror cliches and insists on how not to incorporate them. Although it’s not expressly said to be Halloween, fallen leaves, pumpkins, cawing crows, sage, chants, binding rituals, and blood bowls and owl motifs accent the occult primer. Despite the careful preparation and craft materials, there’s an underlying sense of a not listening teen doing something she shouldn’t – especially when mom apologizes and the gals bond over memories of the deceased. Her friends think this is all just acting out for attention, but soon enough indeed our daughter regrets the ritual. Unfortunately, a locked door can’t keep out Pyewacket. Ominous knocks and creepy attic access escalate to vehicular frights, and innocuous shots – shadows about the house, rustling in the woods – become suspect while we wait for the subtly disturbing entity.
Overhead slow spins and gradual zooms build unease as friends disappear before the camera shakes with unreliable delirium thanks to unfinished rituals, unexplained appearances, and darkness. Is this evil trickery mounting or is a scared teen roaming in the disorienting woods? Are forgiveness and reverse spells enough to put everything right when this festering horror was summoned in spite of, “be careful what you wish for,” warnings? Visions of the dead, distorted vocal inflections, rattling doorknobs, and pleas to be let in provide terror as this freaky manifestation is revealed. Some may not like the quick finale, but knives, gasoline, fiery mistakes, and a bitter comeuppance create a creepy atmosphere that does what it is says on the tin. Those skinny pants, however, are not going to look good in a few years.