CURSE OF THE WITCHING TREE
By Kyle Price-Livingston
In the words of Michael Gary Scott, I’m not superstitious…but I am a little stitious. I don’t care about things like 13th floors or crossing paths with black cats (in fact, in my book, any day you cross paths with a cat is a pretty good day) but I won’t go into a bathroom, turn out the lights and say “Bloody Mary” 3 times, and I won’t be buying my future kids a Oija board. Nothing would happen if I did, of course but…I mean, what if it did?
I know, I know, there is no “risk” in real life because there’s no such thing as ghosts. I’m almost 90% positive that you’re right about that. It’s that last 10% that hangs me up. Horror movies have put the fear of…well, not God, certainly, but rather the fear of unspeakable-horrors-beyond-the-ken-of-man so deeply into me that I once had serious doubts about moving into an apartment complex called “Crystal Lake.” Ok, so maybe I’m medium stitious.
There are benefits to my position, though! The universe is a vast place filled with infinite possibilities. If I did, somehow, find myself living out the plot of a horror movie I think my credulity would actually give me a better chance of survival. You know that moment in the haunted house movie where it’s clear, crystal freaking clear, that, ghosts or not, the house is not a safe place to be? And everyone in the audience is yelling “Go! Get out! Leave!” but the family never does? Well I would leave. Immediately. I wouldn’t try to communicate with whatever it was. I wouldn’t call a priest or a ghost hunter, because that just makes them mad. I wouldn’t crawl around in the cellar looking for the bones of murdered children. Nothing, no matter how much money I had invested in the house or how much my kids needed a fresh start in the country after a traumatic experience in the city, would make me stay. I would leave.
Unfortunately, Curse of the Witching Tree’s Amber Thorson (Sarah Rose Denton) and I are nothing alike. When she and children Emma (Lucy Clarvis) and Jake (Lawrence Weller) move into a quaint medieval farmhouse, she takes no steps at all to prevent the barrier between world from being pierced. Using a Oija board (when will parents learn?) Jake makes contact with the souls of some dead children. Now this is when I burn the oija board, and the farmhouse and leave, but Amber has a terrible case of “Horror Movie Mom” and decides to stick it out.
It turns out the home once belonged to a woman whose son was murdered. Suspecting her of the crime, and of being a witch, the townsfolk hang her from a tree in the woods. They were wrong about her killing her kids, but, ironically, the act of executing her grants her the power to put a curse on the tree that effects any children who play around it. In effect, they turn her into a child-killing witch. Whoops.
There are so many haunted house movies in existence that it qualifies as a sub-genre. So one must at least think about where Curse of the Witching Tree ranks with films like Amityville Horror, What Lies Beneath, Paranormal Activity and The Babadook. Since the overall concept is hardly groundbreaking, it’s up to the actual technical skills of the people involved to elevate a project like this.
The acting from the core cast is excellent. Denton’s turn as an alternately stressed and terrified mother is excellent. She is anguished without being overwrought, allowing the action of her scenes to dictate the mood rather than trying to steer it herself. Lucy Clarvis shines in her role as a concerned and frustrated big sister, while young Lawrence Weller steals several scenes in his convincing portrayal as a kid in way over his head.
The supporting cast is also quite good. I was particularly taken with Jon Campling‘s Father Flanagan, who is a perfect example of why I wouldn’t bother trying to involve the clergy in a situation like this. Side note, if Jon Camping looks like a Death Eater to you, you’ve got good eyes. You may recognize him from the last two Harry Potter films. He’s much better here though, as he’s given a lot more to do.
The sound and visual effects are just about perfect, and really help set this film apart from some of its lesser competitors. Writer/Director James Crow demonstrates a truly refined ability to build suspense, beautifully integrating the moments of horror into the plot and flow of the film. All to often, horror directors surrender to the temptation of sudden scares to move the plot along or keep the audience paying attention, but this movie demonstrates that if you’ve really written a good script you don’t need to do that. There are plenty of surprises, but they don’t feel shoehorned in.
The actual setting of the film is beautiful, moody and picturesque, the perfect locale for a story like this. Maybe I’m just a sucker for bucolic English villages, but spooky things just seem spookier there. Crow, who is also the Cinematographer, gave himself a lot to work with visually and really took advantage of the opportunities afforded to him by…himself.
So how does it compare to the rest of the genre? Pretty favorably, I’d say. It looks better than Ammityville, and the writing is miles beyond what you’d find in a Paranormal Activity. All things considered I’d say this easily cracks my Top 5 Haunted House films, probably just ahead of A Haunting in Connecticut 2, and Stir of Echoes, but behind The Babadook and The Others.
Curse of the Witching Tree is slated for release on Amazon on the 19th of May, but you can preorder it now. I’m not going to tell you what to do with your money. I mean, maybe you’re saving for something or you have student loans to pay off (don’t we all) but if you’re in the market for a really good horror film, give this one a look. Oh and if you’re thinking about spending that money on a Oija board instead, then consider this film and review Public Service Announcements. Trust me on this.