April 24, 2020 Witches in the Woods (Movie Review)
Possessed by a haunting idea, a group of friends find themselves trapped in the snow, battling to survive the elements and one another in Witches in the Woods. Shout! Studios released the Thriller to On Demand everywhere on Friday, April 24th, 2020.
Seven college friends are driving through the Stoughton Valley in Massachusetts en route to the Berkshires when they encounter a highway closure. As driver Derek (Craig Arnold: Degrassi: The Next Generation series, Impulse series) spins the van around and backtracks, co-pilot Tod (Kyle Mac: Carrie 2013, Between series) begins hyping up a shortcut. His brother Matt (Alexander De Jordy: Between series, Letterkenny series), snuggling with his girlfriend Bree (Humberly González: Orphan Black series, In the Dark series), is all for it, but voice of reason Jill (Hannah Kasulka: What to Expect When You’re Expecting 2012, The Exorcist series) has serious reservations. When the quietest member of the group, the haunted Alison (Sasha Clements: Majority Rules! series, From Straight A’s to XXX TV movie 2017), speaks up and Philip (Corbin Bleu: High School Musical 2006, High School Musical 3 2008) agrees with her, Jill is convinced to go along with the group.
It’s not long before they find themselves lost in the formidable and snowy landscape of the mountains, just as severe weather is predicted and snow begins to fall. When their vehicle, already low on gas, becomes stuck in the snow with a bent axle, the situation grows dire very quickly. Eventually, one of their own goes missing and the group will be forced to confront the fact that they might not be alone in the woods—and someone or something may want them dead.
Clocking in at 90 minutes, Witches in the Woods was directed by Jordan Barker (My Brother’s Keeper 2004, Torment 2013) and written by Christopher Borrelli (The Vatican Tapes 2015, Eloise 2016). The film also features the acting talents of Ian Matthews (Orphan Black series, Stockholm 2018), David Lafontaine (Molly’s Game 2017, Designated Survivor series), and James Gilbert (Saw VI 2009, Salvation series).
Taking into account the fact that Witches in the Woods has a cast of just ten individuals, and takes place largely inside a van in the middle of the forest, it would be unfair not to note how much this film is able to do with so little. Based on an exceptionally unique script that combines heavy elements of both the Survivalist Thriller with Supernatural Horror, then adds in plenty of personal drama for its characters, you have an elevated ‘one room’ Thriller that never feels recycled.
For those unaware, William Stoughton—who lent his name to the village of Stoughton in Massachusetts—was the chief justice who presided over the notorious Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and 1693. Inspired by a series of fits of violence and hallucinations among the young women of Colonial Massachusetts, these bleak episodes continue to haunt us to this day. Branching off this piece of dark history, Witches in the Woods creates a nuanced story that works with the supernatural to set a mood that is disturbing as it reminds us of the haunting past and its influence on the present.
For the friends, a tourist pamphlet helps to plant an idea that consumes them, allowing their relationships to quickly unravel as they fight for their lives. Portraying these desperate characters, the cast do a phenomenal job of slowly unraveling in the snow. Leading the gang, Kasulka is splendid as Jill, a young woman with issues of her own who is still attempting to stand by her best friend, who has recently undergone a trauma. Sweet but able to speak up when she needs to, Kasulka’s Jill echoes so many college-age women who are still finding their way while fighting to stand behind those they love. As her best friend Alison, Clements is largely meant to keep her head down. She barely speaks, she is frequently in a trance-like state, and she has clearly faced a real-life horror that is wreaking havoc on her psyche. Clements delivers in the role, offering up a character who stirs our empathy.
Mac, De Jordy, and González are not given quite as much to work with, though they all deliver in their roles. Meanwhile, Arnold’s Derek and Bleu’s Philip take center stage as the main pair of male characters. Arnold’s Derek is intentionally cold, believes himself to be suave, and is ultimately the boyfriend that no one wants to have. Bleu’s Philip offers the complete opposite, the perfectly good “nice guy.” Often facing off to amp up the tension inside the heated van, the men both inject passion into their performances and keep their cohorts constantly at ill-ease.
While its entire plot begins with a cliché mistake, taking an obviously doomed shortcut, Witches in the Woods manages to use this banal premise to its advantage, molding a unique amalgamation of history, personal drama, the supernatural, and survivalist thrills; and these elements all come together to craft an original film that is engaging and enjoyable.
If you wish to delve beneath the surface of the ice, there’s a commentary on witch hunts, and if not, that is okay too. Standing out from the herd as being an intelligent Thriller with some truly cringe-worthy moments of body horror, Witches in the Woods is the escape that you need right now. For this, Cryptic Rock gives the film 4 of 5 stars.