There’s an old adage that states you can never truly go home again. It insinuates that nothing stays the same, and trying to return to what your memories hold is futile. The Australian-made Witches of Blackwood (previously titled The Unlit) dives deep to explore this notion, all against an eerie, gothic backdrop.
Recently put on leave after an incident dealing with the suicide of a young man (Nicholas Denton), police officer Claire Nash (Cassandra McGrath) is haunted by the event, and floundering to once again find her place. A phone call from her Uncle Cliff (John Voce) about the sudden death of her Father sends her immediately packing to return to her home of Blackwood; a small, wooded Australian township oddly reminiscent of areas of the Deep South of the U.S.
Once there, the tone of Blackwood, and of the film itself, is immediately set into place. The town appears desolate and forgotten, and it’s clear that Claire, who now hails from a much more urban setting, is very much out of place. All the men and children have inexplicably disappeared, leaving only the sullen, dead-eyed resident women wandering the streets like zombified versions of their past selves.
The exact details of her Father’s death are fuzzy at best, though her Uncle Cliff tries to patiently give her as much information as he can upon their first meeting. Still, it’s evident that this isn’t the only mystery plaguing the town – something that sets off Claire’s investigative nature.
It’s not long before she begins to piece together the puzzle of not only what has happened in the town, but also what involvement her own family has in all of it; something that until this point was completely unbeknownst to her. Through flashbacks, we also get a sense for her childhood growing up in Blackwood, and for the relationship she had with both parents, which become important plot points. While all this unfolds, we get enough scenes of well-timed creepy visions for this to fit squarely in the horror genre.
A high point for Witches of Blackwood is the performance of McGrath, who takes precision in playing a woman navigating through multiple traumas. Her reactions are both believable and authentic, which allows us to connect with her on a more human level.
Witches of Blackwood is very much a slow burn, but it doesn’t feel that way. Scenes are woven in a way that feels natural without being predictable. There isn’t much of a score to add to the mood; instead, the movie relies on camera work to linger just long enough on certain scenes to cloak the viewer with an unsettled feeling of not knowing what to expect next. There are moments of interaction between Claire and the ashen, soulless women of the town that are both disconcerting and fascinating, making it hard to keep your eyes off the screen. It’s worth noting though that as a whole, it could have benefitted with another 20 minutes or so of plot development as the ending does feel rushed.
The concept of a small town plagued by mysterious forces is hardly a new one, but Witches of Blackwood manages to find a way to tell an intriguing, somber tale amidst a unique setting. It’s a solid entry in the relatively rare folk-horror genre that will haunt audiences and leave them nervously looking over their shoulders.
8 out of 10