The woods are always a good setting for a horror flick. Whether they are slashers (the Friday the 13th series), demonic movies (Night of the Demon), or cabin tales (Cabin the Woods, duh), movies featuring terrifying forests have been a mainstay of the genre for decades. For some reason, arboreal horror flicks seem to have increased over the last two decades.
Are we more afraid of Nature now, perhaps subconsciously worried it is preparing punishments for our mistreatment of the environment? Is this some twisted form of nostalgia, a longing for the world we are so busy consuming and paving over? Or is this just a continuation of a primordial terror inherent to our species? Whatever the case may be, here are nine recent (with one cult classic) and very creepy films set in the dark woods featuring serial killers, monsters, and nature-inspired madness.
Deep in the Swiss Alps lies the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls, a boarding school for the daughters of the elite and the wealthy. Jennifer Connelly, in her first starring role (yes, before Labyrinth), plays Jennifer Corvino, daughter of a famous film director. When she’s sent off to the Academy, she finds the region is being plagued by a series of killings of young women. After witnessing one of these murders, she meets a paraplegic forensic entomologist (played by Donald Pleasance) and his chimpanzee Inga, and this unlikely pair begin their own investigation. Oh yeah: Jennifer can speak with insects.
That will eventually seem like one of the lesser weird elements in this delirium of a movie. This one is total comfort food for me and that, in no small part, is tied in with the setting this mad story is embedded within. The forest plays a more subtle role in this film than in the rest of the movies in this list, but Argento makes us feel these woods and the surrounding landscape like a dream place, like a bloody fairy tale.
The Woods (2006)
The Woods feels like a throwback to some earlier style of horror filmmaking, tense and colorful and character-driven and Giallo-related, but one informed by a modern sensibility. Set in 1965, the film follows Heather Fasulo, a young rebel who has pulled one prank too many and has been banished to a posh girl’s school set deep in a forest, the second on this list. Once there, Heather encounters some of the usual boarding school problems, bullies, the attempt at making friends, and stern teachers.
Soon, though, her stay there is darkened by rumors of the school’s past, as well as bloody nightmares about another student and natural elements acting quite unnaturally. McKee pays homage to a few of the better horror films from the 60’s and 70’s, movies I won’t mention because they would serve as potential spoilers, but he infuses The Woods with his own thoughtful, spooky, and sometimes humorous sensibilities. This one features some fun acting and a great atmosphere.
This British survival horror-comedy comes to us from the director who would go on to make the incredible Triangle. In Severance, we follow a group of office workers from a military arms corporation who have been bussed out to the woods for a weekend of team-building exercises and motivation. What they find instead is a legend of an abandoned mental asylum and a group of men seemingly intent on killing every last one of them. It’s as if the cast of The Office stumbled into a slasher movie while still retaining its characters’ quirky personalities. The woods are here the grounds for a desperate game of survival played by people used to sitting behind a desk all day.
I Can See You (2008)
This is one of three movies on this list (the other two are YellowBrickRoad and Toad Road) that I imagine would be pretty divisive if this list were anything but a record of the horror movies that have pleased me. I Can See You is a strange indie film about a group of marketers who retreat to the woods for a few days seeking inspiration for a campaign meant to green-wash the company they work for. Our main character, Ben Richards, has more to worry about than this task, though, as his imagination is being invaded by dreams and hallucinations of an increasingly disturbing tone. When two members of his group go missing in the forest and photos Ben finds of them seem to suggest foul play, things take an even darker turn.
Towards the end of the movie is quite possibly the weirdest interjected scene I’ve experienced in a movie. If you watch I Can See You, you will immediately know the scene I’m talking about. Reznick is clearly working in the Lynchian vein, but there’s something unique here and I wish he would be given the opportunity to make another movie. Don’t expect to understand what goes down in this film, not completely at any rate. I sure didn’t, but still think of it quite a bit.
Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado
In this movie, the first horror movie to come out of Israel, a brother and sister on the run for reasons that will only become clear with time run into a serial killer deep in the woods. As they struggle with this killer, other people arrive at the scene, tourists and explorers. What looks like it’s shaping up to be a standard slasher takes a very surprising left turn in the first act of the movie, and what follows proves to be a darker, funnier, and weirdly more tragic story than what we were expecting.
Misunderstandings, accidents, and cross-wired motives prove to be just as deadly as any wild-eyed mass murderer, and it’s hard not seeing the film as saying something complex of the state of affairs in that region of the world, not to mention to be pointing toward a deep flaw in human nature. A little word of warning: there is a scene of sexual assault, and though it is interrupted in a satisfying way, it still may prove upsetting for those triggered by such material.
Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton
Be forewarned: YellowBrickRoad, despite a deceptively straightforward setup proves by its end to have little interest in revealing its secrets. The movie begins by telling us about the town of Friar. In 1940, the citizens of Friar left their town en masse after a showing of The Wizard of Oz and marched off into the wilderness with only the clothes they were wearing. Of the nearly 600 people who left, roughly half were later found dead either of exposure or of violent murder, while the other 272 townsfolk were never found at all. The government then hid the location of the trailhead they took. In the present, a documentarian decides to crack this story wide open, having found the location of this path.
When he and his crew head into the woods, they begin hearing old-timey music being broadcast from some unseen source. Their navigational equipment fails and tempers begin to flare. Then, a shocking act of violence splinters the group. What follows will scare some viewers, frustrate some, and intrigue the rest. Honestly, I’ve felt all three responses to this film, and still, I go back to it, sure that this time I will understand what lies at the end of this yellow brick road.
Toad Road (2013)
Where I Can See You and YellowBrickRoad confound many viewers with dreamlike logic and disturbing set-pieces, in Toad Road it’s the realism of the movie’s characters that will either irritate you or draw you further in. That and an ending that forces you to fill in the blanks in a way that I found to be authentically creepy. Toad Road is certainly the grimmest movie on this list, in no small part because the theme it tracks is addiction and the terrible places it can take you. Briefly, James is a wastrel, spending his time with his fellow slackers getting drunk, high, and in engaging in self-destructive behavior. Then, he meets Sara, a college student new to the world of drugs.
As she begins using and using too heavily, she also becomes more and more obsessed with a legend that a nearby road, if walked the right direction, leads through seven strange gates down into Hell. Sara is intent on seeking out the truth, and James may have no choice but to join her. Much of this movie is improvised, lending it a sense of realism that will grate on many viewers (these are neither intelligent nor kind people whom James has surrounded himself with), but it tightens down into a story about grief, self-distrust, and the searches for transcendence that threaten to dump their investigators directly into the Void.
Lake Bodom/Bodom (2016)
True story: in 1960, three Finnish teens were violently murdered in their tent in the forest near Lake Bodom. A fourth teen was found beaten severely and with no memory of what happened. Despite sixty years of investigation, the truth has never come out about what happened that night. In this thriller, four Finnish teens obsessed with these killings decide to revisit the same secluded woods in an attempt to solve the mystery. Are you surprised to hear they’ll regret this? Or that they will soon find themselves hunted by a dark figure?
Well, the plot has more twists than those. This forest feels extra dark, perhaps because of the style of the film, or perhaps because of all the films on this list, this is the only one based in part on a true horror story. Whatever the case may be, if you enjoy intelligent slasher movies, this one may pleasantly surprise you.
After losing her father at an early age, teenager Leah Reyes starts getting interested in the occult. Her mother moves them to a house in the woods, separating the girl from the few friends she had and further isolating her. Then one day, after a particularly contentious argument, Leah retreats into the forest and casts a spell invoking the demon Pyewacket in order that this creature kill her mother.
Like many of these parent-child interactions, however, this one soon resolves itself into something more loving and understanding. Now, Leah is left worried that she has released an evil force on her mom and becomes increasingly desperate to find a way to cancel the task she asked of this demon. A tense and emotionally affecting horror movie that looks into our darkest impulses towards those we love the most, as well as the promise and dangers of belief.
David Amito and Michael Laicini
Antrum purports to be a film within a film. The mockumentary that brackets the beginning and end explains that a Bulgarian film shot in English in the 1970’s entitled “Antrum” has a long history of killing people who watched it. One theater burned to the ground after audience members started a fire during its screening, and another was disrupted because someone spiked the concession-stand snacks with LSD. The film was then lost until now. Then we are launched into the film proper, which is about a young boy and his teenage sister whose dog has just been euthanized. After their mother cruelly tells the boy that his dog went to hell for being bad, the sister, Oralee, makes up a story about a spot in a nearby forest wherein one can find a gateway to hell. There, she claims, she and her brother Nathan will be able to rescue their pup from the inferno.
When they get there, Oralee involves Nathan in a series of spurious occult rituals, all meant to help him deal with his loss. Unfortunately, there are others in this dark wood and the kids have to deal with a steadily worsening situation. The framing narrative is creepy, and the “Antrum” movie couched within it feels sufficiently gritty to have actually been a lost 70’s flick. The directors also include strange glitches, missing frames, and film-distortions that lend it an appropriately “cursed” feel. I enjoyed the double sensation of worrying about these poor kids as well as the eeriness of the idea that the film they are trapped within may itself be dangerous. A fine addition to the “cursed film” sub-genre and a disturbing trip into the horrific forest.