Woodland Grey

Woodland Grey (2021)

Woodland Grey screens at Grimmfest Easter 2022

A man heads from his rusty caravan into the rainy night, holding up a hurricane lamp to the shadowy tree-line beyond, from which a four-note lilt is repeatedly whistled by someone – or something – unseen. This opening scene from Woodland Grey – Adam Reider’s feature debut which he co-wrote with Jesse Toufexis – introduces many key tropes of horror: darkness, a cabin in the woods, and the sense of something being out there. Or perhaps in there. For William (Ryan Blakely), a taciturn loner living off grid, is keeping – and feeding – something locked in an outhouse. On his daily foraging routine, William chances upon Emily (Jenny Raven), young enough to be his daughter, turned around in her hike and lying unconscious near the river – and with this newcomer now in his remote domain, the secrets of William’s strange solitary life must out. 

Emily (Jenny Raven) taking stock

Woodland Grey begins with what appears to be a scenario familiar from genre – a scenario that certainly the alarmed Emily is quick to recognise – in which the addled, unhinged William is a kidnapper, a psychopath, and possibly much worse, living out his perverse fantasies far beyond the prying eyes of civilisation. Yet as flashbacks reveal who both these characters are and how they came to be in these woods, the viewer will start to wonder if this environment might be more metaphor than actual milieu, much as William wonders if Emily is real or just a figment of his imagination. For while these woods are a grounded, elemental place of timber and earth, fire and snow, they are also a psychological zone in which both these characters have, like Hansel and Gretel in the fairy tale which Emily at one point will read aloud, become very lost. And as Emily’s beloved grandfather, the traumatised Vietnam veteran Moses Rafferty (Art Hindle), had told her: “The closest I ever came to biting it in the war was when I was disoriented. We all need something to keep us on track.” 

A ghost (Chelsea Goldwater) from the past

Much as the woods are a grey area, Reider’s film maps out its psychodramas via some unexpected coordinates, including Pet Sematary, The Babadook, Starfish and television’s Lost. For what unfolds here, though hallucinatory and unreliable, breaks down the barriers between the living and the dead, and while a sylvan fantasy, comes with a subtext that brings its own emotional truth, as grief and guilt form a tangled labyrinth. Though strangers, William and Emily’s lives are bound together by an arbitrary signifier (‘Peanut’), and by a shared feeling – indeed a universal one – that they both try simultaneously to conceal and to nurture. Woodland Grey is a haunting ghost story, but its insistent, aggressive spectres ultimately do not come from liminal spaces or marginal realms, from forest or closet, but from the gaping chasms within. For here, the monsters that persecute, burn and scar these characters are just a part of (human) nature which, on the circuitous paths of regret and loss, reason cannot compass alone.

strap: Adam Reider’s unnerving wilderness horror lets its characters get lost in their grief and guilt

© Anton Bitel