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October 17, 2006

The Woods


Lucky McKee - 2006
Sony Pictures Entertainment Region 1 DVD

One would hope that Lucky McKee would get luckier in the theatrical release of his films. May, his contemporary take on Frankenstein, has had more life on cable and DVD following a brief appearance in theaters. More people probably saw McKee's entry in the "Master of Horror" series, Sick Girl, something of a lesbian feminist take on The Fly. Even though McKee did not write The Woods, the film remains thematically consistent with his earlier work. That this film did not play at a theater near anyone has more to do with the studio politics of Sony's releasing films from MGM and United Artists, than with the quality of The Woods, a film far better than Sony's own horror entries.

The story has debts to other films, primarily Suspiria with its setting of a girls school run by witches, and Carrie with the girl who discovers she has psychic powers that she cannot quite control. There is no outstanding reason why the film takes place in 1965 except that it allows for the use of three songs performed by Lesley Gore, including the proto-feminist "You Don't Own Me". According to the legend told in the film, the school is located next to a wooded area that was cursed by witches, and students are sacrificied to the woods. New student Heather (Agnes Bruckner) unknowingly has the power to stop the curse.

Look past the story, and McKee reveals himself to be one of the more interesting visual stylists working in film today. Lots of extremely tilted camera angles, such as the shot above, and a use of space to accentuate Heather's sense of isolation demonstrate the kind of creativity seemingly forgotten by filmmakers with more substantial budgets. The color palette is a muted collection of browns, blacks and grays. McKee even has killer trees that are actually kind of scary, with long sinewy branches that look like veins. The violence is more graphic than in a Val Lewton produced film but like thematic concerns of McKee could be seen as new variations on such films as The Seventh Victim and even Curse of the Cat People with its blending of dreams and reality.

This talk of Lewton is not coincidental. Will McKee need to make a film with a big budget to get the kind of critical attention he deserves? At this point the cult interest developed from McKee's films is genre based. That in itself is not a problem, but most so much writing about film is blind to visual style. In the way that one sees a film that was given little regard when it came out, like Joseph Lewis' Gun Crazy, or Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly twenty or so years later and wonder why no one noticed what these dynamic filmmakers were doing, so I have to wonder if it will take years for the artistry of Lucky McKee to be more noticed. Manny Farber's Termite Artist is alive and well, and those who notice should consider themselves lucky.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 17, 2006 02:30 PM