It’s a show-biz tradition as old as the casting couch: indie filmmakers, looking to make a low-budget feature that might actually get seen, dabbling in the slasher genre. Vincent D’Onofrio’s feature directorial debut is the dilettantish gore-fest Don’t Go In The Woods, which offers one good twist on the killer-vs.-campers concept, but otherwise is about as basic as it gets. The twist is that the young victims are an indie-rock band, led by serious-minded Matt Sbeglia, who’s given himself and his mates two days in the middle of nowhere to write songs for their album. He’s ordered the boys to leave all distractions behind: no drugs, no booze, no phones, no women. But then the girlfriends show up anyway. And then members of their party start turning up dead. How’s a sensitive singer-songwriter supposed to get any work done?
Making the protagonists musicians gives D’Onofrio and co-writers Sam Bisbee and Joe Vinciguerra license to fill Don’t Go In The Woods’ non-murder scenes with songs—or at least with floppy-haired dudes arguing about songs. The downside to this approach is that at a certain point, the horror premise starts to feel like an afterthought. The songs become less diegetic as the movie progresses, as the characters begin singing what they’re feeling—which is mainly loneliness, frustration, or jealousy, not abject terror. And since Don’t Go In The Woods’ cast is mostly amateur actors, they have a hard time carrying the emo-heavy relationship woes that make up so much of the movie.
Bisbee’s songs aren’t bad—they’re reminiscent of Bright Eyes, only a little more polished, and with clunkier lyrics—and Sbeglia’s frustration is palpable and understandable as his bandmates keep breaking the rules and trying to turn the weekend into a party. Had D’Onofrio and company focused their efforts on making that movie—about how difficult it is to get creative types in their early 20s to focus—they might’ve come up with something less halfhearted. Instead, they barely even try to connect the slasher scenes and the squabbling-band scenes until the final minutes, in a strained “guess we better wrap this up” gesture. Give Don’t Go In The Woods credit for not being a wholly conventional horror movie. Debit it for not caring about horror in the first place.