Seven thirtyish city folk, mostly friends since college, arrive at a cottage in the country for the weekend – the promise of rural loveliness is somewhat mitigated by a nearby sinkhole which has belched sulphurous fumes about the whole area, prompting jokes about a gateway to Hell, and then a hooded, axe-wielding demonic spectre shows up to pick them off one by one. The set-up of Irish writer-director Sean Breathnach’s debut feature is pretty familiar, the poster boy monster looks a bit like a refugee from a low-grade 1980s genre film, and the resolution is a touch hurried … but for the most part Beyond the Woods really works. Its strongest suit is the element that too many low-budget horror films bungle – believable characters and decent performances.
We get only hints of backstory and the characters are all broad-strokes types – the workaholic infuriated at the lack of wifi, the wild chick who ‘takes it too far’, the just-dumped sensitive odd man out, etc – but Breathnach doesn’t overburden the talk with exposition and an excellent cast of unfamiliar (but plainly professional) Irish actors manage to convey a complicated set of interrelationships in the group which keep everyone off-balance even before the scare stuff starts. It’s one of a surprising number of horror films to take Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill as a model, though there’s no big inciting reason for this get-together … Marissa (Ruth Hayes) and Jason (Sean McGillicuddy) are the hosts at Marissa’s father’s cottage, inviting couples Ray (Mark Lawrence) and Lucy (Irene Kelleher) and Shane (Ross MacMahon) and Emma (Claire Loy) and singleton Ger (John Ryan Howard). Ray is always rushing into the garden to get phone reception, so it’s no surprise when he apparently leaves – especially since he’s been drawn into an ill-advised three-way with Shane and Emma the night before, putting eavesdropping Marissa in a quandary about whether to tell Lucy.
Kelleher, Loy and (especially) Hayes get more nuanced material to play – since the guys in the party are presented as amiably or callously blind to any of the deeper undercurrents of what’s going on. The tiny, dimpled Kelleher – playing cute doormat Lucy – is sort of the final girl, but Loy is interesting as the brittle bleached blonde party girl and Hayes suggests someone with a lot more going on than she wants to talk about. A great deal of beer is drunk, and soft and hard drugs come into it – putting everyone in a zone of suggestibility, but also prompting them to write off actual supernatural manifestations as hallucinations. Spook stuff escalates – including a fresh take on the old mirror scare gambit, and some business with local woods in which it’s too easy to get lost (there’s also sinister growling) and another old favourite – the desperate drive to escape which always brings the driver back to the house. It manages a couple of jump scares, but most of its unease comes out of the character interplay, with folks acting just a little off – either too laid-back about serious situations or too uptight about minutiae – and a last-minute gabble of exposition about the monster’s mission to harvest seven souls.