Director: Don Jones
Writer: Evan Jones
Starring: Dean Russell, Michael Brody, Elaine Warner, John Batis
Of the many type of slasher films to emerge during the early eighties, one popular subgenre was the rural thriller. Often set in the woods or high in the mountains, these movies would usually feature a small group of city slickers lost in the wilderness and falling prey to a backwards hill dweller. Along with the likes of Just Before Dawn, Don’t Go in the Woods and The Final Terror was The Forest, which saw two twenty-something couples heading into the mountains for a weekend of relaxation and bonding. Unlike its contemporaries, The Forest would blend elements of stalk-and-slash, Deliverance-style survivalism and the supernatural, with the appearance of a family of ghosts who haunt the killer and attempt to warn off strangers. Whilst its lack of gore and teen nudity would result in the movie failing to reach the audiences that had flocked to see Friday the 13th, over the years it has steadily gained a cult following and a ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ reputation.
By 1980, Donald Jones was a struggling filmmaker who had helmed two no budget horror flicks (Schoolgirls in Chains, The Love Butcher) and a comedy (Sweater Girls), but was struggling to pay the bills due to lack of work. Realising that the only way he would be able to work on a feature was by directing one himself, he decided to develop a concept which he would be able to shoot independently in and around Los Angeles. His story (which he would write under the name Evan Jones) would focus on a strange hermit living in the mountains who would slaughter and eat his prey and began approaching friends to with the production. In order to raise the necessary funding, Jones placed a second mortgage on his home and, with a little under $40,000, began scouting for collaborators and locations. He eventually settled on Sequoia National Park, a beautiful landscape east of Visalia, in which a $5,000 bond would secure the crew full access to shoot without a permit, providing that no area of the park was damaged.
Jones would hire many former collaborators for The Forest, although due to the lack of funds he was forced to offer them deferment pay. J.L. Clark, who would be responsible for the sound, had worked as a boom operator on Jones’ directorial debut, Schoolgirls in Chains, in 1973, whilst composer Richard Hieronymus had scored The Love Butcher and Sweater Girls (as well as several X-rated nudie flicks such as Wicked Sensations and Amanda by Night). For the role of the antagonist, John, the director chose close friend Gary Kent, another veteran of Schoolgirls in Chains. Kent, who would be credited under the pseudonymous Michael Brody due to the project being a non-union production, was already an established actor and stuntman whose prior credits included The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (in which he doubled for Robert Vaughn), Hells Angels on Wheels and Dracula vs. Frankenstein.
In fact, it was not uncommon for cast and crew to work under an alias during the making of The Forest, especially those that would appear in front of the camera. In the early seventies, Kent became involved with a young wannabe actress by the name of Tomi Barrett (born Shirley Willeford), whom he had met at drama school where he was giving a speech. Barrett, who was working as a dance instructor, had started a conversation with Kent about low budget films and her desire to act and so Kent decided to cast her in his directorial debut The Pyramid in 1975. Two years later they would marry and so when he was approached about appearing in The Forest his wife also landed one of the principal roles, although to avoid issues with the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) she would be credited as Elaine Warner. Kent and Barrett would remain married for almost thirty years until she would succumb to lung cancer in 2005 at the age of fifty-four.
For the remaining lead roles, Jones would cast stage actor Dean Russell, who would perform on Broadway soon after the film was completed (in fact, The Forest would be screened in New York whilst he was still working there). His co-star, John Batis, had been introduced to the project by the production designer and had no previous acting experience. The Forest would prove to be his only movie role as, aside from brief appearances in Freddy’s Nightmares and Hard Time on Planet Earth, he would retire from the industry. During the shoot, Russell and Batis would have various difficulties working together although these would never interfere with the production. Twenty-seven year old Iowa native Ann Wilkinson would round off the main cast, another first-timer whose only other notable role would be in the video nasty Boogeyman 2 in 1983.
Principal photography lasted around twelve days during October 1980 and was largely unstoryboarded. For the scenes at the house near the beginning of the film, Jones was able to shoot at the home of one of his friends, Stafford Morgan. The sequences on the freeway as they head out of the city were in Los Angeles and were achieved by a the cameraman shooting through the side of a van or a camera counted onto the hood of the car. In one shot, as the two girls drive into the hills, Wilkinson had been unavailable and so the director had asked his twelve year old daughter to step in. A couple of the crew members would even cameo in the film, primarily due to lack of actors and funding. Clark would make an appearance as a creepy mechanic at a gas station where Batis and Russell are forced to stop when their car overheats, whilst Jones himself would take the role of the forest ranger after a friend backed out due to the film being non-union.
Barrett, refusing to be outdone by her husband and co-star, would perform some of her own stunts, most notably during a sequence in which her character jumps into the river to escape the killer. Requiring Barrett to fall thirty-five feet into extremely cold water, her only request was that a crew member stand by with a cup of hot chocolate for when she has finished. Unfortunately, production manager Erv Sanders misheard and was waited with an ice cold can of beer, something which infuriated the actress. The cave scenes were shot in Bronson Caves in Hollywood Hills, a location which had previously been used for everything from student films to the old Batman series, whilst the flashback sequence was filmed in Acton, around thirty miles northeast of Los Angeles. But when the movie was completed Jones realised that the running time would be too short and was required to shoot a prologue, which would take place over one day in Mount Pinos. The additional scene would feature an appearance by Stafford Morgan, who would be the only member of the production to run into trouble with the SAG due to using his own name on the credits.
Unable to complete the film without additional funding, Jones was forced to seek an investor. But immediately after photography was completed he had agreed to shoot second unit for a Roger Corman movie, Smokey Bites the Dust, and so was not present to edit the film together. With a screening for a potential investor scheduled, Jones approached a friend to cut the film but, due to a prior engagement, passed the footage onto his assistant, Robert Berk. Unfortunately, Berk had decided that the movie would work better as a flashback and so restructured the entire film. The screening was a disaster and Jones was forced to recut the film closer to his original vision. One producer who was willing to put up the additional funding was Frank Evans, who would bypass Jones’ decision to send the film straight-to-video and instead chose to release it in cinemas. The film would slip mostly under the radar, although Evans would make a modest profit. The same was not true for the director, however, as promises from his investor were not forthcoming which resulted in Jones eventually losing his home.