Noche de los Muertos
Murder in the woods is streaming on Prime
Slasher movies are a cultural fixture. They have been for a long time. So much so that, if you’re not into horror like myself, you still know the rhythms of the genre. Ask anyone from a grandma in Arkansas to a Generation Z-er in Los Angeles, and they’ll tell you that your standard-issue slasher movie consists of:
- A group of high-school or college-age folks. They consisting of a dopey jock, a stoner, a hothead, a sexually aggressive woman, a “nice” guy, and a virginal young woman.
- An isolated area, such as a cabin, camp, or lakeside manor.
- A rampaging psychopath.
- A lack of critical thinking skills.*
Oh! There’s one other aspect of slasher movies we should discuss. Most of the people in front of and behind the camera are white. Halloween? Friday the 13th? A Nightmare on Elm Street? The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? They all feature a majority of melanin-deprived individuals. Once in a while these films might remember to cast someone who’s Black, Latinx, Asian, or anything other than a white person. Even more of a treat is when they remember not to portray these folks as grotesque racial stereotypes.
Why does that matter?** Because when a genre only focuses on a particular race, only certain kinds of stories end up being told. When you pull back the focus and see POC making horror films, you’ll get interesting entries such as Candyman Get Out, and Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight. That brings us to the new horror film Murder in the Woods, which is very much a good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that it’s made with efficiency, craftsmanship, and a commitment toward a cast that’s fully POC. The bad news is that it’s a slasher movie that really ought to have more creativity behind it.
It wouldn’t be a horror movie without a flashback right out of the gate, That’s what we have here — a young child living in a house isolated in the woods. His parents die. The police rule that the incident was a murder/suicide. It should be an open and shut case, but something else persists. Something…evil. (Cue lightning strike).
Years pass. A group of teens has access to the very same house. They are Chelsea (Chelsea Rendon), an outspoken young woman celebrating her birthday. She’d very much like to lose her virginity to Gabe (Jordan Diambrini), her boyfriend, and a dopey athlete. Jesse (Jose Julian) is Chelsea’s cousin and he’s tagging along. He’s a loner, quiet, but we get the sense he doesn’t miss much. He’s deeply smitten with Fernanda (Jeanette Samano), who’s a sweet young woman visiting from Chicago. At the last minute, Jule (Kade Wise) invites himself to the party in the hopes he can definitely get hammered and hopefully get laid. He’s also invited Celeste (Catherine Toribio), who definitely wants to be a social media influencer and possibly has more than fifty brain cells to rub together.
We can see that they’re not great in a crisis as, while they drive up to the house, they hear the beginning of an emergency broadcast message and decide to ignore it. After stopping at a lonely gas station, the gang is accosted by Sheriff Lorenzo (Danny Trejo). He’s intense, so much so that running into him after dark doesn’t fill everybody with confidence. They continue to roll snake-eyes as they have an accident disabling their SUV. The icing on the bad-luck cake is their discovery that they no longer have cellphone reception.
To recap: our heroes have no means of transportation, no communication, and they’re stuck at a house that’s thirty miles from the nearest town. As young people have done through time immemorial, they decide to deal with the problem by not dealing with it and partying! That’s bad. The fact that they all start turning up dead? That’s worse.
From a technical perspective, Murder in the Woods is solid filmmaking. Director Luis Iga Garza knows that the cardinal sin in a horror movie is to let things get boring. He stomps on the gas and keeps the pacing moving at all times. Garza also has a good sense of geography, and since the majority of the action takes place in and around a house, he makes sure we know where everyone is in relation to everyone else. As an independent film, his budget was likely fairly modest, but Garza’s makeup and gore effects never look cheap.
Where I wish the end result could have been better is with the screenplay by Yelyna De Leon. She’s a smart writer, and we see the proof of that with her strong characterization and focus on non-stereotypical roles. I liked the fact that we have a story about Latinx characters and that we’re well on our way towards “the norm” not automatically referring to white people. Put all that aside and we’re unfortunately left with a mostly run of the mill slasher movie that relies on tropes that were lame in 1983. We have characters announcing that they should split up, some dopey jump scares, and a shocking secret that never feels all that shocking. I kept hoping that the film would take a hard left turn and do something different and creative with the genre. That never happened, and that feels like a missed opportunity.***
Actors in slasher movies don’t always get much to work with. Their emotions are limited to:
- “I like beer!”
- “I like sex”
- “I am responsible!”
- “I am filled with mindbending terror!”
The cast here does good work, and they bring more of a sense of life and humor than is usually found in a Friday the 13th installment. I particularly liked Kade Wise as the party hound Jule. Early on, he’s an obnoxious pain in the ass, and I figured that when things went south he’d freak out and be dispatched promptly. Not so! Jule ends up becoming someone who deals with a crisis with a degree of intelligence and bravery. It was a good inversion and I would have appreciated more of it.
If you’re going to make a movie, the smart move is to make a horror movie. They tend to be inexpensive, profitable, and the
appeal of the genre hasn’t waned in decades. They also tend to be same-y, and when a film comes along that hacks through the envelope with a machete, I rejoice. While I hoped for a bigger blast of creativity with Murder in the Woods, I’m happy for its professionalism and its inclusion of Latinx moments and references.
*Though if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that people in slasher movies are maybe not stupid enough compared to real life.
**If you’re asking why race matters in films, it’s because you’re white. Along similar lines are the people asking why movies “have to get political.”
***Scream, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, The Cabin in the Woods, and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil are all great examples of films that push the slasher genre in exciting new directions.