Sunday, November 8, 2009

Terror in the Woods

Tonight's my first evening at the Wuksachi Lodge here in beautiful Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevadas. The current weather is 41 degrees, but it's supposed to get as low as 19! Silence of the Lambs was on the television in my room when I arrived, so you know it's just right for Weird Movie Village. The inky black sky is shimmering with stars, something you never see in Los Angeles with all the city lights reflecting up. It's the perfect night to sit by a roaring fire with a Macbook and muse over some of the more memorable horror films set in the woods. After all, it's the perfect environment for horror. When it's dark, it's really dark. You can hear rustling in the leaves and twigs snapping all around you. Shadowy objects pass through your peripheral vision that you can't quite make out. Is it an animal—or is it something else?

Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987). Important for cementing the reputations of director Sam Raimi and cult icon Bruce Campbell, both films are set in a remote cabin in the woods with occasional trips outside to be assaulted by the vegetation and Steadicam frantically around the property.

Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) is an enchanting, poetic film that wraps a young girl's coming-of-age in an authentic-feeling series of folk tales told in a village plagued by wolf attacks. Shot in a beautiful, studio-bound, make-believe forest, it's a poetic film reminiscent of the Hammer classics of the 1960s that's also an adult fairy tale tinged with a sense of longing and melancholy at its core. The ever-reliable Angela Lansbury provides an amusing characterization as the grandmother, and Jordan favorite Stephen Rea pops in for a cameo.

But wolves and werewolves in general usually find themselves at home in the woods. The Universal classics featuring Chaney's Wolfman—as well as Karloff's Frankenstein monster—had many scenes set in the woods. And didn't Christopher Lee's Dracula, or at least his minions, run down victims in the woods? It's just better there, that's all!

Movies set in the woods that feature human monsters (psycho killers) include the previously discussed Last House on the Left, whose wrenching key scene is entirely set in the undergrowth. The Burning (1981), which featured a disfigured but very much alive killer on a quest for revenge. It's notable not only for being an early Miramax production, it also provided roles for the very young Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander!

The 1980s were a fruitful time for woods-bound horror films, all trying to grab onto the Friday the 13th series' profitable coattails, and usually failing miserably. Don't Go in the Woods and The Forest are two titles that come to mind, but frankly, I didn't see either of them. I just remember the cheesy video box art for Don't Go: knives and blood and a dead chick with the killer's image reflected in her sunglasses. It actually prevented me from renting the film because it looked so stupid.

And even though it's not considered a horror film and the environs may not necessarily be considered woods, I have to mention 1972's Deliverance. Director John Boorman twists the spring so tight it becomes almost unbearable. That film and Texas Chainsaw inspired a mini-genre of local yokel killers, but it didn't last very long. Probably the most notable, and funniest, was 1980's Motel Hell.

Of course, the ultimate in-the-woods horror film has got to be 1999's Blair Witch Project, with its rough camerawork and ambiguous ending. Maybe the camerawork was a bit too rough: when I saw it in the theater, someone a few rows ahead of me threw up! Nevertheless, it's certainly the picture that most easily comes to mind when I'm hiking here in the Sequoias and I can hear someone far off in the distance frantically screaming someone's name (as I did last September).

Speaking of Blair Witch, there's a cabin here at Grant Grove in King's Canyon that looks mighty suspicious...

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