A Short Film By Caroline Coutts

The Film

"The Old Woman in the Woods" is a fantastical short film combining live action and stop motion puppet animation to tell the tale of two little girls who disobey their mother for a glimpse into a magical other world and end up paying dearly for their caprice. The story is adapted from the classic fairy tale, "The New Mother," by Lucy Lane Clifford, and is set in England in 1882.

Hanna and Mary are sisters, aged 10 and 7 respectively, who live with their mother in a small cottage on the edge of a wood. Their mother has always warned the children about not going into the forest, and Hanna and Mary, who are good children, have always obeyed. One day, a crow steals one of their favourite dolls and flies with it into the far reaches of the woods. Although loath to disobey their mother, their desire to retrieve their doll outweighs their fears, and they chase the bird into the forest.

Deep within a clearing amongst the trees, Hanna and Mary come upon an old woman cradling an ornate wooden jewelry box. The woman tells them that within the box exists another world - a beautiful, magical land where a prince and princess live in joy and luxury. The girls are transfixed by the old woman's stories and beg to see inside. She refuses - saying that to glimpse this world you must be deserving of the honour - and for that they must be "grown ups, not babies." She tells them any child can be good - but to be naughty takes great skill and grown-up talent - and she dares the girls to prove to her that they can rise to the challenge.

That evening at dinner, Hanna purposefully breaks the milk pitcher, and the two sisters admit to their mother that they desperately want to be bad. Their mother admonishes them, and threatens that a new mother, "with glassy red eyes and a long scaly tale" will come to take care of them if they are determined to follow down this path. The girls promise their mother they will be good, and beg her not to leave them.

The next day, promises forgotten, Hanna and Mary are drawn inexorably back to the forest clearing, and to the old woman with the miraculous wooden box. This time she allows them a peek into the world within the box - and it is as wondrous as they had imagined it. As they watch, flowers turn into fairies and join a beautiful prince and princess dancing in a verdant meadow before a lofty castle.

As the girls lose themselves in this vision, the old woman slams down the lid of the box. She is angry they have not been more naughty, as they promised they would be, and she laughs disdainfully at Hanna's story of a menacing new mother with a long tail and glassy eyes. She tells the girls she will not allow them another glimpse into the magical world until they can prove to her that they can be truly wicked.

That evening, screaming wildly, Hanna and Mary rip books into shreds, tear the blankets off the beds and throw everything into the middle of the floor. Their mother, despairing, tells them that unless they are good tomorrow, she is bound to leave them, and then the new mother will come. The girls don't stop their wild cacophony to pay her any heed.

Back in the clearing the next day, the old woman is once again dissatisfied with the girls' performance. They have not proved they are grown-up - they are only play-acting, she says - and she tells them that tomorrow she will be gone. The girls are desperate for one more look inside the box, for they have been told that the princess has a secret to tell them. The old woman offers to come by their cottage that afternoon, and if they have been truly wicked, she will let them see inside the box and hear the princess's secret.

The girls return to their cottage, determined to do as the old woman has asked. Hanna throws her mother's most precious possession - an antique clock - through the window. Everything is pulled down off the walls and the furniture is smashed. As they are attempting to set the kitchen chairs on fire, their mother comes sadly through the room, telling them she must now leave. Mary, the youngest, begs her to stay, but it is too late.

As the girls watch their mother walking away into the forest, the old woman appears, the box clutched under her arm. Hanna and Mary beg her to come into the cottage, to see how her wishes have been followed, and then let them see inside the box. The old woman laughs wickedly; opening the box to show them it is empty. "I met your mother long ago," she tells them, "when she was a girl just like you are now. Promises were made then, and rules have since been broken, so she has gone, and will not return. But your new mother is coming. She is already on her way."

That evening, the girls huddle together in the wreckage of their home. Suddenly, a noise can be heard just outside the window - a low scrape followed by a heavy "thump." The girls look at each other in horror. Outside, a scaly monstrous creature attempts to open the door. Finding it locked, the creature throws all its weight against the door, over and over again, until the wood yields inwards.

The screams of the girls fill the night air as the magical world appears once more. It is the puppet princess, her finger to her lips. As she reaches up with her other hand, it transforms before our eyes into a scaly reptilian claw. The reptile reaches up and pulls a curtain back down over it, as if closing the lid of a box. All goes black.