One of the greatest pleasures of movie-watching is when a film that didn’t look like it would turn out to be much of anything ends up as quite something. That was my experience with Dark Woods, a nervy psychological thriller that puts to shame dozens if not hundreds of films with similar aims and much larger budgets; director Michael Escobedo and writer John Muscanero (who also stars) have put together a pretty remarkable work of craftsmanship, dramatics, and emotional manipulation. It deserves much better than the direct-to-video purgatory that is the likeliest fate for such fare; I’d almost go so far as say that it’s one of the best horror films of the year, and the reason I don’t quite want to make that claim is that it’s really not a horror film.
Henry (Muscanero) and Susan Branch (Tracy Coogan) are a young couple living in an isolated cabin deep in the Arkansas woods; this was Henry’s idea, hoping to find a quiet spot for Susan to recover her strength and fight what has so far been a losing battle against a deadly disease (later on, we’ll learn that she has cancer). Things aren’t going terribly well, we get the feeling, and they get much worse one night, when Susan thinks she spots a man outside, peering in the windows. When Henry goes to look, the stalker (Mark Shady) – a filthy-looking sort with stringy hair and crazy eyes – creeps inside and attempts to rape Susan. Henry intervenes, but the next day the local sheriff (James Russo, the “name” actor – if you know him, you’re one up on me) dismisses their story. A generally upsetting situation, and one that takes its toll on Susan; while Henry is out taking a walk, she collapses.
That’s not the only event to shatter Henry’s world: at about the same time as Susan’s fit, he comes across the stalker attempting to rape a teenage girl, Alicia (Mary Kate Wiles). He brings her back to the cabin and discovers his wife’s prone body, and just when it seems that things couldn’t get any more horrid, the sheriff makes a most unorthodox request: can Henry please take care of Alicia for a few days, while he attends to more interesting things? Henry’s first thought is to say no, but the sheriff (clearly trying to just ignore the situation and hope it goes away) presses hard, and so the Branch household finds itself with a most awkward dynamic: Susan in a coma, Alicia making herself quite comfortable, enough to start making advances to Henry. And Henry? Well, he’s pretty much a broken man by now, and he’s about to break himself even more by paying a fairly inappropriate amount of attention to Alicia, though his grief over Susan’s state keeps him from taking advantage of the girl. And make no mistake, Susan does seem to be the only barrier in his mind.
The dark woods of the title aren’t just the literally trees around the Branch home; they’re also the depths of Henry’s bent, tormented mind, and Dark Woods does yeoman’s work in plumbing the outrageous degrees of his corroded mental state. Even without the temptation of a nubile, willing youngster, Henry clearly isn’t doing too well; he speaks to Susan in her coma at night, and hears her speaking back – oh, and he’s sleeping with a woman in a coma, though as far as we can tell, he never goes so far as to have sex with her. Indeed, his sexual frustration is primarily what defines his relationship with Alicia, letting her drink wine and responding to her increasingly intimate gestures by mumbling “that’s inappropriate”, and never actually doing anything about it.
Muscanero is quite excellent at communicating the extent of Henry’s emotional damage, but the whole cast is great: Wiles, with her open face and wild mood swings, seems at once to be wise and mature yet also a snotty, entitled kid, and in the scattered scenes where she’s not vegetative, Coogan absolutely nails a knotty trifecta: tired of her disease, upset that she has to put Henry through this all, and annoyed that Henry is so transparently tired of playing nurse. It’s one of the better performances of a terminally ill patient that I’ve seen in recent cinema, and when Susan wakes up and starts to lose her grip on reality – the event that precipitates the “thrilling” part of this nominal thriller – I for one found it to be touching and sad.
Escobedo handles all of this with care and control (the scene with the stalker in the house is absolutely terrifying), and he and cinematographer Andrew J. Whittaker give the film a look that is exquisitely moody and bleak – dark as the title promises, all of the interiors are plunged in suffocating gloom, even in the day, and the film’s palette is thick with drained out browns. The only real color to be found is in a bright red dress, and accordingly, this object is the focus for all three character’s growing psychological breaks.
As it is dark, so it is heavy; Dark Woods is not at all pleasant or fun. But even so it has a swift pace that keeps it from being flat-out nihilistic, and its depiction of mental collapse is haunting and effective. It’s a damn shame that this film won’t get the broad audience it deserves; hopefully Escobedo and Muscanero will at least win themselves the chance to make more films on the strength of this one, and get their much-earned recognition as two wonderfully talented newbies.