Don't Go in the Woods Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Vinegar Syndrome
Directed by James Bryan
Written by Garth Eliassen
1981, Region A, 82 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on March 10th, 2015
Jack McClelland as Peter
Mary Gail Artz as Ingrid
James P. Hayden as Craig
Angie Brown as Joanne
Ken Carter as Sheriff
David Barth as Deputy Benson
Tom Drury as Maniac
Laura Trefts as Dr. Maggie
For some people, a simple warning is never enough. Craig, Peter, Ingrid and Joanne are enjoying a weekend camping trip in the woods. They share campfire stories, play in the stream and go hiking into the mountains. Craig warns them not to separate from the group and shares various safety tips for roughing it in nature. Peter grows impatient with his friend's endlessly nagging speeches and splits off on his own. What our heroes do not know, however, is that a deranged madman is stalking within the woods, killing anyone who crosses his path. Several people have gone missing in the area and, despite their best efforts, the local police are unable to locate them. Peter spots the villain and returns to warn his friends, but he may be too late. There's really not a lot more to Don't Go in the Woods beyond this brief synopsis. Our protagonists spend their time bickering as they wander from one scenic location to the next, until the killer catches up to them, at which point they run and hide until it's time to fight back.
Director James Bryan (Sex Aliens) tries his hand at the slasher subgenre that was reigning at the box office in the 1980s. The structure of Don't Go in the Woods is unique in that the first third briefly introduces our core characters and then frequently cuts away to anonymous victims before eventually tossing the maniac into everyone's path. The second act begins when the survivors of our hero group return to town to inform the police of the madman killing people in the woods, which leads to one of the most uninspired manhunts in the history of cinema. The third and final act surprisingly finds our heroes bypassing the inept police and returning to the woods to search for their missing friends and to face the killer one last time. Unfortunately, anything that sounds promising in this overview is sadly botched in execution. Garth Eliassen contends that his screenplay was jettisoned on the first day of filming in favor of a hand-written substitute by Bryan, which reportedly upped the body count significantly.
The film now starts with a girl being chased through the woods by an unseen assailant, and murdered in a shallow creek. We don't know who she is or what she was doing in this story, but she appears long enough to die. This is followed by a string of peripheral characters that add nothing to the plot except to overpopulate these supposedly isolated woods. Structurally, our protagonists will set out for a swim or something and the film will cut away to a new set of faces that appear on camera for only a few minutes, die before they are properly introduced, and then we cut back to our heroes continuing their weekend. I want to interrupt my review for a moment to acknowledge some favorite throwaway victims, since they show up only to absurdly sidetrack the main plot of the film. There's a woman painting in the woods while her unattended toddler plays nearby, a completely random guy attacked in a sleeping bag, a fisherman on the wrong end of a bear trap and some poor bastard in a wheelchair slowly making his way up a hill for supposedly comedic effect (you know – it's funny because he's struggling).
In addition to these bizarre bonus kills, there are two sequences that include characters with names and actual dialogue. One features a pair of mid-life honeymooners making out in a sexy microbus before meeting a laughable end, and the other offers a woman trying to keep up with her photographer son as he climbs a trail in hopes of scoring a picture of an unseen train...in the woods. All of these characters are pointless time fillers included as an attempt to add visceral shocks, but the material is so inept that it detracts from the central quartet and feels like padding from another movie. Without this additional content, however, the film would likely only run for about an hour.
Don't Go in the Woods is the sole claim to fame for just about everyone involved, although actress Mary Gail Artz (Ingrid) has gone on to enjoy a successful career as a Hollywood casting agent. The performances of the main actors are neither good nor bad, but all were later dubbed in post production, since there was not any location sound recorded. The music by H. Kingsley Thurber is unfortunately laughable and frequently irritating. On the positive side, the film was shot in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the wooded environments are absolutely gorgeous, but it is a shame that just about everything that happens on camera remains listless and uninspired. Despite being dumb as dirt, the picture remains a guilty pleasure for many genre fans (myself included) and now almost 35 years later, James Bryan insists the whole thing was a joke. There are a lot of ridiculous moments in this film that I find entertaining, but don't confuse my reaction of amusement with an actual recommendation.
Video and Audio:
This is likely to be the definitive release for Don't Go in the Woods, as Vinegar Syndrome not only preserves the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, but goes above and beyond with a stunning new 2K Hi-definition transfer. Originally shot on assorted 35mm film stock, this has always been an ugly-looking movie. Some elements are better preserved than others and the many imperfections seen here stem from these original elements. This new edition is brighter and more colorful than all previous attempts and while generally pleasing, the clarity reveals the limitations too. That being said, this is simply the best this movie is ever going to look, but viewers should not expect miracles.
The film's soundtrack was created in post production with dialogue and sound effects added later. The DTS-HD MA mono track faithfully reproduces the “warts and all” effort with the only limitations being the original source material. Music cues are a bit overbearing, but never obscure the dialogue. There are several fluctuations in volume levels, so adjust your settings accordingly.
There are a whopping three audio commentaries here, one from James Bryan solo, and the next featuring Bryan paired with Artz and two self described super fans. The third track is provided by podcasters The Hysteria Continues, true fans of the slasher genre. Bryan does an acceptable solo job, but the track is a bit dry. Things improve nicely when he is joined by fellow enthusiasts on the second track, but the third session with the web guys is the way to go for entertainment value. There's a lot of entertaining stuff here for those willing to listen and supporters of this film will be happy to hear it.
The cast & crew featurette (57 minutes) is a holdover from the previous Code Red DVD and features contemporary (2004) interviews with those responsible for making the film. Bryan tracks down just about everyone involved and scores some fun reflections on their time together. In an odd creative decision, he begins each piece with the subject getting out of their car when talking to him. The consumer grade camera has its limitations for picture and sound, and the piece is a bit long-winded, but fans will be happy to catch up with these familiar faces.
TV promos compilation (14 minutes) with Bryan and villainous actor Tom Drury on assorted local Salt Lake City television outlets promoting the film.
A DVD-release signing party (29 minutes) is self-explanatory, but viewers will be surprised to see that the interviews are conducted by a freaky-looking puppet. The poor audio and lethargic pacing keep things from being truly entertaining, but there are a few special guests in attendance that I wasn't expecting.
There are two photo gallery slide shows: the first is dedicated to production stills (64 images) and is set to the closing theme, while the other focuses on press artwork (44 images) and plays to the main theme.
The original script is presented as a slidehow, set once again to the closing theme.
The original theatrical trailer finishes off the special features in a nice and cheesy way with the best narrator in the history of ever. We learn in the documentary that Leon Brown, the pitch man with the honey voice, appears in the film as the random sleeping bag victim.
A DVD copy of the film is also included.
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