The Forest (1982) Directed by Don Jones. Starring Dean Russell, Gary Kent and Tomi Barrett. Two couples camping in the mountains are terrorized by a cave-dwelling hermit with a taste for people meat. This slasher film, from the director of “Schoolgirls In Chains” and “The Love Butcher,” was shot in California’s scenic King’s Canyon National Park.
We open with a married couple (identified in the credits as Man & Woman) in their late 30’s hiking through an idyllic forest. As they chat loudly, a slender and shadowy form moves through the trees behind them. They eventually become separated, and Man encounters a bad guy with a huge knife. Rather than run or fight back with his own formidable size, Man just stands there with his mouth open until the knife finally goes in. Woman fares a little better. She leads the killer on a short chase through the woods before being pinned against a tree and slashed to death.
Two buddies, Steve and Charlie, share a sweltering car while stuck in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. To ease Charlie’s anger and frustration, Steve suggests getting out of the city for a while and going camping in the mountains. That night, the two men suggest the idea to their girlfriends Teddi and Sharon. The ladies immediately announce their OWN all girl camping trip set to take place a week before the guys arrive. In the morning, the two women leave for the mountains in a ridiculously impractical 1980s sports car. Unbeknownst to them, Steve and Charlie head out only 10 minutes later.
Turns out, Sharon and Teddi are very bad at camping. They can’t even make heads or tails of putting their tent up. While they struggle, Steve and Charlie arrive in the isolated parking area and are met by a park ranger. He tells them that hikers and campers vanish constantly in these woods, and the mystery of what becomes of them is virtually unsolvable.
Steve and Charlie’s arrival introduces one of the two rewarding elements of the film: a theme song. It’s called ‘The Dark Side Of The Forest’ by David Sommerville and it sounds like an Elvis tune, if The King was a little drunk and didn’t want you to go into the woods.
There’s nothing to fear
People do disappear
But where do they hide?
In the dark side of the forest-forest-forest (echoes)
Now don’t you get lost
Or you’ll have to pay the cost
Cuz many have died
In the dark side of the forest-forest-forest
After dark, Teddi and Sharon are visited by two strange and ghostly children named Jennifer and John Jr. They speak in echoing voices, hinting that something isn’t quite right before they fade into nothingness.
Then a ghostly adult woman appears and says:
“Have you seen my children? If you do, send them home. They must be punished.”
She then literally fades away, leaving the ladies to say things like:
“Jeez, I wish the guys were here. I’m a little scared.”
A little scared? I would’ve been starting the car right after the ghost kids appeared, tent and supplies be damned.
Teddi and Sharon sat through the manifestation of three ghosts and just seem mildly baffled by it all.
Meanwhile, Steve and Charlie bumble around in complete nocturnal confusion because they forgot to pack flashlights. Is this what the song meant about the dark side of the forest?
The two children enter a cave and speak to their father, John. He’s an older fella in a baseball cap and undershirt, sitting in a rocking chair. The kids accidentally reveal that they saw two female campers nearby, and John turns to his trusty knife shelf to pick up his trusty knife.
But John’s children use ghost magic to instantly teleport to the campsite and warn Sharon and Teddi that John is coming to kill them. And all this concern over what John is up to might have some dramatic heft if the killer were the least bit frightening.
He’s too clean looking for a crazed hermit who lives off human flesh. When I think mad hermits, I envision Madman Marz from 1983’s “Madman” or that crazy backwoods lady with the machete attached to her arm in “The Final Terror” from the same year. Hermits should be filthy, bearded and generally unkempt. John looks like a civilized grandpa you’d politely chat with about the rising price of hot dogs at Walmart.
And really, IS the mystery of who is killing everybody that visits the park so unsolvable? Unless there are like 50 other hostile hermits running around the area, you’d think the park rangers would zero in on John. He lives in a cave that has two things in it: a rocking chair and a huge knife.
On the run from John, Sharon jumps off a cliff and slides down a waterfall into a lake. And Teddi, who apparently forgot everything the ghost kids just told her seconds ago, continues sitting by the campfire until John shows up and gives her his sob story.
“I don’t want to hurt you. But I’m starving. I haven’t eaten in days!”
Steve and Charlie decide to wait out a sudden rainstorm in John’s cave, where they meet the ghosts and then eat the human flesh that John offers them. He turns out to be a pretty generous guy. As they eat, the hermit tells them the story of his life. John used to have a job and a house, until his cheating wife drove him insane with all her affairs. After catching her with her latest lover and the abused kids locked in a closet, he murders his spouse. This all unfolds during an energetic flashback, in which the killer has a meaningless 10-minute fight sequence with a refrigerator repairman sleeping with his wife. The battle involves a pitchfork, a massive tree saw, a bicycle frame, a radial saw blade and a kitchen knife. With that action all wrapped up, John grabs the kids and moves into a cave in the woods.
Not only does the cannibal not kill the Steve and Charlie, but he also lets them spend the night in his literal man cave. Seems a bit sexist. He terrorized Sharon and Teddi, but the boys get a pass? While the two men argue over growing tensions, John leaves them and pursues Sharon. Jennifer and John Jr team up with her to thwart their father’s plans, and best pals Charlie and Steve part ways to search more ground.
It all culminates in a final fight featuring ghosts and some fantastically awful editing.
Without the loopy supernatural aspect and a wealth of unintentional hilarity, “The Forest” would be completely forgotten by time. The kills are clumsy and lack gore, the dialogue is atrocious, the heroes are imbeciles and John’s intensity as a maniacal killer is nil. This one has two good qualities: what may be the greatest theme song ever written, and the natural beauty of the King’s Canyon scenery.
Sometimes, you’re just better off seeing the trees and not “The Forest.”