A solid ‘witch in the woods’ movie, with a menace who has boasts some currently familiar attributes – contortionist movements accompanied by a bone-cracking sound, a simple yet ominous sigil carved on trees and at the sites of malign acts, and a tendency to abduct and drag children to an earthy cavern under the roots of an evil tree – but has a couple of new, nasty traits. Not only does this witch steal children, but she has a knack of making loved ones forget they ever existed – an upsetting notion fully explored, with a particularly neat third act reveal that brings the horror closer to home and pays off on a few odd little moments of subtle wrongness. It also pulls off the trick of having a teenage protagonist who’s trying not to be the little shit everyone has good cause to think he is, who uses up all the extra chances and fresh starts he’s been given by trying to do the right thing for a change.
In an unusual move, the Pierce Brothers – who wrote and directed the interesting zombie slacker movie Dead Heads – build their story on the skeleton of Rear Window. Ben (John-Paul Howard), who has broken his arm in circumstances guaranteed to elicit little sympathy, is to spend the summer working with his Dad (Jamison Jones), and bristles with resentment about his parents splitting up – especially when he sees Dad has moved on and started a relationship with gluten/dairy-intolerant (it’s a plot point) Sara (Azie Tesfai). Ben is the sort of foulup who gets close to kissing the nice girl he’s met (Piper Curda) but then throws up on her, but he notices that the woman next door (Zarah Mahler) is acting peculiarly, and her young son is terrified of her while her husband isn’t even sure they have children. Ben throws himself into investigating the case, for reasons even he can’t quite work out, but keeps tripping up and making himself look incredibly guilty … even as the supernatural being, a nastily physical human-sized parasite who hides inside (and claws out of) animal and human carcasses, extends her influence throughout the small seaside/woodland community.
The film takes care to flesh out its character story as well as its mythology, and the way different folk put their trust in Ben and are disappointed either because he screws up or because he has really urgent other priorites makes the kid an unusual horror film protagonist. Howard has to work hard to make Ben even semi-likeable, especially when his actions seem like those of a peeper or a pill-head … but the way he tries to protect kids he barely knows as if they were his own siblings shows that deep down he’s okay. The monster is mostly (but not exclusively) played by Mahler, whose character is interesting and quirky enough before she’s possessed to make her plight affecting – and she goes into full-on crazy, shifting from edgy rock chick Mom to wide-eyed Stepford Wife, when the witch is in her.