When watching a horror film, it’s never a good sign when it evokes more awkwardness than scares. Most of the time, it’s not for lack of trying. At some point in the filmmaking process, something either doesn’t pull its weight, or an ingredient just doesn’t fit, so the whole film suffers because of it...
...It goes to show that the art of filmmaking isn’t an easy process and despite good intentions, it takes a precise orchestrated effort with great talent in tow, in order to create a proficient film. Rootwood, a new film from High Octane Pictures and director Marcel Walz, falls victim to a number of production pitfalls, but it does harness talent that shines through every so often.
After a quick scene that is most obviously a foreshadow of unfortunate events to come, we meet William (Tyler Grant) and Jessica, (Elissa Dowling) who are hosts of a paranormal podcast uncreatively called, ‘The Spooky Hour.’ I will say the film does succeed at making their show seem authentic to how podcasts actually structure themselves. It’s a brief scene, but I’ve seen far too many films fail when trying (or not trying) to recreate the podcast experience. Jessica and William get an email from a Hollywood producer asking them to participate in a documentary surrounding a legend in a secluded wooded area. ‘The Wooded Devil’ is a legend surrounding a park ranger who sells his soul to the devil in order to protect his land. He summoned all powers of the devil and became drunk with power and violence. It’s actually an intriguing little story and something that could have easily come straight from a Creepy Pasta story entry. William is ecstatic about the opportunity, while Jessica is slightly more cautious and untrusting. Agreeing to head the project, they both travel to the wooded territory with little information on what exactly they are supposed to shoot. As you might expect, they begin to experience strange paranormal instances over time, eventually ramping up to full blown activity. Sure, it’s a pretty predictable structure, but the somewhat cliché structure is the least of the film’s issues. There are far bigger problems rooted deep within the forest.
Rootwood actually had me intrigued and I was on board for the first twenty minutes or so, but it loses its momentum when they arrive at the documentary site. This is where the film should be showing off some of its strongest assets. Unfortunately, we’re subjected to our characters wandering around the forest aimlessly, stumbling across something strange every once in a while. This could be interesting if any of these situations were building blocks to uncovering something intriguing, but little is actually connected to the core story. About midway through the film, William laments to Jessica in frustration, “I just want all of this to build to something bigger.” I laughed out loud at his words, as he was basically reading my mind about the film’s lack of direction. The Wooded Devil legend could have spawned a really cool flashback scene or more lore could have been revealed slowly, but it’s rarely mentioned. We get a big setup with little follow through.
From a technical level, Rootwood is just fine. The cinematography is competent and even great in some scenes. We get long sweeping shots of the forest, although the scenery of the on-ground shots with our characters doesn’t match at all in consistency. The Aerial shots show dense, green forestry with hills and not many clearings, but our characters inhabit flat, open pastures. Nonetheless, the aerial shots are impressive and do offer a sense of scale. Everything else is shot well too, with well framed symmetry and editing that doesn’t make your head spin in confusion.
The musical score of Rootwood is absolutely terrible. The grand scale of the well-executed photography is almost destroyed because the score is so awkwardly composed thematically. It comes across like something you would hear on The Travel Channel’s coverage of haunted places, with heavy handed ominous musical queues. It creates an incredibly awkward feel for the film and it ultimately ruins several scenes.
As I stated earlier, the film does harness talent. Actress Elissa Dowling stands out immensely against every other actor on screen. She has a charisma that can’t be written into a script. She has a natural, instinctual way of delivering her lines that make you feel like she’s someone you know. What’s unfortunate, is that she’s performing alongside actors who don’t have charisma or screen presence even close to hers. Tyler Grant as William is pretty awkward, actually. There are moments where he comes across like an enthusiastic horror nerd and other times where he acts like an overly cocksure alpha male. Of course, characters can be multidimensional (and should) but his character and acting abilities are wildly inconsistent and interruptive of the film’s pace. I praised the representation of podcasting, but the interplay between William and Jessica seemed unnatural as there was no real chemistry between them. It’s certainly not to the fault of Dowling, who gives her all here. Everyone else in the film does a pretty competent job. I very much enjoyed Felissa Rose as hot tempered producer, Laura Benott. Her first credit was in 1983’s Sleepaway Camp as Angela and has since become a horror darling of sorts.
I’m glad I watched Rootwood. There are always positives to be extracted from heavily flawed films. Elissa Dowling is, without a doubt, the positive takeaway from this film. It’s not often I come across an actor, actress or even director these days that I either don’t already know about or someone new that I want to keep an eye on. I cannot speak more highly of her and her talents. As for the rest of Rootwood, I can’t say there’s much to like here for horror fans. At best, this is a film you watch streaming at three in morning because you can’t sleep. In those particular conditions, this might be a fun time, but if you’re looking for a good, new release horror outing to keep you and your horror hound friends entertained; this is not it. There are far better entertainment options during our home occupation in these crazy times.
Rootwood is now available on VOD from High Octane Pictures.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth