There’s a lot that can be done with the simple concept of a group of people stranded in small space. Whether they’re stranded in the ocean, like in Open Water (2003), stuck on a ski lift in freezing weather with wolves circling below, as seen in Frozen (2010), or huddled inside a small, indoor ATM building while a killer waits just outside, like in ATM (2012), any stranded situation can create genuine cinematic tension...
...All three of these films are set in vastly different locations and all of them provide close to the same level of suspense. Director Jordan Barker understands that in order to simulate the kind of nail-biting terror that’s seen in the aforementioned films, rich atmosphere and relatable conflict must be explored. Barker’s new film, Witches in the Woods, nails the essential moody atmosphere necessary in this genre, but struggles to keep us invested in unlikable characters.
Our adventure begins with a group of diverse, but equally cocky, young twenty-somethings headed deep into the mountains for an anti-resort style snowboarding trip. Along their route, they come across a roadblock, where a local deputy informs the young crew that because of a fallen log, they cannot proceed, as it’s blocking the road. Their only option is to double back and go 50 miles out of their way. Seemingly having no choice, they reluctantly head back and stop at a local gas station to fill up. It’s the kind of gas station in movie-land where the young whippersnappers get eyeballed by disapproving locals. One of those locals is John; a bear tracker/hunter who informs the naïve Jill (Hannah Kasulka) that killing bears is necessary, because they are killing the local loggers. Disapproving and disturbed by the dead bear in the back of John’s truck, Jill joins the others as they head out on their trek. Before leaving the gas station, group newcomer, Bree (Humberly González) picks up a pamphlet chronicling town lore and history. It speaks of witches being burned for their ungodly ways. Jill’s overly aggressive, slightly unhinged boyfriend, Derek (Craig Arnold) makes an impulsive decision to break through a chained off area, in order to save time. High on adrenaline and spontaneity, the group is in good spirits, but the anxiety ridden, trauma suffering Allison (Sasha Clements) has been exhibiting strange and eventually dangerous behavior. After a few unpleasant incidents involving Allison, the truck gets stuck in the snow. Their situation worsens when Allison attempts to run over Derek while tying his shoe in front of the truck. Rattled by Allison’s behavior, low on gas and stranded in below freezing temperatures, everyone is equally on edge. As conditions worsen, so do their tempers and hidden conflicts between characters rise to the surface from forced realizations. At the center of all this is Allison, who has not only become a suspect to their misfortune but may be a part of something much more sinister.
Initially, Witches in the Woods comes across like a slightly above average slasher flick. We have the freshly graduated group of friends, the road trip and the classic creepy gas station trope. It’s all familiar territory, but I felt right at home with it. When John is introduced, it seems as if he may be the one to track them down and pick them off one by one, fulfilling his self-righteous code to preserve his home. I really applaud the film for making you think this is the kind of movie you’re getting, because just when I started to settle in for a conventional feast of slasher deaths, the movie becomes a survivalist drama with deep character conflicts. Once stranded out in the harshest conditions, the idea of John becoming a formidable threat goes out the window entirely. Instead, all of their threats live inside the truck seemingly keeping them safe. Quite evenly, we start to gather bits of information about each character, their history with one another and where their relationship is now. On paper, it’s a really cool idea. The movie fakes you out into believing it’s your run of the mill slasher flick, only to become a conflict heavy drama between characters who must try to resolve their differences or reveal once well-hidden secrets. The problem is, the conflicts presented never actually come full circle to any conclusion. They key word here is, “conclusion” and not “resolution.” In most cases, I find resolution in films either too tidy and corny or just unnecessary. Conclusion, on the other hand, offers the viewer closure, but closure that’s not tied directly to the betterment and prosperity of our main characters. Rather, conclusion, to me, is when a film gives the viewer a sense of finality to the story, whether it’s good or bad for the characters. The story simply feels complete.
Witches in the Woods gives us neither.
Most all of the character conflicts that are introduced go absolutely nowhere. I won’t give away who, but there are a pair of characters who are involved in an affair. It’s brought up as if it’s an important plot point that will be consequential to the story, but it never gets brought up again (in any meaningful way that is). This is a trend the film has that never really subsides. Other characters have personal conflicts that are briefly touched on as well, but they never amount to anything. This is the film’s fundamental flaw. Because of the meandering plot threads, the film feels messy, unfocused and melodramatic.
When judging Witches in the Woods as a horror film, it’s a mixed bag. On the positive side, Barker certainly knows how to shoot a film and also how to create a convincing atmosphere. The camerawork is professionally filmed, with all the bells and whistles you would expect from a larger production. I got the feeling that Barker and his producers knew how to use their money and locations wisely to achieve the look and tone of the film. It’s very consistent with its grey and light blue color palette throughout and nothing ever looked cheap, out of place or unnatural. That’s not an easy thing to pull off because there are so many facets to consider when realizing a particular vision. Horror films rely heavily on their aesthetic integrity and this doesn’t disappoint in that department. I don’t like the film as a whole, but Barker and company should be applauded for their work.
The biggest sin Witches in the Woods commits is that it’s neither scary nor exciting. This is in large part due to a poorly developed story and characters who are so unlikable that you don’t even enjoy watching any of them die. What’s fun about the slasher genre, is that the characters you hate are killed more often than not and it’s usually satisfying. In this film, the characters aren’t fun and no one in this supposed group of friends are loyal to one another. There’s no bond keeping this group together and they all seem to not be able to stand each other. As a viewer, this is kind of miserable to watch, because you have no one to root for or relate to. The film also doesn’t know what story it’s trying to tell. Aside from Bree briefly talking about the witch pamphlet and one other short occasion, talk of Witches, supernatural entities or unseen forces aren’t mentioned ever again. I don’t mind a bit of vagueness surrounding this type of thing, but there’s nothing to latch onto with the story and ultimately, it feels like lazy writing.
I hate speaking negatively about a film in a genre I love. I try to root for a film as long as I can, but at some point, the fan in me gives way to the critic in me. I don’t mean that in a bad way either, because without my critical brain, I wouldn’t be able to point out what can be improved. At the end of the day, I want films in the genres I like to succeed. Witches in the Woods isn’t a good horror film because it doesn’t succeed where it truly counts. It’s a good-looking film and great talent is involved here, but the meandering character plot threads, criminally underdeveloped story and a general lack of focus prevent Witches in the Woods from being nothing more than untapped potential with a glossy surface.
Discover Witches in the Woods when the film arrives on VOD April 24th from Shout! Studios.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth