A witch film that leans heavily on blood-soaked cherry and centipedes imagery and unravels spectacularly as it nears its conclusion? Well, they can’t all be winners.
Let’s bitch it out…
Welcome to our coverage of the 2015 Fantasia Film Festival. We got an early start last weekend with an advanced screening of sci-fi / romantic thriller Synchronicity and now we’re physically attending the final weekend of the festival. First up is David Keating’s witchcraft film, Cherry Tree.
It’s always interesting to go into a film with no expectations because it allows you to simply experience the film. I’d read the description of the film on Fantasia’s website, thought it sounded interesting (I can’t recall the last time I saw a film about witches) and grabbed a seat. Unfortunately my first film of the festival is a bit of a bust. It’s hard to fault the actors who are almost uniformly commendable (save one). No, what lets the film down is its atrocious screenplay and a few poor decisions by Keating, who lets the film get away from him in the film’s final act.
Cherry Tree starts off with a hokey text prologue that lays a foundation that doesn’t end being significantly necessary. A coven of witches, lead by Eleanour Young, overstepped their boundaries with the Lord of the Underworld and lost their mojo. This segue-ways into the cold open, which chronicles a blind date gone wrong as a poor lesbian is hung upside down, her blood used to flavour a dish of cherries. This image is pretty much the film’s bread and butter: Keating uses it each time screenwriter Brendan McCarthy includes a spell, which means there is a lot of blood soaked bowls of centipedes and cherries. At first it’s evocative and a little disturbing, then it gets old.
The dead lesbian doesn’t provide what the coven requires (that’s all we need to know from this scene) so the group sets its sights on protagonist Faith (Naomi Battrick). Faith is a fairly prototypical final girl: she’s strong, resilient, independent and eschews more traditional female past times like dating. She’s taunted by the mean girls because she’s a fifteen year old virgin (gasp!), plays ball hockey and cares deeply for her chef father, Sean (Sam Hazeldine).
The early goings on is when the film works best. Battrick is a really likable lead actress, so it’s easy to cheer for Faith and her best friend / fellow outcast Amy (Elva Trill). They both have an easygoing chemistry with each other and hot classmate Brian (Patrick Gibson), even though it is clear from the first scene that the trio will inevitably fall out over romantic entanglements. So far, so good.
The film wastes no time introducing its central conflict: Sean is literally dying of leukemia and Faith is desperate to save him. Enter Eleanour’s descendant / reincarnation, Sissy (Rhona Mitra-lite Anna Walton). Cherry Tree doesn’t exactly trade in subtlety, so every time Sissy appears, the soundtrack blares ominous music (plus Sissy only ever wears black and has a serious case of resting bitch face. Clearly she’s an evil beyotch). Sissy makes Faith a too-good-to-be-true offer: bear the coven a child and she’ll heal Sean. Yes, folks, it’s an Irish/English Rosemary’s Baby!
Overlooking the fact that Faith barely blinks an eye before accepting, we’re still in perfectly tolerable territory. Sissy camps it up every time she suddenly pops up (at dinner! on the street! in Sean’s bed with perfectly perky boobs!), but everyone else plays it pretty straight. Plus we’re invested in Faith and Sean’s father/daughter bond and without the ill-fated deal there’s no conflict. We know it will end badly, but Faith has got to see it through.
The highlight of the film is Faith’s sixteenth birthday. Sissy waits for Faith and Brian to get busy before siccing a horde of centipedes on them. With lightning flashing in the window and so many dutch angles you may start to wonder if you’ve had a stroke, Faith and Brian make a baby as centipedes burrow into their skin. Unexpectedly the insects prompt a transformation in Brian and he adopts a lovely black charred look as his spine splits through his skin and both his and Faith’s eyes go black (the universal trope for demonic possession in horror films). It’s all completely gross and awesome and we’re only halfway through, because this is immediately followed up by Sean’s murder/revival (involving – naturally – Sissy thrashing orgasmically and consuming yet more cherry/centipede blood). All in all it’s a rather entertaining sequence.
Unfortunately everything after this point goes off the deep end, and not in an enjoyable “WTF did I just watch?” kinda way. Sean’s recovery shifts the plot exclusively onto Faith’s pregnancy, which like most things in Cherry Tree, is an expedited affair. Sissy tells Faith she’ll deliver in six weeks and the pair immediately begin a power battle without really pausing to explore why Sissy wants the child or how Faith feels about carrying a demonic baby. The animosity between the two dominates everything, so the film becomes one long repetitive catfight, with Sean and Amy sidelined until they’re required to turn up as gore fodder/victims. Oh yeah, and Brian’s dead (he died during consummation as payment for Sean’s cure).
In other films, the willingness to sacrifice main characters might be applause-worthy, but here the deaths happen so suddenly and without any significance or fanfare that characters we cared about simply vanish in the blink of an eye. There’s still plenty of time for cherries and centipedes and Faith running in slow motion and Sissy vamping it up for her sandbag-hooded followers, but a few minutes taking stock of the fact that a main character died? Nope, sorry. They’ve just been set on fire and we’ve got to move on to another verbal show down between Faith and Sissy.
If this all sounds dismissive, it’s because the final act is a huge mess that unravels all of the goodwill from the start of the film. Naturally the baby is the center of everything, but there’s also the reappearance of Brian (as Faith’s spirit ghost…or something), and everyone in the coven (ie: every other supporting character who isn’t dead) rips off their skin to descend into the Underworld…or something. It looks cool, but makes no sense. Most disappointing is Faith’s role: the character is stripped of all agency and shoehorned into a powerless maternal role that doesn’t allow her to do anything other than scream, run and look on passively. Considering how strong and capable Faith is early on, this feels like a complete betrayal of the character. Plus Sissy’s comeuppance is disappointingly dull and cheap-looking.
Bottom Line: Cherry Tree is full of potential in its first act courtesy of a strong female lead and interesting characters, but goes downhill quickly. The repeated visual motifs of cherries & centipedes lose their impact quickly and the confusing and silly climax is particularly disappointing, despite an amusing coda that puts a humourous spin on Faith’s situation.
Cherry Tree screens next at London’s Fright Fest (Aug 27-31)