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First Look Review - ROOTWOOD

rootwood review
The hosts of an occult radio show head into the woods in search of a local legend.

Review by Sue Finn

Directed by: Marcel Walz

Starring: Tyler Gallant, Elissa Dowling, Felissa Rose, Sarah French, Tiffani Fest, Brandon Rhea

rootwood poster

We open on a terrified woman rushing about the forest with a scream just made for horror movies. It’s chilling and bodes well for what’s about to launch.

The title card is held for an improbably long time before we are introduced to occult radio show hosts (and apparently ‘students’) Wil (Tyler Gallant) and Jessie (Elissa Dowling) and our hearts sink as we realise the opening is possibly as good as it’s going to get.

They head out to interview Laura Benott, a movie producer at Two Face Studios. She proves to be slightly more egotistical than expected but her idea of hiring them to make a documentary about a local horror legend is intriguing and their interests are peaked nonetheless. Benott is played by Felissa Rose, Angela of Sleepaway Camp fame (if you haven’t seen it, do so now!).

She regales them with a condensed story of The Curse of the Wooden Devil - essentially a ranger in nearby Rootwood Forest goes nuts and makes a contract with the devil, people disappear, townsfolk kill him and he uses his devil powers to kill everyone who sets foot in the forest.

The audio is wavering throughout this scene and it's told so fast it's hard to catch it, but that’s the gist and basically all we are told about this legend that no one bothers to investigate for the rest of the movie.

rootwood review

Jessie invites along a mutual friend in Erin (Sarah French) and they decide to set out in a camper van for the forest the next day (after a completely contrived and amateur scene that I think is meant to be some kind of night club? But looks and feels like an empty canteen with music coming from a boombox).

Following a few failed and clichΓ©d attempts at humour - i.e. the luggage scene - they head out early the next morning.

After a night in their trailer - which they have parked within the haunted forest, tension alleviated by a poop scene (yes you read that correctly) - they spend the next morning wandering about the forest for a while with their camera.

Eventually they come across some kind of standpipe on which names are graffitied. Two of the names match the list of the missing that was provided to them by the producer of the documentary. Will puts his hands onto the graffiti heart and claims it’s definitely blood.

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Shortly afterwards, in a wholly nonsensical and forced scene, Erin finds a hangman’s noose inside a tree and everyone panics.

Later that day Wil tells them ghost stories, until Erin declares, “That’s it! I’m going to sleep!”, even though it’s clearly just late afternoon.

During the night Wil and Jess head out into the night to investigate a noise and find ‘Blair Witch’ rip-off stick creatures.

When they return Erin says she saw an evil creature in the woods and wants to leave immediately, so she packs only a handbag then goes out into those self-same woods at 3am to order a ride share and go home.

rootwood review

As if that weren’t preposterous enough, she then chooses to “relax” in an abandoned storm-drain pipe. When the inevitable ‘big scare’ happens it’s like Erin is being played by a mannequin; note to indie film makers - your actors still have to act when violence happens, there have been several films now where the actors stand stock still as if afraid to hurt the special effects.

From here, things get even more silly until it winds itself up with not one but two lame twists.

There is much to critique here but firstly, the pluses - no romance between two main leads is a real strength, their friendship does feel genuine and lived-in and it's refreshing to have that not lead to a love moment; and the acting of Dowling is actually solid and surprisingly good, she definitely rises well above the material.

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The minuses are a far longer list.

The decision by director Marcel Walz to alternate between found footage and regular filming is a mistake. It just confuses the audience and loses the impact of found footage as well as undermines the viewpoint of the film. If film-makers insist on alternating, at the very least they shouldn’t use hand-held camera during the non-found-footage parts.

There is no real sense of time in the script by Mario von Czapiewski. Having characters declare twice “I’m going to bed” in the late afternoon when we haven’t seen them eat, or have any sense of days is very silly and not in any way believable (particularly given that they are also scripted complaining that they hadn’t gotten enough footage and were running out of time).

The twists at the end are beyond ridiculous and actively made me angry.

rootwood review

Acting-wise, apart from the good work of Dowling, former ice hockey player Gallant’s Wil comes off as slow-witted and incapable of responding correctly to the events surrounding him, and French as Erin seems to think she’s in an entirely different film altogether what with her continuous primping and flirting with the camera.

Rose is utterly appalling and only brings her horror royalty to the party - otherwise she just chews scenery with relish and zero subtlety.

As for horror, the one gore scene there is is nonsensical and anatomically incorrect. Any chills they could have gotten from the material are milked to the point of familiarity and thus not scary, though there were one or two ‘scares in the background’ shots that mostly worked before they succumbed to the overkill.

This is essentially a low rent The Blair Witch Project, which was already super low budget and yet managed to be well acted, scripted and shot, while also reaching classic status; there is no hope for this movie reaching any of those things.

This film is a misfire at all stages and is only barely watchable due to Dowling's acting chops, or maybe on a so-bad-its funny level.

Painful.

Rootwood is on US DVD and Digital now. A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.




2020 movie reviews