Black Wood was directed and written by Chris Canfield (Occupy, Bunker’d) and stars Bates Wilder (Black Friday, The Unholy), Tanajsia Slaughter (Custer’s Strategy of Defeat, The Last Son), Stelio Savante (The Cleaning Lady, Pups Alone), George Thomas Mansel (American Bigfoot, Feud), Casey Birdinground (Trail of Justice), Andrew Stecker (Wunderland, Come Out Fighting), Glenn Morshower (Drive-In, The Runners), Kara Rainer (Putting Love to the Test, Glow), and David ‘Shark’ Fralick (Swamp Terror, Blood Pageant). It’s about a gang on a mission for gold being caught in a conflict with a lone Native woman, which leads them to a newly awakened Wendigo.
The Plot: Common as the woods/forest setting is for horror, it’s hard for most to land the setup, let alone a story that flows from it. Greats like Predator which worked on just about every level act as the basis for Canfield’s story, which has a decent setup, but adds a silly detail that devalues immersion.
In a frontier town, the Dutch Wilder Gang, led by the eponymous Dutch (Wilder) and made up of Henri (Savante), Lester (Mansel), Two Feathers (Birdinground), Oryen (Stecker), another unnamed one are coming to Pickerton (Rainer) for payment after a mission. She isn’t paying though, not with cash anyway; she tells Dutch that there’s an open vein of gold in the Black Wood Forest he can take from as his reward. The only problem is that he’ll have to take Wallace (Morshower) along for directions. This setup works pretty well as violence won’t get the posse their money, making their need for money their undoing.
The gold is supposed to come easy, but Dowanhowee (Slaughter) finds the group in town, kills one, and bolts for the presumed concealment of the forest. It’s at this point that the movie introduces visions that are questionable in their impact, feeling more like a form of exposition delivery without the details than something more accurate and informative.
With the cast’s arrival in the forest, a Wendigo (Fralick) awakens to wreak havoc on them all. Black Wood spends most of its time with a suboptimal second act that’s mostly filler in content, watching as the characters wander around a wooded area until the movie suddenly decides it wants to ramp up and end.
Said ending is fine, if entirely predictable. Canfield’s script showed early promise but didn’t have much to stand on beyond its foundation.
The Characters: Wendigo-induced visions account for almost all of the character work here, finding the movie leaning on the tropes and stereotypes of the western setting. That’d be enough if the movie didn’t make reference to relationships that don’t materialize on screen.
Dutch can somehow be read like an open book by Wallace, with the man correctly speculating(?) that he had a wife and kid who have been dead for some time, and that they wouldn’t be proud of who he became. Considering the audience isn’t informed as to who Dutch was before, this means little, and since we find out equally few things about him now, it means even less. He’s determined and has certainly seen his fair share of violence, but there’s nothing else known about him.
Dowanhowee’s tribe had been the victim of a massacre at the hands of one of Dutch’s gang, but her target is dispatched at the town, leaving a lack of an arc for the character to go through. A young girl is shown in her visions, presumably her sister, however, this is never clarified and feels pointless. Was the entire tribe not enough of an incentive for murder? She’s directed by “The Great Spirit” to go to the forest, but this is just a convenient way to get her to the forest to be a part of the events.
Members of the posse are all flimsy and some are just cliches. Henri is nervous and eager to leave one, Lester is the unhinged one who craves violence instead of any physical or monetary reward like gold or cash, and Oryen is the shifty one who would take from the group and ditch them if given the chance. Two Feathers had more potential than the rest, but instead just ends up as the tracker character who knows the stories about the area, making any potential commentary or interesting arc an unfortunate omission.
Brief moments of a human side to Dutch are present thanks to Bates Wilder, who gives one of two solid performances in Black Wood, and the other coming from Morshower, but there’s nothing new to see and no one to care about.
The Horror: Hybrids of the western and horror genres are hard to come by, especially one that utilizes a creature from folklore, making the mostly unscary movie on display here an immense disappointment.
Although the movie had ample time to dig into the headspaces of Dutch and Dowanhowee to witness the horrors they’ve both experienced, it doesn’t take it on their journey to the forest between stops or make something simmer from confrontations between the two. Suggesting the details of these moments would’ve worked, but the movie repeatedly misses its chances by neglecting the use of sounds or even vague dialogue aside from one poorly executed scene of the massacre. Traumatic horror is a lost cause here.
Deception isn’t utilized in Black Wood either, even with “The Great Spirit” at its disposal, the movie is as straightforward as any normal slasher. Using Dowanhowee as a scapegoat for killings when she was left with one or two of the posse and creating a mystery out of the character’s potential for brutal revenge would’ve created a solid sense of doubt as the posse’s numbers dwindle or revealing “The Great Spirit” to be a trick by the creature, or anything really would’ve given the movie a much-needed sense of dread when the Wendigo isn’t doing its killing.
Said creature and its killings are some of the few highlights of the movie, and it uses a weather phenomenon to mark its presence amidst the wilderness, almost setting up a mood in the process. Surprisingly, a lot of the deaths in the movie aren’t at the hands (claws?) of the stalking hunter, but the ones it adds to the tally are disturbing and gross, like a character who gets their guts cleaved out and several horses left as little more than paste. It’s a welcome showcase of power for the cryptid, but the sparse appearances make it seem timid at the same time
The Technics: Since this is the writer/director’s first full-length film, it’s got its share of construction-based flaws, but there are just as many facets here worthy of praise to compensate.
What the movie suffers from the most is a lack of moodiness or atmosphere. Canfield’s decision to make nearly every moment of terror – including the Wendigo’s attacks – during the daytime, it removes the element of the unknown and seems illogical from the creature’s point of view. The cover of darkness mixed with the movie’s insinuation that the antagonist is wary of fire hardly ever gets the opportunity to come into play. Together with middling sound design and world-building, there’s a little ambience.
Makeup effects and costume design are much better at selling the illusion of the story, each kill is gruesome, bloody, and believably done. The human characters have a good wardrobe and sell the weather-worn setting, along with some stunning camerawork that captures the vistas of South Dakota.
After watching Black Wood, I still have yet to see a good Wendigo-centric movie. Though the lead performance from Wilder and competent facets of the production is good, it’s too long and rarely scary.
Saban Films gave Black Wood a limited theatrical release on July 22nd and it is now available on VOD and Digital platforms. You can check their Facebook page or the film’s website for more information