Witches In The Woods is a fresh take on the dangers of groupthink and succumbing to paranoia.
The film’s title Witches In The Woods sounds cliche. There will be witches in said woods. What unfolds is anything but perfunctory in director Jordan Barker’s smart psychological study. “Witches” is so much more than a teen slasher or occult thriller. Pieces of “kids in peril” movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream weave effortlessly with more intimate character study pieces like Hereditary to produce a surprisingly good film.
A group of young adults heads to a mountain retreat for a weekend of skiing, drinking, and tomfoolery. From the first claustrophobic scene, it’s obvious these people are not necessarily the best of friends. Tension strains every conversation, even the funny bits. Jokes are a little too brittle and smiles a little too forced. They all are keeping secrets. Affairs, rape allegations, and competition taint their relationships until they are barely recognizable.
A good ensemble cast of Hannah Kasulka(Jill), Corbin Blue(Phillip), Sasha Clements(Alison), Craig Arnold(Derek), Kyle Mac(Todd), Alexander De Jordy(Matty), and Humberly Gonzalez(Bree) play are stereotypical young people. All the significant archetypes are represented. The cerebral and kind boy, the beautiful but daffy coed, the snarky jokester, the bully, and the dogooder are all represented. Ian Matthews(Killjoys, Orphan Black) is a standout as the menacing local John, who barely says more than a handful of sentences. His presence is felt as one of several potential threats.
Cinematography by Martin Wojtunik makes the most of claustrophobic spaces and limited light. Coupled with Barker’s direction, they use it to drive the narrative. The entirety of the second and third act takes place in the dark or the car. That intimate connection with the characters puts the viewer in the car with them. Scared, cold, and in the dark, would you act differently? Sound practical effects mark the small but effective amount of gore. A particularly gruesome finger issue is worth watching for.
Something right away messes with the group. At first, it is relatively innocent things. Little by little, the easily explainable becomes eerier. A bathroom door that won’t open, supernaturally aware crows and strange sounds in the woods all create tension that never lets up. When one of the group begins behaving erratically, and the car becomes disabled, sanity disintegrates. Something is stalking the group and picking them off one by one. Is it witches, a locale hunter, or one of their own group possessed by an evil force?
By the end, it could be all those things, and none of them. The characters are on edge, to begin with. Too much water under the bridge and too much distrust have fostered a situation where anything could be believed. When pretty basic calamities arise, and an actual health crisis occurs, the group is already primed to think the worst. Rather than keep their wits and their tempers, they flare at each other. Unfortunately, misery loves company, and one by one, the friends follow each other off the cliff to panic.
Groupthink or mass hysteria can be a powerful thing. It is what allows cult leaders to program and control huge groups to do unspeakable things. A mix of sociology and psychology, mass hysteria can compel completely sane people to do insane things. For example, they become convinced they should shun their friend instead of helping her. What is more likely, their friend is having a seizure or their friend is possessed by the spirit of ancient witches? That’s the problem with fear. It has a tendency to grow until it consumes everything else.
Once fear takes root, it chokes out all rational thought leaving behind chaos. Every death was the result of overreaction. Allison only had the misfortune to act strangely. The brief history lesson and group dynamic in the car did the rest. It became easy to see monsters everywhere and fear the worst.
Are there witches? Who knows. The end’s ambiguous final moment could be a nod either direction. Stoughton Valley does exist, and Magistrate Stoughton was the evil Chief Justice presiding over the witch trials. Was Allison affected by the cursed land? Did all the group follow suit? Has Jill been influenced too? By the end, the body count and manner of death seem to indicate otherwise. Allison was probably not guilty of anything but having a seizure and being scared. Remember, we never saw her kill anyone. That distinction was left for the rest of the group. They let her fear invade them until they all reacted poorly.
Witches In The Woods may or may not be about any real witches, but it has a lot of smart things to say about sociological dynamics and the power of the mind. It is a satisfying and creepy romp through a dark forest. Stream it on Vudu or Amazon Prime right now.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.