‘Don’t Go In The Woods’ (1981): Crappy little slasher a nice drive-in memory

Summer’s winding down. It’s a drag. I didn’t do anything fun. I didn’t even go to our last local drive-in. But then again…why would I? It’s certainly not the drive-in experience of my youth. It’s clean and family-friendly; they charge you to bring in your own food (the f*cking gall?); and they show mainstream Hollywood crap that wouldn’t get me to pause two seconds on a high-speed Netflix scroll. The days of edgy exploitation triple features amid the jumping hot dog and the couple screwing in the Ford station wagon two cars over…are over.

By Paul Mavis

I remember when 1981’s Don’t Go In The Woods (aka Don’t Go In The Woods…Alone!) played at our local drive-in back in 1983; it was the second bill on one of those all-night triple features, and I can assure you, there wasn’t anything in the least controversial or notorious in its arrival at the Maumee Outdoor Theatre (a mere memory now, torn down a few years later by le horndog extraordinaire Sumner Redstone).

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An earnest-but-inept exercise in Friday the 13th shenanigans, Don’t Go In The Woods does leave the experienced horror fan with an affectionate sense of deja vu for its time-honored cliches of 1970’s and 80’s low-budget horror moviemaking…but you’ll be hard-pressed to understand how it became notorious as the inaugurating title in the “video nasties” censorship movement in England (the British censors made international news by declaring several American horror titles unsuitable for consumption by the British VHS audience).

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The story couldn’t be simpler. Four campers–Peter (Jack McClelland), Ingrid (Mary Gail Artz), Craig (James P. Hayden), and Joanie (Angie Brown)–go into the mountains of Utah for what can only be described as…a hiking trip. Meanwhile, other campers and hikers on the various trails are being laid to waste by an unseen menace who could be a bear, or caveman Alley Oop, depending on if the sun’s in your eyes.

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The sheriff (Ken Carter) has been alerted to stories about hikers disappearing, but frankly, he’s doesn’t seem too riled up about it all. One by one, our intrepid campers are confronted by the machete-wielding Cro-Magnon man. Who will live, and who will die? Surely, you jest.

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On Vinegar Syndrome‘s Blu-ray release of Don’t Go In The Woods, there’s a ported-over commentary track from the director, James Bryan. Now, when I listened to this entertaining track, I perked up when I realized that Bryan had been associated with Sunn Classics, the Utah-based movie studio associated with such deliriously crappy Saturday afternoon matinee classics as In Search of Historic Jesus, In Search of Noah’s Ark, Hangar 18, and The Lincoln Conspiracy (god oh god when is a Schick Sunn Classics box set coming out???).

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Unfortunately, Don’t Go In The Woods makes those looney “documentaries” and exploitation actioners look like Citizen Kane (…or at least a really good episode of Sunn’s Grizzly Adams). Now what’s interesting in the commentary is that director Bryan insists that he did all of this on purpose–and by “all of this,” I mean: mismatched shots, wooden acting (if it can even be called that), atrocious dialogue, questionable special effects, continuity problems, and a general air of arrested artistic development.

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But after one watches Don’t Go In The Woods, one would seriously have to question that assertion. Nothing about Don’t Go In The Woods is so intentionally funny that you would sit up and say, “This must be a parody.” What I suspect must have grown along with Don’t Go In The Woods‘s cult (does it really have a cult, or is that all bullsh*t, too?) is the fan notion that, “nobody could be this inept; the director had to be putting us on.”

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And when that theory got back to the director through a couple of overly-enthusiastic critics and devotees of the genre, it made it a lot easier for the director to say, “You’re right!” (Bryan’s commentary is actually a fairly interesting look at the trials and tribulations of putting on a low-budget horror movie. He’s certainly a genial, laid-back commentator, and I enjoyed hearing his thoughts…much more than actually watching his finished product).

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If the resulting effect of Don’t Go In The Woods indeed was calculated, then somebody needs to go back and watch some I Love Lucy‘s and The Honeymooners, because it’s just not funny. In fact, it’s not even bad enough to be funny. It’s just a crappy little horror movie, made on a shoestring budget, with people who really showed some grit in getting it done. That’s fine, and more power to those people. But that doesn’t make it all that good.

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Still…it’s late summer, and the drive-in is mostly deserted. It’s a dry, cool night, and your date looks fine. School will be starting up soon, and nights like these won’t come again for a long, long time. Maybe, they won’t ever come again. You know…I’m being too hard on Don’t Go In The Woods. If you grew up with stuff like this like I did, you’ll get a nice, happy little buzz at how movies sounded and looked and played from that period. Don’t Go In The Woods is a small, dopey horror flick, but the gore is amusing, I suppose, and really–they were working with almost nothing. What excuses do the big studios have when they turn out multi-million dollar junk that’s just as inept?

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All the sudden, come to think of it…I’m feeling rather protective of Don’t Go In The Woods. Not everything that showed up at the drive-in back then was a classic awaiting rediscovery (can you shut up for two seconds and understand that, Quentin?). A lot of it was marginal, at best. Those mostly anonymous exploiters were of a time, and a place, that is totally gone now (hell, the triggered Marys that bemoan these “problematic” schlocks think you’re morally bankrupt for even discussing them today). I miss that free and easy time; watching Don’t Go In The Woods might bring a little of it back for you.

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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