Sunday, May 4, 2008

THE FOREST (1981) d. Don Jones

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

We are always trying to get everything to fit into nice, neat little categories so that generalizations can be applied. That way, anything we discuss or analyze is easier to understand. Whether it is an historian, film critic, cultural trend analyst or sportscaster, it is easier to define an idea if it fits clear parameters. Sometimes though, generalizing is counterproductive and it is better to see that misfits or hybrids are what they are. For example, people are always trying to say, “The 60s were this,” or “The 70s were that”, and in one feel swoop a decade is generalized. Here is an example of how troublesome that approach is. After closer scrutiny, one can see that 1970 and 1971 were just as tumultuous and psychedelic years as 1968 and 1969, but it is easier to call all of the 1970s, “the 70s”. The transitional years of 1978-1981 were a lot like that too, and whenever a creative endeavor is born during an intermediary phase like those years, it will inherit elements of both “eras”, making it something that is harder to oversimplify. THE FOREST, written, directed and produced by Don Jones, goes even farther than being a film made during that blurred change of decades, its fascinating patchwork of genres, music, ideals and artistic styles help make it an “American Chop-Suey” so quirky and eclectic that it is very easy to look past the weaknesses and enjoy this very interesting “cult” film.

THE FOREST is the story of Steve and Charlie and their wives Teddi and Sharon, who decide to rendezvous at a favorite camping spot after some backpacking, as both a getaway from the pressures of the daily grind and their troubled marriages. Little does the foursome know, there are strange and terrible things waiting for them in the forest and before they realize it, they’ve stepped into a brutal fight for their lives. Each camper is pushed to their limits and some fall low in the test, but one of the four receives assistance from the most unlikely source imaginable before they take a final turn on the wheel of life.

In one of his interview segments, Don Jones talks about how little money he had to make this film, and while there are moments in THE FOREST where his financial constraints show, if that is all you see, you’re missing “the forest for the trees”. First and foremost, one of Mr. Jones’ best decisions was to alleviate set costs and shoot his film outside in Sequoia National Park. The advantages of his choice are many, not the least of which is that THE FOREST is as lovely and glorious an outdoor film as anything shot by The Sierra Club. Like any genre, horror films get stuck in ruts from which there is sometimes no escape and settings are one of the worst. If it isn’t set in a spooky house, it is a cemetery, or a factory, or a hospital/asylum and while all of these have been used superbly, staying with the tried and true can be dull. Most of THE FOREST is shot in the day time, creating a vivid contrast between the azure sky, the sparkling water, the verdant leaves, the vermillion blood and the gleam of a steel blade. When it is night, there is often the rich glow of firelight to bathe the shadows and the rocks with fitful flickers of flames. The sylvan beauty of the exterior location of THE FOREST lends it a distinctly 70s feel, especially when the luxuriant outdoor imagery is occasionally set to quasi-orchestral scores.

Don Jones also talks about wanting to do things “a little different” with his story and as a result, he pens a screenplay that combines ideas from mainstream television, ghost stories, slasher films, cannibal tales and revenge dramas. The end product is an unpredictable, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally jarring but indescribably enjoyable film that is no PSYCHO, but is A LOT better than the balance of the horror films from that time. Starting off with a classic and well shot “slasher prologue” juxtaposed with a “battle of the sexes” introductory premise that would have fit right into any of the later Brady Bunch episodes sounds a little incompatible, but it is part of the decade-melding charm. From there, the blending of iconic storylines continues as backpacking trip, emotional drama and slasher film continue to mix metaphors from the 70s and the 80s. The real left turn comes when the horror hermit of THE FOREST has his story become one tied to cannibalism, ghosts of the departed and revenge for the wrongs perpetrated against him. If this sounds like an impossible task to intermingle all of these story ideas and genres together, it probably was, but that is also what makes any “end of the decade” era special too as trends and styles shift and change. While the setting gives the film a decidedly 70s feel and the story is an inconceivable amalgamation of the 70s and 80s, it is the music that is incorruptibly 1980s.

Beyond of a few scenes where somewhat older “orchestral” selections were added, most of the incidental music is an eclectic mix of synthesizer tracks designed to add specific emotional punctuations and develop mood. Added in for even more dramatic flare were four sound track songs by Richard Hieronymus that are so very typical of the AOR (album oriented rock) that would dominate the 80s as the decade progressed. When watching THE FOREST, it takes a few minutes to realize that the music is very much “ahead of the curve” and that while it probably didn’t initiate the trends to come, so much of the music of THE FOREST was an example of the kind of soundtrack people would be whistling after watching favorite TV shows of the 1980s or blockbuster films of that decade. After watching SO MANY films of the 50s, 60s and 70s, I was just as powerfully effected by the atypical score of THE FOREST as I was its peculiar admixture of story elements.

The one great weakness of the film was that except for Gary Kent (as Michael Brody) who played “John”, all of the other “actors" and “actresses” of THE FOREST were absolute rookies or non-professionals. Their lack of experience and/or talent was evident throughout the movie, but there are two saving graces to their unimpressive performances. One grace is that it is very obvious how hard the players tried to do a good job and their honesty and sincerity is palpable. In addition, since they were not “professionals” and didn’t change the dialogue to fit their “interpretations”, the cultural identity of the screenplay remains intact. Steve and Charlie’s characters start out as archetypal sexist, male chauvinists, dating them clearly to the 1970s, but as the film progresses and their “emotional sides” are drawn forth in their concerns for their wives and each other, as Steve’s tears gush forth and Steve’s red headband is tied around his brow with puissant flair, the men’s iconography shifts unsubtly into the 80s. Even the women are not immune to the decade-bending power of the screenplay as they are alternately the “put up of shut up” feminists, the helpless and frightened women at their core and the caring but lethal toughies when needed; all archetypes of both the 70s and the 80s. Even though Don Jones lamented his lack of cash, by not being able to hire seasoned thespians, he avoided their influence on his creative brainchild and as a result, THE FOREST remains a testament to the amazing metamorphosis that was the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s.

The extras menu of THE FOREST seems like a fairly thin set of offerings until you dig beneath the surface and just like the film, there is more than meets the eye. Two commentary tracks can be enjoyed, and they are worth your time. The cast and crew and interview segment is short, poorly shot and with inconsistent sound, but it is also very interesting. There is a “real” stills gallery of photographs taken on set and behind the scenes. Considering that most of the actors of THE FOREST worked very little or never again, these are valuable bits of history. The Code Red stable of trailers is also a hell of a lot of fun, being a jumble of delightfully sleazy horror and exploitation trailers from the 70s and 80s. After meandering through the extras on THE FOREST, you come out of that experience with an even deeper appreciation for the film and the times.

To attain cult status as a film, you have to have something that sets you apart. Most of the time, it is trend-setting camera work, or a mind-blowing story, or landmark acting, or some trait that leaves an indelible impression. THE FOREST is that glorious type of oddity that doesn’t quite suit the molds, round holes or generalizations that critics and historians want everything to fit. That is what makes it special; it can’t be accommodated in all those nice little round holes. What is does fit is pleasantly into a whole run of genre-types and into two very different decades. As a result, THE FOREST is both a fun horror film and a look back at a time when America was changing faster than we ever knew.

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