The year is 1965 and Heather (Agnes Bruckner) is on a car journey to a destination she would rather not be heading towards. She had become antisocial in adolescence and began to light fires, so her pushy mother (Emma Campbell) decided there was only one last resort and that would be to send her to a private school for improvement. Her henpencked father (Bruce Campbell) acquiesces, but on arrival at the isolated establishment, surrounded as it is by a thick forest, even he looks as if he is having reservations though says nothing. The head of the school is Ms Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), but what if her motives are more sinister than they appear?
Poor old The Woods didn't have much luck in its release, managing a few festival dates, sitting on the shelf thanks to distributor issues and then stuck out on DVD with little to no fanfare. This was unfortunate not only because it was the follow up to a cult hit from director Lucky McKee - May - but because it deserved a better fate than it received. Yes, it was derivative of girls school horrors from Picnic at Hanging Rock to Suspiria, but David Ross's script tapped into a more menacing fairy tale quality with echoes of Little Red Riding Hood in its accoutrements, brought out by McKee's careful direction.
Like May, the film took its time in revealing precisely what was going on, and even then it slightly fudged the issue in a welter of special effects during the finale, but its strength was indicated by the fact that most of the cast were female, and not simply for running around chased by the monster reasons either. The Woods took in the contradictory aspects of womanhood, from bullying and victimisation of fellow females to bonding and sisterly unions, often in the space of a single character. And let us not forget feminine rivalry, as Heather finds herself pitted against those who may or may not have her best interests at heart.
Heather's mother is a good example of this: Heather admits she wants her dead so she can live with her father back home and see her friends again, yet the relationship between her and the headmistress is a similar one. However, Ms Traverse has a hidden agenda, and the way that the girl is exhibiting weird talents like prophetic dreams and an ability to balance any object, from pencils on their point to parts of a broken radio, hints at why she is so precious to her new guardian - and why she won't be allowed to leave, not even when she gets into fights with the resident bully Samantha (Rachel Nichols).
The presence of Lesley Gore liberally applied to the soundtrack might make one suspect a lesbian angle, but as with other potential clichés that loom in the script, these are subverted in unusual ways. There are tales told amongst the girls of a coven of witches who emerged from the forest and ended up axing a previous headmistress to death, and one girl's suicide attempt prompts all sorts of rumours. John R. Leonetti's moody photography perfectly complements the enigmas of the plotting, and it's nice that genre favourite Bruce Campbell once more gets to fight with scary trees after his Evil Dead debacles, but it's the antagonism between Heather and Ms Traverse that fuels the tension, expertly brought to life by Bruckner and Clarkson: when they are on screen, you can forgive the implausibilities and enjoy a neat variation on well-worn themes. The Woods breathes new life into them. Music by John Frizzell and Jaye Barnes Luckett.