Witchcraft captures an obscure subgenre of horror that’s rarely represented through similar methods (look at such varying titles as All Cheerleaders Die/The Witch/Lords Of Salem). Halloween imagery always includes green-faced, cackling witches, broomsticks and all, but films tend to focus more on their cultish behavior.
Ireland’s latest genre effort, Cherry Tree, is another such film about dark magic and satanic worship, yet even with Clive-Barker-inspired visuals, these deceiving looks are hollow to the core. It’s as terrifying as something like The Moth Diaries or Embrace Of The Vampire, which of course means there’s no terror at all – just centipedes, witches, and a fixation on cherries that’ll have your empty tummy rumbling in dissatisfaction.
Naomi Battrick stars as Faith, a misunderstood loner who struggles with her social status. Matters only worsen when she learns that her already ailing father, Sean (Sam Hazeldine), has received a bad bill of health that threatens his life. Upon hearing the news, Faith’s field hockey coach, Sissy (Anna Walton), offers to cure Sean’s illness – for a price. As long as Faith births a baby for her, Sissy ensures that Sean’s health will be completely returned by methods she won’t yet divulge. Faith agrees, wanting only to save her father, but when the baby starts growing at an aggressive rate, she begins to question her decision. Yet this is after she’s impregnated by a demon, forced to watch a ritualistic sacrifice, and learns the truth about her town’s dark secrets…
Yes, Cherry Tree is a silly movie that genuinely wants to have fun (I think), but director David Keating can’t quite tie a hodgepodge of visuals together in any spooky way. Some scenes are extremely bloody, whether flesh is being torn, or heads are being lopped off, while other moments reach for sentiments more akin to Young Adult material. It’s the kind of movie where you’d expect Winona Ryder to show up as the zany, comical Aunt, since the only remote scare materializes in the form of a much-expected jump. The entire film comes across as a tonal miscue, struggling to find an identity beyond creepy-crawlies and stretched flesh.
The other unfortunate thing here is a renegade script by Brendan McCarthy that boasts no rhyme or reason. Playing along with Celtic mythology, Sissy carries out satanic acts under the roots of a cherry tree. She can resurrect beings by spilling their blood over a bowl of fresh cherries, which are eaten before a swarm of vicious centipedes gnaw their way into the newly-primped corpse. Once the insects crawl around and exit their momentary shelter, the corpse jumps back to life, good as new. It’s all horrifically swell, except for McCarthy’s choice to explain little-to-no aspect of the plot before Faith tries to birth Satan’s son, which is a plan that’s foiled by rules that are (once again) glossed over with little care. Cherry Tree is certainly dark and twisted, but wonky, slapdash explanations offer zero support.
Naomi Battrick offers a suitable leading performance, but her character Faith is right proper shite. She’s the one who agrees to Sissy’s terms, granting her father life, yet halfway through her 7 week pregnancy, she decides to have a change of heart? Her only focus is her father, yet she’s ready to throw him away for a baby at the age of fifteen. Not to mention how she gets everyone killed by blabbing her secret, which is, like, the only rules she’s given! It’s as if Faith is surprised by Sissy’s treacherous nature, EVEN AFTER WATCHING HER KILL AND THEN RESURRECT A CAT. Faith’s motivations are all over the place, and grief isn’t a strong enough excuse to explain her constantly flipping convictions.
I have no doubt that Cherry Tree looks gorgeous on some storyboards, particularly the underground dwelling littered with barbed roots, but McCarthy’s story is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Faith’s actions are only meant to fit convenient plot devices, much like the presences of Sissy’s nibbling centipedes. Gore is as prevalent as bitchy high school stereotypes, and even though we get a comical glimpse of demons boning, this cultish nightmare fails to bewitch any eyes. It’s short, sugary sweet, but not cohesive enough to make use of witches and creepy settings – like a horror flick that skips over all the boring (yet necessary) details. And don’t tell me those few opening title cards provide enough backstory…
Cherry Tree is a story of witchcraft that's stuck on fast-forward as it zooms ahead with a disappointing attention to plotting (in favor of gore and centipedes).