WITCHES IN THE WOODS (2019)
Directed by Jordan Barker
Written by Christopher Borrelli
Starring Hannah Kasulka, Craig Arnold, Sasha Clements, Corbin Bleu, Alexander De Jordy, Humberly González, Kyle Mac, Ian Matthews, David Lafontaine, James Gilbert
Find out more about this film here!
Subverting expectations is big these days. It’s so big that it’s no longer a surprise when the expectations are subverted. It’s almost a rule nowadays, especially in horror films, that tried and true clichés are somehow turned on their head and the audience are supposed to be impressed. But when the subverted expectation is the expectation, it’s no longer shocking anymore. I think writer Christopher Borrelli and director Jordan Barker had good intentions going into WITCHES IN THE WOODS. The film does a lot right. But then again, there is a lot in terms of the basics that I feel it tries to turn on its head and fails miserably, mainly because of a backwards moral compass in terms of who qualifies as a good person or not. I’ll get into this after the recap.
For the umpteenth time in a horror film, a group of college kids are on a road trip and when the road they intended to take is blocked and they decide to take a shortcut that leads them to ruin. In this instance, the kids take a detour through a forest that once was the site for some pretty heinous witch trials, resulting in the deaths of many an innocent woman. When their car plows into a snowdrift, the kids are trapped in freezing weather and a seemingly evil force is stalking them from the woods.
I think the filmmakers were trying to tell a modern tale of hysteria and persecution and paralleling it with the witch trials. Unfortunately, they make the mistake of leaving it very open as to whether something supernatural is going on or if these kids are just losing it while being lost in the woods. They did this in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and YELLOW BRICK ROAD, but in those films, we knew that something supernatural was pushing the cast along. Because we never know if things are supernatural or just psychological, the parallels between the past and present are strained. Because they play it safe and avoid giving us a definite answer to what type of film this is, it just feels rather listless. Are these just characters being influenced by the woods or are they just assholes? This film offers no easy explanation.
WITCHES IN THE WOODS chooses to deal with the plight of one character Alison (Sasha Clements), who was gang raped by the football team, and parallel the stigma she is receiving from her peers with the damning accusations that occurred during the witch trials. This is some powerful stuff, but its handled clumsily. Unfortunately, Alison is an extremely hard character to sympathize with due to the script and way the character is played with her lashing out at her friends and even hitting her best friend in the face for making an unexpected move. It is very unrealistic that someone so fragile would even decide to go on a trip with these people who she obviously does not like. But she is there, nevertheless, to force the parallel. Logic has no place in this dojo. Eventually, a form of a witch hunt is enacted by the group when they suspect she is possessed by the witches, and maybe this film is trying to show how easily paranoia and hysteria can manifest, but there is definitely a step or two skipped in the association between Alison’s plight and the witches compared to a film incorporating the same themes such as THE VVITCH. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that there isn’t a likable character in the bunch.
This is by far the last group of people I would ever want to go on a trip with. The group consists of the following garbage people;
1. a vapid girlfriend who cares about nothing but herself and her looks
2. her doting boyfriend who won’t stand up for his friends when she criticizes them and they criticize her
3. a douchebag who backtalks a cop and then comes up with the brainy idea to drive through a chained-up entrance to a road through the woods in the middle of winter
4. your typical aggro jock who drops both racist and sexist epithets and pushes his girlfriend to the ground
5. Alison, the victim, who elbows her best friend in the face, lashes out at anyone who makes a sudden movement, and in desperate need of serious therapy, not a ski trip
6. Jill (who I’ll get to in a minute), the seemingly good girl who is cheating on her boyfriend with one of his best buddies
7. the guy who decides to fall for his pal’s girlfriend behind his back
Horror movies are morality tales. The good make it through the ordeal and the assholes gets what are coming to them. Sure one could subvert the expectations and have the slut make it through instead of the virtuous girl. But the problem here is that I found myself rooting for all of them to die horrible deaths. Hannah Kasulka plays Jill, the virtuous final gal who surprises folks when she swears. She is also the asshole who doesn’t have the guts to break up with her boyfriend before screwing around with his buddy. She spends most of the film accusing everyone else of being jerks, assholes, or worse, yet is still set up to be the one who gets out of the woods at the end. For no reason, other than she feels a moral obligation to stick her nose into someone else’s business, Jill walks up to a hunter at a gas pump and proceeds to lecture him about killing animals. The hunter tries to explain why he has a dead animal in his pickup in a story that would have made for a much better movie, but the bells of righteousness are ringing too loud in her ears to listen to reason. When her boyfriend (who she is cheating on) walks over, Jill intensifies her tirade against the hunter, leaving him in the uncomfortable position to get into the argument and defend her. Yes, Jill is THAT bad girlfriend. It all feels so morally askew. Why am I rooting on her to survive again?
The case could be made that none of these people are supposed to be likable and that some people get their catharsis from seeing these people get what’s coming to them. I get that. Still, there has to be a conflict—a reason this story is taking place. Because everyone is a shit person, I really don’t see why it is worth my time to see if they make it out ok. This works with a Tarantino film because we have stars saying and doing Tarantino things. Sorry, these filmmakers are no Tarantino. And even still, Quinten manages to put a few likable qualities into his asshole characters.
What I did like about this film was the unconventional threat of the woods. WITCHES IN THE WOODS is both a clever and misleading title. Expect no witches. Also, don’t expect anything but bickering for most of the film with the action not really even beginning until 40-45 minutes in. Much like BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and YELLOW BRICK ROAD (both far superior takes on a similar theme) the monsters in this film come from the inside. It’s more like the woods bring out the asshole in you and therefore, it’s the kids’ bonehead life choices that fucks them up, not pointy-hatted cacklers. Unfortunately, long before they entered these cursed woods, these kids were already assholes and the woods had it easy pushing them over the edge. I think the filmmakers were onto something sort of heady and psychologically horrific here, trying to stage a modern horror around the persecutions that went on during the witch trials, but they forgot to bother with the basics of making likable and identifiable characters. Had one or two of these snots not been as self-righteous, vapid, selfish, pathetic, or vacant, maybe I would have liked WITCHES IN THE WOODS a little more. It’s filmed capably and the actors were better than the typical cast one sees in horror films. As is, though, I found myself scratching my head and wondering if the filmmakers actually thought they were writing about people worth saving and their morality was way off OR maybe, I am just too much of an old school fuddy-duddy for this one and not the intended audience. If there is an audience that sympathizes with these characters, specifically the final girl, I’ll take being an old school fud-dud any old day.