“Don’t Drink The Milk!” — Lucky McKee’s The Woods

December 18, 2008

THE WOODS (2005)
d. Lucky McKee

Lucky McKee first caught my attention with his quirky horror film May, about a psyche-damaged, lazy-eyed loner that was at parts romantic and disturbing, usually in the same scene. In his feature follow-up, The Woods, Mr. McKee continues exploring the theme of the female outsider swept up in forces beyond her control when an attempt, either internal or external, to fit in ends in disaster.

The setting this time is an isolated all-girls academy that borders on a threatening forest that hides a dark past secret involving witches. Our heroine is new student Heather, committed to this private school by a mother who cannot handle her and a passive father (Bruce Campbell); her past reveals that she attempted to burn the family house down as a means of lashing out against her unloving mother.

While she is tormented by the popular girl, Samantha, Heather befriends a fellow outcast, Marcy. And while she negotiates being reprimanded constantly by the vigilant and shrewish all-female staff, she does find some sympathy from the head teacher, played by Patricia Clarkson.

Clarkson’s character expresses a keen interest in Heather who shows some aptitude in making objects stack under precarious conditions, as well as her ability to hear strange voices that seem to come from the woods.

When several students go missing, having been replaced in their beds by piles of leaves, Heather fears for he safety and that of her friend. And when Samantha, in a sudden turn, warns Heather not to drink the milk, things get weird indeed.

Turns out that the faculty have been bleeding into the milk and enforcing some strange mind-control through that potion. All for some convoluted means of using the students as conduits to appease the spirits of the woods so that Patricia Clarkson and her coven can be freed from a debt incurred many years ago when they were students. I think. I did say convoluted, right?

The director shows admirable restraint in the keeping things spooky, but the restraint ends up creating more mood than meaning in that some actions are inexplicable and vague. Ultimately, the only relationship worth savoring here in which to hang our sympathies on — between Heather and Marcy — is downplayed so that the implied lesbianism loses its power and Heather’s motivation is reduced to self-preservation.

Though the give and take between Heather and Patricia Clarkson give their scenes a nice tension that when it abruptly ends with an axe to the head, I’d wished that there was more of a confrontation between Heather and her surrogate mother-figure.

All in all, as good as May, more ambitious in its scope and setting, and worth seeing for a rather serious turn by Bruce Cambell as the emasculated father who becomes empowered when he needs to save his daughter. Though I wished that he could have had a more elaborate scene where he fights the animated roots and tendrils of the forest as it recalled somewhat the Evil Dead series.

**1/2 stars.

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