"For some people, a simple warning is never enough," and those people will probably be just as eager to buy Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray/DVD combo of DON'T GO IN THE WOODS as they were to buy the Code Red DVD!
Four campers – know-it-all tool Craig (James P. Hayden), "tenderfoot" Peter (Jack MacClelland), and their respective girlfriends Joanie (Angie Brown, TEEN VAMP) and Ingrid (Mary Gail Artz) – hike into the woods totally oblivious of the upswing in mysterious disappearances and woodland carnage of various obnoxious tourists (who make questionable wardrobe choices) that has the local sheriff (Ken Carter) none too worried. Often the butt of the group's pranks and subject to false scares, Peter nevertheless is the first to realize that something is very wrong when a fisherman is slaughtered right before his eyes. Ingrid and Peter flee for their lives from the resourceful backwoods killer (Tom Drury). After finding Craig dead, Ingrid and Peter manage to reach safety, but chose to return to the woods in search of Joanie and risk becoming just as savage as the maniac in order to defeat him.
Developed over a period of two years and shot over four months of weekends (the various death scenes and nature footage) with an additional ten days for the scenes featuring the central quartet of actors, the Utah-lensed DON'T GO IN THE WOODS - directed by James Bryan (THE EXECUTIONER PART II) – anticipates later "wild man" slashers as JUST BEFORE DAWN, and particularly THE FINAL TERROR (and also THE PREY but that was produced in 1978 but not released until 1984), while also sharing images and situations with other slasher films from the same period that are more likely coincidental. Shot on 35mm short ends, the film's look is appropriately as patchwork as the story which is padded out by one of the genre's largest body counts with deaths by way of stabbings, Monty Python-esque (cited by the filmmakers) lopped-off limbs, and crude traps and endless scenes of stilted acting made all the more surreal by the post-synchronized dialogue ("Come here you pencil-necked geek!" shouts one imminent victim – as dubbed by the director himself – to the killer). The killings can be quite savage even if they are mostly splashes of red paint and barbecue sauce, and the cinematography of the scenic locations could have been breathtaking if the handheld camera could hold still enough to appreciate it and if the quality of the film stock were not all over the place. There is very little suspense since most of the killings happen quite abruptly with little buildup or opportunity for the peripheral victims to make stupid decisions apart from a pair of middle-aged newlyweds (Bryan-regular Frank Millen and Carolyn Braza) honeymooning in a shagwagon. The electronic scoring of H. Kingsley Thurber (FROZEN SCREAM) tries to create false scares with stings on just about any cutaway (even wide shots of a crowd of characters) but it picks up towards second half as the pacing catches up once the plight of the campers takes precedence over the random murders.
Released theatrically by Seymour Borde & Associates – and Manson International in some territories – whose assets wound up distributed on tape by Vestron and Lighting Video (with DON'T GO on the former), DON'T GO IN WOODS hit DVD first in a special edition courtesy of Code Red. That transfer was a director-approved 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer with extras produced by Bryan (Code Red would also release an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer doubled with THE FOREST with an exclusive commentary by CinemaHeadCheese). I have not seen the Code Red widescreen version but Vinegar Syndrome's 4K-mastered 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC widescreen transfer is framed at a comfortable 1.66:1 and reveals more picture additional picture information on the sides while forfeiting less at the top and bottom than one would expect. The image is brighter than the Code Red one and the colors may have been boosted slightly (with the already gaudy pinks looking hotter). It is possible that the Code Red fullscreen transfer was slightly cropped on the sides because of the very evident light leaks that are evident on either side of the frame at several intervals in the newer transfer (indeed, the Code Red transfer is nothing to sniff at and is more than perfectly suitable for viewers who have no need or wish to see the film in HD). The cropping on the Code Red does not really throw off the compositions since the film is not that well composed to start with. Other warts that are more evident in this HD presentation are a frame tear in one of the opening shots, more light scratches, and the patchwork quality of the short ends used to shoot the film more evident than before with grain heavier in some night and shadowed day shots than in cutaways shot at another time and with superior pieces of film stock (also more evident is the cinematographer adjusting the lens' f-stop for some shots that move from bright to darker environments). Indeed, on the commentary track, director Bryan mentions that he got a good deal on some stock that was sent back from another picture because it was deemed unsuitable for use at all. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 rendition of the mono track is quite pleasing with post-synched dialogue as bold as the musical stings and dubbed-in screams and grunting.
Like the Code Red DVD, the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray is a packed affair, carrying over much of the extras produced for the film by Bryan himself and super fan Deron Miller (including a solo commentary track by Bryan and one with Bryan, actress Artz, and Miller). The Bryan track is the most informative as he discusses the development of the film, shooting scenes with victims on weekends (and pointing out his various Sunn Classics associates and the film's crew members) while the production was rounding up its main cast (whose part of the shoot was relatively short since they were brought in from Los Angeles). Bryan also touches upon the film's humorous elements, like making his victims guilty of crimes of fashion rather than lust. He also gives us some background on the cast and several crew members who went on to loftier film work both in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. He also discusses the film's special effects (most of which were sculpted by his wife), the technical aspects (including the quality of the short ends used for certain scenes), working in the variable weather conditions (some of which they captured for cutaways), as well as his attempts to get the film distributed nationally. When Seymour Borde distributed the film in Los Angeles, he made a deal for it to share the screen at a theater with E.T. The grosses were reported based on the screen rather than the individual film, which lead to interest from other territories.
The bonus track with Bryan, Artz and Miller has some overlap, but Miller's moderation touches upon aspects that Bryan neglected on the solo track such as the soundtrack contributions of Thurber (he was used to industrial film scoring but Bryan asked for something more John Carpenter-ish), shooting with an un-blimped camera and looping the dialogue, and the swap-meet costuming by his wife and his sister. Some of the overlap from the solo track also occurs at more scene-specific places thanks to Miller's questions and additional comments from Artz (who had been laid off from her job at Warner Bros. before being offered the role and shortly after become a casting director starting with HALLOWEEN II). There's plenty of joking around at the expense of the film, but it never feels as mean-spirited as other "so bad it's good" commentaries.
New to the Blu-ray release is a commentary by The Hysteria Continues (whose work was previously heard on Vinegar Syndrome releases of SAVAGE WATER, DEATH BY INVITATION, NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR, and GRADUATION DAY). While their humorous takes on the material can be hit-and-miss, DON'T GO IN THE WOODS is more suited to light-hearted derision here than some of the other films slasher fans hold dear. The Bryan solo track is present for those who want the more sober take on the film, but The Hysteria Continues commentators incorporate information from the other tracks and the Bryan featurettes. The track has added informational value in that one of the commentators has interviewed the film's credited screenwriter Garth Eliassen who rates only slight mention from Bryan – who rates slight mention from Bryan on the commentary but is interviewed more extensively in the featurette – and his concept of a killer who murders a group of campers using their campfire musings on the worst way to die. They also draw parallels between certain set-pieces and similar ones in NIGHT OF THE DEMON (the van attack), FRIDAY THE 13TH (Ingrid picking up the machete in one climactic shot that anticipates a similar one in the Cunningham film) and other films. They also discuss the BBFC's banning of the film during the Video Nasties debacle (it was later dropped from the list), and its sale in some foreign territories as a sequel to Don Jones' THE FOREST.
The Cast and Crew Featurette (56:43) is the making-of featurette from the DVD in which Bryan has rounded up just about everyone he could find from the production. McClelland discusses his current career as a television commercial producer while Artz introduces Bryan to DON'T GO IN THE WOODS super fans Miller and Dave Mosca, and Hayden discusses his projects since the film including scripts, books, and a proposed line of fashion. Brown became a television producer with her husband after the film and recalls going to London on business only to discover the film's notoriety as a Video Nasty while Drury discusses his music career, stage acting, and voice work (Bryan also mentions that some of Drury's music is heard on the film's soundtrack). Also interviewed are retired Vegas card dealer Millen (who has the killer's "jingle stick" in storage and unfortunately gets a hard whack to the head retrieving it), sound recordist/private investigator/wheelchair victim Gerry Klein, news cameraman-turned-cinematographer Hank Zinman, composer Thurber (whose work on the film lead to his work in video game scoring), and production designer S.K. James who opened up a costume shop with Bryan's sister Suzette Bryan-Gomez (who also produced and provided costumes).
Screenwriter Eliassen gets a more substantial interview as part of the featurette, discussing his original concept and Bryan asking him to pile on more murders (about thirteen or fourteen), his rewrites, and being on set for the shoot (where Bryan allowed him to set up some shots and direct the actors while he was working on other parts of the shoot). Late producer Roberto Gomez is remembered by his son Michael and wife Suzette, and how their Honduran relatives (as well as her own Spanish class students) learned about the film. Bryan appears in between interviews to give some additional background, such as Thurber needing money for his move to work at a television station before the film had been sold (so Bryan gave him a ¾" tape and the television rights to the film). Bryan dedicates the featurette to agent Peter Turner who was responsible for rounding up a lot of the onscreen and offscreen talent but has since been elusive (Bryan asks most of the interviewees when they last spoke to him and it appears they have all fallen out with Turner in some way).
The "TV Promotion Compilation" (14:14) intersperses radio spot excerpts and onscreen commentary from Bryan with two local Salt Lake television appearances he made for the premiere of the film with Tom Drury, as well as a solo interview with Drury. They address the usual issues of why they chose a genre project, funding, and the film's two years of development. The "Autograph Signing Party" footage (29:27) is not newly-produced but it was also not featured on previous releases of the film, documenting a series of interviews conducted by a puppet with guests present at an autograph session for the Code Red DVD including Bryan, his wife, Drury, Artz, Hayden, Klein, filmmaker Soly Bina (who also promotes his film LETHAL PREMONITION), its foreign distributor, Deron Miller and his wife Felissa Rose (SLEEPAWAY CAMP). It's not an essential extra but welcome nonetheless with some humorous remarks (Hayden says that he knew he was not an actor, and that everyone else knew it too after they saw the film). The disc also includes a production stills gallery, a gallery of press artwork, a look at the dialogue continuity script (sadly no PDF extra on the DVD), and the film's theatrical trailer (1:07) which was narrated by sleeping bag victim Leon Brown Jr. The already-visible seams of DON'T GO IN THE WOODS may be brought into sharper relief in high definition, but Vinegar Syndrome's presentation is no less loving and the film retains its odd (very odd) charm. (Eric Cotenas)
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