'Witches In the Woods' Review: The Woods Are the Least of Your Worries

With friends like these, you are fucked.

Witches In The Woods

Toronto After Dark Film Festival runs October 17th through the 25th.

At this point it’s probably easier counting the number of movies about friends heading into the woods who don’t wind up slaughtered, as the premise has quickly become the go-to setup for far too many horror films these days. That’s not to say some of them don’t turn out well with fun thrills, memorable kills, and satisfying endings, but most entries in the sub-genre unfortunately go the opposite route. Witches in the Woods, if nothing else, at least ends on a high note.

A group of college “friends” head into the snowy woods with plans for snowboarding, drinking, and relaxing by the fireplace, but when one insists they take a sketchy detour the gang quickly finds themselves stranded with a broken SUV, decreasing temperatures, and a whole lot of antagonistic tension between them. The situation is bad enough, but with dicks, bitches, cheaters, and a fragile young woman named Alison (Sasha Clements) — she recently accused some classmates of sexual assault and is still dealing with judgement and fallout — among them, it might not be the inclement weather that gets the best of them.

Director Jordan Barker and writer Christopher Borrelli open their film with a quote from Robert Oxton Bolton — “Belief is not merely an idea that the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind.” It’s as close to a theme as the film attempts, and while it doesn’t quite congeal with the narrative until the final frames it remains an ambitious idea for a “cabin in the woods” scenario.

The “cabin” here is the SUV that gets driven into a snow bank, breaking the axle and leaving the gang stuck in the middle of a frozen nowhere, but the outcome is the same. They’re screwed. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the feeling is mutual as the characters go out of their way to annoy each other and viewers alike. Constant bickering and worse leaves you wondering why these people would have possibly agreed to a shared vacation, and their value as characters only decreases from there. Not watching the road is one thing, but handing a clearly sick and disturbed Alison the keys is an idea that screams “hell no!” Add in a character debilitated by a bear trap — a trap designed to be opened by humans — characters constantly finding excuses to split up even as their numbers dwindle, and my least favorite horror trope of a protagonist accidentally killing a friend, and you have a script that just works overtime to make its characters unlikable. It’s a shame, both because it lessens the movie and because the performances are actually solid for the most part.

An early stop at a gas station reveals some of the area’s history including a witch trial that saw a woman accused of supernatural shenanigans before being burned alive for her supposed crimes, and it’s the heart of the madness here. The idea in their collective head, once Alison’s behavior begins to grow strange and dangerous some among them jump to that obvious conclusion — she’s a witch! Borrelli’s script does allow for a fun and engaging rebuttal as the only relatively smart one among them (Jill, played by Hannah Kasulka) counters that others’ antics are every bit as suspect, but it’s one of only two brief bits of brightness amid an otherwise dim experience. The other, as mentioned at the top, is the film’s ending which drives the main idea home in satisfying fashion despite stumbling some in its conviction and narrative support.

Those two highlights aren’t enough reason to give Witches in the Woods a watch, though, as the frustrations and annoyances far outweigh their effect. The film earns points for attempting something fresh, but a reliance on wholly obnoxious characters and poor choices leaves a disconnect for viewers that it just can’t overcome.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival runs October 17th through the 25th.

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