FrightFest 2015 Dispatch: CHERRY TREE, THE UNFOLDING, NEVER LET GO, And More
So here we go again. FrightFest 2015 will present 76 features (and sundry shorts and special events) spread over six screens in four and a half days. It's the very best - and some of the worst - that (mostly independent) genre filmmaking from across the world has to offer at this very moment. It's also a gathering of the lost and the damned in London's Leicester Square to find themselves and each other over a long weekend of the wicked and the weird.
Now in its sweet sixteenth year, the Film4 FrightFest has come a long way, expanding from a simple, single-screen event into the rampaging behemoth that it is today, and atomising its audience across multiple theatres in keeping with the way that we watch films in the digital age. Some traditions, though, die hard, and this year's event, like so many others opened with a subpar British offering.
Where Irish director David Keating's previous feature Wake Wood (2011) showed a couple resorting to local supernatural powers to bring back their dead daughter, his latest, Cherry Tree, inverts these ideas, as teenaged Faith (Naomi Battrick) enters a Faustian pact to save her terminally ill father (Sam Hazeldine). The deal is that she must get impregnated on her 16th birthday and carry the baby to term for her new hockey coach Sissy (Anna Walton, wonderfully seductive and menacing), a local witch whose coven meets beneath the roots of a magic cherry tree.
On the one hand Cherry Tree concerns a virgin girl confronting the birth, sex and death that are part of adulthood via very literalised rites of passage, and embracing her own troubled maternity warts and all. On the other hand, it is an increasingly campy mash-up of motifs from Rosemary's Baby, The Craft, The Witches of Eastwick (cherries!), Nightbreed and even Kill List, with plenty of genre-voguish centipedes thrown in to serve as the witches' familiars.
So there is a lot going on here, but at the same time there is a superabundance of exposition (in introductory text, character-given commentary and even a class presentation) that undermines any uncanniness by trying to make too much sense of everything. You may go into Cherry Tree hoping for the baroque irrationality of Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977), the stylised mother of all witchcraft movies, but what you get instead is something closer to the shrill silliness of Suspiria's belated second sequel The Mother of Tears (2007). Cherry Tree lacks the subtlety that its coming-of-age themes demand.