Redheaded, hotheaded Heather Fasulo (Agnes Bruckner) is the newest girl at a chic, isolated all-girls boarding school nestled deep in the dark woods. Her parents (Emma Campbell and Bruce Campbell, presumably not related) aren't rich, but they sacrificed a lot to send their pyromaniac teen as far away as possible — when Heather passes Headmistress Traverse's (Patricia Clarkson) entry test, the couple burns rubber in the dirt as they drive off.
The sullen loner does little to fit in, but she does make a friend by default — no one likes geeky Marcy (Laruen Birkell), either. Heather also makes a few enemies, namely the poshest blonde bitch, Clara (Ivana Shein) who taunts the carrot-top with cruel nicknames like "Fire Crotch" (and since the action takes place in 1965, we know Brandon Davis had nothing to do with this!) and generally makes a nuisance of herself. But no one is worse than the faculty… from the primly chilly Ms. Traverse to the tic-afflicted Ms. Mackinaw (Marcia Bennett), there is something up with those women and the creepy, whooshing trees that surround the school.
There's a lot to like about The Woods, but it never really takes root. Whether this is an inherent problem with the script, or if it's due to capricious cutting by its various owners, it's hard to tell. (The movie, once destined for theatrical release, bounced from the now-defunct MGM to Sony, where it sat for over a year before being pressed to disc.)
While I appreciate the focus on the characters and the effort to balance style and substance, there are not enough horror elements eked out to keep you on the edge of your seat — it's all unleashed at the end in a flurry of CGI and violence that's too little, too late. I also wish there had been a lot more about the witches and the woods (it's all explained hastily in an atmospheric flashback). I was unable to discern any reason for setting the movie in 1965.
The cinematography is good, but some eagle-eyed viewers might find the haphazard color-timing annoying: Heather's hair goes from red, to auburn, to brown, which negates Clara's demeaning nickname (there's an awful lot made of the "Fire Crotch" moniker throughout the film).
On the plus side, director Lucky McKee resists his trademark lesbian tendencies (amazing, considering the all-girls' school playground!) and makes a straightforward chiller that never once nods or winks at the camera. The characters, while certainly archetypical, are all fleshed out and grounded in reality.
Bruce Campbell is excellent, playing against B-type, making the most of a small but important role. Bruckner does her best as character who isn't especially sympathetic or compelling, and the talented Clarkson, while not inherently menacing, does a decent job as the harsh headmistress. Standouts are Birkell and Bennett.
Despite its unevenness, I recommend The Woods for the price of a rental — it's refreshing to see a new DVD on the rack that's not a remake, based on a videogame, or an Asian homage.
Unfortunately, there are no bonus goodies on the disc. I would have welcome a recent, candid commentary from McKee talking about all the ups and downs.