Trejo and multicultural cast don’t quite elevate ‘Murder in the Woods’

by Nick Spacek on August 13, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Swiss Fist]

At drive-ins & theaters nationwide on 8/14, Digital & VOD 9/18.

Directed and produced by Mexican filmmaker Luis Iga Garza and written and produced by Yelyna De León, Murder in the Woods bills itself as a “fun yet frightening thriller that stars an exclusively multicultural cast in non-stereotypical roles.” Hmmm. While it certainly has its moments, this slasher definitely relies on all of the beats for which the genre is known.

Murder in the Woods is centered on a group of college friends who plan a getaway to celebrate a birthday party at a desolate cabin in the woods. Against his grandmother’s (Soledad St. Hilaire) demands, Jesse (José Julián), a loner-type decides to go on a trip with his friends. He is immediately smitten with Fernanda (Jeanette Samano), a sweet girl from Chicago whom he hasn’t seen in years. She is in town visiting her loudmouth cousin, Chelsea (Chelsea Rendon), who is ready to celebrate her birthday and plans to let loose with her boyfriend Gabe (Jordan Diambrini). Tagging along at the last second are Jule (Kade Wise), the class clown pothead, and the very out-of-his-league Celeste (Catherine Toribio). Soon after arriving to the mysterious cabin in the woods, the group of teens discover the dark secret it holds, which forces them to fight for their lives.”

The plot structure which Murder in the Woods follows were lampooned so effectively in Drew Goddard’s 2011 film, Cabin in the Woods, that at this point, it feels that any film which follows that road map isn’t trying hard enough. Garza’s film and De León’s script definitely take Cabin in the Woods‘ directions and follow them, almost slavishly.

We’re introduced to the characters, and each one falls into a set role, as outlined in the plot summary. There are some miscommunications, they get slightly lost, reach a creepy gas station and attendant frightening local – in this case, the sheriff (Danny Trejo) – before reaching their destination with a busted-up SUV, effectively stranding them at the old house. They party. There are strange noises. Bodies appear, then disappear. People start dying. Et cetera.

Murder in the Woods has these sudden moments where it’s really charming and funny, and they’re just enough to keep you watching. For example, during a blackout, Jesse starts talking to Fernanda about all the possible causes – La Llorona, el chupacabra, duendes – and his enthusiasm regarding them, and Fernanda’s obvious discomfort, make for a really giggly situation. Unfortunately, while such scenes are just frequent enough to maintain mild interest, as a whole, the movie is fairly middle-of-the-road, in terms of slasher bonafides. Never does anything really get to the point where I ended up excited or thrilled about what I was watching.

In the press release, writer/producer De León makes a good point when she states, “For us, it’s important for this story to be universal, but being Mexican-American, it was also important for the script to include cultural Latino references such as El Dia de los Muertos, The Chupacabras, and other stories that are recognizable. We purposely showed authentic moments, such as the altars to honor our ancestors, and blessings when we leave the house, memorable experiences that we share with our families.”

Those are the moments which really stand out in Murder in the Woods. I think it’s telling that director Garza makes the point in the same press release that “this type of film had never been done in English for a mainstream audience, where Latinos and people of color are the leads and they are not portrayed in stereotypical ways.” Aside from those moments and details De León highlights – along with a definite focus on the Catholic faith of a couple characters – this is a standard, mainstream slasher, which means that, while the casting is something new, the way in which the cast is utilized isn’t.

It’s not so mediocre that I ever wanted to turn it off, but it’s also not one where I’m like, “That was a decent way to spend that time,” after reflecting on it. Murder in the Woods just kind of exists, and while Trejo as the sheriff and Soledad St. Hilaire as Nana really excel in their minor roles, the leads are all pretty much duds. Kade Wise as Jules is the sole exception, and that’s more because he seems to be having fun with what he’s doing, rather than just muddling through. As Chelsea, Chelsea Rendon does a little better with what she’s given than the rest of the main cast, but it’s unfortunately not much with which to work.

The kills are spotty, and never shown in much detail. The detail is saved for the killer reveal at the end, which is a shame, because it’s a case of taking things which would’ve upped the shock factor and kept things moving along and instead, just throwing them at the viewer in a two-minute highlight reel. I guess it’s necessary, in order to obscure the killer, but gialli have been misdirecting and getting super-violent for well over half a century, so maybe the filmmakers would have done well to have taken some pointers.

Nick is a self-described “rock star journalist,” which is strange, considering he’s married with two kids and three cats. This is just further proof that you can’t trust anyone online. In addition to his work for Scene-Stealers, Nick can be found bitching about music elsewhere on the Internet at his blog, Rock Star Journalist, and as Music Editor for The Pitch.

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