Code Red goes down to the woods and brings the evils of THE FOREST into sharp relief with their Blu-ray upgrade of one of their earliest DVD releases.
Eager to get out of smog-filled and traffic-congested Los Angeles, business partners Steve (Dean Russell) and Charlie (John Batis) decide to go camping for a week. When their respective wives Sharon (Tomi Barrett, THE PYRAMID) and Teddi (Ann Wilkinson, BOOGEYMAN 2) want to go with them, the husbands try to put them off the idea of roughing it, but their chauvinism eggs the two ladies on to go on their own camping trip with the guys joining them later on. Steve and Charlie decide to catch up with their wives soon after they leave, but Steve's radiator overheats and they are delayed for several hours. As storm clouds gather, Sharon and Teddi are spooked by the sounds of wild animals and then the spectral appearance of a woman (Jeanette Kelly) searching for her naughty children in order to punish them and subsequently creepy siblings John Jr. and Jennifer (MONSTER IN THE CLOSET's Corky Pigeon and Becki Burke) who warn them to hide because "Daddy's gone hunting." Steve and Charlie end up taking shelter from the rain in the cave lair of John (Gary Kent, SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS) who offers them some fresh meat roasting on a spit ("I just got a chill," mutters Charlie effectively after taking a bite). The two men manage to survive the night camping out with John in the cave; however, they realize all too late that they are fair game (in more ways than one) once they split up into the forest in search of their wives.
Although James Bryan's equally impoverished but unrelated slasher DON'T GO IN THE WOODS would come to be known in some territories as THE FOREST 2, the "original" by Don Jones (THE LOVE BUTCHER) is certainly the lesser entry; and yet, it is not without a certain charm. What little suspense the film contains is spoiled early on by long shots of the killer who looks less imposing running after more agile prey (although these bits were doubled since Jones shot the prologue in post to bring up the running time), but Kent himself makes the most out of his cannibal killer who tells his victims that he is only going to kill them because he is starving and winter's coming. The quartet of co-stars (including Kent's wife Barrett) are good enough to keep the story moving, with no truly terrible performances to distract a la DON'T GO IN THE WOODS (Warner actually gets better as her character gets more hysterical). The double exposure ghost wife and children, on the other hand, are a diverting touch; as is the flashback to John discovering his wife's infidelity and killing her (with one painful looking and sounding blow to the head) and then chasing her lover through a yard littered with various sharp and rusty objects that its surprising his kids survived for so long. The Sequoia Park settings are more national park than DELIVERANCE backwoods, although one wishes that Jones had been more ambitious with the nevertheless stunning scenery. Stafford Morgan (THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA) appears briefly in the prologue as an early victim while sound recordist Jean Clark (EATEN ALIVE) doubles as a garage mechanic and director Jones makes a brief appearance as a forest ranger. The score was the joint work of Richard Hieronymous (who scored some of Jones' earlier works and then moved on to adult films in the eighties) and Alan Oldfield (DOGS) with some nice synth work (which probably sound less cheesy now than it did in the 1980s where it might have seemed more 1970s) that gives way to some AM radio-type songs like the end title "The Edge of Forever" and the dire theme "The Dark Side of the Forest." THE FOREST ultimately falls short on the genre's T&A and gore factors, but it has a nostalgic value for those of us who were attracted to the eye-catching home video art and were far more disappointed in the film at the time.
Shot for the video market but given scant theatrical release, the film garnered most of its audience with Prism Entertainment's clamshell case, the artwork of which suggests something more atmospheric. Code Red released the film on DVD in 2006 through Media Blasters and then again in an identical special edition in 2008 through BCI (along with an otherwise barebones double feature with a 16:9 version of DON'T GO IN THE WOODS with a Cinema Head Cheese commentary in 2009). 1080p does not suddenly turn THE FOREST into a better film, but the already converted and the grudgingly accepting slasher fan will find the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 upgrade quite engaging. More picture information is evident on the top and sides of the screen (which sometimes means more headroom in close-ups while also exposing in one shot the flapping cardboard used to blow the ghost childrens' hair). Shadow detail is superior, as are the night scenes (and day for night shots). Greens are greener, and the blood is redder (and we also get a better look at some of the few prosthetic wounds). The best-looking shots are still the flashbacks which were shot under more controlled conditions, but it is actually surprising how much slicker and professional the film does look at its best with some good production value in the shots of the characters driving along scenic roads and kicking up dust into sunlight streaming through the trees. Scratches and other processing and archival damage to the materials evident on the DVD remain, but the Blu-ray is definitely the more engaging viewing experience. The mono audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that is quite clean, revealing the unevenness of the location dialogue recording while the score feels more vibrant.
The film is accompanied by two audio commentary tracks. On the first are director Jones and cinematographer Stuart Asbjornsen (BAYWATCH) who distinguish the material the latter shot and what Jones shot later on to fill out the running time. They reveal that Kent was credited as "Michael Brody" and his wife as "Elaine Warner" for SAG concerns (Morgan, who provided his own home for the early barbecue scene, used his own name but got in trouble with the union). They discuss the non-permitted shoots, including strapping an Arri camera to the hood of a car on the Los Angeles freeway and some of the other illegal things that they could not do today. Mazda actually provided three cars for product placement for such a low budgeted film, and the Sequoia National Park locals were also encouraging for the small production. Moderator Greg Goodsell can be a bit obnoxious with his jokey asides and summations, but both Jones and Asbjornsen are in good humor.
Seemingly recorded first, the second commentary by Jones and star Kent has the actor functioning as a more effective moderator while also contributing his own input. If Jones might have seemed a bit inhibited to discuss characterization and motivation in the first track, he does so here, even if he is cagey about his inspirations. Kent is also able to shed some additional light on some of the lesser-known performers (Batis was a driver for George Carlin and Russell a singer who found more exposure on the Broadway stage), while also relating the real life story of a motel worker who tortured and killed campers in the area. They do speak fondly of Barrett who passed away a couple months before the recording of the track, including her willingness to do stunt work for the waterfall scene. The featurette (13:05) with Jones, Asbjornsen, and Kent covers much of the same ground with illustrative clips (although non-anamorphic letterbox, they should give viewers some idea of the previous master). Besides the film's trailer (1:08), the disc also includes previews for MUTANT, ONE DARK NIGHT, SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK, HIDE AND GO SHRIEK, DEVIL TIMES FIVE and THE DARK. (Eric Cotenas)
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