Recent Witches and Folk Horrors
by Kristin Battestella
These indie horrors from the past few years provide folk tales, dark fantasy, and witches. While some are flawed but worthy, others are disappointingly boring and downright off putting.
Gretel & Hansel – Invitations to beware, come closer, and listen well open director Oz Perkins' (The Blackcoat's Daughter) 2020 fairy tale twist alongside creepy triangles, phantom silhouettes, pointy black hats, and babes lured to the woods. Nothing is given without something being taken away, and red leaves, eerie autumn tones, fog, and firelight create a storybook rustic, Northern European timeless. Our Gretel is older – she sees and hears things differently – but she won't work for a nasty old man even if her mother threatens her with an ax. Saddled with her younger brother Hansel, the hungry children set off for the scary woods, a magical and beautiful but spooky place with screeching crows, rustling trees, and wild mushrooms. Kindness is supposed to be its own reward and they shouldn't stop for wicked deceptions, tempting baking aromas, and unattended feasts when they peer in the window. While blurry camera work and distorted, askew angles reflect the weary unknown; the zorp, warped, dun dun dun sound effects are an obnoxious intrusion. Tender conversations and innocent chats also don't need any further narration as gross fingered, hair sniffing, disturbingly creepy Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact) invites the youths to enter, rest, and eat because they have no meat on their bones. Simple stone buildings and old clothing styles add to the quaint antiques, candles, lanterns, and moonlight, but red doors, colorful stained glass, hairless cats, and nightmares suggest something sinister. Where are the animals for milk and eggs for baking and why does the fresh food never spoil? Despite each child having their misgivings, Gretel offers to work for their keep, cleaning with natural herbs, vinegar, and lye before learning rare recipes and remedies. Women, you see, are either used by men or crones feared for their gifts. Young Hansel is instructed in saws and sharp tools because that's the man's work, but Gretel must hide her menstrual clean up, take control of her talents, and accept the tasty price of youth and beauty as scratch marks in the cupboard lead to whispering voices, hidden doors, and forbidden white chambers. Red lights, moss, smoke, creaking wood, and thunder accent the electronic, surreal music – weird, bizarre notes invoking seventies folk horror films. Special effects are saved for the most disturbing magic and horror with sleeping drafts, potions, salves, and bloody revelations. One must consume one's weakness before it consumes you, and a burdensome child – or a younger brother – can hold one back from her true path. Our crone wants a protege to impart her wisdom, but what happens when the apprentice surpasses the master? We know this story ends with a cannibalistic twist, but the demented chamber of horrors and fiery finale feel a little held back, not going far enough compared to the slow build getting there. The modern, intrusive narration and unnecessary sound effects are also annoying to the audience well versed in this kind of horror, but fortunately, the delicious performances and fairy tale warnings anchor this tasty retelling.
Loon Lake – David Selby and Kathryn Leigh Scott (Dark Shadows, people, Dark Shadows) anchor this 2019 Minnesota set indie opening with 1880 screams, witchy curses, multiple chops, and bloody heads. An unnecessary contemporary driving credits montage restarts the farm country rural as a drunken widower renting an empty home takes the cross off the wall. Distorted camera angles set off the horror as well as pictures of the deceased and the sense of numbness amid the pretty fields, pleasant breezes, overgrown cemetery, and eerie trees. Details on accidental deaths attributed to the witch and the bad luck that follows if you cross her grave three times come at the local diner, and Selby is quite distinct as the pesky old neighborhood kook and his conflicted minister ancestor. The bereaved, unfortunately, doesn't believe in ghosts or witches despite tales of church fires, saucy spells, and bound rituals. Flashbacks provide last rites, fresh graves, and refused nastiness alongside spirits in the window, thunder, tolling bells, and number three repetitions. Conversations on grief versus faith are nice, if heavy handed, calming moments before figures in the corn rows, apparitions of the dead, phantom noises, and creaking floorboards. The past sequences, however, are out of order. That may be an attempt at leaving the history open to interpretation or making a case for crazy with guilt unreliable, but the audience has seen independent, over the top evidence of the witch, so we know it's not all in his head. Despite surreal visions, alluring forest encounters, willing temptations, dead birds, power outages, and spooky lights; it's also difficult to be on our modern man's side. He keeps saying “Let me explain” after grabbing a woman when waking rather than admitting he had a nightmare about the witch, still wants to talk it out when threatened for attacking her, and completely ignores a full gun rack because screaming at an intruder is apparently the better thing to do. Maybe this is about his learning to believe in both good and bad, but it's tough to feel for a guy claiming he didn't deserve this when the witch didn't deserve what happened to her either. Convenient writing seen in a dream provides an end to the curse, but he doesn't try to make it right, insisting he doesn't care what went down – which isn't the best course of action when she's naked and bathing in blood. Putting on a cross makes for instant faith, but the seemingly sunny ending and false fake outs are obvious. Although this makes the most of zooms, music, and in scene scares, once again the flaws here arise in too few people wearing too many production hats, and the imbalance shows by time our man pain protagonist is literally swinging at thin air. While entertaining for both the good as well as the bad, this really feels like two stories in one, and the elder period tale is better of the two.
Hex – 1644 English Civil War soldiers confront occult heresy, witches, and battlefield blood in this 2017 low budget feature unnecessarily co-directed by its co-writers. Leather, flags, and torn parchments set the period while helmets, armor, prayers, and pretty fields marred with dead provide bleak. Pilfering from the bodies escalates to two soldiers circling, fighting, and clashing swords in the eerie forest, but the shaky handicam is in too close and can't follow the hectic action. The script is also so light it's nearly nonexistent, leaving the spooky to rely on “unsettling music” closed captions and false crescendos. The hand to hand, running, hiding, and repeated confrontations also go on and on for fifteen minutes with nothing to show for it. After more enchanting woods, moss, and overgrown stone ruins; mysterious runes, talismans, and hooded figures finally appear. An abandoned encampment offers tents, tools, and maps, but viewers must watch both soldiers wander through it all without taking any supplies before more stand offs and debates about who's going to pull the trigger first. One insists there is something ungodly in this forest, so they suddenly get over their hate, decided to unite against the witch instead, and then sit by the fire in silence. The audience, however, has so little evidence of anything evil happening. Maybe in a straight drama we could wait, but when there has been no horror forty minutes into an eighty-eight minute movie, this snail's pace becomes ridiculous. When we finally do have a bewitching figure in a ravine, the night filming is tough to see. The best scares are just dream fake outs, and shadows in the tent happen so fast, we aren't even sure there is anything truly scary there. Our soldiers, however, are apparently so traumatized, they don't study the maps to find their way out or head off at first light. At this point, we'd rather have had the witch's perspective about how to get these guys off her lawn. We see more of them flipping out and facing their battle guilt because this is really supposed to be about male absolving, and destroying her stick figures is supposed to make them feel better. Even when they come to a clearing and have seemingly escaped, they still seek to confront the witch in a cave. The witch wastes time explaining why in the most dialogue yet here at the end, and while they couldn't shoot a man and she clearly isn't evil, they'll stab her to death with the quickness. This premise had a lot of potential, but it goes nowhere and nothing major happens. This felt so much longer, but with open and closing credits, this is actually about eighty-two minutes and you could fast forward and not miss anything.
Couldn't Finish It
We Summon the Darkness – It feels like we've seen these rad chicks on the highway before complete with music, talk of make up and sex, and it's 1988 via 2019 thanks to crimped hair, Madonna bangles, recent vehicles, and modern skinny jeans substitutes that look like dress up for the costume party. Gas station stops, old man innuendo, and televangelist fire and brimstone add to the cliché teases while convenient murder reports on the radio detail satanic symbols found at the crime scene. The jerks on the road are likewise weak with terrible mullets and everyone measuring each other's meddle with their metal head expertise gets old very fast. The flashing lights and concert bouncing up and down are also brief and lame tropes alongside the good girl peer pressured into everything cool and crazed, annoying exaggerations. Maybe if you look at this as a parody or if it had been a comedy the tone and style would make sense? The highway home to the rich house is instantaneous compared to drawn out start, and the Never Have I Ever chatting around the fire drinking binges goes on and on when it's obvious the guys want sex and the girls are disinterested. Who's really after whom and for what purpose turnabouts are interesting, but not unexpected thanks to the ritual foreshadowing and upside down cross jewelry leading to the drugged and bound. A gender reversal on the horror is supposed to stand out, but one girl's character development is that she has to pee all the time and everyone is stupid, unlikable, knife playing drunks. You see, this isn't really about the occult aspects, just a congregation trying to instill fear of the devil by committing murders that look like cult killings. Idiotic interrogations that waste time bothering to explain all this make the threats feel hollow, and I'm so, so tired of so-called righteous assholes giving decent people a bad name. We have enough of that at the top these days, so this didn't need to be set in an eighties Midwest for the religious hypocrisy commentary. In fact, it might have come across as something deeper if the first half wasn't wasted on faking period window dressing that doesn't work. Stepmothers, bloody bodies found, police chases, lone officers who don't call for backup, psycho daddy pastors – the contrivances just go on and on, escalating until I eventually stopped paying attention.