Young couple Penny (Sarah Jones) and Scott (Jon Foster) have sold their city studio flat for a rural getaway, intending to shoot a nature documentary. Filming themselves as they drive to their deserted cottage in rural Americana, there’s plenty of gorgeous shots of sunrises in corn meadows, moonlit fields, the couple beaming at each other lovingly surrounded by nature, etc. They seem to be living every townie’s dream of escaping to rural bliss to be together “waking up to birds instead of [an] alarm clock” as Scott puts it, and their perfect artistic project is literally on their doorstep.
But from here on, things begin to curdle: the docu isn’t being shot, and the sunny isolation is beginning to get dull, as Scott realises this peaceful retreat is leading to boredom rather than inspiration, and admits on camera he’s stopped taking his “meds” (what he takes them for is never mentioned) to Penny’s horror. And there’s something hooded and unnerving in the forest – and it’s stolen their bag.
The duo pursue this shadowy figure hidden amount the trees, and find the art he’s created in the forest, of scarecrows created from skulls, broken glass and barbed wire. Realising this is the work of elusive artist Mr Jones, they are convinced they’ve found the next “JD Salinger, or Banksy” who must be immortalised on film. “This guy is…disturbed.” Scott mumbles of his new discovery, as they break into the house next door to recover their property.
Foster, who cut his terror teeth in 2006 fantasy-horror “Stay Alive”, here convinces as the wannabe creative who realises his pet project is getting a life of its own. As his voiceover asks worriedly: “Ever realised you can’t really go back? What if you came to the woods to find solitude …and found doubt you weren’t really alone?”
Writer and director Karl Mueller creates one of the best scenes with a crazily-hyper montage of Scott back in NYC ,filming art experts he believes can help him work out who the notorious Mr Jones really is.
Back in civilization, rushing from yellow cab to subway to crumpled hotel room, various specialists try to help provide information on where or who Mr Jones actually is. Scott films wild versions of the unknown artist being: a “concentration camp guard who was hiding out in Georgia…He was on Death Row…he was a housewife in Ohio who was a mental patient.”
After all these academic viewpoints, Scott interviews sad-sack nobody Matthew Lane, the “alleged scarecrow recipient” as the credits say, who hunches in an armchair and reluctantly recounts for Scott’s camera the whole horrendous story of what happened since Mr Jones’ “scarecrow” art work was mailed to him out of the blue.
“I started having a nightmare…I haven’t stopped…” Lane mumbles, in one of the most memorable scenes Refusing to go into detail, he simply warns, staring nervously down the lens in a beyond-fear way. He warns with a terrifying finality: “You don’t know what he’s capable of…if he comes for you, run.”
However, the couple see themselves as bulletproof as most 20 somethings do, and when Scott returns home, they are determined to continue with their docu, about this fascinating recluse. After all, how can they turn down a story worth filming so close to home?
At first everything seems fine – although he never speaks, Mr Jones doesn’t seem dangerous. When Penny gets lost alone in the woods one night, and starts to see half glimpsed figures among the trees, he leads her safely back to her cabin, and she records herself saying she doesn’t feel scared. So is he just a benign shaman, protecting them from evil spirits? But when Scott unwisely takes one of the artist’s sculptures from his underground cavern, all hell starts to break loose.
DOP Mathew Rudenberg keeps the look more memorably shot than most horrors, with tiny detailed shots such as milk being poured into a coffee played backwards, or the shadow of rain sliding down a window at night, with the scarecrow sculptures are genuinely, beautifully weird. If the planned docu had ever existed outside Scott’s (fictitious) imagination, you get the feeling it would have been worth watching.
Foster and Jones are pitch-perfect as the loved up young couple whose professional and personal worlds are literally being broken up.. The movie echoes nineties horror classic “Blair Witch” with the earnest 20 somethings filming in the middle of nowhere, the uncomfortable, protracted arguments recorded, the strange events taking place in the woods., but the label “found footage” doesn’t really apply with the more conventional third person shots. As well as more modern day horror, there are echoes of Hitchcock where Scott and Penny’s cabin is attacked by birds breaking through the windows; only this time the birds are trying to get away from something on the outside.
When the night doesn’t end despite the fact it’s now mid morning, you’re reminded that one of the first things Penny says in the car travelling towards her cabin is: “What time does the sun set?” as now she lives in a world where the sun is always set.
The film loses its grip a little towards the end, with lurches into melodramatic what-the-hell-was-that-in-the-woods screeching and distorted footage. There is the possibility that this all a result of Scott going off his medication and hallucinating an evil nemesis, which is why Penny must eventually do what she does.
Beautifully shot and scored, this Tribeca 2013 selection is a brilliant example of how good horrors don’t need huge amounts of expensive CGI.
What if you came to the woods to find solitude…and found doubt you weren’t really alone?
Nina Romain is living proof that small children shouldn’t be taken trick-or-treating in Alabama in the 1980s – they tend to end up obsessed with the creepier side of Halloween! Her horror shorts tend to be shot half in the seedier side of Los Angeles and half in the darker side of the UK. She’s spending this Halloween dressed as a creepy clown at various London horror events and planning to eat her own weight in festive treats. You can find her on www.girlfright.com and IMDB.