Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Night In The Woods (2011)

And now, the news: three people have disappeared on a camping trip in Dartmoor, and the film we're talking about does of course consist of the video material they left behind.

Said three campers are Kerry (Anna Skellern), her American boyfriend Brody (Scoot McNairy) who loves his cameras and won't ever stop filming in what will become an actual plot point, and her cousin Leo (Andrew Hawley) whom she hasn't seen in more than two years. The trio is the perfect example of a group of people that should really not spend their time alone on the moors or in the woods, at least not without a bunch of therapists nearby. Kerry still has to cope with the death of her father - or rather the childhood abuse her father's death reminds her of. Brody's camera obsession is quite explicitly far from healthy, with voyeurism and an obsession with control that more than just suggest mental illness being the more benevolent interpretations of his behaviour. And Leo and Kerry seem to be cousins who are very, very close for people who haven't seen each other in ages; one might just think they are sharing a secret.

Needless to say, this is not going to be the most fun camping trip imaginable for anyone on screen, and that's before we come to the folklore surrounding the area the unhappy campers are in. A black huntsman is supposed to hang "sinners" (whatever that may be) from bleeding trees there. It will come as no surprise to anyone than the characters that things won't go well for them. There will be breakdowns, and death, and just possibly a malevolent supernatural force.

Even though Richard Parry's A Night In The Woods keeps quite closely to the form of the POV movie as set down by Blair Witch Project (right to the mostly improvised nature of the dialogue) when my hair had less grey in it, it recommends itself by doing some important and rather interesting things differently.

Mostly, the difference is one of emphasis - where Blair Witch took great care with its characters but did this to make their fear when confronted with the unknown more real, Night is interested in the characters for their own sakes, leaving the supernatural horror part of the equation not exactly an afterthought, but an element that intensifies the characters' troubles instead of the other way round. In fact, it's not clear if there is any supernatural agency working here at all, and the whole affair not just a very normal case of several people losing it with horrible consequences.

In general, I'm not a big admirer of films that don't want to make up their minds if the supernatural in them is real or not, but in Night's case, I actually don't mind, for the exact nature of what is doing what to whom here just isn't important to the film. This one really is all about paranoia, the moments when you realize you don't know the people close to you or yourself as well as you think you do, bad life experiences that lead to even worse decisions later on, the consequences of trauma, and why you really shouldn't go camping with the wrong people in Dartmoor.

For some viewers, the film's highly improvised dialogue and acting will probably be a big turn-off. I think the actors do this rather well, showing some subtleties and complexities of their characters this way that couldn't have been shown in a film going for a more mainstream type of storytelling. It also makes for an interesting contrast with how bad a lot of POV films are at actually drawing interesting characters. Despite the closeness to their protagonists the immediacy of the style suggests, many films of the sub-genre just want warm bodies to screech, cry into the camera and stumble through the dark, giving them as little depth or actual character as the slasher genre did at the worst of times. If you're in luck as a viewer these films can still do something with their cardboard cut-outs, of course, yet it's a pleasant surprise to find a POV movie that is so explicitly character-based.


Doug Bolden said...

"In general, I'm not a big admirer of films that don't want to make up their minds if the supernatural in them is real or not..."

This can be handled really poorly, but I find myself enjoying it if done correctly. I guess most people's version of it is to have an unreliable narrator or two and then have a big reveal towards the end, but I kind of like it to be handled as act of paranoia.

If I were to remake The Thing, I would probably have it never be known if it was something in the ice or just cabin fever compounding with panicked people. And people would hate me for it...heh.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

I can hardly remember ever encountered it done well, I have to say.

A The Thing variation in that style would at least give that particular remake a reason to exist.

Doug Bolden said...

I think it partially comes down to the majority of horror movies that deal with the technique thinking they need to end on the equivalent of a italicized sentence from a Lovecraft story. The "gotcha" moment in horror has done a bit of damage, not only by making many horror movies think they have to end on the cliche, but by allowing very few movies to really cultivate either doubt or certainty.

As for movies that do it well, Martin comes to mind. Most others I've tried thinking of either do it poorly or bail out at the end but I'm sure I'll think of some if give it a longer go. There is Marebito, that at least tries to cultivate the idea that it is doing it, but the ending pretty much lays it to rest.

As a postscript, the initial captcha for this is the worst captcha I have ever seen: the uh-oh captcha.