There are certain things any self-respecting horror fan knows – never split up from your friends should you find yourselves under attack from a masked maniac. Never, no matter how dirty you might be, take a shower. And of course, never ever take a trip to the woods. That’s just asking for trouble.
But while old horror clichés can be fun, it is always more fun to see them turned on their heads, and in the Cult strand at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, we find three horror films set in the great outdoors, each of which take us thrillingly off the beaten track.
In Gilles Marchand’s (Who Killed Bambi?) atmospheric slice of supernatural surrealism Into the Forest, two young boys take a nightmarish camping trip with their unstable father, resulting in an enigmatic and quite terrifying hybrid of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return (2003) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
A gang of Finnish teens recreate an infamous crime scene in Lake Bodom, a genuinely unexpected riff on the campsite slashers of the 1980s, which delights in pulling the rug out from underneath you. And then there’s Lorcan Finnegan’s creeping and imaginative slice of modern rural gothic, Without Name, in which a land surveyor has an encounter with the uncanny while working in remote Irish woodlands.
In celebration of these upcoming forest horrors, let’s take a look at 10 more tales of terror among the trees that will have you shaking like a leaf. If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…
Director John Boorman
Perhaps not a horror movie in the traditional sense, John Boorman’s iconic male melodrama turned survival thriller is nonetheless a bracingly frightening jaunt through the woods which still maintains the power to shock today.
The seemingly simple story of four friends from the city who venture to the remote Georgian wilderness for a canoeing expedition, only to find themselves targeted by a vicious gang of backwoods locals, is primarily remembered for two things: the iconic and portentous performance of ‘Duelling Banjos’ between one of the men and a young country boy, and the harrowing, and still very rare on-screen depiction of male rape. Of course, this savage tale of man vs nature is so much more than these two infamous set pieces, and can be taken as either a metaphorical eco-thriller or a literal meditation on primal masculinity. Never has the vastness of the great outdoors seemed so imposing and so unbearably claustrophobic.
The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)
Director Charles B. Pierce
Produced on a shoestring budget by a Texarkana ad man named Charles B. Pierce (who went on to make the original The Town That Dreaded Sundown), this pioneering mockumentary became one the sleeper hits of 1972, paving the way for the likes of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the subsequent wave of found-footage horrors which flooded genre cinema at the turn of the century.
Residents of Fouke, Arkansas (playing fictionalised versions of themselves) share stories of the Bigfoot-esque Fouke Monster, a hairy beast alleged to roam the Texan backwoods that has been terrorising townsfolk since the 1950s. It might all look a touch ropey today, but what it lacks in finesse, it more than makes up for in ideas and invention. Of all the Sasquatch-inspired horror movies, from the laudable 1970s creature feature Bigfoot, to the nifty indie shocker Willow Creek, this one remains the most influential.
Director Peter Carter
It is a well known fact that with every commercially lucrative shocker, comes the inevitable slew of (often inferior, inevitably quite fun) knockoffs. William Castle ripped off Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) with the brilliantly unhinged Homicidal (1961), The Exorcist (1973) got a Blaxploitation makeover with Abby (1974), while the success of Child’s Play (1988) spawned another diminutive killer in Dolly Dearest (1991). And that’s just to name a few.
On paper, Rituals’ story of a group of city-dwelling professionals targeted by a gang of deranged rural killers in the rustic wilderness might seem like little more than an uninspired replica of Deliverance. But while several scenes might feel as though they have been lifted right out of John Boorman’s survival shocker, Peter Carter’s film is a desperately undervalued thrill ride that boasts several significant differences (not least in the group dynamics between the men, who rather than uniting in the face of adversity, are driven apart by fear) and deserves to be discussed in its own right.
Long Weekend (1978)
Director Colin Eggleston
Boasting the brilliant tagline “Their crime was against nature. Nature found them guilty”, Colin Eggleston’s Ozploitation classic is the ultimate eco-horror experience. In a last ditch attempt to save their rocky marriage, a pair of obnoxious city dwellers escape to the country for a camping trip. But this self-obsessed couple are no friends of the environment, continually abusing their bucolic surroundings (littering, killing animals, chopping down trees), until nature itself (birds, insects, trees, the weather) is forced to step up and exact a merciless revenge.
While an unforgiving Mother Nature might first appear the antagonist of this cautionary tale, it is actually selfish and antagonistic man who is the true villain here. The resulting film is an cunning outdoor twist on the home invasion thriller, with poor Mother Nature left with no choice but to defend her patch. If these two came into your house, wouldn’t you do the same?
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
Director John Hough
Just mention the name of this infamous Disney curio to film fans of a certain age and you’ll be guaranteed a terrified shudder of recognition. A far cry from the family-friendly fun one might have expected, this odd little chiller was an unpredictably dark offering from the usually wholesome studio, giving a whole generation of unsuspecting youngsters sleepless nights.
An American teenager and her younger sister experience strange phenomena when they move into their new home in the English countryside. As the mysteries mount, the youngsters start to uncover the secrets of the woods which surround them, and the truth about a young girl who disappeared some 30 years previously. Plagued with post-production problems, which led to a frantic re-edit and newly filmed ending, the compromised final film doesn’t quite hold up as the all-out terror experience that some might remember it being. Yet it does remain one of the boldest and strangest of all Disney productions, boasting a genuine sense of dread and the uncanny.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Director Sam Raimi
The ultimate ‘cabin in the woods’ film, Sam Raimi’s riotous debut couldn’t be simpler – a group of ill-fated teens travel to a remote woodland lodge, only to accidentally summon up ancient demonic forces who possess each of them one by one. Sure, the plot is no great shakes, but it’s Raimi’s inventive style and subversive wit that truly impresses. Rarely has splatter cinema been so beautifully imagined and inventively executed, not least in the extraordinary point-of-view shots of the demonic presence hurtling through the forest.
UK censors, however, did not share Raimi’s skewed sense of humour and the film ended up on the infamous Video Nasties list of 1982, cementing its reputation of one of horror cinema’s most gruelling works in the process. Many favour the slapstick shenanigans of Raimi’s knockabout 1987 sequel, but for pure claustrophobic backwoods terror, the original can’t be beaten.
Just before Dawn (1981)
Director Jeff Lieberman
In the 1980s, camping was quite possibly the most dangerous of all recreational activities. At the height of the slasher boom, unhappy campers everywhere could barely pitch their tents before being hacked up by a woodland loony in a variety of preposterous ways (who can forget Judy’s death by curling iron in Sleepaway Camp, or the sleeping bag kill in Friday the 13th Part VII?).
But of all the countless outdoor slashers of the decade, Jeff Lieberman’s Just before Dawn stands as one of the classiest and most creepingly atmospheric. Owing as much to Deliverance as it does to Friday the 13th, the film depicts the sad demise of a group of hikers in the Oregon mountains at the hands of a maniacal killer. Eschewing many of the subgenre’s more recognisable clichés (disposable teenage protagonists, scantily-clad female victims, excessive gore), Lieberman’s gorgeously photographed, resolutely downbeat film still delights and surprises today.
Director Stan Winston
The directorial debut of special effects wiz Stan Winston (Aliens, The Terminator, Jurassic Park) is an gleefully unpretentious creature feature in which a vengeful father summons a monstrous demon to bump off the irresponsible teens guilty of killing his son. As one would expect from Winston, the real star of this (im)moral tale of demonic vigilante justice is Pumpkinhead himself, a gloriously grotesque creation who remains one of horror cinema’s most iconic beasts. But Winston proves himself much more than a mere technician, displaying a keen visual eye, particularly in the nightmarish forest scenes, which come bathed in an ethereal and enigmatic blue glow.
Widely dismissed as a forgettable slice of backwoods exploitation upon initial release, the film remains a firm horror fan favourite. It has also undergone something of a critical reassessment over the years, with critics at long last recognising its singular mood and bracing atmospherics.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Director Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
Like it or not (and I absolutely love it), there is no denying that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s low-budget sensation is one of the most significant horror films of all time. It doesn’t matter that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first found-footage film to grace our screens. Halloween (1978) wasn’t the first slasher movie. Saw (2004) wasn’t the first ‘torture porn’ film. But regardless of where they came in the grand horror timeline, they are the ones that really hit big, the ones that countless others tried to imitate, the ones that made everyone sit up and pay attention.
Looking back now, it’s not hard to see why this docu-haux proved so influential to a new generation of filmmakers, proving all you need to scare up success is a nifty idea and some game actors. And, of course, a great location. And in the sprawling, terrifyingly endless expanses of the Maryland woods, this film had just that.
Director Lars von Trier
Controversial Danish director Lars von Trier kicked off his unofficial ‘depression trilogy’ (which concluded with Melancholia and Nymphomaniac) with this brutally confrontational story of a grieving couple who retreat to a remote cabin in the woods following the sudden death of their young son.
Overflowing with lush visuals and technical trickery as far removed from the Dogme 95 restrictions he once enforced upon himself as is humanly imaginable, von Trier’s truly grim fairytale makes no claims for subtlety. This is a film about wildness – wild ideas, wild emotions, wild desires, all unfolding in the sprawling wildness of nature. And, indeed, it is nature which ends up the star of the show, whether that be the portentous talking fox or writhing tree of fornication. As the horrors unfold, the gothic woodland setting takes on a palpable life of its own, a living breathing beast as important as the human characters on screen.