Originally from Michigan but educated in the south by the Savannah College of Art and Design, Jacob Ethington is a playwright and screenwriter who's always willing to relocate if necessary. Excerpts of his work are available to read on this site along with blog posts about media that he loves.

"Don't Go in the Woods" (1981) Review

"Don't Go in the Woods" (1981) Review

Don't go out in the woods tonight, you probably will be thrilled
Don't go out in the woods tonight, you probably will be killed
There's a friendly beast that lurks about
And likes to feast- you won't get out!
Without being killed and chopped up into little pieces

-- Theme Song for Don't Go in the Woods, written and performed by H. Kingsley

Also known as Don't Go in the Woods... Alone!, this is a film that was spawned in the wake of the late 70s/early 80s to try and take immediate advantage of the slasher craze, which had spilled over into the mainstream with the release of John Carpenter's Halloween in 1978. The use of the word "mainstream" is really important in the previous sentence, the horror genre had seen proto-slasher films for well over a decade in advance, whether you're talking about Mario Bava's Bay of Blood in 1971 or Bob Clark's Black Christmas in 1974, it's undeniable that Halloween really sent the genre out into the world in a very real way.

However, in 1980 there was another film that pushed the genre even further into the mainstream and added a wrinkle to genre's tropes. The slasher film through the 70s became dominated by the home invasion, but one movie would popularize the other primary hunting ground of the masked murderer hunting teens: Friday the 13th and camping in the woods.

The original Friday the 13th is kind of an odd entry into the horror genre. The first film's location of a camp by the lake was endlessly imitated, but that facet of the first film was almost the start and the end of its current effect on pop culture. The hockey mask associated with that franchise's murderer, Jason Vorhees, didn't appear until three movies in and Jason Vorhees himself didn't appear until- Well, in case you haven't seen the original Friday the 13th, I'll leave that thought hanging.

Which brings us nicely to 1981 with Don't Go in the Woods. I have a pretty solid grasp of horror movies for the most part, but it's not specific enough to tell you if Don't Go in the Woods was the first forest based slasher spawned in Friday the 13th's wake (I'll just take a guess here and say it's not), but it's definitely one of the stranger entries in the sub-genre. It's worth noting here that one of the practical reasons the "slasher attacking campers" trope gained so much popularity is because of relative cost. All you needed were cameras, buckets of blood, teenagers, and someone to play a killer. It didn't necessarily matter if you had a good script or not, that wasn't the point.

It doesn't hurt to try though, and Don't Go in the Woods barely tries to assemble characters out of human logic and reason. A lot of horror films of this type are known for bending logic to put its characters into danger, but this film takes it to the next level. The characters mind bogglingly stupid, whether they're a a scared camper out in the woods, a sheriff looking for bodies, or a doctor who brings a recently traumatized woman back to the woods where she was almost recently killed.

And then there's the internal logic of the movie itself. People are literally introduced to be murdered, and sometimes they don't get an introduction at all. They literally are characters that only appear for a single scene, get horribly killed, and that's it. The main characters, a quartet of campers, don't even find most of the other bodies of these various kill vignettes. They just kind of... Happen.

What's downright fascinating about the movie though are its attempts at geography.

I'll try to explain the concept of "geography" in film terms briefly here, but it's kind of what it sounds like. The idea of film geography is how the film creates a sense of place, how various shots and edits give you an idea of where characters are in relation to each other, to locations, to distinct pieces of the environment in locations, etc. It's an art form inside of the art of filmmaking itself, a delicate dance between the efforts of the film crew during the shoot and the editor during post-production.

In case previous paragraphs haven't clued you in, this film doesn't do a whole lot right, and it botches geography spectacularly to the point where I wasn't sure if the film wasn't trying to be avant-garde. There's a scene towards the middle where someone finally survives an encounter with the killer and sees what the killer looks like (I'll be revisiting his appearance soon enough) after he butchers another hiker with a bear trap on the end of a pole. Characters seemingly warp around the scene to the point where I couldn't tell what was happening.

But slasher films can have all of these problems if the kills are creative and/or the killer is appropriately interesting. Well, according to IMDb, the blood in this film was created through a combination of red food coloring and barbecue sauce, so you can guess the quality of the kills from that. The bear trap kill is as creative as it gets, but it's not the most memorable, not by a long shot. That distinction goes to a kill involving a hiker in a wheelchair. His death is so out of left field that it's instantly hilarious.

So, that leaves the question of the killer. Is the killer interesting as a character? Does the killer have an interesting design? Of course the answer is no to both of those questions, but that doesn't stop the movie from obscuring the killer for a long time before just kind of revealing him in broad daylight during the aforementioned bear trap scene. I won't give it away here, but it's fairly underwhelming.

The only thing that feels appropriately bonkers is the film's attempt at creating a potential sequel. I was actually surprised when the film finally revealed that particular card because it almost makes you wish they'd tried to make another one of these. Unfortunately, they didn't and the director, James Bryan, ended up directing porn for most of the 80s afterwards (except for his other "major" horror attempt titled Jungle Trap, which I don't have the multiple upon multiple paragraphs of space required to explain what that is during another film's review).

For horror completionists looking for obscure 80s slasher films, you might do well watching this. But that's an admittedly narrow niche, so I can't recommend it wholeheartedly to a ton of people out there. It's not close to the worst horror film I've ever seen, but it's hard at times to keep your eyes off of its ineptitude.

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