Ah, summer camp, where generations of teens have gone to learn outdoor skills, fall in love, lose their virginity, and subsequently be murdered by either psychotic killers or supernatural forces beyond their control. Or, in the case of Erik Bloomquist’s horror-comedy, She Came from the Woods, both.
Balancing scares and laughs so often proves a tricky proposition for filmmakers, but Bloomquist, who co-wrote the script with his brother Carson, maintains that equilibrium with a steady hand. Largely by not always trying to be both things at once. What begins as a riff on an ‘80s screwball camp comedy gradually morphs into a blood-covered, corpse-strewn tale of generational curses and survival that, by the end, is a straight up horror yarn. It’s a smooth evolution, taking a story that feels like it’s going to be a boner jam and transitioning it into a fraught, frightening genre throwback.
It's the last day of camp at Camp Briarbrook and after packing up all the campers, the counselors settle in for the annual end-of-season rager in the woods. Along the way, however, thanks to a Bloody Mary/Candyman style lapse in judgment, they unleash the spirit of Nurse Agatha, a camp legend who, among other things, performed bloodletting experiments on campers, though the saga winds up much more twisted than that. Before long, she’s possessing counselors, hacking wayward teens to bits, and enacting a decades-old revenge.
The set up collects nearly every type of camp horror stereotype. There’s Peter (Spencer List, Good Trouble), the son of the camp owner who steadfastly refuses to take anything seriously or grow up; his all business older brother, Shawn (Tyler Elliot Burke, Tulsa King); and their mother, Heather (Cara Buono, Stranger Things), who looks like Pamela Voorhees from certain angles. We also have the good-girl Lauren (Clare Foley, Sinister), the love-lorn Danny (Erik Bloomquist, The Cobblestone Corridor), the gay theater counselor, Ben (Dan Leahy, Reboot), beefy jock Mike (Ehad Berisha, The Deuce), the too-old-to-still-be-doing-this Dylan (Adam Weppler, Ten Minutes to Midnight), and more. Capping it all off there’s the camp’s founder, Gilbert, played by the great William Sadler (VFW).
Before getting down to the horror business at hand, She Came From the Woods takes its time setting up these archetypes and letting them bounce off one another to varying degrees of success. There’s long-simmering interpersonal strife, the camp may be in trouble, and these are young people on the cusp of moving on, or trying to avoid that, and all the struggles and trouble inherent in being that age. While the characters all function as intended, and the actors all do a solid job, there’s simply not much depth or texture to them—they’re not entirely cardboard cutouts and they do flash personality and emotion, but by and large they’re most interesting when taken over by Nurse Agatha. Except for Sadler, who has a few shining moments sprinkled throughout.
The film suffers from a lack of a real protagonist. Initially it looks like Peter’s the one, like he’s destined to lead the way. He’s set up as the hero and has the most clearly defined arc laid out in front of him—he’s scared to go out into the world on his own and masks that fear with humor and an affected faux-slacker indifference. However, though he’s the instigator, he fades and becomes another member of the pack. Overall, the story is scattered and unfocused, which could stem from many sources—it could be a script issue, or with a low-budget indie project like this, sometimes you don’t have the shots you need. The mythology surrounding Nurse Agatha—what she’s after, what her powers are, how she deploys them—is similarly scattered and all over the place.
Despite a few inconsistencies, She Came From the Woods is a fun, funny, and, most importantly, scary homage to summer camp slasher movies of yesteryear. There’s gross, gooey practical gore effects, strong era appropriate set and costume design, a nice Kim Wilde needle drop, and an obvious affection all around for the movies it references and replicates. It has enthusiasm and energy to spare, and that makes for an entertaining watch. [Grade: B]