Review: Curse of the Witching Tree (dir. James Crow, 2015)

Curse of the Witching Tree

Curse of the Witching Tree
UK, 2015
Director/writer: James Crow

Review by N Emmett.

After her husband falls into a coma, Amber Thorson (Sarah Rose Denton) moves into a farmhouse with her children Jake (Lawrence Weller) and Emma (Lucy Clarvis) It turns out that the house was built near the Witching Tree, where a woman was hanged for witchcraft five hundred years beforehand.

Twelve-year-old Jake begins experiencing supernatural phenomena and concludes that the witch is still haunting the house. It is up to Emma, the eldest child, to convince their highly-strung mother that desperate measures are needed to solve the family’s problems.

With Curse of the Witching Tree, writer-director James Crow has delivered a half-intriguing, half-frustrating haunted house story. The film is stuffed with detail, so much that it seems rather longer than its modest 97 minutes, and some of that detail works very well.

witt1The core of the film is the tension within the family, and Crow has fully fleshed out the relationships    between each character. Amber wants a normal family, and is trying to fill in the gap left by her husband. Emma wants to spend time with her boyfriend, but Amber disapproves of him. The grandmother, an occasional visitor to the house, feels that it is time to pull the plug on her hospital-bound son. Jake simply wants a quiet life with his family – his whole family, including his father – but is instead tormented first by school bullies, and later by the ghost.

However, no matter how well-polished this script may be, something about it simply does not work.

For all the merits of its characterisation, the film’s dialogue often seems artificial. “He’s an idiot,” says Amber of her daughter’s boyfriend. “He’s a cute idiot”, replies Emma. Attempts at comic relief, witt2meanwhile, result in such bizarre lines as “I bet Spongebob doesn’t have to deal with this shit.” At times it becomes all too easy to visualise the pages of the film’s script – the characters seem less like people, and more like line after line of neat Courier typing.

The house turns out to be haunted by sack-headed ghost children, who are prone to shyly watching from afar and only occasionally plucking up the courage to interact with the family. This is a memorable image which Crow often uses to good effect, but once again something is missing. Although there are many beautifully composed shots throughout the film, Crow rarely succeeds in creating any actual atmosphere: even at its most successful this is a film that is simply looked at, when it should be felt.

witt4Curse of the Witching Tree really should pack a bigger dramatic punch, given the range of emotive subjects it touches upon: bullying, the gradual loss of a loved one in hospital, child murder. But none of these plot threads quite work – the bullying sequences are let down by some dubious acting, the children’s visits to their father become silly when he starts making psychic utterances from his coma, and we are never allowed to see the murdered children as anything other than masked spooks.

One of the biggest conceptual gaps in the film is the ghostly witch at the heart of the haunting. Crow makes a token effort to come up with a folkloric background, but ends up with a jumble of familiar ghost story bits-and-bobs: a woman wrongly executed for witchcraft, a previous homeowner committing murder, misuse of a Ouija board. The supernatural side of the narrative relies on this witt3checklist of familiar tropes, making it – again – just a little too easy to see the scriptwriting process going on before our eyes. Finally, the story closes on one of those have-the-cake-and-eat-it endings typical of horror films that do not want to wrap things up too neatly, but which lack the depth for a genuinely ambiguous conclusion.

Curse of the Witching Tree has a lot going for it. It has a number of fetching visual touches, and the family drama is engaging enough to sustain its running time. But it lacks a certain spark of life that would have turned it from a solid film to a great film.