Monday, February 3, 2020

Let the Shortening Begin With Some Woodsy Terror!

Check your calendar! It's the shortest month of the year (made slightly longer this time around) which means it's the TENTH annual Shortening!

For those new to the blog, The Shortening is simply a month where we celebrate horror all things little: deadly dolls, killer kids, infectious insects, you get the idea. As is often the case, bad seeds tend to dominate, so let's start this year's celebration off with the moral depravity of the American tweenager.

Quick Plot: Rachel and Kaitlyn are 11-year-old outcasts about to discover they're neighbors. Rachel has just moved to town following the separation of her parents, while Kaitlyn's overworked mother (Angela Kinsey from The Office) struggles to care for her family, including a well-meaning husband trying to manage his own (not named, but clear) schizophrenia. 

A lonely school bus ride is all it takes for Rachel and Kaitlyn to connect, much to the chagrin of Kaitlyn's best (and only) friend Emily. Where Rachel and Kaitlyn bond over dark urban legends, Emily prefers to chatter nonstop about fairies. Like all middle school female friendships, nothing lasts forever.

And, much like MANY a middle school female friendship, the deeper the bond, the more dangerous the girls.

Kaitlyn, you see, hears voices, and the more she and Rachel dig into their favorite scary story (Slender Man stand-in Suzerain) the louder they seem to get. Always a lonely child, Rachel is so thrilled to have a friend that she never notices that Kaitlyn might have other forces at work. Together, they dive deeper into Suzerain lore, convincing themselves and each other that their families have become the prime target of the murderous internet demon. The only way to save those they love is to sacrifice an innocent, and unsuspecting Emily becomes the perfect lamb. 

"Inspired by true events" is a phrase that usually makes my stomach turn or eyes roll. I tend to prefer my horror be guilt-free and imaginary, so the idea of Lifetime tackling a fairly recent, incredibly dark true crime case seemed like it would go into irresponsible waters pretty quickly. Thankfully, this is one of that small percentage of Lifetime movies that approaches its material with actual care. 

Terror In the Woods is directed by D.J. Viola, who shows excellent skill with his very strong young cast (newcomers Ella West Jerrier and Sophie Grace). The script (written by none other than Tara Maclay herself, Amber Benson) demonstrates a clear understanding of how girls of these age bond and break. There's a careful attention paid to making sure Kaitlyn and Rachel aren't just newspaper articles come to life, but real lonely young women whose friendship fed into something very, very dark. 

While Terror In the Woods doesn't cross into Emmy-worthy territory, it manages to be quite compelling as a study of confused teenagers, mental illness, and the dangers of good intentions. This isn't a Lifetime movie that aims to spawn memes. It wants to take a famous, fascinating crime and look at how the people involved came to commit it. For a network whose commercial breaks gleefully revel in next week's stepson love triangle, that's pretty impressive. 

High Points
As anyone who's heard me praising the otherwise pretty maligned #Horror knows, few things are scarier than the simultaneous thrills and dangers of preteen female friendship, and Terror In the Woods understands this both in its performances and script

Low Points
Look, this is still a "ripped from the headlines" Lifetime cash-in on a real-life tragedy, and it's not entirely easy to shake the ickiness factor. That being said, the act of violence that everyone is waiting for is handled with genuine weight and never feels exploitive

Lessons Learned
11 is a prime time for grossness

Die with a pillow on your face and you won't feel pain

Furniture store bathrooms are a superb home base for murder cleanup

I'm not saying Terror In the Woods is the 21st century Heavenly Creatures, but it's a surprisingly effective and heartbreaking dramatization of a case already documented too many times. I can't say how it compares to the pile of horror movies already made (well actually, I can at least say it's deeper than Mercy Black) but it's certainly better than the token Law & Order: SVU episode done on the same topic. It's not exactly fun, but anything tackling material like this probably shouldn't be. 


  1. Hooray, I was waiting for this to start! I've been sitting on a few things to review, eagerly wanting to talk about them, but wanting to wait for this special occasion ;)