It goes without saying that people disagree on what makes a good movie, hence the wide range of opinions you'll be able to find on just about any film you care to name. A lot will depend on the viewing experience and personal taste of the commentator, although the more arrogant will claim that a film's merits or demerits are a matter of fact rather than opinion. For the record, that's never, ever true. We've probably all sat in front of a film at one point and experienced that charge that comes from a moment of what feels like storytelling or cinematic perfection, then turned to the person next to us and observed a complete lack of response on their part. What works for me doesn't work for you, and vice versa. Hell, that's the nature of art, baby.
Such is certainly the case with Dead Wood, a micro-budget British horror film from writer-producer-director-editor-cinematographer trio of David Bryant, Sebastian Smith and Richard Stiles. It's found considerable favour in some genre quarters, a favourite adjective being used to describe it being 'original', and in the derivative world of modern horror, that's an accolade worth wearing as a crown. The press notes even picked up on this and describe the film as "fresh, inventive and wholly original." Wholly original? That's a serious expectation builder, one that's setting the film up for an almighty fall if it can't deliver on this claim. Well a quick summary of the set-up should give you an idea of how perilously close Dead Wood is to toppling.
Four friends – Webb, Larri, Milk and Jess – set off for a few days camping in the woods. Webb and Larri are a couple, while Milk and Jess have only just met and are somewhat new to this camping lark. Not put off by the discovery of a tent that appears to have been hurriedly abandoned, they bed down for the night but are woken by what sounds like a scream (it actually sounded to me like an animal, but never mind). The next morning they are greeted by the tired and shivering figure of Ketsy, one of the previous occupants of the abandoned tent, whose boyfriend Rob has mysteriously disappeared. It's less of a mystery for us, as we watched him come to a sticky end in the film's opening minutes, removing any ambiguity about a possible menace even before the main story kicks off. Anyway, Ketsy leads the quartet to a nearby lake where Webb and Larri join her for a swim. When Larri leaves the water, Webb remains to flirt with Ketsy, but his game-playing takes a dark turn when he ducks beneath the water and fails to resurface. As the others head worriedly back to their tents, it becomes clear that there's something sinister in the woods out to get them.
OK, any even casual horror fan will have few problems spotting the first flaw in the "wholly original" claim. A small group of friends go into the woods and are tormented by invisible forces. Wait a minute, wasn't that also the premise of the most successful independent horror movie ever made, The Blair Witch Project and one of the most well loved of all modern genre films, same Raimi's seminal The Evil Dead? And sending kids into the woods and then picking them off is concept that extends back into the glory days of the slasher film. Fair enough, it's a useful location to isolate your characters, and once they've got the inevitable "my phone's got no signal" bit out of the way, the filmmakers can set about terrorising the group and hopefully the audience with them. Ah.
Now here's where the the key problem for this particular viewer set in. If I'm going to be scared for characters I need to engage with them in some way, and while there's nothing particularly dislikable about the group here, I still failed to connect to them for two key reasons: dialogue and performance. The early signs are not great, as the quartet of relative newcomers engage in the sort of banter that falls awkwardly into a no-man's land between the rehearsed and the naturalistic, and feels uncomfortably like the actors have been asked to improvise but have failed to come up with anything. It's an issue that has cropped up a few British independent works of late, a hopeful but flummoxed attempt at the sort of easy naturalism the likes of Ken Loach and Shane Meadows have down to a tee. The hesitance extends to the more obviously scripted dialogue, which is never more than functional and is too often delivered in that very pronounced manner that suggests the actors are not yet comfortable with their characters or lines.
The generic recycling is not restricted to the initial setup. Evil Dead in particular lends the film a camera-as-monster shot, animated branches, and a bloody mouthed and white eyeballed face-in-the-dark, while the night flight through the forest and the array of wood-breaking noises are straight out of Blair Witch. Other genre favourites intermittently pop up, including the dark shape that shoots quickly between the characters and the camera, the girl who trips over when running away, the torch that malfunctions at a crucial moment and recovers in time to supply a good scare, and the idiot who refuses to take seriously the frightened claims of the girl he is trying to snog.
Within the constraints of budget, the trio of filmmakers certainly give the film a distinctive look, despite some fuzzy imagery and an increasingly common fondness for a tinting things green. They definitely have a sharp eye for camera placement and a well-timed edit, and the explanation for what is actually happening to the disappearing campers – which harks back to ancient folk tales and even makes an appearance in the recent Korean film Hansel & Gretel – is given a fresh face by way of a very smartly executed CG effect, which proves all the more surprising for being the only one in a film that you've been led to believe couldn't afford any.
All of which might be well and good were it not for the considerable shadow cast by Evil Dead and The Blair Witch Project, both of which were also first features but which boasted an originality and impact that Dead Wood certainly feeds off but just doesn't have the necessary meat to match. The filmmaking itself is solid enough – I'm happy to turn a blind eye to imperfect imagery when the budget can be calculated on the fingers of one hand – but it's let down by the sort of under-developed script, not-quite-there performances and recycling of genre elements that sometimes give it the feel of an ambitious student project. As I said, much will still be down to personal taste, and the friend I first watched it with enjoyed it a great deal, but I can't help but suspect that the audience at which Dead Wood is generically targeted is also the one most familiar with (and fond of) the works from which it liberally borrows.
I'm taking a guess here, but it looks very much as if Dead Wood was shot of mini-DV or DV-Cam. At it's best the image is reasonably crisp, at worst – as in the crane shot when Milk and Jess emerge from the woodland cabin in which they have taken refuge – it's a blur. For some this will be an issue, but there's an aesthetic to low budget horror, especially projects shot on low band digital formats, that can actually work for the atmosphere of the piece, and such is the case here, at least to a degree. The colour timing in some of the woodland scenes – which soaks them in a green that just might be designed to reflect the malevolence of the surrounding woodland but could also be an artistic attempt to disguise errors in white balance during shooting – does tend to soften the contrast and detail. As a whole the transfer plays a lot better on a CRT monitor than upscaled to a large plasma. The framing is 1.78:1 anamorphic – I assume this is correct, but the trailer (detailed below) does throw this into question.
The soundtrack is Dolby stereo 2.0 and for the most part well mixed, with Chris Bouchard and Adam Langston's sometimes creepy score sounding particularly good, especially the deep bass notes. I'm still not sure about those Wicker Man-esque songs, though. Some of the early dialogue sounds post-dubbed, as if spoken directly into the mic.
Only a trailer (1:27), which for reasons unknown is scope framed, begging a question about whether it's the trailer or the main feature is that's in the correct aspect ratio. Direct comparisons suggest this is a crop from a 1.78:1 original – 1.78:1 is standard for digital – but still fails to confirm the preferred projected ratio.
The lack of extras is a seriously missed opportunity here – whatever my views on the film itself, the process of making a first feature on a low budget is almost always a goldmine of information for other would-be new directors, and a commentary track and/or making-of documentary would have been most welcome here.
Others appear to have really liked Dead Wood but it just didn't work for me. American and now even Eastern horror is caught in a recycling loop, and it needs more than small variations on familiar situations and themes to break it, and characters and dialogue with a bit of spark, of course. Horror fans should still check it out, though, as there are still clear signs here of the smarter genre film that Bryant, Smith and Stiles may yet make. The transfer on DNC's disc does as well by the original material as it can, but the disc is let down by the lack of extra features.