Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Return to Witch Graveyard (2014)

Directed by:
Reuben Rox

This is a sequel to Witch Graveyard (2013) in name only and with no plot connections to the previous film aside from the fact it's partially set in a graveyard, involves long-dead witches striking back from beyond the grave and was made by and stars most of the same people (all playing different roles here). Jonathan (director / writer / producer / cinematographer / nearly everything else Rox), host of the TV show Late Nights with Jonathan, is doing a series of supernatural stories for a "13 Days of Halloween" series. This brings him, model-turned- reporter Noelle Martin (Catherine Franklin) and Noelle's assistant / camera girl Maya (Rachel Wise) to the Eternal Peace Cemetery. Rumor has it the plot of land the cemetery rests on is cursed because the remains of thirteen women accused of witchcraft and burned to death are buried there. There have been many disappearances there over the years and legends claim you can hear both the trees whispering your name at night and the voice of a woman calling out for help. Answering those calls may lead to your own doom. And you certainly don't want to desecrate or muck up the pristine cemetery grounds either, as we will later discover...

Jonathan, Maya and Noelle first venture out to the cemetery to meet up with Lance (Alex Williams), whose sister had disappeared there. After they leave, Alex has a fatal run-in with some animated tree limbs that poke his eyeballs out. A mysterious woman named Mae (Shonda Cannon) next shows up at the TV station claiming to be the descendant of Mary Young, a woman also buried in an unmarked grave at Eternal Peace after being executed in 1670 for her pagan beliefs. The two ladies from the TV station accompany Mae to the cemetery (a long twenty minute walk through the woods) the following day, become trapped / lost there and are hunted down and killed off by a mysterious hooded figure with a skeleton hand whose face is never shown. Jonathan, his friend Michael (Randy Robinson) and a hiker (Nathaniel Quinn) all end up there as well for more of the same.

Like nearly all other micro-budget regional films, one has to be willing to forgive some jagged editing, fluctuations in sound level, uneven acting, awkward dialogue deliveries and other technical glitches (there's even a visible shadow of the camera operator seen several times), to get any real enjoyment out of it. That said, this is a marked improvement over the first film. It moves at a faster pace, there's just enough plot, some of the more surreal elements work, the Oregon shooting locations are excellent and the photography and music are both decent enough. Much time is spent with the various characters walking or running around in the woods, though the very best scene - a series of shots following the three ladies as they venture deeper into the woods toward the old cemetery - also involves nothing but walking but is a good example of building tension and establishing mood within the most meager of means.

The material is also elevated a bit by some bizarre and expected things that happen along the way. Weird trinkets are found hanging in the trees, a missing camera keeps appearing everywhere, a murderous man wearing overalls (whose face is also never seen) lurks around, a ball rolls at one of the girls' feet and she stumbles upon a bunch of teddy bears sitting at the foot of trees, one of which cries blood, etc. In addition, there's a elevated amount of bloodshed and gore (fingers and ears are cut off, a heart is cut out, lots of blood spurts from off-camera); something mostly missing from the first film. Editing in the more action-oriented scenes is a bit haphazard (things seem to cut away too abruptly), some of the scene transitions are pretty rough and there's not much of an ending, though. The film is really at its best with the more quiet, low key moments that make good use of the setting.

Part of the true appeal of super-low-budget films, where technical proficiency is seldom if ever achieved, is their willingness to do things and take creative chances that their big budget Hollywood counterparts do not. While these things don't always work, they're often interesting to see and this delivers enough of those moments to make it worth a look for fans of these kind of films. The end credits feature outtakes.


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