Don’t Go In The Woods: Remembering Cherry, Dick, And All Their Friends

My friends and I never had wild and crazy all-night parties back in high school. Usually, they took place at Matt Tobin’s house. Matt was the youngest of four and his parents knew that he was going to have parties so they just let it ride. We used to have people over, watch movies, eat pizza and laugh a lot. Matt and I (with our friend Eric) would usually pick up the videos a couple hours before the fun began.

A lot of strange movies passed through there. I remember I Spit On Your Grave quieting everyone down. Buried Alive (Beyond the Darkness)grossing out us and making us laugh. Faces of Death 2 was watched while we ate pizza to see if anyone got ill. Bad Taste made us laugh a lot. There was only one film that Matt and I previewed before everyone showed up. The cover looked fun. It was a slasher and it was 1989. What teen could resist the call? It was called Don’t Go In The Woods — and we never made it past the first half hour.

(Let me just say that I could only start watching slasher films or gory films when I was around fourteen. But, I used to read about them a lot. I’d first read about Don’t Go In The Woods when Joe Bog Briggs raved about it in Joe Bob Goes To the Drive In. For once, his list of how people got killed fitted the movie perfectly.)

It was too good. We couldn’t believe our eyes. The music, the acting, the dubbing, the lack of any characterization for the people being killed. We couldn’t believe it. We laughed a bit but basically were stunned. We stopped the film after a while because we wanted to share it with everyone. Then, the party changed direction or ended early or something. We never saw the rest of it. But, what we did sat in our minds and never left.

I think most fans of Trash Cinema have an extremely voracious period. It’s like when you discover the world of jazz or classical music (or rock). You may start by finding one album you like. The first Jazz album that grabbed me was the Miles Davis collection under the Ken Burns’ Jazz line. One day, you stroll in the music store and that area (“JAZZ”) is no longer the area you pass through on the way to the DVDs. It’s now filled with all sorts of amazing music waiting for you to discover it. Start with Miles go to Coltrane go to Monk go to Ornette Coleman. They’re good for you. I went through the same thing with the Trash Films. Suddenly, all those films go from being things you ignore or look at and kind of don’t see to “Where do I start?” Alphabetically was tempting but would never work. (How long until I get to Zombie?) So, you just start renting. If it looks good or has a great title or if it looks terrible, grab it. For every 4 films you’d rent, one would be a waste of time. One would be worth the viewing. One would be worth a second watch. One would go in The Library. Hello, Don’t Go In The Woods.

I was at the start of my hoarding time when I saw the smallest portion of this insanity. Something from my formative years that really, really struck me and stuck with me. This isn’t nostalgia, though. As Walter Kerr said in his great book The Silent Clowns, “Nostalgia depends on the absence of what is longed for, survives only as recollection.” It fades when your re-encounter whatever it was years later. For example, I grew up with The Electric Company. I hadn’t seen it in more than 20 years. I bought the Shout Factory DVD set. It’s still great. Oh sure, there are bits where I say, “I remember this!” and the memories pour back but most of it is just plain good. Whereas I also grew up watching The Munsters, so I bought the first season DVD set when it came out. 12 episodes in, I was in pain. Unfunny and oh-so repetitive. I should have let nostalgia keep me warm there because that memory is now tarnished. Now, I don’t dive into TV shows I grew up with as quickly because once that nostalgia goes all you have is whatever you’re revisiting. And, if it isn’t for you or isn’t very good, it can be tough to grab those old memories again.

This article contains reminiscences but deals with a movie that is as vitally strange now as it was in 1997 and 1993 and 1989. It exists outside of time, in its own odd bubble, and is better because of it.

I went to college in Ithaca, NY. I watched a lot of “classic” films. A lot of great cinema. And, in my spare time, I drove down the hill into town and rented every sleazy or creepy thing I could find. It took a lot of driving and three video stores but Shows To Go had it: Don’t Go In The Woods. I watched it once, alone. Then, I watched it with a group who came to feel as I did, “This film is nuts!” It seemed to be the most incompetent thing we’d ever seen. It was wild. Then, something weird happened.

Nights got very cold in Ithaca. On one of these nights (actually early morning, 2AM), I came home from somewhere to my tiny single room. I still had energy so I threw on Don’t Go In The Woods and lay back in bed. The snow fell outside; my room was chilled because I’ve always liked it that way. I started watching. About fifteen minutes in, I was terrified. The music, the strange acting, the disconnected dubbing, the senseless killing of random people. It was almost too much. My survival instincts kicked in and I fell asleep during the manhunt portion of the film. But, the next day, I knew I had something special here. In a strange twist that you just can’t imagine, I ran into Matt on a semester break. He had a gift from the adult bookstore he worked in. It was one of those stores that had non-porno magazines and movies in the front and naughtiness behind the curtains. “I saw this and I had to grab it for you. Maybe someday we can watch it.” With a large $79.95 sticker on the front, Don’t Go In The Woods was handed to me. It is the VHS copy I still own today. Although, I’ve never watched it with Matt or any of my once-close friends from High School.

I used to play a game during this film called “Tell me the names of the four main campers”. Whoever could do it first, won nothing but smug self-satisfaction and a feeling of superiority over their peers. But, it shows something, I think. A certain element that some of the best Trash Films have. They don’t live in the same world that “regular” films do. You can expect nothing and you must to try to accept everything that you’re not expecting.

The lack of motivation for the killer is a good example of this. He probably does have motivation but it’s either implied or unimportant. It is not just a “revenge” motivated spree or an “I’m your mother’s cousin’s lover’s second wife” twist-thing. The actual plot of the movie is simplicity. All people who pass through a certain area of the Utah woods are viciously killed by a wild man who lives in a ratty, old cabin filled with knickknacks taken from his victims. When the disappearances get out of hand, the police go in to find him. In the end, well, watch it. It is a film that does not require you to pay attention to its plot but not because it’s plot is stupid but because it is so simple. Why do we not get the names of people who enter the woods? Because it is not important. The film is not about creating characters that you care about and then killing them. It’s about killing everybody with no rhyme or reason. It’s about setting up this crazed atmosphere and trying to keep it permeating through the whole film.

I can’t make a case for any of this idiosyncratic filmic behavior being intentional. Maybe when the DVD comes out it will transpire that James Bryan did have a huge master plan. He may have set a series of events in motion that led to his magnum opus of slasher horror. But, wouldn’t it be best if we just never found out? Why do we need to know everything about everything? Aren’t a few things best left shrouded in darkness?

Regardless, when the DVD arrives, you should go out and buy it. Support the companies that put out these great films. Whether the extras will entice you is another matter. I’m going to try and ignore them but I don’t know for how long. Maybe the DVD should include a remastered print and a “video” print so we can keep the film preserved on DVD but not have to lose the way we know it. From perusing the web, I’ve seen that a lot of people have heard about this film and, I think, will be severely disappointed when it’s readily available and it doesn’t turn out to be whatever they think it should be. (A movie like The Last Slumber Party, a favorite of mine, is almost never talked about by anyone so its DVD release was a wondrous bit of joy because it snuck in.)

It’s doubly tricky because the film was on the final Video Nasty list. So, it’s taken on a notoriety that it cannot hold up to under those circumstances. It’s a different sort of film from Cannibal Holocaust or The Beast in Heat or, really, most of the European films that fill the list. It’s not the same sort of American horror as Last House on the Left or Fight For Your Life. It’s more in the area of Axe or Bloodeaters or Mardi Gras Massacre. People who know of the film from the Infamous List are going to be confused and dismissive. I think, in fact, most people will be less than thrilled unless they step into it relatively fresh, which might be impossible. Even the Don’t Go Near The Park DVD release had a prominent display of its “Video Nasty” status printed on it. They banned these films for all sorts of reasons. Don’t Go In The Woods is gory and rather nasty but if you go in expecting an Italian cannibal feast or Nazi film or anything along those lines, you’ll be disappointed. You always get more than you expect from a deranged Italian film (Patrick Still Lives and the poker, anyone?) but you’re almost always on familiar ground. The films have a certain look, they share actors, and they have the same dubbed voices speaking for everyone. Don’t Go In The Woods is all on its own. So, it’s easier to denigrate but, being so individual, it can be easier to appreciate, if you’re in the mood.

To those of you who do watch it and love it, come on in. There are a lot of us already at the bar wondering if James Bryan was a mental patient who did this before, after or for therapy. Some great films get better the more you know about them. Citizen Kane is one of the best on any given day but you can appreciate it even more when you learn a little about film and what it did for the medium. Some films lose part of the joy when they get “fixed up” and you learn everything about them. Can anyone watch The Evil Dead now the same way people in the 80’s did? God Bless you if you can but the film’s too bright now and most people who come to it seem to arrive via Army of Darkness so they can’t stop laughing. (I laughed here and there when I first saw it but it also scared me silly.) Don’t Go In The Woods should remain hidden in obscurity. It should always be a vague sort of legendary thing. It won’t be after the DVD release, probably. We’ll have to see what happens. We can re-evaluate from there.

In early 1996, my friend, Scott, and I began having a weekly “Movie Night”. Once a week, we’d get together with popcorn and soda pop, generally later in the evening and watch something fun. We’d trade off picks. Scott started off showing Sam Peckinpah films. I began with Don’t Go In The Woods. He loved it. Over the next year-and-a-half of movie nights, we probably watched that one six times. Generally, whenever there were a bunch of people coming over. Don’t Go In The Woods became the “crowd special”. It was amazing. We could always get a crowd of folks enthralled by the insanity going on on-screen. It was great. I saw Scott a month ago at a showing of Don’t Go Near The Park. He’s doing well. Maybe we’ll have another movie night again. Who knows? I was excited to hear that for his last birthday he assembled all his friends together and watched Don’t Go In The Woods. That’s a good time!

In my experience, the tricky thing with audiences and “so bad they’re good movies” is that once people are put into the mindset to watch this sort of film they have no further ability to discern between “So bad it’s good” and anything else. When they’ve come to laugh at a film, they will laugh and insult, regardless of what is showing on the screen. In fact, this happens whenever I see any sort of strange film in a theater. I don’t know if it’s the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mindset or what but it can be a little annoying. People hear that Headless Eyes (for example) is a “bad movie” and so, instantly, people start yelling things. Automatically, there is nothing about the film that is not ridiculous. When the film does something odd, the response is “What the hell is this?” and a laugh. If this were a David Lynch film, people would sit and try to figure it out. With Headless Eyes, “It’s a bad movie so it’s incompetent. It’s nothing but a laugh.” Of course, that kind of attitude is pure balls.

(On rare occasions, I’ve seen a crowd that’s started yelling shut up by what they were seeing. Blackenstein started with people yelling and ended with silence. Maybe everyone fell asleep but, when the lights went up, they looked awake. Awake and confused.)

Don’t Go In The Woods is one of these films where most people laugh and laugh and laugh. Even during the brutal killings, the laughs flow. (Although, when the man in the sleeping bag gets his throat slit by the hunting knife, people tend to Can It.) During the quite creepy scene where Joanie is hanging from the sleeping bag and sees the killer approaching, people laugh because she starts tearing up the bag to see what’s going on and then to get out. “God! How’s she going to sleep in that?” “Ha! She’s stuck up there!” It’s a creepy scene. I can understand the momentum of a crowd but pull it out a bit and have a peek around. There are some creepy and strange things happening here.

The opening scene where the young woman runs and runs is very disconcerting. Who is she? Was she jogging through the woods? Who is chasing her? Does she die? We never see or hear from her again. Your response depends on you. If your agenda is set when you arrive, all those questions make the scene laughable. If you approach the film open-minded, well, it still might be laughable. But, it might not. It was the oddness of the opening killings that hooked me on the film. The lack of extensive characterization for our main characters intrigued me. Their first scene is a dialogue-free shot of them walking. They could be another group who gets killed instantly. They’re not but who knows at this point in the narrative.

I used to have the first thirty seconds of Dale and his mother on an answering machine. (You know, the guy with the camera and his Mom with the big hat. They appear about ten minutes into the film.) “Dale! Dale! Wait for me!” “I just want to get a shot of the train pulling in!” Followed by the bwop-bwop-bwop comedy music. I didn’t say a word. You just heard the train whistle, these strange people talk, the music and then a beep. I got the best responses from friends and family.

Do you need to ask why Dale brings his mom up there? I always thought that there must be a spot to pull off the road nearby and Dale just wandered a little too far. Who knows? A film that leaves mystery behind, intentional or not, is always watchable.

(Speaking of leaving mystery behind, here’s a little extra something that doesn’t quite fit in anywhere else. A friend from college who loved the movie told me that on two separate occasions, he had been showing this movie to female friends and it ended up in massive make-out sessions. Whether the women were just trying to get away from the movie or whether the movie has some sort of aphrodisiac effect, I couldn’t say. True story, with love from me to you.)

I love the Fat Sheriff. “When’d and how’d it happen, Maggie?” I love the significant looks that Dr. Maggie and the Deputy give each other in the hospital cafeteria. (I never noticed it until a woman at one of our viewings said, “Do those two have something going on?”) I love Cherry and Dick with all my heart. Whenever I see the Farrah Fawcett poster, I think, “Did Dick just hang that recently or has that been there for a thousand years?” Who can resist yelling, ”Come out of there, you jerk you!” along with Dick? Who can resist hoping that Cherry will be able to close the van doors the first time she tries? And, who doesn’t cheer when, with the help of editing, she slams that doors shut the second time? Cherry, you are one in a million. No, make that one in a bazillion. Even the lower impact scenes have a thousand and one delights in them. There’s that wonderful scene in the police station with all those random characters coming in and out of frame. “Ooooh, look at that guy!” “Who is she talking to?” You could break this film down moment-by-moment and find something in every nook and cranny.

I love the half-hearted feel to the police investigation until Peter and Ingrid show up. The Law chats with some people; the Sheriff goes up in a small plane—that’s about it, really. I’m not sure how many Missing Person reports Our Large Sheriff has received but it doesn’t seem to be many. In the scene with the roller skating gal, The Sheriff’s actually out in the woods. He wanders into the killer’s territory early on but nothing happens. So, he wanders out. The sense of space here is odd but adds to the strangeness of the film. The Sheriff and the posse stroll in and out. Craig knows the woods; the others don’t. That’s why he’s killed first. The others get instantly lost. Clearly, the killer knows every inch of the woods. The oddest thing here, if you’re trying to figure out the layout of the area, is the fact that the Sheriff seems to know that someone lives at the old cabin in the woods. As I’ve said elsewhere, if the Sheriff knew that the madman lived there, he should have sent the madman a package. When the nut came out to sign for it, they could have jumped him.

I was watching Don’t Go In The Woods the other day. It was the first time I’d watched it in about a year. Even films and albums you love can wear themselves out through over-familiarity, so I had stayed away from it. DVD rumors had been flying around for almost a year so I’d been keeping cool and watching other things. But, on this day, I got comfortable on the couch, threw the movie in and hit Play. It was still there. All of it. Every moment of it. Astounding. It was doubly great because, I’d forgotten this, with every viewing I see something or hear something that I didn’t notice before. This time? It’s in the shot that’s on the back of the video box. Cocky Peter is walking past the other three, who have stopped hiking, saying “ Come on you guys! We’re losing the light!” When Peter passes Craig, Craig looks up and gives him a great “Getouttahere!” hand gesture. After I saw that, I began to drift into a half sleep. I was very comfortable. Suddenly, my eyes popped wide open and I realized something —

You can laugh at a film as much as you want. But, some films aren’t made for everyone. Some because they’re esoteric or deliberately paced or foreign. Others because they don’t match up with anything else we’ve seen. If your template for movies is whatever the big sequel is coming out this summer, well, I can’t help you. This isn’t for you. Sure, you can laugh at it. It’s funny. But, if you’ve only come to laugh, hit the road. Maybe my Grandma will go see a Tim Allen movie with you. (You can go to bingo afterwards. Maybe she’ll make you a perogi) Don’t Go In the Woods is a very strange film and (here’s what I realized this time around) it could just very well be The Most Perfect Movie ever made.

How does that bit of hyperbole strike you, hot pants?

It’s obviously a complete load. But, I’ve seen the film twenty times. I think Star Wars is the only other film I’ve seen that often and, I’m sick to death of Star Wars. Why do I go back to James Bryan’s oddball exercise? Could it be the way he makes films? Possibly. I’ve seen Hellriders, with Tina Louise and Adam West, and it has some of the same feel but not a lot. The Executioner Part 2, however, is clearly made by the same man. “He still has a lot to learn” doesn’t apply if you get it done without learning it.

People love Don’t Go In The Woods. Much of it is scorn but not all. It’s not a Plan 9 from Outer Space for a new generation because, unlike Plan 9, it gets some things right: brutal killings, a creepy killer, tremendous locations and a sense of isolation that really works. The music is unique and it has a killer theme song. Could it be that indefinable something that certain films have? Well…

I could, almost literally, go on forever about this film. So, I’ve decided to wind it down and wrap it up by mentioning two more kick-ass elements in the film.

1) I love comic relief that doesn’t seem like comic relief until you’ve watched it quite a few times. I’m not talking about obvious bad jokes. I’m talking about whole scenes passing without anything that looks like a joke. When you go back to it later, you suddenly realize that that was meant to be comedy. Winterbeast is my favorite example of this. The film is chocked full of comedy but it is so distractingly (wonderfully) cheap and so (beautifully) incompetent that it just looks odd. It looks like bad actors delivering rotten lines. But, it is meant to be loaded with gags. Don’t Go In The Woods has that with our policeman and, to a lesser extent, the wheelchair guy. But, you have to know how to shoot comedy. If you have Laurel and Hardy in your film, you can turn the camera on and let them go. The Sheriff & The Deputy are not the same caliber of comedy duo. The disconnected dubbing makes wry comments even stranger. The scene in the general store is loaded with comedy gags about ornithologists and sight gags involving pinball machines. But, it just feels strange. After a few viewings, the pure comedy leaks onto your shoe. You don’t laugh. My response was “Ahh! That explains it!” The plane scene is another example. The scene has a lot of wry little lines but one can get easily distracted by two things: 1) wondering how the Sheriff got into the tiny plane & 2) giggling at how funny the reaction shots of the pilot are. All we see is the back of his head and hear his disembodied voice. Horror can come quite easily to films like this. Comedy is a little tougher. You can see the talent strain. If it wasn’t post-dubbed, you’d probably be able to hear them too.

2) Do I need to mention how weird H. Kingsley Thurber’s music is? Strange noises, industrial sounds, comedy bwops, acoustic guitar strumming. It’s all here and it is all mad. Was H. Kingsley some sort of eccentric and crazed musical genius? Who knows? His other score, for Frozen Scream, uses some of the same music but has a few new themes. Although that movie is incredibly bonkers, the music isn’t as good. In Don’t Go In The Woods, every few minutes there seems to be some new sort of music playing. It is either incredibly egregious or oddly appropriate. I think most of the time it works. When it doesn’t, well, it certainly grabs your attention. And, of course, there is the theme song. If you weren’t convinced that this movie was made by aliens or people whose life experience would have made Kaspar Hauser look cosmopolitan, the theme song should convince you. You’ll never be able to hear The Teddy Bear’s Picnic again. The movie ends with a scene of brutality followed by goofy cop behavior. Then, the theme song kicks in. It is goofier than almost any horror film theme song you can think of. More so than the Faces of Death song during the credits of Faces of Death IV or the Psychos in Love theme and that one was meant to be goofy. Sometimes all the elements just come together. The song is the perfect length too. It is short and sweet and ends when the credits do. The film is a total package from the “Spectacular Entertainment” logo at the start until the song ends and the credits fade. On the video, we even got a shot of the Vestron video logo to wrap the whole thing up.

It doesn’t get better.