Editorials

In ‘Don’t Go in the Woods,’ Slasher Meets Musical

November 16th, 2022 | By Sezín Devi Koehler

Don't Go in the Woods

PLAY THIS FILM LOUD, reads the opening title card of Vincent D’Onofrio‘s 2010 directorial debut Don’t Go In The WoodsAnd the louder, the better to get the full impact of this strange and compelling slasher-musical. Filmed almost entirely on D’Onofrio’s property in upstate New York — and co-written by indie rocker Sam BisbeeJoe Vinciguerra, and D’Onofrio — Don’t Go In The Woods follows an unnamed hipster band from Brooklyn as they set out for a camping weekend to write some fresh tunes. Headed by lead singer and guitarist Nick (Matt Sbeglia), the band thinks this is just an excuse to party in nature rather than at their usual coffee shops and bars. 

Nick has entirely different designs as he throws out Johnny’s (Soomin Lee) stash, insisting on no pot, no booze, and no girls to write their new album. But this decidedly non-rock-and-roll workhorse vibe is quickly trashed with the band’s gang of assorted women followers find them in the woods. The babes are replete with a fresh stash of whiskey and weed.

As the band parties into the night with a sulky Nick at the margins, we discover a black-coated figure roaming the woods with a sledgehammer. And as band members and their women companions begin to go missing, the question is, who is picking them off one by one? A vengeful Wendigo spirit? The creepy deer hunters stalking the forest? Or is someone much closer to home stalking the audiophiles as they create? Meanwhile, many darkly lyrical songs set the stage for murder and mayhem. 

While Don’t Go In The Woods landed with a critical thud — not unlike the sound the killer’s sledgehammer makes throughout the movie — this has been my favorite horror musical since the first moment I saw it. Where critics lambasted the acting, the natural performances from a group of nonactors work in the film’s favor, giving it a found-footage vibe. There is an earnestness to the performance and singing that’s honest in the way only live music can be.

At the same time, the audience shares in the same voyeurism as the deer hunters and the human killer. We watch the stragglers get picked off one by one as their friends continue to celebrate being young, gorgeous, and talented. Details like Nick’s worn guitar and Johnny’s duct-taped drum kit remind us that these are real musicians struggling to make their living doing what they love.

Like Paul Thomas Anderson and Aimee Mann‘s Magnolia song-to-screenplay collaboration, Sam Bisbee’s funereal music and lyrics shape Don’t Go Into The Woods with a nihilistic bent. Things come to a head when we find out that the killer is one of the band members, planning to steal everyone’s new songs and sell them as his own. In many ways, Don’t Go In The Woods is the spiritual ancestor of The Foo Fighters’ demon possession horror Studio 666, similarly created in a short time frame on a small budget and starring a cast of musicians with no previous acting training. 

But Don’t Go In The Woods is more than a camp slasher-musical with a gimmick production style. Underneath the body horror highlighted by Sam Bisbee’s haunting lyrics lies themes of capitalist greed, creative exploitation, and pathological narcissism. The songs drive the story, effectively making these elements as much a monster in the film as the slasher killer himself. “Sound travels farthest when it’s coming from the grave,” Carlo (Jorgen Jorgensen) sings, highlighting the intellectual and creative thefts already in play.

The killer himself isn’t just a straightforward slasher murderer either. He is a metaphorical vampire as he sucks the life and talent of his friends for his own personal gain. This dynamic creates the backdrop for one of the most brutal and disturbing slasher kill scenes ever put to screen: Robbie (Nick Thorp) is arguably the most talented musician in the bunch. He also happens to be blind. Robbie is the only one who isn’t a witness to the killer and could have been left alive. Instead, the killer slowly and methodically stones his supposed friend Robbie to death with rocks from a distance. This wrenching scene highlights the killer’s resentment and envy of Robbie’s surpassing talent as both singer and songwriter. 

Going deeper into the social commentary embedded in Don’t Go In The Woods, the killer’s reveal at the end speaks to the lengths an individual will go to attain the fame and fortune they feel entitled to, deserving or not. This “me first” attitude is often fueled by the unbridled capitalism that awards those who serve themselves rather than rewarding acts of collective creation and collaboration.

But as the killer appears to get away with his mass murder spree — this 85-minute movie has a 12-person body count — lyrics to Johnny’s poignant contribution to the stolen album echo almost as a threat to the killer. “Used to have nothing,” we hear, “now we have everything. To lose.” In the end, more than ever, the killer has painted himself into a corner with blood and bone and will never be able to move beyond that tiny space without the mess he made getting everywhere. I would love a sequel to this film, one where the killer becomes a one-album wonder incapable of creating more — but whose house of ill-gotten cards comes crashing down when someone finds the bodies in the woods. After all, 12 youngsters can’t just disappear. Not even in Brooklyn. 

If the scathing social commentary, gorgeous lyricism, horror homage, and often gruesome slasher violence aren’t enough to convince you to take a fresh gander at Don’t Go In The Woods, then do it for the queer love story that runs parallel to all the other action in the film. The romance between Melinda (Ali Tobia) and the French exchange student Sophie (Nuriya Almaya) is weirdly sweet and offers the only hopeful musical exchanges in the entire movie as they sing, “J’taime, j’taime, j’taime. I love you, I love you, I love you!” in a punk style that seems entirely uncharacteristic of these characters. Somehow, though, it totally works. 

Twelve years after its release, Don’t Go In The Woods remains a slasher musical with wicked bite and lots of layers to peel back. It’s also a strange little time capsule of the early 2010s, with flip phones, boys with floppy side parts, and snarky t-shirts reading “I piss excellence.” Just don’t forget: PLAY THIS FILM LOUD. 

Sezín Devi Koehler

Sezin Devi Koehler is the author of upcoming 'Much Ado About Keanu: A Critical Reeves Theory' (Chicago Review Press, 2024), the first ever in-depth sociocultural study of Keanu Reeves' entire creative catalog. She also has bylines with Entertainment Weekly, The Daily Beast, Scalawag Magazine, Black Girl Nerds, and many more. Sezin currently writes from a small Florida beach town where she rehabilitates wounded orchids and raises endangered butterflies in her own yard.

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