The Americans’ Holly Taylor and genre veteran Paget Brewster are the biggest names in The Witch Files – a smarter than necessary tween horror-comedy that isn’t quite scary enough to be a scary movie, or funny enough to be a comedy.
It hits a kind of sweet spot in between that produces a few chills and a few laughs while creating a group of characters that find themselves in wish fulfillment situation that has less than desirable side effects.
Dark Sky Films – best known for original, low budget horror films with some imagination – are not the distributor you’d expect to put out a tween horror-comedy, but The Witch Files proves to be a good choice.
The film opens with a/v nerd Claire (Holly Taylor) interviewing four girls in detention about whether it is an effective deterrent to improper behavior in school.
The four – goth girl Jules (Britt Flatmo, Super 8), mean girl Brooke (Alice Ziolkoski), jock Greta (Adrienne Rose White, Quirky Female Protagonist), and insecure girl M.J. (Tara Robinson).
The discussion turns to witchcraft and Jules gets them out of detention by causing the fire alarm to go off – prompting the four to get together in a nearby, conducive forested area and perform an incantation to bind them as a coven.
It works! And the five girls begin to test the limits of their magic – eventually doing very teen things like going on a (cash-free) shopping spree (Claire, the nice girl of the coven, wishes for her dad to get a job and her sister to stop stuttering; Britt, the mean girl, wishing for her mother to hate alcohol).
Unlike a lot of movies built around a group of girls, there are few clichés here. As the girls go from the seeming stereotypes mentioned about, to friends and magic users, they begin to find unique voices and it’s easy to feel for them.
The world of the film seems thought out and there are no major plotholes.
When, inevitably, side effects put constraints on the lives of the girls, one decides to continue using magic and the other four – to save their lives – have to stop her.
Setting up the conflict between the girls is a lovely device: Detective Strauss (Paget Brewster, Criminal Minds, The Specials) comes by to talk to the girls about their shopping spree – magic may have persuaded cashiers that they’d already been paid, but security cameras are not so easily deceived.
Detective Strauss’ arc introduces some intriguing history into the mix – and she a very personal connection to the situation (though she and the girls have no idea…).
The Witch Files is a found footage film (I know!), but unlike a lot of movies made to capitalize on the form, it’s an involving story with characters we can care about (and, eventually, not like so much).
It’s fast-paced and effective enough to be worth watching even if you’re not a tween.
Writer/director Kyle Rankin has created a believable world for unbelievable things to happen in – we buy the story because it does have a genuine feel to it.
The effects created for the film’s ultra-low-budget are pretty cool. It still amazes me how much a guy and a computer can do.
Worthy of note: Alice Ziolkoski is the daughter of Valerie Mahaffey (Northern Exposure, Seabiscuit, Sully) – who plays Claire’s mom in the film.
The Witch Files is in select theaters and on DVD.
DVD bonus features include the trailer, a short behind-the-scenes interview with the cast and an audio commentary.
Grade: The Witch Files – B+
Grade: Bonus Features – B+
Final Grade: B+