[Fantastic Fest 2023 Review] FALLING STARS

“Every year by the full moon of late October, witches from high use the night as cover, to descend onto earth’s harvest.” – Falling Stars

Prepare for the First Harvest, a time of the year that marks the beginning of something new, otherworldly, and for some, something sinister. FALLING STARS is a thought-provoking film that takes a unique approach to the world of witches and curses. It offers an intriguing twist by focusing on the lives of three brothers who unwittingly disrupt a witch’s grave, which sets off a chain of events that threatens their lives and their loved ones. Set in a world reminiscent of our own (but with a dark, supernatural undercurrent), the film delves into a folklore filled with mystery and history.

The story takes place in a world where witches exist and while they are scarce, their power is well-known. The danger of crossing a witch is known to everyone, but the rarity of these beings creates an allure that makes some people ignore the dangers. In this world, a long-standing hierarchy exists with humans at the bottom. Every year, these lesser beings must give offerings to protect themselves from the all-powerful witches.

The witches demand a substantial amount of harvest, but with climate change and the modern ways of humans, the offerings grow less and less, which means the witches must take more and more. The world-building in FALLING STARS is one of its standout features. And while the concept of an annual supernatural harvest is not entirely new, Richard Karpala and Gabriel Bienczycki manage to infuse it with freshness and intrigue. This world feels both familiar and eerie but draws viewers into its secrets.

Character interaction is a central focus of the film, with the three brothers at its core. Each actor delivers a solid performance, with Shaun Duke Jr. (Mike) and Andrew Gabriel (Sal) grounding the story in quiet introspection, while Rene Leech (Adam) adds a dramatic flair to his character. However, their interactions sometimes feel disconnected, making it challenging to fully believe in their tight-knit family dynamic.

The film’s dialogue occasionally feels stilted, especially when the brothers are together. It’s clear that the script aims for brevity due to its runtime, but it can leave some character relationships feeling underdeveloped. For example, the secondary characters (like the radio host and his assistant) provide valuable exposition about the world and its folklore. However, they often feel underutilized, serving primarily as tools to convey information rather than fully fleshed-out characters.

And for horror enthusiasts who prefer psychological horror over explicit scares, FALLING STARS offers a compelling experience. One of the film’s strengths is its ability to convey a sense of impending doom without relying on explicit visual horror. Instead, it opts for a more restrained approach, allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in the terrifying details of the witches’ actions. While some may find this approach refreshing, it might leave others wanting more explicit scares. Its abrupt ending mirrors the unpredictability of the witches’ actions, leaving the audience with lingering questions.

Despite its limitations, FALLING STARS manages to shine in its simplicity. It adopts a lo-fi, grungy style reminiscent of cult classics like The Blair Witch Project and Viy. The film embraces its budget constraints and creates a compelling narrative within its means. It leaves viewers with a sense that there’s more to explore in the world that Karpala and Bienczycki have crafted, (which makes it a potential proof of concept for a larger, more in-depth story).

Overall, FALLING STARS presents a fresh take on the world of witches and curses, with a strong focus on character interaction and a unique world-building approach. While it has its flaws, it succeeds in creating a compelling and thought-provoking narrative within its limitations, therefore making it a film worth exploring for those who appreciate subtle and nuanced horror.

FALLING STARS made its North American premiere at the 2023 Fantastic Fest.

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