Busy production illustrator Mauro Borrelli takes a directorial poke at the horror genre with this derivative thriller that has a group of treasure seekers traipsing through an isolated forest in search of a sacred Indian tree with a cavern of secret goodies lying beneath its roots.
[SOME SPOILERS AHEAD]
The first third is actually well-paced, with some decent shock edits of the ghostly Satinka popping up just before marking her victims with a twig and a scar, and dooming them to a slow, arboreal mutation. Shot on a low, low budget, Borelli makes good use of his forest location, and the art direction pays off with a possessed tree that resembles a human torso, frozen as it tried at one point to push its way out from a desiccated trunk
It probably helps that Borrelli was a concept illustrator on Tim Burton's moody Sleepy Hollow (hence the chillingly designed tree, and elaborate journal sketches Sean uses as a guide), but most of the scares comes from generic shock edits, enhanced by loud sound effects, and orchestral stabs from composer Gianluca Piersanti.
Unfortunately, Borrelli's script and direction stumble in the final third, mostly because he borrows from way too many films. The chief blunder is Satinka herself, clearly a Native American in a set of flashbacks, but otherwise seen as another grey-painted, long-haired Asian chick with an open maw and big eyes.
At this stage in horror filmmaking, directors should be flogged for mimicking Ringu's iconic ghost, Sada, and the long black hair that hides her pale face. Borelli also repeats Sada's water well attack by having Satinka swoop up from the trunk's base to where Sean is but a few feet away from freedom, and he also intercuts close-ups of Satinka's gyrating eyeball, blatantly copying some of the campaign art used in the Ringu poster and subsequent DVD covers.
Around the midpoint, a new character (cursed survivalist Roy McKane) is introduced, and Borelli switches to a more handheld visual style, using a faster frame rate to create staggered movements within each shot. It's an effective move, but the battle between Satinka and Sean in the tree, particularly when blood pours over Sean, recalls the same sharp, flickering visuals that saturated the cave-bound combat sequences in Neil Marshall's The Descent.
Marshall at least radically stepped down the exposure level for his cave scenes to create extreme claustrophobia through high contrast lighting, whereas Borrelli's approach is less refined, and we're often aware that the actors are in a set because of a bright key light in what's supposed to be a cavern completely cut off from sunlight, save for a fist-sized peephole (which Borrelli later uses in a finale patterned after the final shot in Roger Corman's Pit and the Pendulum).
Borelli's also inserts a fake ending, which, like The Descent, offers a more optimistic escape for Sean and heroine Jennifer, though viewers will quickly figure out what's happening before the dissolve effect takes us back to the tree for the film's twist finale.
At least the tree and its vengeful ghostly spirit are more menacing than William Friedkin's ridiculous killer Druidic tree in The Guardian, but both films become unintentionally funny when the actors are delivering earnest emotions in absurd situations. A highpoint in Haunted Forest occurs when Sean finds buddy Josh turning into a tree, though the makeup is mostly little twigs pasted on the actor's tired visage.
[END OF SPOILERS]
Gianluca Piersanti's score provides a broad orchestral veneer using decent synth samples, but his main theme plays like a modified variation of Jerry Goldsmith's Basic Instinct theme. A later section seems to borrow from Goldsmith'score for Outland, while the finale inside the tree uses a variation of Nathan Barr's frenetic string motif from Hostel. Piersanti's score works well, but like Joseph LoDuca's own efforts for the first two Evil Dead films, the heavy thematic borrowing upsets what clearly could've been a strong and original atmospheric score.
Maple's bare bones DVD contains a clean transfer of the film, though the apparent digital video camera used to film Haunted Forest didn't handle bright sunlight too well; on occasion there's bleached white light on the actors clothes in some day shots, but the night scenes are fairly clean, with a good balance of colours. The sound mix is fairly aggressive, although some soft-spoken dialogue – namely Sean's reading from his grandfather's journal – is barely intelligible, and gets lost amid the sound design ( switching to the English subtitle track clarifies things a bit).
A commentary track and a proper making-of featurette on the visual effects would've been helpful in deconstructing this adequate low-budget shocker, though one gets the sense that with better resources, a proper script, and a stronger cast, Borrelli could craft a decent B-movie.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan