You guys wanna see a dead body?
But not just any body. The rotten body of a dead witch.
Do I have your attention? Wonderful! That’s the premise for Falling Stars. The folk-horror film takes place in a world where witches are not only real, but a very intense and unique threat. They fall to Earth every October for The Harvest, plummeting into our atmosphere and snatching people away before they even know what is happening. When Harvest season approaches, curfews are put in place for protection, precautions are taken, and people stay inside once the sun goes down. But even the strongest safety measures are not fool-proof. Sometimes, human curiosity is the most dangerous temptation.
Directed by Gabriel Bienczycki and Richard Karpala (from Karpala’s script) this film is a lo-fi horror tale that paints a new layer of American culture and mythology. On the first night of the Harvest, a group of brothers strike out into the desert to sneak a peek at the body of a witch their friend Rob (Greg Poppa) said that he shot down the prior year. Although witches are a known part of the world of this story, they remain intensely mysterious. Few have ever actually seen one and lived to tell the tale. They are so fast that it is difficult to see them or capture them on film. The pictures do exist and make the rounds online every fall are blurry at best. And after a couple of beers, a trio of brothers, led by the eldest, Mike (Shaun Duke Jr.) are following Rob into the desert to finally see the unseen.
On the way, Rob gives them a few simple instructions. No photos, don’t touch the body, don’t take anything away from the gravesite - simple stuff. He also says that you shouldn’t stare at her for more than a few minutes. It seems that even though the witch appears to be dead, she still has some sort of magic about her that can seep into your mind. You may find yourself thinking about her a few days later, finding excuses to go back to the desert and visit the grave. Even when dead, witches seem to be able to cast an unsettling spell.
The brothers actually do a decent job at respecting the rules that Rob lays out, but accidents happen all the same. The group winds up unwittingly desecrating the grave, which, as you can imagine, has dire consequences. They head back home, but aren’t fast enough to protect the ones they love from falling into the witch’s path. The group, it seems, is now marked. Cursed, for the rest of their days. Unless they can find a way to undo the curse, which is easier said than done.
While not perfect, Falling Stars is a unique film that really paints a fascinating world. The existence of witches is known and accepted here. There is no question or skepticism - it’s a fact that everyone accepts and lives with. It’s a danger that the world faces every October. There is something out there bigger than us and more powerful than us and we try to just live our lives as safely as we can and not cross its path. Most people succeed, but a few every year don’t and are lost to us. Consumed by the witches (in whatever way they consume us - we don’t really know all of the details).
The world that Bienczycki and Karpala build is the film’s biggest strength, and at times, its biggest frustration. There are a lot of details that come to light throughout the story about how the Harvest and the existence of witches has affected this world. When we meet the brothers, they are building a fairy circle for protection. Folkloric rituals are common practice in this space, as the entities they ward off are a known and accepted danger. We learn that offerings are made to the witches every year, but that lately, those aren’t satisfying them the way they used to, and the witches are taking more people. It’s all interesting stuff that really builds out the world, but, as is typical in films like these, I wish there had been more. I had the same feeling when I watched the first Purge movie. There are so many interesting things that are built into this premise, and I want to see more of them. I want to learn more about this world and its history.
The film also suffers a bit from some minor pacing issues. As a whole, it moves along well, but there are a couple of scenes that, while interesting on their own, grind the whole affair to a halt. The cast is very solid, both as an ensemble and in those scenes that rely on one character to carry the weight of the moment. Particularly, they do a wonderful job at carrying the story forward while also dropping crumbs of exposition and backstory. It can be difficult to fully integrate world building into the plot of a story without making it feel ham-handed, but this cast, combined with the writing, handle that task very well.
All in all, it’s a satisfying movie. I love all things witchy and this is a story that is able to do something a bit new with the subgenre. It’s very minimalistic and the directors use that fact to their advantage. The witches move incredibly fast, so it’s nearly impossible to actually see them. We focus more on the destruction that they leave in their wake. The minimalism also works in the fact that our story is set in the desert and we have big dangers lurking in the wide open dark. The film uses the negative space to its advantage in creating a tense and unpredictable atmosphere that blends nicely with its mythology.
It’s always exciting to see a film that tries something different in a well-worn genre, and Falling Stars is not afraid to chart new territory. If you’re a fan of witch films or just minimalist storytelling, this is one that you’re going to want to keep on your radar.
Movie Score: 3/5