Beyond the Woods

Seven Irish friends get together for a weekend at an isolated house in the middle of the woods. They have chosen a pretty bad time to do so, because a couple of miles away a large sinkhole has opened up, and the air smells strongly of sulphur. But that’s the least of their problems. The sinkhole has also released something that’s rather more dangerous.

There are many ways such a film can go, and writer-director Sean Breathnach decides to focus more on characterisation than plot. We spend a lot of time getting to know the friends, and the film manages this well. It’s easy to believe that the friends have a shared history together, and this is one of the few times now that they get to see each other as a group. One nice touch is that the only member of the group who is single, Ger, has recently split from his girlfriend, and whilst everyone knows, not all of them have had a chance to see him since the break-up. Those who have done already know the details, so there’s no need for him to go over it for the sake of the audience.

Similarly, a lot of the unease in the film does not come from the supernatural threat, but from the characters’ actions. On the first night, the couple Emma and Shane have a threesome with their friend Ray – who is married to their other friend Lucy. Their host, Marissa, finds out, and much of the film’s second act concerns Marissa’s dilemma about what to do. Just how do you act when you’re eating breakfast with the unwitting wife and her guilty friends? The cast are also uniformly good enough to make the drama work, and to make the various relationships believable.

The trouble arises when you realise that whilst this works well as drama, a drama is not a horror film. By concentrating so much on his human characters, Breathnach neglects the horror. This isn’t simply a matter of the film being a slow-burner, waiting until its final act to unleash hell. It’s that for long stretches of the film the supernatural threat doesn’t actually do anything except lurk outside the house making strange noises, and most of the characters are completely unaware that there’s any danger until the last twenty minutes. The film’s plot largely concerns the entirely human interactions between the friends, meaning that much of the time the film’s horror elements take a backseat.

I don’t think this is because Breathnach lacks the ability, because there is a section of the film that works well as psychological horror. On the second day of their stay, Ger takes a walk and becomes completely lost. The climax of the sequence is surprisingly effective given how underplayed it is, especially since Ger is the most emotionally vulnerable of the group. However, no other horror element of the film is given this much attention. By the end of the film, when the horror takes centre-stage, it is nothing that we haven’t seen before. We simply wait to see who will get killed next, and in the meantime we start wondering why demons from hell need such shiny axes to dispatch their victims.

In fact we learn very little about just what the demons are or why they are there. It gives the impression that Breathnach wasn’t very interested in such questions. Within the first couple of minutes of the film we are explicitly told that the house is isolated, the mobile reception there is awful and there’s a sinkhole that’s just opened up nearby – one character even jokingly calls it ‘the gates of hell’. It feels like the film wants to set-up the horror as quickly as possible so it can spend more time on the characters’ relationships. However, the lack of attention given to the horror in the film also affects the drama between the friends. We’ve spent an hour becoming involved with them; if they wind up dead for reasons that have nothing to do with their personalities, were we simply wasting our time?

The cast and the drama are engaging enough for the drama to work on its own terms. Unfortunately, the horror is lacking in comparison. It fails to link up with the drama in a satisfying way because the supernatural threat is entirely external to the human relationships. Maybe Breathnach would have done better to go entirely for drama; I would be interested to see it.

BEYOND THE WOODS IS OUT NOW ON LEFT FILMS DVD

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