Henry (John Muscarnero) and his terminally ill wife Susan (Tracy Coogan) travel away from the confines of city life and into a secluded wooded area to spend Susan's final days. The first night in the cabin, a strange man (Mark Shady) scares the pair, and fondles Susan before getting away. The sheriff (James Russo) is called, but he can't/won't do anything. Eventually, Susan's condition gets worse, causing her to drift in and out of consciousness and behave erratically. Henry's relationship with Susan becomes even more strained when he's forced into a tumultuous relationship with a teenage girl (Mary Kate Wiles), whom he rescues from a sexual assault.
Coping with and caring for someone who's terminally ill isn't exactly easy. Hell, it would be worse if someone new showed up and you developed an emotional attachment to them, causing you to be torn between your future and your present love. Yet that's exactly what Michael Escobedo has done with DARK WOODS. A film that's part character study and part thriller, DARK WOODS shares similarities with FATAL ATTRACTION and throws in a bit of LOLITA in there as well. To say that the film is engaging is an understatement.
Thumbs-up to Escobedo for his job in crafting some truly great tension-filled moments. Adhering to the 'rollarcoaster' view of building and releasing tension, Escobedo mixes in the quiet and beautiful moments (such as shots of the forest) with moments that scare the crap out of you. As Escobedo edited the film as well as directed, the tension is honed to a razor-sharp edge, mixing the quiet, relaxed moments with the loud, tension-filled ones. Helping things out is the sparse yet effective musical score, which accentuates the jump moments when it needs to.
But by far, the best things about DARK WOODS are the cast and the incredible emotion that they bring (which really could only come from a small cast as this). Multi-faceted is the word of the day with this one. John Muscarnero (who also wrote the film) presents Henry as one to be sympathized with, but also brings a sense of internal struggle to someone torn between two people. You really can't help but feel for the guy, juggling between his two strange relationships. Despite being comatose for much of the film, Tracy Coogan has moments where you're convinced that she's being consumed by the disease herself. It's one glorified gut punch after another. Knowing that someone you love is in front of you, suffering, but at the same time is slowly being eaten away and replaced by a belligerant stranger.
I can't forget, of course, about the 'temptress' in the film, played by Mary Kate Wiles. Actually, I'm not sure you can really call Alicia a temptress, since she's just as messed up as Susan, even though you get the sense that Alicia is being positioned to replace Susan in Henry's life. Like the other two main characters, Alicia is multi-faceted, being part innocent victim and part scheming manipulator. There's that gut punch again. Really, you can't help but feel uneasy after watching this film, even though there's no gore to be found.
Despite what it sounds like, DARK WOODS isn't perfect, but comes damn close. While the editing by Escobedo is great stuff, the film drags in spots. And plus, who the hell listens to the sheriff when it comes to being forced to take care of a complete stranger of a kid? Where the hell's child services? Still, you'd be hard pressed to not find yourself being taken aback after watching this film, and those minor issues aren't really enough to knock this film. This is probably one of the best psychological thrillers to come my way in a while.
A masterfully-crafted thriller that explores the idea of people being capable of doing the most noble things, but at the same time are also capable of terrible things. DARK WOODS has tension locked in and ready to hose down the viewer, leaving them disturbed and question-filled at the same time. Coupled with great performances by everybody involved, it's a definite must see if you're looking for a thriller that goes for the areas you don't expect.