Thursday, November 7, 2013
DEAD WOMAN'S HOLLOW 2013
Charles Dawson (Sheriff Hatsley), Mel Heflin (Jen), Sarah Snyder (Donna), Boodle Montgomery (Leroy), Waylon K. Smith (Deputy Buck), Koran Dunbar (Miles), Boyd Dunson (Ranger Swanson), Dan Miller (Bob Billy)
Directed by Libby McDermott
***WARNING! This review contains nudity***
The Short Version: Those who prefer their horror drenched in blood and gore may be disappointed with this first time effort from Libby McDermott. To compensate, the proceedings contain a noticeable air of dread and isolation that builds right up to the end. Minor low-key comedy moments and a gallery of quirky characters are featured to mix things up a bit. The acting is largely unremarkable, but a few elements behind and in front of the camera save the effort from becoming a victim of its title locale. It's worth mentioning that everyone worked Gratis on the film. This display of dedication and passion to delivering the best picture possible is significant on everyone's part, and something that you don't see very often nowadays. It's shortcomings aside, this is an impressive debut by McDermott and an admirable effort by those involved in its making.
The sheriff of a small Pennsylvania town investigates a growing string of disappearances and murders of women occurring deep within the woods along the Appalachian Trail. Sheriff Hatsley ultimately becomes embroiled in trying to solve a bizarre, brutal crime involving two young girls who went on a camping trip for a photo shoot beyond Dead Woman's Hollow Road.
First time filmmaker Libby McDermott and her crew make a notable first impression with this slow burn horror feature and its pseudo-art house overtones. That it was made by a woman is a plus considering there isn't a bounty of female directors turning out genre product on a regular basis; so it's intriguing to see a woman's take on horror in general.
With that said, there's quite a lot of female nudity here. The opening credits are draped in it with an eye-openingly grim sequence of an entirely naked woman (who's quite the trouper) emerging from the title location. It's never for sensationalism, though. In fact, it's all rather uncomfortable. The lady at the beginning has obviously experienced a horrifying ordeal. Later on, one of the two main girls strips down as her friend takes a flurry of photos. As she undresses, we see numerous bruises and signs of a damaged, brutal relationship. At first we're kept in the dark as to what this peculiar, downer of a sequence is supposed to signify. Later on we learn that Donna is doing an editorial for a magazine on domestic violence. It's also at that point where we learn that Donna has a personal agenda for taking Jen out into the woods.
DP Matt Stahley's photography perfectly captures the mood during the required moments; particularly the nighttime woodsian sequences that capture the same foreboding, blue ambiance as seen in such films as the cult 'killer in the woods' favorite MADMAN from way back in 1981.
DEAD WOMAN'S HOLLOW never settles for slasher status, mind you, preferring to hint at its horror -- building its suspense slowly. As the isolation of the two main girls sets in, some of the scenes in the woods also bring to mind a certain BLAIR WITCH, yet unlike that picture, this movie is backed by an ominously pervasive score by Kevin Yost. Some shots of Leroy, the unnerving stalker, fleetingly recall memories of a stationary Michael Myers on a couple of occasions. Again, this is a testament to the photography that puts the 2.35:1 widescreen to good use by dwarfing characters in their surroundings.
In actuality, McDermott's production sets itself apart by taking its cue from real life horror. A 1988 crime that occurred in Pennsylvania near the title locale serves as the basis for DEAD WOMAN'S HOLLOW. Two women went into the woods along the Appalachian Trail and encountered a deranged, rifle-toting man who took issue with the two women being lesbians. At least two books have been written on the crime. John Taylor's script sticks close to a number of the true details, but detracts from others to accentuate the horror elements of the picture.
Considering this was a very low budgeted effort, not everything is perfect here. The movie does drag for stretches -- most especially during the sequences that provide the bulk of the impending horror. At 105 minutes, DEAD WOMAN'S HOLLOW could afford to lose around 10 minutes to ramp up the pace without wrecking havoc with its palpable sense of dread. A sluggish tempo would normally be a detriment to a pictures flow, but this is where the photography and music come to the rescue.
In addition, the two actresses playing the stalked girls rarely maintains ones attention. This, too, should work against the film; not to mention they're not the most likable individuals. The encroaching isolation and desolation of the sinister woods helps alleviate the static, single note monotone utterances by the two leads.
Furthermore, the acting overall is uniformly lackadaisical. Most of the actors speak their lines in a laid back, jokey fashion; and often there seems to be this faint, almost Shatnerian pause in the delivery from just about everyone. For instance, there's one scene where two men find a woman lying in the road. They show no urgency in getting her into their vehicle and to the hospital. You'd think they were loading a dead deer onto the back of a truck.
Boyd Dunson (one of the producers) comes off best here in his (unfortunately) limited screen time as the off-kilter Ranger Swanson. His mannerisms and facial expressions are a standout. Out of the bulk of the cast, he seems one of, if not the most comfortable being in front of the camera, as well as the most energized.
Some of the other performers like Charles Dawson (Sheriff Hatsley) do fine. Dawson occasionally displays the same symptoms of lethargy, but at least manages to muster a variety of emotions that culminate in a coda wherein we're left to assume he's embraced his inner Buford Pusser. The ending, or more specifically the final scene, felt ambiguous as to the true nature of the sheriff's actions. Even so, things are closed out on a satisfyingly dark note that maintains the seedy atmosphere the film began with. Recently, Dawson was awarded with a 'Best Actor' nod at the Wilson College Horror Film Festival where the picture was shown.
One of the pictures major highlights, though, would have to be the aptly named Boodle Montgomery as Leroy, the tall terror who kills the sinful wretches that enter his woodland domain. His stilted acting style works wonders for his creepy character. The photography serves him well, too. Even in daylight scenes, he's often shrouded in just enough darkness (his wardrobe helps) to appear adequately menacing.
Arguably the best scene in the movie is a near 10 minute sequence that occurs just prior to the pictures main murder set piece. It's also in this sequence where the character of Jen (Heflin) manages some genuine last minute audience sympathy while Donna (Snyder) loses any, and all of it after a string of insults and condescending remarks towards Leroy foretell what her future holds.
There are a few other characters introduced along the way that are there for comedy relief (a diner scene is moderately humorous), and some others who serve mainly to extend the sheriff's investigation. In closing, DEAD WOMAN'S HOLLOW succeeds despite its shortcomings. That everyone worked Gratis speaks volumes on what McDermott and her cast and crew were able to accomplish. As it is, it's an impressive debut from a group of promising filmmakers who hopefully have more grim stories to tell, and more Hollow's to haunt.
A sincere Thank You to Dan Miller for donating a copy of the film for review.
You can learn more about the film via the films Facebook page HERE.
You can purchase the DVD HERE.
This review is representative of the Libmatic Films DVD.