The issue with this ostensible haunting in Black Wood is not a paucity of dollars in the budget, but rather of tension, drama, and ideas.
The Haunting of Black WoodDirector: Jack Heller
Cast: Scott Eastwood, Sara Paxton, Katherine Waterston, Shaun Sipos, Christopher Denham
US Release Date: Import
UK Release Date: 2015-02-02
If you're a horror fan, then the first thing you'll want to know about The Haunting of Black Wood is that it contains absolutely no haunting whatsoever. Yes, the characters are haunted in the pseudo-Freudian "aren't we all haunted" sense, but that doesn't really count in the case of the horror genre. With regard to supernatural "horror movie haunting", the kind suggested by use of the word “haunting” in the title, let's be clear: there are no ghosts, spirits, entities, or anything of the sort in this flick.
Let's pull the rest of that title, apart while we're at it. The film is mostly set in the woods, which are certainly dark. In fact, they might even be so dimly lit that someone may have once given them the name “Black Wood”. However, it could pretty much be set anywhere, a desert, an isolated country house, maybe a crypt, to pick a not entirely random example. In certain films, the location is a key part of the story, embellishing or reflecting the plot. For example, the Pine Barrens provide The Last Broadcast with a certain chill and danger; the same goes for the woods in Burkittsville and The Blair Witch Project. There is nothing specifically silvological about The Haunting of Black Wood, though, which explains why it’s so odd that the prenominate Black Wood should be singled out for inclusion in the title.
It turns out that there is a reason for the misleading assemblage of words used to name this movie. It was actually released in the United States four years ago under the title Enter Nowhere, which while apparently expressing something more oblique turns out, after viewing the film, to be a much more accurate and descriptive title than The Haunting of Black Wood. The problem with this re-titling is not so much a childish gripe that it doesn’t reflect the contents of the movie. If that were a valid criticism, then all copies of The Neverending Story (107 minutes long and in no way infinite) and The Last Picture Show (I can name at last a dozen movies that came after it) would have been destroyed for their respective crimes of misinformation. Rather, the change in name marks a hamfisted attempt to wring a few more dollars out of a weak, low budget sci-fi movie by repackaging it as an example of a much more popular genre, in the process duping fans of the genre out of their money and into one of the more disappointing evenings of their horror-movie loving lives.
This is not a horror movie, although the set-up certainly makes it sound like one: three strangers find themselves trapped in a cabin in the woods; they can’t remember how they got there, and they soon discover that they can’t leave. However as the story progresses, we find ourselves in something more like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone than the ghost or slasher story we had been led to expect. In fact, the characters themselves remark how akin their situation is to the set-up to a horror movie. Nevertheless, this isn’t a clever misdirection or a subtle blending of genres; any disassembling of the viewer’s assumptions is more likely the result of a confusing marketing campaign than some post-Scream highjinks. At this stage in cinema, filmmakers do not get points for throwing a bit of base level self-awareness into the mix.
It would be unfair to give away anymore of the plot (such as it is) than that. Enjoyment of the film ultimately rests on how taken you are with the denouement. Although It does deal with ideas of fate and responsibility, it does so only in a superficial way. If you’re watching The Haunting of Black Wood with some friends, then when the "big" pay-off comes, might I suggest you grab your head and shriek “Whooah!”, jaw to the floor. The contrast between your exaggerated reaction and the lack of profundity on the screen will be funny, and you’ll have created the most entertaining moment of an otherwise dull evening.
The cast is entirely competent. Sara Paxton plays Jody, the bad girl with a heart of gold, and she deserves credit for managing to turn a sack of movie clichés into someone quite sympathetic. Katherine Waterston and Scott Eastwood both cope well with some functional but banal dialogue. The small budget is evident in the movie’s few action scenes, but overall it is not a problem. The issue is not a paucity of dollars, but rather of tension, drama, and ideas. A compliment might be that the ambition of the film -- namely the exploration of fate or determinism or whatever other concepts you might want to generously suggest the film as addressing -- outstrips its resources. However, those aspirations don’t stack up against a story we’ve seen before and a script which, at best, is not too clunky.