In the Dark Dark Woods… (2017)

“In the dark dark woods, there was a dark dark house. And in that dark dark house, there was a dark dark room. And in that dark dark room, there was a dark dark woman. And within that dark dark woman there was a dark dark soul…”

If Jason Bognacki’s previous feature Another (2014) was a lysergic modern tale of adolescence, inheritance and witchcraft, then the voiceover intoned by a young child (Emily Tassone) over his latest short film In the Dark Dark Woods… locates it instantly in the similar realm of the fairytale. Even though the story’s chronology gestates over at least nine months, the narrative time is confined to under five minutes, so that we leap impressionistically from one key moment to the next, even as the camera never stops tracking and panning through the archetypal woods and house, and back again. The editing, too, flickers and judders, disorienting the viewer while instilling a deep sense of unease.

At its heart, In the Dark Dark Woods… concerns a timeless struggle between light and darkness, good and evil – and maps those Manichean dualities onto a storied division of male and female. Here, the feminine is presented as an absence, a literal invisible woman (Marem Hassler), her voluptuous attractiveness (to men) merely a grotesque suit of comely skin and flesh (Nicole Alexandra Shipley) sewn on to hide the dark emptiness beneath. Yet even as we are told that she is devoid of all warmth or substance and incapable of love, we also hear that she is filled with longing, in words that engender a jarring contradiction. When she is stripped, exposed and hunted down by the axe-wielding woodsman (Karl E. Landler) who was her one-time lover and by his baying male mob, all determined to catch, punish and destroy her (although whether for being a wicked impostor, or for failing to produce a male heir, remains a dark dark ambiguity), the film asks subversively who is the real monster here, and who the victim, with the answer all a question of perspective.

Co-written by Bognacki with his wife Aline, In the Dark Dark Woods… dresses its central character in motifs from horror – the bandages from The Invisible Man, the skin suit from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Silence of the Lambs – but these costumes never quite fit the presentation of this VVitchy (anti)heroine as a figure who yearns to escape the reductive, confining dualisms that her Grimm, patriarchal genre imposes on her. The results are exquisitely  unnerving – aesthetically beautiful, but also uncanny and disturbing, as though this brief and simple tale conceals within itself something unseen yet far more deliriously complex.

© Anton Bitel