A horror movie is never just a horror movie. The horrors onscreen are never just literal horrors: They are metaphors for the deeper fears that plague us—literal, visual representations of the things that freak us out so much that we can barely put words to them. In writer-director Beau Ballinger’s first full-length horror outing She Watches From the Woods, the fledgling auteur takes on a neurosis so prevalent and fitting for the times America finds itself in: white guilt.
She Watches From the Woods leans into the shivery thrills of its ghost-story-around-a-campfire title from the first sequence: Two teenagers, sisters June and Willow Martin (Kirby Schmieding and Makenna Wayburne), sit gossiping about an awkward first kiss in their lakeside cabin set into the Ohio woods. But something is immediately off: Willow keeps rubbing a creepy doll made out of corn husk, and soon she hears disembodied voices beckoning her out to the dock.
And so is born the trauma that will both cripple and animate the adult June (Meredith Garretson) who, even through the deterrent of excruciating mental treatments and the incentive of a functional relationship with a beautiful career woman named Maeve (Paulina Bugembe), will risk everything just to convince herself that what she saw was what actually happened.
Part of June’s risky behavior is returning to the scene of the trauma, although she has good reason to do so: Tammy (Wylie Small), the mother stunted by the death of one daughter who then signed her other daughter over to the state, is now dying of cancer, and June has come back to make peace. But instead of repairing her tattered relationship with her mother, June is sidetracked by another death eerily similar to her sister’s. And so begins the other staple of horror movies—the supernatural detective chase—that will lead June to the conclusion that her sister’s death might be tied to an unsavory secret buried within their small town’s history.
What makes a horror film fun is that it forces its makers to use every tool in the filmmaking toolbox to make its point, and Ballinger has assembled a very capable team to get his points across. There is Graham Reynolds’ (Before Midnight, A Scanner Darkly) melancholic horn-inflected score to Karen Skloss’ slightly disorienting editing. (Along with Ballinger, Skloss is also the co-writer.) But particular kudos goes out to Filipino cinematographer Carlo Mendoza, who cut his teeth on local period pieces like Rosario and Boy Golden, for his atmosphere-building; he manages to turn the beautiful isolation of the forests of Ohio into something nearly sentient.
She Watches From the Woods spends its economical 79-minute running time wrapping a conventional ghost story around a particularly sensitive front of the current culture war in American society: How much white people should be held to account for the atrocities their ancestors visited upon people who didn’t look like them. Representing one viewpoint is Maeve—a Black woman—who is of the mind that the only way forward is to the future; on the other side is the town’s menacing yet banal police chief (The Accountant’s Andy Umberger) who disavows the past as proudly as he displays the mounted animals he has killed. (He, in turn, is counterbalanced by the amusing stereotype of Landon Ashworth’s hapless deputy Dean—the object of the Martin sisters’ gossip on that fateful night—who sputters that he is an “ally” when introduced to June and Maeve’s relationship.)
And in the middle is June, who can’t help but look behind her—beyond the demons chasing her, to the town’s shrouded heritage—no matter how much she is counseled not to do so, at her own peril. As she navigates the plot’s central mystery, June is confronted by the literal specter of guilt as an all-consuming monster. She Watches From the Woods explores the thin line between acknowledging one’s sins and letting those sins devour you.
Photos from IMDB