A somewhat dysfunctional group of young friends unite for a weekend of serious drinking, recreational drug-taking and ill-advised sexual liaisons in a cottage in an unnamed wooded expanse of the Irish countryside. Those in the party hoping to enjoy some fresh country air are disappointed as the whole area is mired in the noxious stench of sulphur, released from a sinkhole newly-formed nearby. As tensions within the party rise, a growing sense of ill-ease and foreboding mounts as the residence comes under the scrutiny of a mysterious and macabre spectre skulking in the trees.
Writer-director Sean Breathnach’s first full-length feature bears many of the hallmarks of the ‘cabin in the woods’ genre, but this is far from being a homage to the folk-horror tradition. Instead, this is the tale of a bunch of rather self-absorbed thirty-somethings who, preoccupied with their own problems and distracted by the escapism on offer on this mini-break, initially fail to recognise the seriousness of their worsening predicament.
Low-budget horror filmmaking needs to pitch ambitions that it can deliver on, and it’s one of the disappointments of Beyond the Woods that, while the demonic sinkhole is referenced throughout the movie, it is never seen on screen (the action keeps close to the cottage and the neighbouring trees). In conjuring up the mostly-unseen threat, the script throws together a slew of bizarre occurrences, supernatural motifs and slasher set-pieces that never properly cohere. The finale pivots on a never-before-mentioned premise that should have been introduced in the second act, and an inexplicable about-turn in one character’s moral code.
But if things fall a little short in the storytelling, the film does not come off entirely like a wet weekend in County Wicklow. Breathnach recognises the importance of establishing and fleshing out his characters so that those who are later thrown into peril are not simply cyphers. The young ensemble cast invests the lengthy sections of semi-improvised dialogue in the early scenes with an unhurried sense of naturalism. Amongst the group, Irene Kelleher, as the put-upon but resilient Lucy, Ruth Hayes as the conflicted host Marissa, and John Ryan Howard as the emotionally wounded Ger, stand out.
The cinematography is also well executed throughout, both in the cramped interiors of the cottage and in the dense surrounding woodland. The crisp musical soundscape helps to offset the sometimes muddy audio of the group scenes. And while the monster's physical appearance is derivative, the creature still makes some effective on-screen entrances.
Crowdfunded calling-card movies are a fantastic entry point for new cinematic talent, and there is much in Beyond the Woods that showcases the creative capabilities of those involved. The on-screen execution (if you'll forgive the pun) is better than many of the movie’s minimal-budget contemporaries. But more time could usefully have been spent in the pre-production phase, sharpening the script and tightening up the logic of the film’s would-be folklore.
BEYOND THE WOODS / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: SEAN BREATHNACH / STARRING: ROSS MACMAHON, JOHN RYAN HOWARD, MARK LAWRENCE, IRENE KELLEHER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW