There have been plenty of horror movies that have taken place in the woods over the last several decades, from The Evil Dead to The Blair Witch Project. Put the two together and you might have something like NIGHTLIGHT (Lionsgate and Herrick Entertainment). Part demon infested forest thriller and part first-person POV narrative, NIGHTLIGHT comes to us from writer/directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (Spread, Impulse).
The brilliance of this film lies in its cinematography and special effects. Shot entirely in the woods and lit by only the single beam of the main character’s flashlight, one wonders how the film manages to capture the details and subtleties of the action and suspense. One might also think that by using only a single light source the film would hide behind the shadows, but NIGHTLIGHT manages to expose full details of the cracks and crags of oak trees and chapped rock respectively.
However, this attention to detail is not so apparent in its characters. The story follows young Robin (Shelby Young) as she is invited to hang out with “the cool kids” for a night of teenage rebellion in the woods. The group, initiating the morose Robin into their clique puts her through some rigorous hazing, and she is willing to go along with it to get closer to her crush Ben (Mitch Hewer). Besides having to traverse the legendary haunted forest, the games include playing chicken with a locomotive, and a unique game of hide-and-seek that requires only a blindfold and a flashlight.
But what the group doesn’t know is that Robin, for reasons later explained in the film, is suffering from tremendous guilt over the death of her close friend Ethan (Kyle Fain). The only way to appease that guilt is to venerate a flashlight he left behind and use it on this night of mean-spirited peer bonding. The story is intriguing, unfortunately it is up to the demons of the forest to keep it that way.
The film is shot entirely through the scope of Ethan’s flashlight beam, which again is surprisingly not a detriment to the movie. Robin uses his lamp as a charm, hoping the spirit of Ethan will protect her from the evils of woods. But, the woods are notoriously cursed, and for years it has lured teenagers into its depths where they leap from “Covington Crest”, committing suicide; it seems nothing can save her.
NIGHTLIGHT feels like the slick and glossy Dimension movies from the 90’s. A group of good-looking teenagers, each with distinctive personalities are thrown together into a terrifying situation and try to survive. NIGHTLIGHT gives us 5 teenagers to follow, but their personalities are only thin caricatures of which we can never fully sympathize. In one scene, Chris, gives us “the rules” of the forest, recalling Jaimie Kennedy’s famous speech about how to survive a horror movie in Scream.
As with most horror movies, teenagers only get a handful of personas on which to draw: Brainy, brawny, bitchy or busty. NIGHTLIGHT seems to have encompassed these personalities under the canopy of the more interesting and realized forest landscape, complete with disturbing woodland demons.
But, NIGHTLIGHT is a lot more than just character development. The movie is shot completely through the POV of a Ethan’s, now Robin’s flashlight. It took me a little while to realize that this is not a found footage film; there is no camera taped to the light, and we are simply looking through the O-ring for the entire movie. An interesting change of formula.
On a technical level, the movie surpasses many of its ilk. The film makers have really made the woods their primary focus, giving it a haunting personality, a quiet menace. Cinematographer Andrew Davis must have had many sleepless evenings. Despite the darkness of the setting, the “camera” is still able to pick up the details and ambiance of the ever-moving woods. Many movies have used cities as characters, and it’s nice to see that the directors have done the same with the dense forests of Utah.
Another aspect of the technological genius is the way things are represented in the shadows. If a character is talking, the viewer is treated to many activities in the penumbra, or just out of view. The forest demons creep behind trees, blend into the scenery and only appear when they break their camouflage right before your eyes, which is good for a startle. Cave walls are perfect surfaces for devilish entities to blend into and are undetectable until you see them shift. Wind gusts move large portions of the tree line at one time, and full details of oak leaves are traced around the blackness of the midnight sky. Again, a hard feat to accomplish when you are illuminating a movie with only a single beam of light.
The movie retains a big-budget feel even if the premise seems inexpensive. It is filled with scenes in which the focus is on one thing, but there is so much more going on beyond the parameters that you find your attention being drawn from the action and into the forest shadows.
As a whole, NIGHTLIGHT, has a lot going for it. The directors are well on their way to creating something greater. They seem to be adept at misdirection and they know how to capture the feeling of an improvising mother nature. NIGHTLIGHT for all of its technical wizardry does fail in some of the plot pacing and character development, but the devil is in the details, and NIGHTLIGHT is a visual stunner.
With little gore and some borrowed patchworks, NIGHTLIGHT is certainly worth a watch, if only for the magic and misdirection of the camera work; the movie will intrigue you more by what is hiding in the sidelight instead of what is bundled in the spot.
This time it might be best to see the forest for the trees.
NIGHTLIGHT is Rated R and stars Shelby Young, Chloe Bridges, Carter Jenkins, Mitch Hewer and Taylor Murphy. It will be in limited theatrical release on March 27 and on VOD the same day.