Producers: Luis Iga Garza and Yelyna De León Director: Luis Iga Garza Screenplay: Yelyna De León Cast: José Julián, Jeanette Samano, Chelsea Rendon, Catherine Toribio, Kada Wise, Jordan Diambrini, Max Chavarria, Kurt Caceres, Yelyna De León, Soledad St. Hilaire, Rolando Molina and Danny Trejo Distributor: Rezinate Pictures
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of teenagers go to an isolated house in the forest, where they proceed to get murdered one by one by a mad killer. Does “Murder in the Woods”—not the most imaginative of titles—give any twist to the admittedly familiar premise? Yes: the characters are all Latinex. Is that enough to make it worth watching? Unfortunately, no. It’s too prosaic, and in the end ludicrous, a genre exercise for the ethnic emphasis to make much difference.
Yelyna De León’s script begins with a prologue in which an injured man (Kurt Carceres) staggers through the woods to a house where, in an upstairs window, a cute little boy (Max Chavarria) looks on afraid. It then shifts, a conventional fashion, to introduce the young candidates for slaughter. One is Fernanda (Jeanette Samano), a girl from Chicago visiting her cousin Chelsea (Chelsea Rendon), who’s going out with friends, including her handsome boyfriend Gabe (Jordan Diambrini), to celebrate her birthday big-time. Joining them are pretty Celeste (Catherine Toribio) and jokester Jule (Kade West). Finally there’s Jesse (José Julián), a quiet sort who, despite a stern warning from his grandmother (Soledad St. Hilaire), decides to tag along.
Along the way to the house where they plan to party, the car accidentally is damaged when they hit an animal, and they’re stopped by Sheriff Lorenzo (Danny Trejo), who sees them all as punks. Once settled in for the night, they begin to get drunk and high, and friction occurs: a fight erupts over a boy, for instance, and a girl runs out into the forest, only to meet an unhappy fate. But Fernanda, who left the area years ago, hits it off with Jesse,
Then, of course, the real trouble begins as some unknown person attacks the youngsters. Lorenzo shows up to warn those still alive to evacuate the place because of an oncoming wildfire (which never shows up, probably due to budgetary restrictions), and it’s revealed why the killer should have chosen this moment to attack; an attempt to link the motive with the prologue italicizes the absurdity of the entire business—one must overlook a variety of logical and chronological lapses to follow the plot trajectory at all, and the effort simply isn’t worth it.
One can appreciate the desire of De León, a producer and actress as well as an actress, and Garza, who served on the crew of the 2013 Halle Berry vehicle “The Call” (here directing his first feature) to include aspects of Latino culture in the film, and to cast ethnically authentic actors in the lead roles. But the effort goes unrewarded when the screenplay is, overall, so hackneyed and the acting so amateurish. That even applies to Trejo, who seems to be winking at the audience as he goes through the motions of playing the crusty lawman.
On the technical level the movie is obviously a low-budget affair, presumably based on a lot of volunteer work as the credits list no fewer than three cinematographers (Nicholas Albert, Anirudh Gattu and Steven Holleran), two editors (Ryan Libert and Garza) and two composers(Isabelle Engman and Gerardo Garcia). It looks rather dim and unfocused, but that’s about par for this slasher-type genre.
Throwbacks can sometimes be fun, but this return to 1980s formula proves that more often retreads are pretty bald affairs.