Filmed and released in its native Australia as The Unlit, Witches of Blackwood is a slow-burning tale of family secrets and dark heritages. How does writer Darren Markey and director Kate Whitbread’s (Surviving Georgia) addition to the current folk horror revival compare to other recent additions like The Last Thing Mary Saw and The Righteous? Is it at least better than Hellbender?
Claire (Cassandra Magrath, Wolf Creek, The Dustwalker) is a cop. She’s currently on suspension pending the results of an investigation of a suicide that happened in her presence. A call from her Uncle Cliff (John Voce, Primeval) with news of another death brings her back to her hometown of Blackwood.
Blackwood is a beautiful-looking town, but its streets seem deserted. Indeed some old letters she finds at her late father’s farm talk of people, specifically men, fleeing the town. They also talk of witchcraft and something evil in the woods. Why did the men leave? Why are there no children to be seen? And why are the women acting so strange?
Witches of Blackwood starts off with a mix of flashbacks to Luke’s (Nicholas Denton, How To Time Travel, Glitch) suicide and Claire’s memories of her childhood. It’s quite evident that she grew up under very unusual circumstances, and they’ve left a mark on her to the present day. Despite not a lot actually happening, the first thirty minutes goes by fairly fast.
Once we get to Blackwood things get really strange, the kind of strange that would have anyone with a brain turning around and leaving. There are no kids to be found, but the women all go around with dolls that they treat as though they were alive. Claire’s school friend Jen (Nikola Dubois, Neighbours) tells her that her mother came at night and took the children. But it was because she knew what was best for the town.
If that kind of nuttery didn’t have her running, the local cop (Lee Mason, Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears) decking her when she asks about her parents should have. The fact she stays is so ridiculous that it tells you where the Witches of Blackwood’s story is heading. Or rather, confirms it, because the flashbacks all point in the same direction.
While the plot’s destination may not be a surprise, the route it takes as it brings Claire’s past and present together has its share of them. Witches of Blackwood also has more than its share of creepy old buildings, dark woods, and atmosphere. A nighttime trip through an abandoned asylum is a particular standout.
There isn’t much in the way of shocks or gore, but Witches of Blackwood does have its moments and thankfully they are mostly free of CGI. Rather than relying on jump scares Markey and Whitbread go for a constant feeling of unease and apprehension. And a large percentage of the time it works. Unfortunately, it undercuts itself more than once through the characters’ actions. Claire calls her boyfriend to get some information. He drives down with it, much of it troubling, especially what he found out about the cop who assaulted her. Not only doesn’t she leave, but she also refuses his offer of help and sends him back home.
The lack of a traditional rousing ending may turn some viewers off. To a degree it does feel like Witches of Blackwood peters out rather than ending, leaving a few too many questions unanswered. The lingering sense of unease, for me at least, made up for the number of questions that lingered after the credits started rolling.