Reviewed by Michael Miller
ROOTWOOD to DVD and Digital on April 7th from High Octane Pictures!
Tales of demons, ghosts, witches and assorted other boogeymen (and boogeywomen) making the forests their home have existed, in one form or another, for quite some time. From Grimms’ 1812 story, “Hansel and Gretel”, about two children lost in the woods meeting a cannibalistic witch, to the 1999 found-footage film, The Blair Witch Project. From the 1755 Slavic legend of Baba Yaga to 1981’s wildly entertaining iconic horror film, The Evil Dead. From the Spiders of Mirkwood in Tolkien’s 1937 novel, The Hobbit, to Aragog the Acromantula and his enormous spider family in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Whatever the story, whatever its origin, there’s always been a fascination with the ‘haunted’ or ‘enchanted’ forest. I’m sure many of us have our own personal experience of becoming lost in the woods or, at least, thinking we’re lost in the woods. Being lost and alone, miles from home, in a forest that can hold a myriad of hidden dangers, is a very common fear. And, much like anything else that scares us in the real world, one way to deal with that fear is to watch a horror movie or read a horror novel where the protagonist(s) are faced with that problem and the many dangers that lie within. There’s some comfort to be found in being an observer as a fictional character finds themselves experiencing what we’re terrified of.
As I settled in to watch the 2018 Marcel Waltz horror film, Rootwood, I was excited. Shortly after the movie begins, we’re given a brief explanation of the legend of Rootwood Forest via words ominously appearing after the title of the film (think the very first scene of 1986’s Highlander, Sean Connery’s deep resonating voice preparing us for the exciting journey ahead, minus the voiceover)!
“Centuries ago, a peaceful woodsman realized that the beloved forest he called home was in grave danger.
Desperate to protect his family, with nowhere else to turn, he negotiated a deal with the DEVIL.
In exchange for the preservation of the woods, he offered his soul. The Devil agreed and the gates of Hell were opened.”
Not in this case.
Rootwood is the tale of two friends, Jessica (Elissa Dowling) and William (Tyler Gallant) who host “The Spooky Hour”, a podcast dedicated to ghosts, legends…anything revolving around the paranormal. A Hollywood producer, Laura Benott (Felissa Rose-more on her later), hires the two of them, along with their friend, Erin (Sarah French), to film a documentary about Rootwood Forest, specifically, the legend of the ‘Wooden Devil’. The friends travel by RV to Rootwood Forest, anticipating possible notoriety if they’re able to capture evidence of the Wooden Devil on film.
The rest of the film plays out as one would expect if documentary or found-footage style horror films are your thing. The friends discover weird and ominous clues that something unnatural is occurring within the woods and eventually realize they’re in over their heads. The reality of what they’re experiencing goes from mild skepticism to complete and total belief in the Wooden Devil as they meet their fate. The film concludes with not one, not two but…during a mid-credits’ moment…THREE twists.
Whether I’m watching an amateur film on YouTube or a more professional indie film on Amazon, I’ve always kept in mind the experience of the director, the production crew and the actors/actresses involved in the film. Films of this caliber are almost always hindered by an extremely low to almost no budget. It can be a joy to see what a director and the crew can do with little to no experience and with virtually no money. With technology constantly improving by leaps and bounds and becoming more affordable, almost anyone can be a filmmaker. Some budding filmmakers stand out from the crowd and give us something truly impressive while others should consider another career altogether.
I really wanted to like this film and, to be fair, there were instances where I was slightly impressed with what I was experiencing. Unfortunately, these instances were very few and very far between. Let’s start out with the highlights….
Elissa Dowling’s performance as Jessica was the standout. Most of the time, her reactions to what her character was supposed to be experiencing seemed completely natural and genuine. One scene was especially noticeable: near the end of the film, as her character, Jessica, is being hunted throughout the woods, Dowling convincingly conveys the fear and utter hopelessness the scene requires better than some ‘professional’ actresses. Dowling appears to have dug down deep to find something to draw from to make that type of emotional distress come across as authentic. When the film came to its final ending, I read her filmography. She’s had roles in several extremely low budget films; however, I was surprised to see that she had a minor role in Girl on the Third Floor. Not a great film but better than some I’ve seen on Netflix, so I hope to see her attain better roles as her career progresses.
The Wooden Devil itself was kept mostly to the shadows, as is typical with extremely low budget films but once we get a better look at the creature, I was rather impressed. It was a better design than I anticipated considering everything that had come before that moment. Obviously, a performer in a monster suit, it came off more realistic than it should’ve due to a bit of creative filming; a clear but then a quickly blurred glimpse of a creature with splashes of blood and other viscera appearing to be slathered on its body. After that brief glimpse, the creature isn’t seen again until just before the end credits.
Discussing the ending(s) is tricky without spoiling the surprise. Part of me was aware of what was coming as it’s been done before but another part of me was impressed that director Walz chose to end his film that way. That was the ending his film deserved but, unfortunately, Walz felt his film needed more which leads me to what I didn’t enjoy about Rootwood.
Other than Dowling, the rest of the performers made me feel as if their only acting experience came from their local theater productions. Not community theater…high school theater. Tyler Gallant’s performance went back and forth between abysmal to being on the cusp of showing a smidge of talent. His biggest struggle it seemed was in trying to deliver his lines in a natural way, not in a stilted, please-someone-give-me-my-next-line kind of way. What the most distracting and eye-rolling issue with Gallant’s performance was that either he wanted to show off what he considered to be his physical attributes, or the director wanted to focus on Gallant’s attributes. Who knows?
The rest of the cast, from Felissa Roses’ way over the top performance as Hollywood producer, Benott to Sarah French’s version of the ‘there’s no reason for me to be here other than as eye candy’ blonde all felt as if they had no idea what their character’s name were or what they should be doing.
My biggest issue with the entire film is that Marcel Walz didn’t know what he wanted his movie to be: documentary, found-footage, a combination of the two as in the old ‘movie-within-a-movie’…what? While some may say that was the intent of the filmmaker, that it was innovative, fresh, whatever…I found it to be incredibly distracting and confusing. If Walz had just picked a specific subgenre, for instance; found-footage horror, I feel that Rootwood could’ve been, if not a great film or even a good film, at least a so-bad-it’s-good film. As it stands, Rootwood is just a bad film.
ROOTWOOD to DVD and Digital on April 7th from High Octane Pictures!