Fantastic Fest Review: Falling Stars

Witchcraft in the desert as a chillingly minimalist road trip

Are there really witches falling from the sky on October 15th? Doesn't matter. They're real enough to the residents of a small town in Northern California who think they're real – real enough to build fairy rings as hunting traps, and to lay down valerian root to ward off evil like they'd hang cougar piss to scare off foxes.

They're real to brothers Mike (Shaun Duke Jr.), Sal (Andrew Gabriel), and Adam (Rene Leech), who grew up knowing about the Harvest, when witches snatch victims into the heavens. Real enough that they believe – wait, know – that their buddy Rob (Greg Poppa) popped one out of the sky like a quail and buried it out in Joshua Tree. And so they hop in their beaten-up pickup, grab a shovel, and head into the desert to dig it up.

The feature directorial debut from Gabriel Bienczycki and Richard Karpala (pulling double duty as cinematographer and writer, respectively), Falling Stars is rooted in fascinating soil. What if the superstitions of the colonial settlers survived, and thrived in trailer parks and rural communities? Karpala has an ear for the blue-collar cadence of guys hanging, so their conversations about the supernatural seem as natural as talking about making ends meet. Their witchcraft pop quiz on the way to the grave shows that they paid attention in school, but there's a creeping feeling that there's been a lot of filling in of blanks – a sensation reinforced by occasional seemingly disconnected cutaways to J. Aaron Boykin as Barry, the local Art Bell-esque call-in late-night DJ, who spends his bleary-eyed graveyard shifts winnowing away all the nutjobs to get to something like the truth.

In the same way, Falling Stars slowly reveals itself as a black magic kin to period alien abduction gem and Fantastic Fest fave The Vast of Night – in tone, in slow terror, even down to a show-stopping monologue (delivered by Gail Cronauer in Andrew Patterson's alien scare cult classic, and here by Diane Worman as the brother's mother). But most importantly, both films embrace their low-budget production values as minimalism, and Falling Stars becomes more unnerving due to Karpala's eerie, deliberate edit. There are no big effects sequences – just shots of an empty sky that might be stalked by flying witches – and it's those voids that Falling Stars lets bubble with malice and fear.

Falling Stars

Fantastic Fest screening
Tue., Sept. 26, 11:15am

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