Curse of the Witching Tree Movie Review
Written by Joel Harley
DVD released by 4Digital Media
Written and directed by James Crow
2015, 90 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
DVD released on May 18th 2015
Sarah Rose Denton as Amber Thorson
Lucy Clarvis as Emma Thorson
Laurence Weller as Jake Thorson
Charlie Bond as Nurse
Husband in a deep coma, troubled soon-to-be-single mum Amber moves her teenage daughter and young son into a grim old rural farm, hoping to build a life in dad's absence. Morbidly curious about the legend of a mother who killed her children on that very land, little Jake lets his school bullies talk (or threaten) him into playing Ouija board in the barn. It's all fun and games (for everyone except Jake, tied up in a cupboard) until the local ghosts get pissed off, people start puking blood and everyone's seeing grotesque visions around the house. It's supernatural horror, but with a uniquely English twist.
Primarily, that gets you references to such institutions as Shaun the Sheep (funny, given its farm setting), Spongebob Squarepants and Game of Thrones, all delivered in soap opera level style, just like that time the kids sat around in the pub talking about Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman on Emmerdale. It's not that the story is inherently bad (it is quite bad though) – it's that the execution feels so very fudged. In a story about mothers being compelled to murder their own children, it would have perhaps been more effective if mother Amber hadn't started out looking as though she wanted to strangle her offspring to death from the get-go. That might have worked well for Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but Sarah Rose Denton is no Jack Nicholson, and Curse of the Witching Tree is not The Shining. With a little characterisation work, we could have sympathised with her as we did Essie Davis in The Babadook, but she's just left seeming as though she shouts all the time and really dislikes her own children.
Lucy Clarvis fares a little better as teenage Emma, but that could just be her looking like Katherine Isabelle that distracted me into thinking so. Shouldering much of the story's mystery element, she gets to avoid most of the TV-level screaming and ranting her onscreen mother and brother spend most of their time indulging in. Unfortunately, that mystery also leads to the tedium of local priests and blind psychics (really) detracting from some genuinely strong imagery and ideas. Its burlap sack-wearing little murder victims are an appropriately creepy manifestation of the central threat, the film being at its best when it lets the ghost story elements really take over. Its bathtub scene, for instance, is genuinely creepy, being one of the only moments in the film I really remember, only a handful of days after viewing it. And that's not just because of the boobs, honest.
As with most low-budget independent features, it's hard to begrudge Curse of the Witching Tree its faults – especially given that this is director James Crow's first full-length film (ditto his cast). What it does lack in panache and sheen, it makes up for with its impressive atmosphere and English Gothic setting. Its lack of funds, inexperienced actors and director leave it feeling like a television movie, but Curse of the Witching Tree shows promise, nevertheless.