Murder in the Woods assembles a group of classic slasher archetypes – The Funny One, The Slutty One, The Virginal Good Girl, etc. — for, well, a bunch of murders in the woods. However, director Luis Iga provides a fresh take on this rather overdone setup, as the director, writer and all members of the cast are Latinx. It shouldn’t be anything new, of course, especially in the year of our lord 2020, but watching a slasher devoid of white people is a refreshing, and necessary, endeavor. Even if the movie doesn’t entirely hang together, at the very least it succeeds in that respect.
José Julián stars as the floppy-haired Jesse, whose parents perished in a presumed murder-suicide just one year prior to the events of the movie. Feeling like it’s the right time to take a break from normal life, Jesse packs up his things for a weekend of debauchery with his buddies, a couple tagalongs who weren’t technically invited, and the girl he has a crush on, Fernanda (Jeanette Samano, exuding sweetness in spite of her frumpy cardigan). Although Jesse’s grandmother warns him not to tempt fate by returning to the literal scene of the crime, he ignores her pleas and goes anyway.
Along the way, the group run into Lorenzo (Latinx icon Danny Trejo, in a glorified cameo, but still gifted the all-important “And” credit right off the bat) who hilariously responds to one character nervously saying “thank you, officer” with a deadpan “it’s SHERRIFF.” Seeing Trejo, who infamously did time only to remake himself as an actor predominantly cast in roles playing up that same hard-man image, portraying a law-man is a real treat. If only there was more of him. It stands to reason, however, that Iga wanted to showcase the talents of his young cast rather than relying on Trejo’s star power, and more credit to him.
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Once the kids actually arrive at the cabin, it’s not too long before Murder in the Woods gets down to business. Curiously, the first murder occurs off-screen with precisely zero gore. It reads as an odd choice, particularly in a subgenre that relies on out-there violence to paper over the cracks of typically, and often enjoyably, wafer-thin premises. But, without spoiling anything, the money shot and then some is eventually shown during a bonkers third-act reveal. Neither too obvious nor completely outlandish, it’s a satisfying way to tie up everything that’s come before (it might even have die-hard slasher fans kicking themselves for not putting two and two together sooner).
Iga’s film (which was written by Yelyna De Leon) is also his feature debut, so certain allowances can be made for the somewhat clunky beginning, as well as the strangely offbeat pacing. The flick is heavy on its feet, in spite of a zippy run-time. It’s unclear whether the director is a horror fan at heart, though judging by the way in which the film is shot, he might be learning on the go. Luckily, though, De Leon’s script is solid, and a certain reference to Crystal Hill suggests her slasher bonafides are legit. The murder weapon is a classic big ol’ axe, too, which is suitably silly.
What sells Murder in the Woods more than the tension, which is pretty much non-existent, is the cast. The performances are strong across the board, and the comedy is well-handled throughout, whether it’s one young woman telling another “I hope you have the worst birthday EVER!” (and we know she will) or the reactions of the token rude guy, whose shit-eating grin over his own inappropriate remarks gets progressively more charming as the film goes on. As the ostensible leads, Julián and Samano have a subtle chemistry with one another, even if their romance doesn’t completely ring true.
Murder in the Woods is a slight but entertaining offering, sold completely and committedly by a talented cast of fresh, new faces and with a bonus appearance by the always-welcome Danny Trejo to boot. It’s not life-changing, but certainly a step in the right direction for representation, which continues to be important even in goofy, low budget slashers like this.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.