THE VILLAGE IN THE WOODS / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: RAINE MCCORMACK / SCREENPLAY: JOHN HOERNSCHEMEYER, RAINE MCCORMACK / STARRING: RICHARD HOPE, REBECCA JOHNSON, THERESE BRADLEY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
The rich landscape of cinematic “folk horror” remains a perennial fascination for British indie filmmakers. With so many different tropes, motifs and scenarios to draw from, there's no shortage of inspiration, but each new scriptwriter sending their heroes off into the bucolic backwaters of suspicion and tradition faces the same challenge: coming up with something fresh and original amidst the swirling history of rituals, myths and secrecy. The makers of The Village in the Woods are not quite as daunted by that challenge as many of their contemporaries, because they've set out to produce a celebration and a love letter to that tradition (albeit one written in the blood of a newborn, no doubt).
Young couple Jason and Rebecca arrive at the village of Cooper's Cross to take up residence at the local pub which Rebecca has inherited. The locals who greet them are excessively friendly and intrusive, except for Arthur, a squatter living upstairs whose nervy paranoia alarms the new owners. With their car immobilised, the pair have to stay put and try to uncover the place's dark truths. But it soon transpires that the couple have a hidden agenda of their own.
This is director and co-writer Raine McCormack’s debut feature, and he weaves together a really pleasing tapestry of folk horror threads. Many of the strands are quite familiar, but they’re presented very effectively here without slipping into homage or parody. This is all helped by some well-drawn characterisation of the small ensemble of duplicitous middle-aged locals that close in on the youngsters. This enables Therese Bradley to have great fun as the unapologetic temptress Maddy, and Richard Hope to make good play of the superficially polite but no less unhinged Charles, both stalwarts of this freakish community.
It’s down to Beth Park (Rebecca) and Robert Vernon (Jason) to carry the main weight of the plot, providing the audience with an outsider’s perspective on the weirdness of Cooper Cross’ inhabitants and exposing the disintegration of their relationship as their own subterfuge collapses.
The tiny budget limits the sense of scale, but McCormack makes a virtue of the claustrophobic setting of the village, wreathing its buildings and the surrounding woods in mist and fog to atmospheric effect. The look of the film might be improved by some greater texture in the colour grading, so that everything appears slightly more disconcerting. That said, for the most part, the production values are fine.
There are some daft plot contrivances along the way, the film is twenty minutes too short and the rushed ending is underpowered compared to an earlier flashback reveal. But as a kind of grotesque mash-up of Escape to the Country and Rosemary's Baby, The Village in the Woods is a film that it's difficult not to warm to.