Following a fireside backstory delivered by medieval children who explain the witching tree, as well as detailing a few pleasantries concerning the treatment of those accused of witchcraft, James Crow’s film jumps 500 years to the present day. Amber (Denton) is struggling to hold her family together as her husband lies in hospital, comatose following a recent accident. College student Emma (Clarvis) is busy being rebellious while the younger Jake (Weller) has attracted the attention of the local bullies. Moving to a new home, an old working farm that Amber and her husband had hoped would unite the family, brings further problems as they all begin to experience strange visions and eventually the macabre history of the property literally comes back to haunt them.
There are many familiar elements to Curse of the Witching Tree, but Crow blends them with style and unfussy simplicity. Budgetary restrictions have removed any temptation towards superfluous flourishes but Crow has embraced this, manipulated the tools at his disposal, and created a finished film that is stark, bleak and genuinely chilling at times. The discomfort to be found in observing the slow collapse of the family unit contrasts with the carefully constructed, unavoidable feeling of dread that comes from experiencing the growing terror of the situation alongside their increasing desperation.
Central to this are the performances of Clarvis and Weller, who provide much of this emotional imbalance. Clarvis, an unsympathetic character in the beginning due to the attitude she adopts primarily toward her mother, develops into the one character prepared to acknowledge and try to prevent what is happening to her family. Weller delivers a performance that, simply put, is captivating. The torment his character experiences is fearfully convincing, without ever slipping into unnecessary histrionics or hammy indulgence. It is to his immense credit, and that of his director, that even while suffering from such persecuting visions the performance still feels believable and underplayed.
Outright scares are kept to a minimum with Crow preferring to unsettle his audience, although there is one scene in particular where this isn’t the case. For reasons that never fully feel justified the camera follows Emma taking a bath, with extremely unpleasant consequences, and while this does serve to emphasise the terror she is experiencing it feels a little blunt and unnecessary. Crow develops enough ongoing tension without the need for obvious horror tropes and while effective in many ways this still feels like a scene from a different film. Apart from one curiously dubbed exchange is really the only black mark.
The tense atmosphere is aided by a soundtrack that is as unpredictable and unsettling as the action on screen. Mixing soft piano with ethereal pan pipes and industrial, more traditional horror sounds there is rarely a moment to relax. As for Crow himself, who takes on writing, production, editing and shooting duties as well as sitting in the main chair itself, this is an impressive debut with a style reminiscent of that from the 1970’s. Clearly keen to establish himself as an auteur, Curse Of The Witching Tree displays a clear understanding of the horror genre while demonstrating an ability to bring a recognisable yet different approach to the age old theme of witchcraft.
It is reassuring that there are brave, interesting British writers and directors working in horror when so much of the genre is dominated by American productions keen to follow the successful Blumhouse model. British horror though retains a thoughtfulness; a different, more considered approach that while neither better nor worse necessarily, has perhaps been lacking in recent years. With Crow, and other directors such as Peter Handford who recently made the impressive Heretic, the future would appear to be in very good hands.