An innocent woman, accused of murdering her son and hanged as a witch, curses a tree and the children who play around it. The effects of this act of revenge echo through the years and centuries, and restless spirits haunt the house where the bodies of the cursed children have been buried. A family move into their new home, and begin to uncover the terrible truth behind The Witching Tree and the murdered children upon which they unknowingly sleep…
Curse of the Witching Tree is a moody piece of genre film making that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Written, produced and directed by James Crow, the film is a striking achievement for a first full length feature. While it isn’t perfect, the film does stand on its own with scenes that both chill and startle.
What is first apparent about Witching Tree is the measured pace. This may not be for everyone and at first I was not enamored with it. But the film digs into your consciousness the way good horror does. Unsettling situations present themselves and the scenes of horror are effective. Reminiscent of the Carpenter, the scares are earned. They are never cheap and equally they aren’t always effective. In fact, some of the earlier scenes are a little too subtle. Characters react to something they see and it just doesn’t work, possibly due to the lack of a “stinger” from the soundtrack or the image they are reacting to being too subtle. But as the film stretched on the horror started really working on me. One scene in particular in the middle part of the film was genuinely frightening and shot masterfully.
Witching Tree is about the barely glimpsed, the movement that happens in the corner of your eye or the unsettling image that flashes in front of you. It isn’t an overly violent film, but the final act is very satisfying. Due to the subdued nature of the film, the burst of violence in a climactic scene actually feels earned. It is immensely satisfying and worth the wait. If you are looking for a bloodbath however, Witching Tree might disappoint.
Sara Rose Denton, Lucy Clarvis and the young Lawrence Weller anchor the film with solid performances. These actors are the core of the film and have the most screen time so the presentation hinges on their effectiveness. The film presents us with a side plot of a father in a coma and the devastation this wreaks on the family. It leads to several uncomfortable discussions and confrontations between characters. The heavy subject matter lends the horror weight and the actors handle the script with aplomb.
The script also surprised me. There is genuine vitriol displayed between mother Amber (Denton) and daughter Emma (Clarvis). Their dialogue is stinging and bitter, realistic and shocking. Denton and Clarvis feel like a real mother and daughter; fighting each other in one scene, loving each other in the next. This adversarial relationship also gives the movie it’s tension in the absence of horror. Amber is trying to make things work for the family as they have just purchased a farm and attempt to recover from tragedy. You can sense each member of the family struggling with this in their own way. Each character has a reasonably unique voice and the performers lend the script weight.
Witching Tree isn’t without its flaws. There are scenes that carry on for too long and transitions can be clunky. The sound mix in one scene is particularly distracting; obviously having been re-recorded in a studio afterwards. All of this can all be chalked up to Witching Tree being Crow’s first full length directorial effort and a project with a smaller budget. For what is available, the film is remarkably impressive. It looks polished and begins and ends well. If only more directorial debuts could be as ambitious. There is a genuine direction for the story and an interesting denouement to the film. I recommend Witching Tree to anyone who enjoys moody ghost stories, just be prepared to be patient.
As James Crow’s debut feature and the first film for much of its cast, Curse of the Witching Tree is incredibly accomplished. Make no mistake, this is an independent film with all of the pitfalls and caveats contained therein. But if you are willing to embark on this dark journey you will enjoy the ride.