So far I've had a mixed bunch when it comes to Brit flicks her at the House— and now I've a new one to share with you all.
Due to go on sale this side of the Pond on 18th May and the following day in the States, I was lucky enough to secure a press screener for James Crow's Curse of the Witching Tree.
Would it cast a spell on me? Or would I be cursing it?
CURSE OF THE WITCHING TREE (2015)
Dir: James Crow
Starring: Sarah Rose Denton, Lucy Clarvis, Lawrence Weller, Shane Green, Alex Reece, Lorraine Gray, Jon Campling, Caroline Boulton, Danielle Bux, Lydia Thorpe, Liam Ponder, Katie Mckay, Daniel Smith, Harvey Pearmain
SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here, but continue at your own risk.
Following a tragic accident in which her husband Tony (Reece) is left in a vegetative state, fraught mother Amber (Denton) moves her family, including feisty teen daughter Emma (Clarvis) and unsettled son Jake (Weller), into an idyllic farmhouse.
Desperate to not let go, Amber is prolonging Tony's life, refusing to turn off the life-support machine, and struggling to maintain her relationship with her grieving children.
As if this is not bad enough, Jake is being bullied at school. As he heads home one day he is forced to hide in the nearby woodland to escape his tormentors, whereupon he takes refuge under a unique and eerie-looking tree. However, the tree provides the exact opposite to protection — unbeknownst to the family it has a tragic past. In years gone by a local woman, Isobel Redwood (Bux) was falsely accused of killing her mentally disabled son and executed for a crime she did not commit. Now her vengeful spirit has cursed the tree, dooming all those children who play around it... and now Jake has woken her once again.
As events escalate (and the bullies return, this time to take Jake under their wing), the family must overcome their problems and, along with Emma's bad-boy boyfriend Mike (Green), find a way to protect themselves from the shadowy supernatural forces closing in on their once peaceful home.
THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): One thing leapt out at me while watching Curse of the Witching Tree — it has a distinctly classic British horror feel. It has a slower pace, more atmosphere and, most importantly, more well-rounded characters than a lot of the churned out 'teen slasher lite' crap that frequently floods the horror shelves in supermarkets. By eschewing scantily clad bimbos, hard partying jocks and loveable stoners, writer/director Crow and his team have crafted realistic characters that you can empathise with. By featuring a strong but fragmented family unit we have clear character motivations and relationships that we can understand. As a group struggling to cope with their own grief (much like in The Babadook) they have a motivation for staying together, an excuse for more extreme emotional outbursts and a common goal. It's a simple thing, but one that Crow utilises perfectly. When Tony's mother, Millie (Gray) is introduced to the mix we have plenty of dramatic tension to invest in, not least when she starts to tell Amber that she needs to move on and allow Tony to rest in peace.
With Amber's erratic veering from stony toughness for the sake of her children to doe-eyed trembling confusion; Emma's snappy, sardonic bristling and fierce protectiveness for her younger brother; and Jake trapped in that awkward stage between being a boy and the shift towards young adulthood, we have convincing, believable and, above all, fascinating characters.
But the film is not being marketed as a kitchen-sink drama, ultimately horror is judged on one thing — its scares. Here Crow uses an eerie slow burn, with unsettling and unnerving flashes of the macabre rather than jarring jump-scares or gallons of gore. This is essentially a ghost story, and with that in mind Crow has crafted a more haunting than harrowing tale.
Using suggestion, the barely glimpsed and shadow, Crow cultivates an atmosphere of dread in which sackcloth headed spirits and black clad witches lurk just out of sight, affording us the briefest of glimpses as they torment and haunt the family. This is fantastic, as few things can terrify as well as the viewers own imagination, while this conveniently serves to mask any shortcoming in make-up or costume that could come with strict budgetary constraints.
Perhaps Crow's strongest point is the manner in which he can take static, almost listless shots and turn them into something filled with foreboding. The ouija board sequence, which may have become a little cliched nowadays, is genuinely tense and creepy. Ditto the (equally common) scenes of flickering security footage. These are scenes you will see plenty more times in genre flicks this year — and have probably seen plenty of times already — but Crow is able to keep them feeling fresh. This is quite the talent in its own right, and shows that Crow is undoubtedly a student of the genre, sidestepping the pitfalls that could easily have dragged viewers out of the scenes.
While I've praised the patient manner in which Crow crafts his scares, that isn't to say it comes without its shocking moments. If you're looking for more extreme frights, expect some great jumps — none of which are of the cheap 'cat in the cupboard' variety. There are some nasty bloody moments too, but these are not decapitated heads and severed limbs, instead a queasy and seeping embodiment of the curse. Crow took on the cinematographer duty himself and he ensures that each scene not only looks wonderful, it is able to deliver as much dread and terror as possible.
So with a great creepy atmosphere and well-written characters, now all Crow needed was a decent cast — and that is precisely what he assembled. During the earliest scenes it seems that Denton’s Amber is going to be the lead but as the story progresses Clarvis's Emma ably steps up to take an equally large role. These two fantastic actresses are the backbone of the film, ensuring that their superb performances anchor the flick, not just in their interactions with each other (which are quite possibly the highpoint of the movie) but in those with others. The lovely Denton is excellent, and shows a fantastic range, while the tall, striking Clarvis displays some serious acting chops to match her good looks. I can't wait to see more from these two marvellous leading ladies.
As the third lead, young Weller was quite the surprise. When I saw his tender years and that this is his only IMDB credit, I was apprehensive about the quality of his performance. However, once I sat down with the movie I saw that these reservations were misguided. For a boy with so little experience, he's pretty assured and his efforts never let the side down. Well done, young man.
There's a large supporting cast at play in Curse of The Witching Tree and there are some equally great performances nestled in among them. My favourite had to be that of the tall, imposing, Irish character actor Jon Campling as Father Flanagan. His character serves as somewhat of an expo-dump, but much like I wrote about Peter Stormare in Clown, he is a fascinating and charismatic performer and he livens up any scene just by appearing in it. This is intelligent casting indeed.
I also loved the barmily Gothic and bizarre blind medium Eva, brought to life with an otherworldly performance by Caroline Boulton. Lydia Thorpe also impresses as her loyal sister Lily. These two don't have much screentime but both absolutely make the most of what they do have. Good stuff.
The stunning Bux provides an equally mystical turn as Isobel Redwood. In a role which relies more on gesture and the expressive way in which she moves and holds her body, she still commands the viewers' attention.
Finally I want to praise Green's work as Mike. He's a likeable guy and he displays some fine comic timing at some key moments when the script threatens to become a little overwrought. He's a sterling actor and I look forward to seeing more of his work.
THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Curse of The Witching Tree is a good film but not a perfect one. As I mentioned earlier, the story, while full of interesting characters, does go to some familiar places. Luckily the journey and the way in which these tropes are presented are fun enough to keep the viewer entertained. However, if you are after shocks or surprises, this is actually a deceptively simple and some might say relatively predictable tale.
Also while I praised a lot of the cast, not everybody hit these same highs. With the exception of the extremely promising young Mckay, some of the younger actors had the odd moment in which their comparative inexperience slipped through. Luckily there were no poor actors per se, just the odd awkward delivery here and there. I think it is actually a testament to these youngsters that their inexperience only surfaced as rarely as it did.
Also, while I loved the slow-burn, atmospheric pacing of the movie, some of my less patient readers may wish the movie to get going a little sooner than it does. I'd argue that the likes of The Haunting and The Changeling did a pretty bloody great job without resorting to buckets of blood, but there's no accounting for taste.
In fact, to me the points when the film did give us a jump scare actually worked against it. It felt a little like the movie made the odd token gesture to appeal to a wider audience. An example ******** SPOILERS FOLLOW ******** the scene in which Clarvis' character has a bath before being haunted by a spectral vision. I understand that it was done to further display her vulnerability, and Clarvis is a very attractive young lady, but the sudden jarring nudity felt out of place when compared to the rest of the film. The sudden jump at the end only heightened this ******** SPOILERS END ********
Finally, the tree itself. I wanted some amazing, warped, twisted Sleepy Hollow-esque fibreglass monstrosity, the sort of gnarled and ancient looking thing that terrified audiences in Poltergeist. Alas, it seems Crow et al's budget didn't quite stretch to that, so we end up with a surprisingly normal looking tree. Perhaps this was done by design, to further stress the insidious nature of the curse, striking people down with very little warning. As I'm pretty damn impressed with everything else Mr Crow did, I'll stick with that one.
THE VERDICT: Curse of The Witching Tree is a pretty good film. When you consider its relatively low budget and that this is just the director's first feature-length picture it's an absolute revelation. An atmospheric, creepy and compelling tale with well-written characters, excellently worked scares and some wonderful leads, this is an old-fashioned British horror flick that is sure to win plenty of fans. Furthermore, it could well mark the arrival of the next big British horror director since Neil Marshall. If you yearn for horror with heart and more than a little artistry, this is the film for you.
If you want to find out more about the movie, head over to its Facebook page and give it a big Like to show some support. And, if you like what you've read so far, be sure to pre-order the film on Amazon right here.
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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.