Last year, FrightFest programmed She Watches From the Woods. This isn’t a sequel – in fact, it’s based on a short film of the same name made well before She Watches and is a knowing, smart resurrection of the Summer Camp horror film sub-sub-genre of the 1980s, albeit with an explicitly supernatural menace rather than some aggrieved burnface guy or a whiny drowny loser’s Mom as the main threat.
Director Erik Bloomquist, who co-wrote with his brother Carson Bloomquist, works out a complicated mythology for Nurse Agatha Good, the boogeywoman of Camp Briarbrook – a sadist who inflicted small injuries on children on the pretence of caring for them, and a murdering maniac who can return from the dead and seek eternal life in unwary campers or counsellors perform a simple ritual (drawing blood and saying her name) around the campfire. The set-up is nicely complicated, perhaps recalling The Burning (in which the ‘final girl’ was a guy), as screwup Peter McCalister (Spencer List) has annoyed his responsible older brother (Tyler Elliot Burke) and overworked Mom (Cara Buono) all summer and caps it off by insisting on that damn ritual on the night camp breaks up. Agatha’s influence manifests before she does, escalating a typical camp conflict into bloody murder. It’s wholly admirable that for once someone who’s committed a justifiable killing insists on calling the cops rather than covering it up, though ghostly forces make the phone explode and when a cop (Michael Park) does show up he does not react the way cops on these films commonly do.
Meanwhile, in an eerie moment, a busload of noisy kids fall silent offering brief relief to the pissed-off driver, who only then realises how wrong this development is – unleashing a crew of junior screeching possessees to harass the dwindling band of survivors. Peter, influenced by his good girl girlfriend Lauren (Clare Foley), agonises over his guilt and determines to do better … while mulletted bullying asshole Dylan (Adam Weppler), whose every action makes a bad situation worse, sets out to survive by being an even bigger monster than cackling Agatha. Care is taken with the incidental characters, and each victim feels like a loss (Dylan excepted) – they were funny, sweet, foolish and believable young folk. William Sadler gets the exposition to deliver as the patriarch who founded the camp, and brings just a hint of steel to his folksiness.
There are creepy touches – like the bags of blood hung from trees around Agatha’s lair, the suggestion that the kids have let their inner evil run loose rather than just been mind-controlled – and plentiful surprises, jumps, splats and ‘80s needle-drops (following The Strangers Prey At Night, this uses Kim Wilde’s ‘Kids in America’ effectively). It’s light on the nostalgia stuff that weighed down Fear Street (for instance) and too many other Stranger Things-influenced throwbacks – mostly, the setting serves to align it with the films it’s referencing and avoid coping with mobile phones, social media and all the other 21st centuryisms that clutter up teen-themed horror films with contemporary settings.