★★★.5 out of ★★★★★
Directed by Sean Breathnach
Not all horror films need to be over-wrought. They needn’t be filled with hyper-complex multi-layered lore. CGI has its time and place, but that time in place is not in every time and every place. On occasion horror is able to lean simply on human emotions, quaint spaces, and languid settings. If you need a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of 21st century horror then Beyond the Woods is waiting for you…just beyond the woods.
The 2016 Irish film, Beyond the Woods, takes place in a bucolic farm house somewhere on the outer fringes of Ireland’s ghastly countryside. A close knit group of pals is brought together to spend the weekend drinking, cavorting, and catching up from the pits and prevails of everyday life. A welcoming Marissa (Ruth Hayes) and Jason (Sean McGillicudy) brings the group to Marissa’s father’s home for a holiday like no other. Upon arrival the other couples are rapidly presented with an acrid stench and a massive and ever present sinkhole. Some of the locals have even begun to speculate that the sinkhole, paired with the stink, is some sort of bottomless portal to — you guessed it — H.E.L.L.
The group settles in with a nasty trifecta of beer, vodka, and weed. As this toxic cocktail begins to infest their faculties, each character’s true self emerges. The recently single loner — Ger (Johhny Ryan Howard), the grimy corporate creep — Ray (Mark Lawrence), the grimy corporate creep’s passively blissful cohort — Lucy (Irene Kelleher), the randy couple — Emma (Claire Loy) and Shane (Ross Mac Mahon), and up-and-up hosts Marissa and Jason. As the interpersonal drama begins to uncoil, the stench gets extra-stinky, and the strange and peculiar is on full display. Weird mirror contortions, directionless paths, and a dark and murky presence.
Playing out like an ol’ timey Agatha Christie novel, the group begins to disappear. One by one. Time starts to shift and the old friends aren’t quite who they used to be. All the while the mysterious (…and ultimately never seen) sinkhole, or in this case stinkhole, is taking hold of the group’s collective conscious. All of the characters, save for the grimy corporate creep (Ray), are rather likable and the allegiance to their survival is ever present.
Director Sean Breathnach does a great job of boxing in all the action, keeping it simple, and keeping it believable. The special effects are wisely kept to a minimum and the filming is largely left to a handful of rooms in the holiday house and the back yard. Smart, simple, efficient.
While void of a suicide, the film amazingly leans on many of the tropes from 1983’s The Big Chill. Only 33 years its junior, Beyond the Woods plays to financial insecurity, the stresses brought from impending child rearing, and the inevitable complexities adulthood. Big Chill horror is not a sub-genre — yet. The scares don’t come fast and furiously and the dark and mysterious character and his/her possible connection to the stinkhole is never really explained, but in the end the scares from the unknown are far less terrifying then the very real prospect of adulthood lurking in the shadows.
Beyond the Woods is likely Rated R and currently streaming on Amazon.