Witches in the Woods (2019)

Witches in the Woods first published by SciFiNow

Witches in the Woods opens with a quote from playwright and screenwriter Robert Oxton Bolton: “A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind.” These words introduce the film’s central theme – the irresistible power of belief, misapprehension and deception over our thinking and actions – while also slyly implanting in our minds another motif, possession, that will, once there, prove hard to shake.

Seven co-eds are driving through the Massachusetts hinterlands for some winter sports, and the atmosphere in their SUV ripples with ’embellished’ narratives, malicious rumours and unspoken secrets. A humiliating video of Alison (Sasha Clements) has recently been posted online, and she is not sure whether to continue pressing charges against the members of the football team responsible, even as many – including fellow passenger Bree (Humberley González) – hold her to blame for what happened. Meanwhile other team members, like alpha jock Derek (Craig Arnold), cocky brothers Tod (Kyle Mac) and Matty (Alexander De Jordy), and sidelined African-American Philip (Corbin Bleu), are along for the ride. Isolated and alienated, Alison has only one trusted ally, Jill (Hannah Kasulka), who is herself nervous about having to tell the aggressive, possessive Derek that she no longer wishes to go out with him. As the young men in the car casually deploy sexist language and bullying behaviour, it is clear that their road trip is unfolding in the same real world that let fratboy athlete Brock Turner receive only a moderate sentence for digitally assaulting an unconscious woman, that let the Trump-nominated Brett Kavanagh take up a position on the Supreme Court despite numerous allegations against him of sexual assault, and that let Trump himself ascend to the United States’ highest office despite being caught on tape boasting that his fame allows him to do anything with the women he encounters, including “grab ’em by the pussy“. This is an America lorded over by white middle-class men who can seemingly get away with anything, typically at the expense of women (like Alison).

The seven are about to leave this civilised world, and to go back to raw nature. For, diverted from their course, they decide to ignore a ‘No trespassing’ sign and to take a backroad through Stoughton Valley, where, in the seventeenth century, twelve disenfranchised young women. convulsing and hallucinating, were convicted and hanged for witchcraft, “their anomalous behaviour…attributed to the land itself”. Now lost and stranded in those same snowy woods, with night falling, the temperature rapidly dropping and no phone service, the students realise that they are struggling for their very survival against the elements and their own inner tensions, even as they gradually become convinced that there is something else out there, intent on either possessing or destroying them.

In a scene near the beginning of Witches in the Woods, Tod and girlfriend Bree leaf through a booklet on the Stoughton Valley witch trials that they have found in a local service station. Speculating on what the woman illustrated on the cover did to be hanged, Bree suggests “copulated with the devil”, to which Tod replies with a smile: “That or she spoilt last week’s episode of Game of Thrones.” It is that collapsing of the past with our postmodern, online present which gives this latest film from director Jordan Barker (Torment, 2013; The Marsh, 2006) and writer Christopher Borrelli (The Vatican Tapes, 2015) its chilling edge. Believe what you want to believe, but the witch hunts to which society was so susceptible in the historic days of Puritanism and patriarchy remain alive and well in these supposedly more enlightened times. One might even regard this as a modern reimagining of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), with all the old ambiguities intact.

© Anton Bitel