One of the greatest things about movies is that they allow us a temporary break from everything going on in the real world...
...Such pauses of reality are especially needed during times like we’re living through now. Each movie takes us on a short trip to new locales with new characters to meet. Sometimes, though, movies alone aren’t enough. Sometimes, we need to physically get away from the rest of the world so we can recharge our batteries. What that may entail is different for everyone. As far as I’m concerned, nothing beats a trip into the woods, especially staying in a remote cabin. As many horror movies have made clear, those cabins can be both places of solace and factories of fear, since they’re often completely disconnected from the outside world even in our modern, tech-obsessed age.
Murder in the Woods, written by Yelyna De Leon and directed by Luis Iga, uses one such cabin for the backdrop of its story, in which six teens head to a remote house in the woods for a weekend of partying and relaxing from the stresses of everyday life. When the teens first arrive, everything goes according to plan. Once the party kicks off and the alcohol and edibles are passed around, things take a darker turn. A mysterious killer starts to pick the teens off one by one, leaving them to guess what the killer wants and who will be the next to die. What’s left of the group must band together to defend themselves and figure out why they’re being hunted down.
It’s clear that Yelyna De Leon and Luis Iga are fans of the slasher genre, and Murder in the Woods shows the two have an astute understanding of the tropes and elements present in camp slasher classics like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp, along with an ability to make use of those elements to craft a story that keeps the viewer guessing. Murder in the Woods has the remote locale, the mysterious killer whose identity is unknown, woefully unaware teens, and even the nosy and unbelieving sheriff (played masterfully by the one and only Danny Trejo). Together, these pieces form a complete movie that is aware both of what’s come before it and how it stands apart from its predecessors.
One of the most prominent differences between Murder in the Woods and the classic slasher movies is the representation in its talented cast, which is made up almost entirely of Latinx actors playing Latinx characters written to be more than the typical stereotypes they’re most often relegated to in cinema. As someone who is firmly in the camp that representation matters, I believe it’s important to celebrate movies that bring complex and realistic BIPOC characters when we can.
Although Murder in the Woods is Luis Iga’s first feature as director, you wouldn’t know it. Teaming up with editor Ryan Liebert and cinematographer Nick Albert, Iga has created a movie that showcases his directorial skills. The film lacks the jarring jump scares and intense terror that have become so common in modern horror, but Iga finds a way to keep the viewer unsettled by juxtaposing comedy against horror and using benign moments, such as offscreen characters barging into the cabin during an intense calm, to keep us on our toes.
Despite all the things that make Murder in the Woods a fantastic directorial debut from Luis Iga, the film has its flaws. For me, one of the best parts of hiding the killer’s identity is the shock that comes when they’re finally revealed, but Murder in the Woods gives too many hints that make it easy to guess who’s doing the slashing. Where most movies would have a few red herrings, it’s hard not to figure out who the killer is in this cabin. Whether or not this obviousness is intentional is unclear, but it made the reveal, one of my favorite parts of so many slashers, that much less impactful in this case.
Maybe because of the obvious killer, Murder in the Woods lost me a bit in the third act. At the start of the final act, the pace quickens, as we might expect, but it picks to up an extreme, almost-manic level. So much is packed into the final 20 minutes, some of which seems entirely unnecessary, that it can be hard not to be pulled out of the story while trying to get everything straight.
Even with a jam-packed third act and total giveaway of the killer’s identity, Murder in the Woods stands as a welcome vacation from the standard modern horror fare and serves as a love letter to the classic ‘80s and ‘90s horror that so many horror fans love.
Murder in the Woods comes to VOD/Digital from Rezinate Entertainment September 18th.
By Tim Bierne