Since I’ve been cooped up, I’ve been giving more small titles a chance and, not surprisingly, many small films going directly to streaming are horror flicks. One that caught my interest this weekend was “Witches in the Woods” a new small-budget film from director Jordan Barker and writer Christopher Borrelli (the visual effects coordinator for “Armageddon” and “Con Air”) that, at first glance promised atmosphere, an intriguing set-up and story, and the potential for a narrative that challenges its characters in more ways than one. While the idea of witches haunting unsuspecting victims is nothing new it’s still a fun concept if done right but such films have to find their own footing and identity which is where this horror feature ultimately fails the most.
“Witches in the Woods” focuses on a very familiar premise as a group of college friends from Massachusetts set off into the New England winter on a snowboarding trip only to find themselves lost in the woods after taking a shortcut and crashing their car. One of the group seemingly becomes possessed and the friends start to turn on one another as they realize they’re becoming the latest victims of an ancient witch legend of the area. Starring the likes of Hannah Kasulka, Craig Arnold, Sasha Clements and Corbin Bleu (yes, THAT Corbin Bleu) “Witches in the Woods” treads on familiar ground but only occasionally attempts to take the road less traveled before turning back and settling for familiarity.
I can’t necessarily fault the cast too much, at least not completely. While this movie is poorly written most of the actors do at least a half-decent job pulling off the material. None of them are the best actors but they do what they can with what they have. Hannah Kasulka for example is a fine, if forgettable, leading lady for a movie of this caliber while Sasha Clements, who plays the possessed Alison, manages to pull off some pretty creepy moments. The problems mostly lie in the poor writing and uninspired direction. Few of the characters are memorable or interesting and most of their conflicts are ripped form the big book of horror cliches giving the actors little to work with in the first place. To its credit, the film does provide us with small moments of development to understand each person’s quirks, but we’ve seen these people before in countless B-movies and big screen adaptations. We’ve seen these conflicts before. Instead of taking these characters and conflicts somewhere new, “Witches in the Woods” feels perfectly happy being a cheap, rushed collection of genre staple character motivations and personalities more concerned with getting us to the horror than fully exploring the depth of the people we spend an hour and a half watching.
The sad things is there are some inspired elements in this film, but they’re wasted on poor execution and an unwillingness to take risks. “Witches in the Woods” offers some compelling ideas tackling issues like toxic masculinity and personal loyalty. Considering the story forces the group into isolation it would have been nice to see these characters slowly turn on each other over the course of time. This would have been a fun and engaging way to explore some deeper insight into how we present ourselves and perceive others. Even though it’s been done to death, the movie provides a perfect setting to tackle this approach. However this potential is wasted in the first half hour. We’re already presented with a group of flawed people who clearly don’t get along, so we know ahead of time this is probably going to be a bad trip. It makes their eventual decent into conflict seem obvious rather than story driven. We don’t really get anything new from watching them interact which makes the next half hour of isolation feel tedious rather than insightful. The movie then adds in the supernatural element to help drive the conflict further but it feels like we’re watching two different movies at that point, one focused on personal revelations and one focused on friends haunted by the supernatural with neither plot effectively merging into the other to create something interesting as a whole.
That’s not to say the supernatural element doesn’t work. In fact, it’s the strongest part of this film and I wish the filmmakers went all out with their idea even if it feel derivative. “Witches in the Woods” is fully aware that the “unseen witches cause mayhem” plot has been overdone even sneaking in a direct reference to “The Blair Witch Project” in its dialogue. Using a snowy wood as its backdrop we do get some great atmosphere that makes the situation feel pretty terrifying especially as Alison dives deeper into her possession. We also get some graphic moments of bloodshed and bodily injury which, I’ll admit, made me cringe in the best way. So there is some merit to this movie as pure horror entertainment, but the truly effective genre elements are few and far between. The movie’s inability to compliment the horror with relatable or memorable characters or cash in on the more insightful story threads keeps the true horror hidden beneath the surface from rising to its full potential. At times it feels likes its heading down its own path only to turn around and head back to a safer place of horror cliches. “Witches in the Woods” could have worked well as either a non-stop possession thriller or a slow-burn analysis of its characters, but it tries to be both and thus fails to be either.
“Witches in the Woods” is clearly inspired by much better movies and despite some small attempts at doing its own thing it fails to establish a unique identity or purpose for being. There is some potential in the story and the horror elements that, on their own and i better hands, could have been the basis for at least a passable film but the final product is a generic, often confused and cliche horror feature that we’ve all seen countless times before. It’s not sure what it wants to be but know full well what it wants to be like. It’s not a movie I would recommend for a variety of reasons and I could list off probably twenty better similar movies that are cheaper on Amazon right now if you need your horror fix. It’s a strange mess that should have been better but also had potential to be a lot worst. Ultimately, it’s the kind of film that will likely give me pause before I put my faith in some random digital horror release again anytime soon.