Sunday 24 March 2013

Dead Wood

Directors: David Bryant, Sebastian Smith, Richard Stiles
Writers: David Bryant, Sebastian Smith, Richard Stiles
Producers: David Bryant, Sebastian Smith, Richard Stiles
Cast: Rebecca Craven, Emily Juniper, Fergus March, John Samuel Worsey
Country: UK
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: cast and crew screening (London, July 2007)

Dead Wood is a tricky film to review. It’s a smashing movie, let me assure you of that, but if I give away too much I’ll spoil it for you. It’s not that there’s some Sixth Sense-style twist ending, it’s more that the way the film develops is not how one expects and that sense of keeping the audience on its toes - as well as the edge of its seats - is what makes the film so effective.

This is an entry in the DGITW genre or Don’t Go In The Woods. That includes the likes of The Blair Witch Project (which was shit), Camp Blood and its sequel (which were both shit) and Into the Woods (which is currently in the To Be Watched pile). I’m not counting Broken as a DGITW film because the protagonist doesn’t choose to go in the woods. The four protagonists of this film certainly do.

Webb (Fergus March, who wrote and starred in the 2007 version of Macbeth, the one with Anthony Head) and Larri (Emily Juniper) who I assumed was called ‘Lowri’ are a happy couple playing matchmakers for their friend Jess (Rebecca Craven, who has appeared in some idents on the Sci-Fi Channel) and Larri’s cousin Milk (John Samuel Worsey, Banquo in that same Macbeth). The four set off in Webb’s VW camper van to spend a weekend under canvas in the middle of the woods. On the way there, they accidentally run over a deer which Webb then has to put out of its suffering. Although this is never mentioned again, it subsequently becomes clear - at least to the audience - that this is the event which sets the story in motion.

Despite a run-in with some bees, the quartet find a secluded spot away from the road to pitch their tents. They also discover some burned-out cars which puzzle them because there’s no obvious way the vehicles could have got through the trees to their current location. That night, Milk and Larri share a joint before the couples retire to their respective tents. Webb and Larri get it on, much to the amusement of Jess and Milk who do in fact discover a mutual attraction.

The mystery really starts the next morning when the four friends awake to find a mysterious Asian girl named Ketsy (Nancy Kwok, who was in the ‘Alecto’ segment of LovecraCked! The Movie) cooking breakfast over their fire. She is somewhat bedraggled, says she is looking for her missing boyfriend and leads them to a lake where she can clean herself up. The others are slightly startled to find that (a) Ketsy simply strips naked and walks into the water and (b) there’s a huge lake near their camp, as they were looking for it yesterday and couldn’t find it.

I was expecting, from the advertising copy (‘4 friends. 1 stranger. No hope.’), a simple psycho-on-the-loose film but in fact Dead Wood turns out to be a supernatural horror movie. The four friends are all in deadly danger, Ketsy seems to know what is going on but isn’t telling - and I’ll say no more than that. I want you to enjoy this film the same way I did, not knowing what’s coming next.

Far from being a generic DGITW movie, Dead Wood turns out to be something original, unexpected and intriguing - and it’s pretty scary too. There is one - only one - CGI effect which is so impressive and, more to the point, so out of nowhere, that it really leaves one shocked. Rob Ellis is the CGI artist responsible; he has also worked on 28 Weeks Later and forthcoming British animated feature Agent Crush but, as he told me at the post-screening party, this is the first time he has been able to work on a film’s ‘money shot’.

Without overtly copying Ring or any of its successors, there is nevertheless a clearly identifiable J-horror influence in the character of Ketsy, although the actress herself is Chinese, I believe. Another comparison which struck me, albeit somewhat obliquely, was Blood on Satan’s Claw because of the ‘rural horror’ aspect and the use of folk songs on the soundtrack (although there is also some dance music near the start and during the joint-smoking sequence). Adam Langston (who orchestrated the music for Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience) wrote most of the score while Chris Bouchard (director of Human Residue) contributed some additional music near the start and end of the film.

The start is probably where the movie is weakest. We open on a guy running from an unseen (possibly invisible) pursuer. He eventually falls (or is dragged) into a gully just before reaching a tent which has been pitched so that the flap opens straight out onto the gully (huh?). Although this is revealed to be a story that a young woman (later identifiable as Jess) is reading to a little girl - an opening gambit used in everything from The Princess Bride to Troll - the implication later is that this prologue is actually what happened (or what might have happened) to Ketsy’s boyfriend. Jess turns out to be a babysitter and when she leaves we are treated to a montage of London nightlife: taxis and tube trains and nightclubs and suchlike which is entirely unnecessary.

The story starts the next morning when Milk approaches Jess on some steps outside a building, the location where both are being picked up by their friends. Everything that goes before is irrelevant and in particular the montage, which may include footage of Larri and Webb as well as Jess, possibly Milk too, tells us nothing. Because we have yet to be introduced to three characters - and all we know of the other is that she does baby-sitting - there’s no point in showing us their contrasting sub/urban lives.

There is an argument - commercial, not artistic - for keeping the running-through-the-woods prologue, simply because in the DTV/cable world where Dead Wood will end up after a few festival screenings, the viewers expect to be grabbed instantly and the buyers at Cannes and the AFM expect to be likewise pitched headfirst into things. Jess on the steps would be the artistically preferred point to start the movie but that would mean a long, slow build-up to the spooky horror.

Overall, Dead Wood is thoroughly satisfying. The characters are likeable, the acting naturalistic, the horror subtle at first then increasingly dreadful. Watching the cast and crew screening, digitally projected onto a cinema screen, it was impossible to judge the cinematography which, like the writing, editing, direction and production is shared three ways between David Bryant, Sebastian Smith and Richard Stiles. The three met at Newport Film School and although they have experience of short films, pop videos, documentaries etc, this is the feature debut for all three (David Bryant, incidentally, is the running guy in the prologue). Mike Peel (The Scar Crow, The Zombie Diaries) provided the special effects make-up.

Dead Wood actually started life a few years ago as a two-minute short which is available to view on the feature film’s website and which I recall seeing at the Festival of Fantastic Films. Apart from the woodland setting, a VW camper van and the triumvirate responsible, this has no connection with the feature. An unfinished version of the film was previewed at the Salento Fear Festival in Italy at the end of May 2007 and I saw this with the cast and crew two months later. It is possible the film may be tweaked further before it is shown publicly in its finished form.

Thoroughly enjoyable, decidedly spooky and heartily recommended, Dead Wood is a fine example of modern British indie horror.

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 2nd August 2007

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