Low budget horror films are an interesting lot. Films of the shoestring variety tend to be hit or miss, with a heavy slant to the miss side of things. Sometimes this is completely on the filmmakers. They might be working with a bad script, bad actors and just not have the technical aspects down. More often than not, however, they are facing limitations that are simply out of their control. Making a movie with a mega-budget is hard. Making a movie with virtually no budget is a damn near miracle. That’s not to say that you should give low budget films a complete and total pass, but you have to view them through a different lens. That brings me to Seán Breathnach’s directorial debut, Beyond the Woods.
In Beyond the Woods a group of 7 friends meet at a cottage in the Irish countryside for a secluded weekend to just get away from all the troubles of life. Unfortunately, things quickly get off to a rough start as a massive sinkhole opens up just on the other side of the woods. The sinkhole opens to some sort of fiery sulfur pit and gives off a horrendously foul stench. It’s so bad that roads in the area are closed and no one can stand being outside for an extended period of time. The only thing this group of friends can do is hang out inside and drink.
For a large portion of the film, the friends are doing just that — sitting around inside the house drinking and chatting. It was strange that at no point in their conversations did they ever stop to try American food and give their opinion on it. YouTube has taught me that Irish people love to try American foods and then talk about it. What the friends do talk about is their lives, the shared experiences they’ve had and their relationships.
One couple, Ray (Mark Lawrence) and Lucy (Irene Kelleher), have it a bit of rocky patch in their marriage. Ray is fully invested in work. He can’t be off his phone for 5 minutes and it’s source of great tension. Given that the cottage doesn’t have WiFi and the reception, in general, is horrible the situation gets worse. This bit of real drama causes some riffs amongst the friends and in a non-horror film would probably serve as the basis for our plot.
As the second day at the cottage passes the friends begin to hear and see things. Some have hallucinations, others get lost in the woods and quickly lose track of time. A number of hours will pass and they think it’s only been a few minutes. Strange reflections and evil twins appear in mirrors. And then worst of all, a creature appears.
Is this a result of too much drinking and smoking? Perhaps the fumes from the sinkhole contain chemicals that cause visions? Or maybe that sinkhole is actually a gateway to Hell. Beyond the Woods suggests all of these as possible solutions before finally settling in on one.
Beyond the Woods has a lot of the technical issues you see with low budget, first-time filmmakers. Some of the scenes are far too dark, even for scenes that are taking place in dark woods. There is something a little off about the audio. It has a bit of an echo and is just generally hard to hear clearly at times. In general, these are minor issues that don’t pose too much of a problem. For the most part, it is a technically sound movie. On the effects side of things, the film does pretty well. The effects look to be a combination of practical and digital, but it is a little hard to tell because most appear in the really dark scenes. Either way when effects are used, whether it be some blood or someone getting hit by car, it all looks pretty good.
The creature design is where a lot is left to be desired. The first few moments when the creature is seen I thought to myself, “Ok, let’s see where this is going.” But by the last time we see him I audibly said, “Oh no. I don’t care for this.” This is something that I’m going to say is almost entirely on budgetary restraints but this would be a case where it’s best served to just show less of the creature.
Once we move beyond the issue of the budget, the film does still have some problems, the script being the biggest culprit. The film almost feels like an idea for a short that was stretched out to a feature but without enough material to truly make a feature. Irish people are easy to listen to talk, I get that, but too much of this film was people just talking about randomness. The conversations served some purpose in helping us getting to know the characters, but none of it really helped move the story forward. And the story needs to be more fleshed out and coherent. We don’t really get an explanation for anything other than, “well, because of the sinkhole.” Some cool ideas are hinted at, for sure. The sinkhole being a portal to Hell or some sort of dimension is fun. The creature needing to capture souls is cool, but we need more.
Where I will give Breathnach and his crew credit is in building tension. The film does manage to build up and create some tense situations that had me glued to the screen to see what happened. The payoff in most cases was a little iffy, but the skill to build tension is clearly there.
Beyond the Woods is what you expect with most low budget horror films. The bones for a good film are there, but it doesn’t quite come together. It’s the type of film you could watch late night on a Saturday on SyFy and find entertainment in it and that’s something. I’ll be curious to see what Breathnach does next.