Panic Fest 2022: Woodland Grey
Fear in the forest in this subtle psychological horror
By Richard Whittaker,
12:51AM, Wed. May 18, 2022
Forests are a fertile source of primordial fear for horror movies. It's in the balance between the warming comfort of moss and leaves, and the terror of knowing how easy it is to get lost in there, of not knowing what lurks there.
In low budget and doom-drenched horror Woodland Grey, there's definitely something hiding between the branches. Sometimes it's right in front of you, only it's hiding its real nature. Sometimes it's not obfuscated, but it's only seen from the corner of your eye, blurred and indistinct.
Whatever it is, it's menacing two strangers who meet in the woods: William, a recluse with a mysterious past (Ryan Blakely, best known as Orphan Black's Reverend Mike), and Emily (Jenny Raven). She disturbs his secret life by passing out near his trailer, forcing him to take in this sickly waif: or maybe it's him that wrecked her hike, seemingly kidnapping her and literally dragging her back to his one-man hobo camp. Both are unreliable narrators, rightfully suspicious of the other, and increasingly aware that what they must truly mistrust is everything around them. Especially whatever it is that William's hiding in that little wooden shed he's got all sealed up ...
It's functionally a two-hander, except for the intrusions of Chelsea Goldwater, giving a deeply disturbing performance as the mysterious and increasingly terrifying child that plagues Mike's solitude, and veteran character actor and Canadian horror icon Art Hindle (The Brood, Black Christmas, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Emily's late grandfather. Both appear in both flashback sequences and in metaphysically impossible situations, implying a deeper darkness that the script conjures up without ever naming. It skulks, only visible in shards, like watching a predator move between the trunks of a thick copse. You can never quite see it all, and that's what makes it truly unsettling. The back and forth between William and Emily - in the dialogue, in time, in perspective - keeps the tone studiously unsettled and unpredictable.
In his narrative feature debut, director Adam Reider cannily works around every low-budget limitation, starting with a lean, efficient script cowritten with first timer Jesse Toufexis. There's a lightness of touch and a dedication to character, amplified by delicate direction intended to unnerve more than terrify. There's even arguably a nod to The Blair Witch Project in the way that the characters realize they're in peril only after they're in too deep - plus Reider pulls off a neatly scary moment with twigs that may not be as iconic as Burkittsville's stick men, but carry a very particular fear. In moments like these, and they are many, Woodlands Grey is intricate without being elaborate, intriguing without being tricksy.
Streamed as part of Panic Fest 2022. April 28-May 8. panicfilmfest.com