It’s a bold move putting the word “witches” in the title of your movie, let alone “woods,” but Witches in the Woods, the thrilling, claustrophobic, and chilly new movie from director Jordan Baker (Torment, Duress) bravely references the two most famous elements of the most famous lost-in-the-woods movie ever, confident its premise is just as effective. Crucially, much like The Blair Witch Project itself, there’s no actual witches to be seen here. Er, unless you count the possibly telepathic crow.
The film begins with a group of college kids heading into the wilderness in a big SUV, aiming for the kind of weekend that usually goes wrong in horror movies. They’re relatively normal types, with the kinds of barely-disguised tensions over romantic relationships and past indiscretions that will surely spill out once they become stranded. After being stopped traveling down the road they were headed, one of their number assures the group he knows a shortcut.
There’s some discussion about it, but nobody wants to drive all the way back, so they acquiesce and soon the massive vehicle seemingly capable of making it across any terrain is moving slowly through mounds of snow, surrounded by thick forests on either side. Hours pass and the bickering soon begins, as it becomes clear the group is completely lost. The responsible party decides to go for help, someone else starts acting a bit funny, and things get progressively worse from there.
Witches in the Woods isn’t at all the film you’re expecting it to be. First off, it genuinely takes place in the woods, rather than adjacent to them. Most of its tensest moments occur when the group is stuck huddling together in their car, trying to stay warm while waiting for help they know probably isn’t coming. The witch element is introduced when the gang stops at a gas station and one of their number tussles with a local over animal cruelty, but even this incident doesn’t pay off how you imagine it will.
The location is New England, though the movie was shot on location in freezing, snow-covered Ontario, Canada, so the witch trials loom large and yet it takes only a flyer about a nearby historical attraction and the aforementioned massive, lurking crow to suggest something supernatural is afoot. Sasha Clements’ moody Alison falls victim to some kind of dodgy energy early on and begins suddenly making grave proclamations about how “we’re never getting out of here” once they get stuck, which are played for dark laughs but also undeniably ominous.
She’s at the center of some kind of Steubenville-esque on-camera rape incident, involving football players and including at least one of the men in the car (unbeknownst to her), which not only adds an extra layer of tension but also gives Witches in the Woods an irresistibly modern hook that situates it firmly in real life. Even with no witches in sight, it’s clear there’s evil at play here. It’s great to have the trials in the background, but the real fear comes from what these very human characters are capable of.
Confining the action to the car is a bold choice that pays off hugely as personal tensions slowly but surely rise to the surface. The cast is uniformly terrific, their natural and nuanced performances even more impressive considering the harsh conditions they had to endure. The film Witches in the Woods most calls to mind is Adam Green’s still hugely underrated Frozen, which similarly stranded a group (including one blonde young woman) in freezing conditions and left them at the mercy of the environment.
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The supernatural element sets Witches in the Woods apart but its most devious characters are the principle players, along with the aforementioned crow which may or may not be a witch itself. It’s a well-told story of betrayal, survival, and personal responsibility with a darkly historical twist that’s cleverly unraveled in a single, snowy setting with a group of talented performers and splashes of shocking, bravura violence. A quietly affecting little chiller (no pun intended, though the cast and crew were clearly freezing).
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Jordan Barker
Writer(s): Christopher Borrelli
Stars: Hannah Kasulka, Alexander De Jordy, Craig Arnold, Corbin Bleu, Sasha Clements
Release date: TBC
Studio/Production Company: Gearshift Films
Run Time: 90 minutes