Writer/director Isaac Rodriguez (Last Radio Call, Mister Creep) opens his latest film, The Astral Woods, with shots of a spaceship traversing the galaxy. Its arrival on Earth is noticed by a Native American (Keekee Suki, Abduction of the Fourth Kind, A Town Full of Ghosts) wearing what appears to be war paint. But this isn’t a knock-off of Prey, the craft simply blasts him without even landing.
In fact, The Astral Woods has little to do with Native Americans at all and the plot jumps to the present day where Shawn (Marvin Ritchie, Mexican Gangster 2: Venganza, Jingle Bell Ranch) is explaining a life insurance scam to his wife Liz (Alexandria Payne, The Pizzagate Massacre, Jackrabbit).
All she has to do is stay hidden away in a remote cabin with no company or communications with the outside world and live off of a couple of MREs a day for seven years until she’s declared dead. Then they’ll get a two million dollar payout. Simple and easy right, just spend seven years in solitary confinement while hubby is back home and presumed single. The fact the plot hinges on her agreeing to it was my first warning that The Astral Woods had some major issues.
Meanwhile, back in civilization, Shawn has run into a problem in the form of Wallace (Jason Skeen, The Dawnseeker, The Captive Nanny) a very suspicious investigator from the insurance company. And that causes problems with the very dangerous people he’s involved in the scam with.
Unfortunately, none of this is in any way exciting and would have been disappointing even if I’d been expecting a thriller rather than a horror film. Rodriguez serves up lots of flashbacks to Shawn and Liz before they decided to do this and some dull voiceover of her telling us how bored she is, something I could certainly relate to. I’d probably have given up by this point if I wasn’t reviewing The Astral Woods, But the two plots finally do start to merge once Liz finds a hidden safe with drawings and an old cassette walkman with a tape about strange happenings in the woods.
The problem is, even after we get to that point, very little happens. Payne gave a good performance in The Pizzagate Massacre but here she has nothing to work with. She’s by herself much of the time, walking around the woods or in the cabin listening to the tape, etc. Any actual scares are few and far between.
The Astral Woods tends more towards the ridiculous than the frightening with the voice on the tape being able to tell Liz how many fingers she’s holding up and have a conversation with her due to his travelling in time. Speaking of travelling in time, the film actually does span the full seven years, but there’s no sense of time passing beyond Shawn’s beard growing out. If the sinister voice on his phone hadn’t mentioned it, you’d think everything happened over a few weeks or months.
The extremely small cast, three characters and a pair of voices don’t help either. It’s hard to build suspense when you know they have to keep everyone around until the last act. This was obviously made on a pocket change budget, but maybe having a couple of extra characters might have helped. Not just by raising the level of suspense but by giving the film more scenes that don’t involve people talking to themselves.
Despite its budget, The Astral Woods does manage to deliver quite a few effects. Many of them seem to be inspired by a child’s kaleidoscope. It looks silly when it’s representing an alien energy weapon but is fairly effective when it’s creating distorted images in a dark forest. The CGI for the spacecraft and the alien, when it finally makes its thirty second appearance, is a mixed bag but mostly tolerable for a film like this. The CGI bullet hole in somebody’s forehead however is terrible, they would have been better just smearing blood on them.
There was the potential for a good film here. There are a few interesting ideas worked into it but nothing is done with them The Astral Woods would have needed a total rewrite for that to happen. Or, given the time frame it takes place in, been turned into a novel instead.
The Astral Woods is available on Digital Platforms including Tubi.