Growing up in the ‘80’s, I believed the sole purpose of a machete was to give maniacs something to hack you up with in the woods. Wilderness survival meant being able to run really fast without tripping. You got picked up from sleepaway camp in an ambulance, not a bus. Bad people lived in the woods. Most of them were deformed and liked knives. There were a lot of movies back then that reinforced these conclusions. When I was a kid, I was terrified and fascinated by those movies. As soon as I was old enough to get a video rental card, I went through every one I could get my hands on. Some of them were great, most were okay, some were terrible. And then there was DON’T GO IN THE WOODS.
Hikers, campers, and nature lovers flock to the unnamed region of the Utah mountains to enjoy the scenic beauty, commune with the wilderness, and be murdered by the dozens. Two couples, who apparently hate each other, are spending the weekend hiking and camping. Craig is the know-it-all wilderness expert. Joanie is the whiny prankster. Peter is the insecure smart aleck. Ingrid is the one with red hair. While they are busy listening to Craig’s safety instructions, bickering, and playing highly inappropriate practical jokes, legions of nameless victims are being killed all around them by a feral backwoods lunatic. Eventually, the busy killer gets around to the main group and they are forced into a desperate race for survival against man and nature. With regular breaks for more random killings, of course.
Let’s be upfront about this. DON’T GO INTO THE WOODS is a bad movie. It is badly acted, it has ridiculous and poorly dubbed dialogue, it has the pacing of a meth addict. It is also amazing. DGITW doesn’t play by the rules. It can’t afford the rules. What it could afford was a handful of eager but completely inexperienced (non)actors, a few hundred gallons of very red fake blood, and a lot of woods. Woods are cheaper than sets. Sure, some…many…most would call it unwatchable, but DGITW has so many balls-out insane touches that you will never see in a real movie. If you are in the market for that kind of thing, it will leave you endlessly entertained.
This movie strips down the killer in the woods formula to its barest essence (killer, woods, death), and cranks it up as far as it can. Aside from our four leads, there is absolutely no room for character development. Hell, there is barely enough room for character identification. The movie begins in mid attack, as a woman in running in a panic from an unseen menace. Once she is dispatched, we move on to the establishing shot of our lead campers. Literally thirty seconds later, we’re back to another completely unrelated victim. The transitions are so fast they can give you whiplash. One nameless couple in a tent are set upon so fast we don’t even see their faces before the blood starts flowing. Another time, a fleeing Joanie runs across the mutilated body of someone we’ve never even seen before. There are so many murders they won’t even fit inside the movie.
The sheer variety of the victims is part of the joy. This patch of forest must be a kind of oddball mecca. There is a teen birdwatcher in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. There is a poindexter photographer in a pink beret dragging along his complaining mother in a housedress. The best is probably the incredibly unattractive couple in the shag-lined VW love wagon. When noises interrupt their tryst in the middle of nowhere (possibly their honeymoon), the guy, who looks like a kimono wearing blond Sonny Bono, leaves his aging hippy lover in the van while he investigates. A few tense moments pass as she unsuccessfully tries to close the doors (unscripted, the actress couldn’t figure out the van doors). It doesn’t matter, since the killer pushes the entire van over a cliff, with the hippy screaming uninterrupted as it rolls and catches fire.
What is so great about these victims is that they are the most inappropriate people to be in the woods. At one point, a roller-skater shows up, in the mountains! There is even a lone hiker in a wheelchair. You have to admire his determination, but maybe there are better hobbies for him. At least he reaches the top before getting his head chopped off. I'm surprised a deep sea diver didn't shown up.
Even the main group, who are supposedly normal campers, do not behave like actual humans. Craig, the uptight scout leader type, emphatically states the first rule of wilderness survival is don’t go into the woods alone. Yet he raises no objection later when petulant Peter does, in fact, go off into the woods alone. One scene has Joanie hanging all over Craig, explaining to Ingrid that they were going off so he could teach her “survival techniques”. It’s pretty obvious what that is code for. Ingrid takes the hint and goes back to her tent. The next time we see Craig and Joanie, he’s teaching her how to set an animal trap. Wait, what? He actually meant real, non-boob related survival techniques? I know you are in Utah, but this is a slasher movie, for god’s sake. Clearly, Joanie is disappointed with this doof, too, since she playfully sets off the trap and crushes Craig’s fingers. In an example of wildly excessive prank escalation, Craig later traps Joanie in her sleeping bag and hoists it over a branch ten feet into the air, poking at her with a stick. Even the killer recognizes this as a dick move, leaving Joanie alone and just going after Craig.
The absolute weirdest reaction comes from Peter. While he’s pouting in the woods all by himself, he begins to have a flashback (or maybe a fantasy) of him frolicking in a stream with Joanie and Ingrid. In the real world, a fisherman walks up the stream and Peter waves at him. The fisherman smiles, but then sees the killer standing on the ridge above Peter. He’s clearly horrified, but Peter just keeps waving, oblivious. Then a bear trap swings down and snaps onto the fisherman’s face. There is a great deal of screaming, bleeding, and flailing around. Peter, who is maybe twenty feet away, just goes back to his daydream. It’s not until the killer is standing right in front of him to finish off the fisherman that Peter realizes there is anything wrong. Maybe he was so used to Craig and Joanie’s antics that he figured the bear trap to the face was just a gag. Everybody’s a joker around here.
Another interesting note: Joanie apparently has the metabolism of a fruit fly. Despite being lost without food for only about a day, she resorts to licking any discarded candy wrapper or encrusted paper plate she finds. If she had gotten the jump on the killer, I’m fairly sure she would have eaten him.
The killer epitomizes the movie’s dichotomous nature of somehow being completely derivative and totally unique at the same time. He’s a big, hairy, deranged mountain man who likes to kill people. We’ve seen that trope before (even though this was 1981, pretty early into the slasher craze). I’ve never seen such a pure version of this character, though. He gets absolutely no backstory. None of the locals have any rumors to warn the campers about. There are no newspaper clippings for anyone to find, or relatives to show up and provide exposition. The killer certainly doesn’t do any monologues. The fucker doesn’t even have a name. He’s just this drooling backwoods vagrant who wears what looks like a macramé plant holder across his face. But, boy, does he love killing. He actually jumps up and down in glee when he spots one victim.
He also loves booby traps, but with the exception of the very accurate bear trap to the face setup, he is terrible at it. When the campers discover his TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE inspired cabin, it is littered with booby traps. Sorry, I mean filled with littering booby traps. When someone trips a wire, a cloud of dirt, dust, and small wood fragments dumps on them. Unless the intent was to irritate the eyes of people with contact lenses, it’s not terribly effective. Realistically though, it’s a pretty rational move for the killer, since it would be his clumsy ass setting it off most of the time anyway. Best not to have steel spikes drop from the ceiling when you’re dragging around bodies.
The violence is usually kept over the top and fun. Every wound shoots geysers of blood. The scene of the birdwatcher’s arm being lopped off is just shy of Monty Python. Every once in a while, though, the kills can become gruesome. It was just enough to keep me off balance, not sure if I should be smiling or grimacing. The murder of the painter is a good example. She has her easel set up in the middle of the forest and is busy painting the underbrush and vines (only using one shade of green) when the killer sneaks up behind her. He stabs her repeatedly in the back, blood splattering on the canvass, and finally skewers her straight through. It starts off ironic and light, but becomes more unsettling at it drags on. Adding to the discomfort is the fact that the murder is in view of her toddler, who is dangling in a bouncer hung from a tree. It’s okay, she mostly seemed occupied with her chocolate bar.
The fate of the kid, by the way, is the movie’s most batshit crazy twist. [SPOILER] For half the movie, the killer is running around carrying a cardboard box looped with twine over his shoulder. He drops it during the climax, and after the dust settles, there’s the toddler. She must be the most laid back baby ever to be banged around in a box all that time without making a sound. The best part is that none of the cops or paramedics notice her, and she’s left alone in the woods, just playing with a hatchet (a real hatchet, by the way, belated note to Child Protective Services). There’s your backstory! The killer was a box baby from the ‘50’s, and now the cycle is starting over!
This madness is brought to you by the very, very indie director James Bryan. He basically dropped his cast/crew into the woods and started filming, much as Sam Rami did with EVIL DEAD, though with less success. Or talent. He did pull off some nice tracking shots and took advantage of the scenic beauty, but everything else is a gigantic train wreck. Bryan went on to make THE EXECUTIONER, PART II, a sequel to a movie that doesn’t actually exist. That one is also terrible, but does not reach the sublime awfulness of DON’T GO IN THE WOODS. Mary Gail Artz, who played Ingrid, went on to great success as a casting director. Part of her success came from not casting any of her fellow actors in anything. Despite its innumerable faults – actually because of them- this movie is an absolute wonder. So much of it defies description that I’ve barely scratched the moldy, weird smelling surface. One thing for sure, it’s never boring. Except for that stretch in the third act where not much happens, but then it gets good again.