THE VILLAGE IN THE WOODS
A review and interview with filmmaker Raine McCormack
Ellis Reed revisits, The Village in the Woods, a 2019 love-letter to Seventies cinema, and interviews the creator, Raine McCormack...
They don’t make ’em like they used to – except they sometimes do. Take, for instance, The Village in the Woods (UK, Raine McCormack, 2019). Released in the dying months of the Pre-Covid Age, it’s a dark love-letter to Seventies cinema, eschewing quick thrills in favour of a delicious slow burn. It’s also something of a passion project, insofar as it was written, directed, edited and even scored by the same man – albeit with help from John Hoernschemeyer (writing) and Oral Norrie Ottey (editing).
After struggling to mobilise production behind his previous script, McCormack wrote The Village in the Woods to make use of locations that were right on his doorstep: ‘Using the filmmaking philosophy of “use what you’ve got”, I scanned my surroundings. One, I lived next door to a pub which many assumed shut, derelict or both. Two, I was surrounded by woods. Simple, I thought…’(1) The end result is a masterclass in economical filmmaking, insofar as it shows that you can shoot an atmospheric, commercially viable feature on a small number of well-chosen sets, provided you have the right talent on both sides of the camera (not to mention a really first-rate fog machine).
It’s very much a folk horror, of the kind where some unwitting ‘normies’ go a little too far off the beaten track. In this case, Jason (Robert Vernon) and Rebecca (Beth Park) arrive in the rural village of Cooper’s Cross, where they are the proud new owners of a derelict pub. They plan to sell it for a profit, but the over-friendly locals expect them to stay and run it. The villagers themselves are a jolly-seeming bunch, with the sole exception of Arthur (Sidney Kean), who’s been squatting in the pub and shows no sign of leaving. As you might expect, he has good reasons for keeping himself to himself, but those are saved for the final act.
The de facto leaders of the local community are temptress Maddy (Therese Bradley) and her creepy beau Charles (Richard Hope). Both are great value in their respective roles; they evoke the gentle charm of a bygone age, but with one foot very firmly in the uncanny valley. You wouldn’t be surprised to find them at a village fête, awarding rosettes to prize-winning pies – but nor would you be surprised if all the pies were made out of people. As the story unfolds, their habit of circling the pub becomes more oppressive, and Rebecca begins to chafe at the attention. ‘They’re all waiting,’ Arthur eventually warns her. ‘All watching. The villagers. They’re going to do something terrible. And you walked straight into it…’ The big reveal doesn’t disappoint, rounding off the film with a nice big dollop of supernatural lunacy – and then, after a last delicious sting, the credits roll. At seventy-five minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, which is exactly as it should be.
You can see what kind of film this is from the promotional material, and McCormack has done a great job with his ‘dark love-letter’ to the genre. Speaking personally, I fell in love with the film, because it certainly pushed a lot of my buttons. The villagers are like the revenants of an Agatha Christie cast, come back from the grave to try their hands at a different genre. It’s hard for me to imagine a mash-up more finely tuned to my own tastes, and the actors do a great job with the material. That obviously includes the chief villains, who are pitch-perfect for the style of the piece, but also the genre-blind protagonists, who give more grounded (and, in Park’s case, almost shell-shocked) performances. All of the roles work very nicely.
Also, whatever compromises were made in shooting a film around the director’s own home certainly aren’t reflected in the final production values. The whole thing is dripping with atmosphere. The cinematography is a perfect match for the simmering folk horror of the story; scenes are painted in winter grey and lamplight orange, viewed through the haze of the ever-present fog. You can get a good sense of the film’s aesthetic from the trailer, which certainly doesn’t over-promise. It’s basically just a cracking example of the folk horror format.
All in all, as well as being one of my personal faves of 2019, this is a very appealing film for anyone who wants to watch a lean cautionary tale, set in and around a great location. Either rent it on Prime, buy the beautifully-packaged DVD, or catch the TV première – dates to be confirmed(2) – later this year.
We took the opportunity to ask filmmaker Raine McCormack some questions about the film.
Ellis: You’ve described The Village in the Woods as a ‘dark love-letter to Seventies cinema’. What were your main influences from that era?
Raine: The stylistic tone. The mute colours. The reliance on atmosphere. Laid off, minimal musical scores and equally minimal dialogue. Something thematically deeper seeping through the visuals. A feeling of nostalgia, almost dreamlike. All these influences as a whole more so than any direct reference to a specific 70’s film. I feel a lot of these movie traits are very prevalent in older cinema as opposed to many modern commercial movies.
E: Your film makes fantastic use of a small number of very atmospheric locations, and I know that you wrote it for the Harbour pub and woods around your home. In practice, was shooting a film on your own doorstep as straightforward as it sounds? How do you get permission to turn a working pub into a film set?
R: It was a challenge physically and mentally. Our house (we don’t live there any longer) had been turned into the production office. There was absolutely nowhere for Justine (producer) or myself to escape the stress of the shoot. As much as it was exciting it was equally suffocating so close to home if I’m totally honest. This theme carried on way beyond the shoot. During the many months of editing, I’d be cutting, then take a break, swing my living room doors open for a breath of fresh air and there before me, the pub that I’d just been staring at one screen for eight hours! Like the protagonists in the movie, there was no escape. I wish I could say it was straightforward. It wasn’t. It was a major learning curve for not just us (BRAKE3) but also others on that first shoot. But it laid the foundation for the re-shoot in 2017 which was a breeze by comparison. Regarding the pub use: It was often never that busy aside from occasional seasonal events. The landlord was very generous with his patience and fee expectations so we made it work. I felt for the locals though in the village. It was a bigger intrusion than we’d assumed. But we got through it.
E: As well as the locations, you managed to pull together a cast of familiar faces from TV, including Richard Hope of Poldark fame. How did you assemble such a good cast for your first feature?
R: Sidney Kean (Arthur) sent the screenplay to an actor he’d previously worked with. That actor sent the screenplay to Richard, Therese, Rebecca and Beth. It can be incredibly hard to reach actors when you’ve no contacts, which was where I was at that stage. I was super fortunate that it progressed the way it did with the attached talent. I’m very grateful for that.
E: After the first shoot for The Village in the Woods, you realised that you needed to expand some parts of the story – but you had to wait for winter to come back before you shot the extra scenes. Did you find the delay hard? Were there times when you despaired of the project?
R: I’d been editing the film for many months. After test screening, it was decided that if it were to reach a broader audience it needed additional shooting. It was too art house. Just way too ambiguous. But, I actually loved many parts of that cut… It had a ten-minute third act opening sequence which is now the midpoint nightmare. I love that sequence! Maybe it’ll be juicy ‘bonus’ material in the future.
From my perspective today, I don’t see the delay as ‘hard’ because it gave me the time to rewrite. However, at the time it was so frustrating. I was clocking the years up on the project and that takes its toll. I was determined to complete the picture and get it out to market. But, it was a long haul.
The 2017 shoot was organised by just myself and Justine (producer). It was slick. No problems. Every single issue ironed out way before the shoot. Every shot storyboarded. It was very enjoyable. So the hard lessons from the previous year (2016) paid dividends.
There were times I despaired of the project back in 2016. The background politics around the production itself. Politics that were tough going on my psyche. The movie became a trial of stamina, patience and playing the long game. It changed parts of me forever. It completely changed my outlook on filmmaking. It challenged me in ways that would drive many to the edge. I literally greyed during the process. I’m proud that I didn’t fold. I didn’t bend to any negative external forces. I delivered the film which has achieved worldwide distribution. I don’t often speak about the negative side of this movie. Maybe I should. I don’t want the sympathy card. I chose to make the film. They were my lessons to learn. I’m grateful to my accountants, Darren and Matt and producer, Justine who lifted my morale when it felt like my back was against the wall. They believed in me.
E: Highs for the film include topping the UK iTunes Horror chart and getting mentioned in Empire and The Independent. Since you got it to market, what’s been your personal highlight?
R: The things you mention in the question are wonderful and I do love those moments. With both The Independent and Empire (Kim Newman) I had no idea they were covering the film. Other highlights: When I first saw the finished movie on a cinema screen in 5.1… that was major. I’d intended for it to be a big-screen movie. And it really works on a thirty-foot screen. The haunting sound design with the eerie yet beautiful cinematography.
Another major highlight for me is when strangers comment positively on the movie. When it entertains them and they get its theme. When they feel motivated enough to let me know.
E: You’ve had a diverse career to date, including a motion-capture performance in a film with a $200m budget. You’ve also said that you were never the sort of child who runs around with a Super 8. How long have you known that you wanted to write, produce and direct a horror movie?
R: I just simply didn’t act on filmmaking until I was in my forties. I would always visualise stories when listening to music. So story was a big part of me. If I’m honest, not doing this earlier was a self-belief thing. Confidence and conviction. If I’d scratched the surface of myself a little more I’d have dived into filmmaking much earlier. I’d always written music and songs and I have poems published, but I never took that leap into film.
I briefly considered attending film school around the 2000s but a loose acquaintance at the time dissuaded me. It took only one naysayer twenty years ago to derail that ambition. I couldn’t imagine being derailed now! My conviction now as a filmmaker is unwavering. I want this and I’m hungry to get movies completed. It’s catch up time!
E: In 2015, you took your previous screenplay to Cannes and also tried to crowdfund it(3). This led to a change of tack, where you decided to write a film that could be made cheaply in your own village. Do you still believe in that earlier project? And do you plan to visit it, following the success of your début?
R: I believe in everything I write but we change and grow. To say I’m the same writer/filmmaker who made The Village in the Woods in 2016-2017 would be wrong. I’m not. I’ve evolved so much as a writer. I’m striving to find my true voice and honesty on the page. To express being human which the project you mention would be out of line with. A re-write wouldn’t be out of the question. But, as is, it simply didn’t pick up speed. You just have to move on.
E: What’s next? Are you going to stay with the horror genre, and what do you have in the pipeline?
I’ve two projects that I’m very excited about. One is horror toned. It’s a modern times story that draws strong influence from challenging events and memories of my childhood and hometown. The other, a story in the action thriller genre whose theme is about freedom and standing up to bullies.
Many thanks to Raine McCormack for taking the time to answer our questions! You can watch the trailer for The Village in the Woods below, and catch the film on all the usual platforms.