Witches are one of the first true staples of horror. Almost everyone’s favorite story has a witch. Whether it’s The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, King Arthur, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales, there’s a witch. Most of the time, witches are the villains, stemming from age old Puritan fears. But as an icon, the witch has never died in popularity, aided by the rise of modern-day Wicca in 1954.
As a figure who surpasses genre and has become a pop culture staple, we get a return to horror for the witch every couple of years. These films are not necessarily mainstream, they are usual festival darlings that achieve success through word of mouth and review. It’s a lot more fitting this way, as the witch always lives on the fringes of society and those who are daring must seek them out. With social media usage higher than it’s ever been finding the witch is a lot easier, with the trending hashtag #WitchesofInstagram, one of social media’s darker most trending sub-cultures. There’s a flooding network of interest in Wicca and Witchcraft alike. That interest, and divide, form the basis for the 2020 short film, The Witches of Bushwick.
The film follows a handful of witches attending a weekend retreat in order to initiate a new member into the coven. Along with that, they can promote themselves as influencers for social media. The smartphone is the modern cauldron and crystal ball. As far as our coven goes, we have Mother Anika (Chloe Farnworth), who is the head of the retreat, Renn (Marianne Noscheze), a wannabe social media personality, who is ready to sell out her image for diet pills, Soraya (Alina Carson), who sells crystals (it’s also hinted she comes from money), and Luna (Charly Bivona), the punk rock one who loves The Craft (she’s my favorite). Lastly, there’s our protagonist and initiate audience stand-in, Margaret, played by writer-director Catherine Delaloye. I think you can probably see where this is going, but we’ll come back to that.
On a production stand-point, Delaloye and her co-director, Joe Pardavila (who also cameos as the van driver) show real technical skill behind the camera. It’s impressive to note that the film features a most inclusive cast and crew (over 80% female). An outlier being their cinematographer, Joel Crane who provides a real timeless, A24 production feel to the film. This looks like it was shot on real film. Couple that with impressive use of drone footage, which lends a hypnotic sense when establishing the location. Honestly, if you take out the phones, this could pass for a 70's period piece, with the Volkswagen van and old school interior design of the house. I like the anachronism of the phones though; it deliberately feels out of place. Despite some rough edits during early dialogue exchanges, The Witches of Bushwick builds and never loses tension. This is a big achievement for a short film that runs almost twenty minutes in length. A lot of that credit can be given to the film’s impressive score, courtesy of Daniele Panza, going from serene and calming to morbidly foreboding at the drop of a hat. It has that inviting retro synth feel that horror fans love. The music is even able to score some levity at the halfway point.
Picking back up in the plot, the coven gives Margaret her initiation. Pretty simple by horror standards, they blindfold her and leave her in the middle of the woods to find her way back to the bonfire. Once she’s gone, the coven is immediately struck with bad juju and no cell reception. Each member is quickly picked off by supernatural forces, because, you guessed it, Margaret is a real witch, casting judgement on those using the image of witchcraft for cheap fame and fulfillment. Here is where I find fault in the story. This is a twist you can see a mile away. Margaret all but calls out members of the coven for their views twice before the initiation scene. Delaloye seems too confident early on to make us believe for a second that she’s just beginning to practice Wicca. With that said, one of the best scenes in the film is where Margaret converses with Mother Anika, who tells her how lost she was before she found this new path. Both Margaret and the audience are ready to believe her intentions with the craft, but Anika immediately reveals it’s all a facade and how she relies on her online presence to feel superior.
Only one member of the coven survives and the film ends, 70's movie style, with Luna walking down the road. Margaret pulls up in the Volkswagen and the two drive off, leaving Luna’s fate ambiguous. This could potentially be the start of another film in itself. I feel maybe the focus was on the wrong character, and this is the beginning of Luna’s story. The survivor of a group of fake witches is selected by a true Mother Superior (potentially hundreds of years old) to take her place in a real coven. The material is there and I definitely want to see more. Where do I sign in blood for this contract?
The Witches of Bushwick is a flawed but thoroughly enjoyable passion project. You can definitely see that this is a topic Delaloye can articulate well and is trying to send a message with. She shows talent both in front of and behind the camera, and is able to balance both, which any first-time filmmaker quickly learns is no easy feat. Delaloye has made an effective short that’s worth sitting down for, and I think we’ll be seeing more of her as her craft grows.
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