A decent little British horror film with a Blair Witchy plot but a more classical, 1970s-style wild woods style (one lake sequence evokes Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, always an interesting model). Larri (Emily Juniper – like me, a Bridgwater College alumnus, though she graduated decades after I left), her boyfriend Webb (Fergus March), her cousin Milk (John Samuel Worsey) and another girl Jess (Rebecca Craven) drive out into the woods for a weekend of camping, dope and sex, presented in a more realistic way than most kids in the woods horrors. They hike past a wrecked car dumped well beyond any road it could have driven on, then find Ketsy (Nina Kwok), sole survivor of another camping party who is traumatised, has weird mood swings between agony over her missing boyfriend and odd flirtiness and projects an Asian ghost girl vibe which foreshadows nastiness to come. Characters disappear and show up changed for the worse, the tents and camping gear come and go, attempts to walk to the road aren’t any help until – in a nasty switch – someone is run over by a suddenly passing car. A few touches of CGI supernaturalism indicate that the woods are haunted, and possibly alive and/or menacing, with a shapeshifter taking the forms of people swallowed by the locale to lure, taunt or throttle any intruders.
The first reel seems to set up yet another psycho stalking don’t-go-there picture a la Eden Lake or Straightheads, but this veers into a less-overworked sub-genre (even if a blip of killer tree/plant/vine/bark pictures came along shortly after it was made) and builds nicely by going against expectations. It’s always a shame to praise through negatives but, after seeing a pile of similarly-budgeted indie Brit horrors, Dead Wood stands out by not making the mistakes most of them do: it has a small cast of proper actors who bring more to their characters than is conveyed in the low-key dialogue (relationships aren’t deep, but are credible and not set out with plodding backstory monologues) which makes the doomed people likeable enough for an audience to share their terror rather than hope they all die (Worsey is especially good in what might have been the comedy stooge role), keeps shifting its ground literally and tonally to evoke rising unease and hysteria without defaulting to obvious gore business, makes a positive virtue of its use of a single wilderness location rather than (as in, say, The Vanguard) the stigmata of lack of funds, holds its running time down to a tight 81 minutes (why do so many cheap films run over two hours?) and includes sufficient ‘money shots’ (including an effective, unsettling, CGI-assisted transformation of man into tree) to pay off the atmosphere-building.
Written, produced and directed by David Bryant, Sebastian Smith and Richard Stiles.