Sometimes your headlines write themselves. When a film features a warning right in the title, that’s playing with fire. In the case of Vincent D’Onofrio‘s woeful directorial debut, the warning is more than prophetic. Based on a script by Sam Bisbee and Joe Vinciguerra and a story by D’Onofrio, “Don’t Go In The Woods” is an earnest attempt to marry musical and horror, two genres that already have quite a bit in common. Both tend to invest in stagy, big-time emotions and feature grandiose payoffs, but while musicals deliver vocal triumphs, horror dishes it out in blood and guts, arterial sprays and all that good stuff. D’Onofrio’s film features a great deal of occasionally decent but consistently navel-gazing songs and a precious few craniums caved in via sledgehammer during its exhaustingly paced eighty-six minute runtime.
In order to escape modern distractions and bang out new classics, mercurial bandleader Nick (Matt Sbeglia, a lone escapee from the Elijah Wood Cloning Factory who D’Onofrio took in and molded to become a lead in this film) and his fun-loving bandmates trek out into the woods. Their artful pursuit is quickly interrupted with the arrival of girls and girlfriends (oh woe are female roles in an already underwritten slasher film), alcohol and the occasional cellphone that isn’t smashed by Nick in a fit of asinine rage. As Nick stews and then descends on the band, with vengeful, exacting new songs, a killer stalks the campgrounds and slaughters indiscriminately.
Sam Bisbee, who also composed the songs featured in the film, is no doubt an experienced musician, capable of delivering both captivating and aggravating songs on the same general subject – mainly, feeling upset about something. As characters sing out in the expanse of the woods, the film never makes peace with the sudden musical interludes. When two ladies walk through the woods with lanterns alight and suddenly we are thrust into a close-up of one of them singing, it’s significantly less effective than the rapid but oft-effective build-up D’Onofrio shapes for early kills. Eventually ‘Woods’ devolves into an all out massacre, as horror films frequently do, but since the victims are barely developed outside of their singing voices and one band member’s blindness, it’s an emotional crap shoot.
It’s disappointing because ‘Woods’ has promise from the get-go – the location is genuinely creepy and industry regular and first-time DP Michael J. Latino manages to squeeze enough dread out of the bloodless, pale palette. The strongest moments of the film are the band playing together in what feel like half rehearsed, half improvised takes – there’s a better story being told in a scene where the blind guitar player starts picking out a new song and the band find the rhythm and join in. Unfortunately, empty-headed allegory rears its unwelcome head come the third act, when the herd gets thinned out and our patience is at an end. A final scene, featuring the terrific Eric Bogosian as a record exec with two lines, is not “The Devil Inside” cringe-worthy but should invoke inspired jeers.
D’Onofrio certainly can’t be faulted for trying something different – but is that his debut film’s only accolade? Aside from a few soulful tunes, “Don’t Go In The Woods” barely delivers the scares and a third act reveal functions as a cheap trick at best. It’s a poisonous marriage of genres that hits a sour note all too frequently, an apathetic horror film and a lethargic musical. [C-]