Monday, September 17, 2012

Terminal Attraction: "Dark Woods" (2010)



A solid little suspenser that could have degenerated into the next "Obsessed" or "Friday the 13th" takes a more mature high road.

Henry (the film's writer, John Muscarnero) and Susan (Tracy Coogan) retreat to an isolated cabin in the woods. Susan is suffering from terminal cancer, and the couple decide to fight the disease alone...or spend Susan's final days together. The first night in the cabin, a strange man (Mark Shady) scares the pair, and fondles Susan before getting away.

Sheriff Demming (James Russo) is called, but he can't (or won't?) do anything. No physical evidence, no harm, no foul, plus the strange man is a local named Rand who has never given anyone any trouble before. The incident still bothers the couple, and Susan's health begins to fade, along with her memory. On a jog, Henry finds Rand attacking a young teenage girl (Mary Kate Wiles). Henry scares him off, and takes the girl home, only to find Susan has slipped into a coma.

The sheriff guilts Henry into letting the girl, Alicia, stay at the cabin. Susan lies in bed, oblivious to her surroundings. Alicia's mood indicates she has been abused before. She begins manipulating Henry, who is just trying to take care of his dying wife and now must nurse Alicia back as well. Alicia begins wearing out her welcome, Henry has sexual feelings for her, but his loyalty (and love) for his wife keep him from giving in to his impulses until one night...when Susan wakes up, acting unlike herself.

Despite the small cast and setting, "Dark Woods" is one edgy ride. This could have gone into such familiar territory, but instead keeps the audience intrigued with its characters and plot. Some of the motives of those characters are questionable, as are a number of loose ends and plot holes here and there. I found a few scenes repetitious (Henry always seems to be leaving the cabin to go find {insert troubled female's name, or mysterious noise, here} in the woods), but there is plenty to appreciate here.

Despite its description as a thriller, the emphasis here is not on cheap scares. However, director Michael Escobedo had me jumping out of my skin when Rand first appeared onscreen, and eventually the cabin itself became a creepy setting that always has the viewer ill at ease. There are beautiful shots of the surrounding forest, but Escobedo (who also edited) never turns this into a cinematographer's resume reel. The sparse musical score by S. Peace Nistades is perfect, not feeling the need to accentuate too much. The film is quiet, so when something menacing does occur, the loudness is as startling as the situation (especially Alicia's outbursts).

The cast is sensational. Muscarnero has written himself a complex set of people here. His Henry is sympathetic without being lecherous, and his sexual desires are not perverse in the slightest. Tracy Coogan spends a good deal of screen time in a vegetative state, but her waking scenes are excellent, especially when Susan comes out of her coma. There is one scene between Susan and Henry in the bedroom, when an erratic Susan finally consents to sex, but Henry cannot go through with it, that is very uncomfortable to watch. Mary Kate Wiles is creepy as the explosive Alicia without turning her into a clone of every other wronged psycho one-night stand. James Russo, best known for his role in "Extremities," is aging very nicely. He is gruff here, and also rubs the viewer the wrong way, making you wonder what the hell is going on in that mind of his, despite his limited screen time.

No, it's not perfect, but I would compare "Dark Woods" favorably to all the new suspense films coming from Asia, sprinkled with a little "Fatal Attraction" and "Lolita." It's not a loud boisterous horror flick, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work, either. (* * * *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: Dark Woods