Tuesday, April 3, 2018

In short: Dark Woods (2003)

Original title: Villmark

TV producer Gunnar (Bjørn Floberg) is in the final stages of preparation for a reality TV show that’ll see its victims trying to survive out in the wild wild woods of Norway. Gunnar’s of the opinion that he can’t have the participants of his show do anything he wouldn’t do himself, so he packs up his crew of young guys and gals who mostly have never worked with him before for a weekend of definitely not fun in a hut somewhere far out in the woods, with the usual bagging of cell phones and other useful features of modernity to maintain isolation.

This being a Norwegian horror film, there’s also a lake in these woods, and as all Norwegian horror film lakes I have encountered, it is a creepy and threatening body of water. It certainly doesn’t become less so when the boys of the group find a female corpse in it, a discovery Gunnar decides nobody with a brain instead of a penis needs to know about until Sunday when they’re going back to civilization. The thing is, Gunnar doesn’t exactly smell of mental health, his tendency to dictatorial behaviour and sadism seems extreme even for a reality TV producer, and there’s clearly some shadow hanging over him – or more than one. That the group is soon encountering threatening and disturbing occurrences hardly needs mentioning, nor does the fact that there just might be someone or something out in these woods with a penchant for murder.

Pål Øie’s Dark Woods is apparently a minor classic of Norwegian horror, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The film’s gritty and grubby yet also controlled and stylish camera work milks the cabin and the excellently creepy woods for all they are worth, the shocks are well-constructed and often very cleverly staged, and the characters and their relationships are certainly portrayed with insight and care several levels above your usual slasher cabin full of meat.

In fact, the film is at its best whenever it exploits the spoken and unspoken tensions it creates between the characters to help escalate the outside threat. Much of what could be read as characters acting stupidly because it say so in the script in lesser films here plays out as the logical consequence of a handful of people bringing their problems and hang-ups into an enclosed space and really not turning out to be able to cope rationally with anything much.

Additionally, the plot is rather more complex than its final solution and plot twist show, containing another layer of hints and ambiguous facts that will make the chain of past events much less random than they appear. It is very much to the film’s honour that it is satisfied for its audience to either see this further layer or not.

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