Dead Wood,
directed by David Bryant, Sebastian Smith, Richard Stiles
(Grindstone, 2007)

This low-budget British indie surprised me by turning out to be a decent little horror film. Some will beg to differ (the film has been savaged in some amateur reviewing circles), but what I see in Dead Wood is a truly independent film that tries to avoid the most pervasive of genre cliches even as it pays its own sort of homage to the likes of The Blair Witch Project and Evil Dead. It leaves too many questions unanswered, but by gum it does manage to distinguish itself from most of the other unoriginal, done to death "camping trip from hell" films. If you want to watch a by-the-numbers slasher film, this isn't it.

I personally don't see the appeal of traveling deep into a forest way out in the middle of nowhere and spending a few days away from the modern conveniences of life. The four characters in this film, however, look upon this camping trip as a good thing. It's sort of an odd pairing, as one of the two "couples" seemingly don't know each other very well. Larri (Emily Juniper) and Webb (Fergus March) are together, but I'm hard pressed to figure out how Larri's cousin Milk (John Samuel Worsey) convinced Jess (Rebecca Craven) to come along -- although it's obvious from the start that Milk has the hots for the girl.

In any event, they all go camping together. One ominous tragedy later, they head off to find a campsite, discovering a mysteriously abandoned tent along the way. The next morning, a strange young Asian lady (Nina Kwok) shows up at camp with a story about her boyfriend having disappeared. The gang promises to help find the missing camper, but a couple of their own number mysteriously disappear over the course of the weekend. The ones who remain desperately try to find their way out of the woods before they also fall prey to the escalating horror taking place all around them.

I'm not going to attempt to explain the circumstances of the danger set amidst these particular woods, but I will say that it is not your typical form of existential threat. In other words, this is not a slasher film. The victims simply disappear, leaving the viewer wondering what actually happened to them as the story unfolds. In all honesty, it isn't explained very well and wouldn't be that effective even if it were, but the filmmakers do have the good sense not to show their hand too early. This does nothing to make the film scary or intense, but it does make the film a little more interesting than it would have been otherwise. Unfortunately, the filmmakers do give in at the very end and throw a badly cliched final shot at us.

There's nothing great about this film, but the acting is OK, the special effects are surprisingly good in places and the story does maintain a degree of uncertainty up until the very end. On the down side, however, there are just too many plot holes, the first half of the movie drags in places, and it doesn't deliver any real scares.

That being said, I am definitely on the side of those urging horror fans to give Dead Wood a chance. While the film definitely has a number of faults and weaknesses, filmmakers David Bryant, Sebastian Smith and Richard Stiles deserve some credit for thinking outside the slasher film box and producing a film that defies conventions, especially given such a low budget to work with.

review by
Daniel Jolley

15 January 2011

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