Vincent D’onofrio’s “Don’t Go in the Woods” seems to have no larger ambitions than to be a very strange and entertaining trip in the backyard of both D’onofrio’s house and his artistic brain. The film doesn’t want to delve into deep philosophical Kubrick like conversations about the purity of art and some people’s utter obsession with it (though the film does touch on this). No. What “Don’t Go in the Woods” wants to be is a horror musical that never feels tongue in cheek, but also never feels cliched. “Don’t Go in the Woods” is even driven by the most hackneyed, unoriginal and simple horror movie set up story in the world. That being said, “Don’t Go in the Woods” takes that simple story, flips it on its head, then its side, then sucker punches it in the face, buries it and then challenges us to find it.
“Don’t Go in the Woods” is about a second rate band that decides to ditch modern day technology and isolate themselves in the woods in order to conjure up some real originality. The problems start when their girlfriend groupies have followed them into the woods and everyone falls back into their lazy partying ways. This is much to the chagrin of their lead singer. After discovering that their cars will not start, they realize that they are all stuck in the woods together. The issue being that there is a mysterious man wandering the woods picking their singing little asses off one by one in some very strange and grotesque ways.
D’onofrio has decided to go beyond independent with this film. He uses non actors and literally filmed the entire thing in the woods behind his house. He used his friend, Sam Bisbee, to compose the songs for the film and lets his imagination run free. Presenting the film warts and all works in its favor. The acting is actually good and more realistic than most horror movies of today. This is because actors in modern horror movies feel the need to overact. Watching a modern horror movie can be like sitting through an awful late night acting class at your local community college. The actors here work as do their voices, which are also presented warts and all. Everyone here can sing, but D’onofrio never gives the singing or the film the false feeling that most musicals carry. A lot of the singing feels like it was recorded while filming as opposed to most musicals in which we watch an actor lip sinc to something computerized and recorded in a studio later on.
The music is also surprisingly good. Bisbee creates highly original tunes that feel like real hits. This gives the band in the film a much more real aura about them. The music works, and that makes the film work for the most part.
But, time for the real question. Horror plus hipster music? Really? Well, if anyone can make it work it would be someone like D’onofrio, and he does. If the direction had been unprofessional and the script a little more ignorant and the music a little worse, it would’ve been easier to laugh at the actors every time they break out in song (sometimes while being killed), but D’onofrio directs with surprising professionalism and makes the film look moody and real and the transitions smooth and easy. The script also walks a fine line pretty well by never becoming a tongue in cheek work, but always being aware of the genre’s cliches and playing with them in very unique ways. And, of course, the music is the biggest highlight of the film. How someone pulled off a gruesome horror movie musical with hipster tunes is a miracle.
It’s surprising to see this film not look like a $10 home movie made by a crazy actor for his own pleasure, but it looks nothing like that. D’onofrio crafts a highly original and highly strange piece of Gothic art that both dazzles your mind while also leaving you dumbfounded at the how and why of everything, but never in a bad way. D’onofrio’s direction is like a mix between someone who has watched endless amounts of Kubrick and Malick and decided to pull off a genre film on the cheap. It makes you wish he started directing sooner in his career.
“Don’t Go in the Woods” is strange and entertaining and even a little bit confusing until the very end of its very bloody and musical 83 minutes, but alas the film is truly not for everyone. In fact, many will hate it (isn’t that always the sign of great art though?). Many will not see the point. Why the music? What’s with the ending? Why so bloody?…The point is simply to make something inventive. Something that works beyond the scope of the simplistic films of today. D’onofrio may never make a “Battleship,” but he doesn’t need to. He works in the vein of professional and highly original directors before him (Kubrick included). He makes a film that will dumbfound you, please you, disgust you, entertain you, make you dance, make you wince….hell, what’s not to love?
The special features include an interview with D’onofrio that is much too brief and nowhere near enough in depth and a quick behind the scenes feature that shows you how truly independent this film really was.
D’onofrio’s character of Gomer Pyle will forever be remembered in military cadence and he will always be remembered as being the actor to reinvent himself as the unforgettable Detective Robert Goren on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” Now, here’s to hoping D’onofrio has another phase left in his career to dazzle us with: that of director.