Reviews: Irish horror in Beyond the Woods
Directed by Sean Breathnach,
Starring John Ryan Howard, Mark Lawrence, Ross Mac Mahon, Claire L Joy, Irene Kelleher, Alan Riordan, Ruth Hayes, Sean McGillicuddy
Seasoned horror fans will already know the last thing a happy group of friends should do is go to enjoy a quiet weekend getaway in the countryside, especially by the deep, dark woods. Things always happen when groups go for a break in the countryside. Especially when they arrive at their friend’s attractive old, stone country holiday home only to find the scenery lovely but the air filled with an awful stench. A sort of sulphur smell… Supposedly an old mine where the coal seam has caught fire, just beyond the woods (like Centralia, the real-life Silent Hill), with a sinkhole opening it up to allow the fumes into the air. But when part of the drunken evening conversation takes in – jokingly – who goes to heaven and to hell when they die, and there is a stink of sulphur in the air and odd noises from the nearby woods, you know something bad is going to happen, although, naturally the cast in these films never seem to realise until it is too late (but then it wouldn’t be much of a film if they cleared off after five minutes, would it?).
At first it’s all happy, old friends, some going back to college days, now busy thirtysomething, having a break, getting to catch up with old pals, the craic and the drink flows in the handsome but remote country house. As the first evening winds down and they retreat to their bedrooms – not all to their own rooms! Already cracks and tensions starting to show in the otherwise happy group – a slow sense of unease is built by the film-makers. Shots of the group as if viewed from the nearby trees are unsettling, although of course also a well-used trick by horror directors, but more disturbing is that several times throughout the evening, and even after retiring to bed, some of them notice small piles of dirt on the otherwise clean floorboards, each assuming one of the others rather untidily dragged it in on their shoes and never noticed, except, of course, none of them did… It’s remarkable how effective such a simple device can be, but it really does give you that shiver of unease at the thought not only of something lurking outside, but actually able to come inside your home at will?
Strange things start to happen, glimpses out of the corner of the eye, one friend goes for a walk in the woods for a few moments that somehow became hours, constantly coming back to the same signpost no matter which direction he tries to take, geography and time have been twisted for him. A little later he bump into one of the others and finds that he is right next to the garden of the house, as if he never went more than a few yards to begin with. Meanwhile inside the house the interpersonal relationships of the reunited thirtysomethings is also contributing to a rise in tensions… But that smell just keeps getting stronger and then there is a huge sound, like a distant explosion. Just gas from that coal seam fire going off, not near them, nothing to worry about. No, nothing to worry about, nor those moving shadows, those sounds, that image glimpsed in the mirror…
Beyond the Woods deploys a lot of the sort of tricks any seasoned horror fan might expect in this kind of rural supernatural horror, but I think it does so with a nod and a wink to the audience – the film-makers know we know these tricks and the fun is in playing them on a cast of characters who don’t know, and it’s a good way of slowly building the atmosphere (something too many horrors seem to forget to to), while operating on an Indy budget.
The film also has the patience to take its time, establish the characters, from the original everything-is-fab, happy-to-see-you reunion to the slow division as old tensions (and some new ones) start to create cracks, even before the strange events and noises and half-glimpsed sights start to very slowly ratchet up the sense of dread. The bulk of the real supernatural horror is reserved for the final third, which is a good move. It lets the audience bed in with the cast and their wee interpersonal dramas with only hints of something more strange, hints you might dismiss as seeing things or imagination, until it hurls itself into a finale where the leash comes off and the horror hounds are allowed to run free in a satisfying manner. I’m delighted to see the mini boom in recent Irish horror flicks continues…
Beyond the Woods is out now on Video on Demand, check out the official website for more details