potwPHANTOM OF THE WOODS opens with a man running from a dark, shadowy figure in the woods. It’s clear right away that the figure is not human, but we only get a distant and vague look at it in the beginning. This reminded me of the Slenderman mythos, one of the best inventions to come out of the internet. Originating as an online Photoshop contest, Slenderman is often depicted as a tall, slim figure in the background, arms often outstretched. His popularity grew with the free PC game SLENDER: THE EIGHT PAGES, a first person survival horror experience where one has to walk or run in the woods, collecting pages. As more pages are collected, menacing footsteps are heard behind you, but taking a look back might just be the death of you. It’s definitely one of the best horror gaming experiences, proving that simplicity can be just as effective as a combative based vehicle.

Starting off PHANTOM OF THE WOODS, I theorized that this might be an incarnation of that mythos as a lot of the imagery reminded me of it. The movie even utilizes an eerie score and similar sound effects that help draw anxiety out of viewers when the figure is near. There’s one particular scene where a man is scared out of his mind seeing the dark figure in front of him. The two men around him can’t see it and think he’s simply going mad. However, from a far distance, a teen is looking through her camera and can see the figure staring down at the man. It’s actually kind of a spooky scene and is one of the strengths of the film.

When Lana, a young girl with a mysterious past, comes into town, a series of events manifest involving the mentioned dark figure and the surrounding woods. She quickly befriends loner Jake, who seems to get picked on for no other reason than a need for the film to have someone get picked on. Together, they witness their personal demons come alive and try to survive the supernatural being that threatens the town. The characters fulfill archetypes typical of low budget horror, but PHANTOM OF THE WOODS succeeds in creating some great scares.

Tension builds in several moments, but is interrupted by cringe worthy character development. The actors really do their best with what they’re working with, but some lines are just too on the nose to be ignored. Director Michael Storch has his heart in the right place and it shows. This story has its depth, even if sometimes the pacing is off. At around 100 minutes, PHANTOM OF THE WOODS feels a bit too long and would benefit from some tightening of the script. It is execution that needs assistance as there’s a great horror experience hiding within the film. There’s some shots of the woods in the daytime reminiscent of IT FOLLOWS where the viewer leans in wondering if someone or something is looking back at them in the shadows. It’s these moments that make a movie memorable and keep people talking. When they start happening too frequently, however, that feeling goes away and a novelty wears thin. Smoky CGI isn’t scary after the fifth time you see it and maybe it’s best if we just let the imagination run wild.