Jordan Barker‘s latest feature film WITCHES IN THE WOODS is, at first glance, your typical vacation-goes-wrong scary movie. A group of college students in Massachusetts are driving to a ski resort and are rerouted due to a road closure. One of them claims to know a shortcut to the lodge…and they get into an accident. The conditions are perilous – there’s at least a foot of snow on the ground already, it’s cold, it’s near dark, and it’s about to start snowing again. And they’re in the middle of nowhere and can’t get a cell signal.

Two members of the group – Alison (played by Sasha Clements) and Todd (played by Kyle Mac) – leave the van to try to flag down some help. Alison returns; Todd does not. From there, the situation quickly spirals from dire to catastrophic.

If you’re thinking the film follows the usual course of killing off the characters one by one, in some ways you’re right. But WITCHES IN THE WOODS goes so much further than just a surface-level lost-in-the-wilderness story.

During the course of WITCHES IN THE WOODS, we learn that Alison recently survived a sexual assault perpetrated by members of the college football team. The attack was filmed and by the time the film takes place, Alison is being pressured by school officials to drop the case. Two of the men on the trip with her, Derek (played by Craig Arnold) and Phillip (played by Corbin Bleu), are on the football team. Also accompanying Alison is her friend Jill (played by Hannah Kasulka), Todd’s brother Matty (played by Alexander De Jordy), and another woman named Bree (played by Humberly Gonzalez). Jill is dating Derek and, it is revealed, is also involved with Philip.

Derek is immediately characterized as arrogant and aggressive, while Phillip seems to be the opposite.

Early in the movie, Bree makes a snide, victim-blaming comment at Alison’s expense and, at a gas station, picks up a pamphlet about the historical significance of the woods the group is driving through: it was the site of a series of witch trials and now the woods are said to be haunted.

In case you need a super quick history lesson, witch trials in colonial America (particularly the Salem With Trials, to which this film alludes), were unspeakably vicious. In Salem alone, over two hundred people were accused of witchcraft – most of whom were women. During this period, people turned on each other, made false accusations, and were subjected to violence, torture, and invasive examinations. We’re not going to go into the full scope of the Salem Witch Trials right now, but suffice it to say that it was an atrocity that produced lasting cultural ramifications and trauma.

But back to the film.

When Alison returns to the van without Todd, she has blood on her clothes and is in a daze. Something happened in the woods; possibly something supernatural. Alison has a seizure and when Bree (the victim-blamer) tries to put a Clonazepam tablet under her tongue to control it (author’s note: do not do this), Alison bites her finger off. In a fit of panic, Bree jerks back and impales her neck on a ski pole; she pulls herself off of it and predictably bleeds out.

The remaining men in the van start to think that Alison is possessed by a malevolent force; Jill isn’t buying it. She’s staying loyal to her friend in the name of logic and sisterhood. But, of course, as the hours grow longer and the temperatures drop, logic falls by the wayside.

The actual presence of supernatural forces in the film is unclear. It’s part of the mystery: is there evil afoot, or are these kids falling prey to paranoia, hypothermia, fear, and the power of suggestion?

But witchcraft isn’t the main focus of the picture. At its core, WITCHES IN THE WOODS is a claustrophobic confrontation of rape culture, misogyny, and toxic masculinity. Alison, already on trial for her own assault, is revictimized by her peers and blamed for the misfortune that befalls them in the woods; Jill is pressured by the two main men in her life to turn on her friend. Derek is haunted by his own awful actions and Philip tries to navigate uncertain waters without making waves.

WITCHES IN THE WOODS is brutal and unpredictable – and wrapped up in some chillingly beautiful cinematography. The ensemble cast delivers gut-wrenching performances and the script, written by Christopher Borrelli, flows naturally and deliberately.

If you’re a fan of films like The Blair Witch Project, The VVitch, and It Comes at Night, it’s very likely you’ll enjoy this movie. WITCHES IN THE WOODS will arrive on Blu-ray June 2, 2020 from Shout Factory.

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