Falling Stars: creepy, low-budget horror conjures the season of the witch

Three brothers go in search of a witch’s corpse during a ritual community harvest in a slow-burn horror that shows just how quickly the weird and the Wiccan can become the new normal.

15 August 2023

By John Bleasdale

Falling Stars (2023)
Sight and Sound
  •  Reviewed at the 2023 Locarno Film Festival.

There’s a touch of Shirley Jackson in Gabriel Bienczycki and Richard Karpala’s low budget, lo-fi mumblecore horror film Falling Stars. Just as in Jackson’s infamous New Yorker story The Lottery, so here an event of seeming normality is about to happen, while a creeping sense of uncertain doom grows. In this case it is the “harvest”; a season of the witch, when people leave out the nuts and berries to placate the witches who otherwise have a nasty habit of sweeping down, like the falling stars of the title, to take whomever they wish. A radio host keeps the lines open for the local cranks and refers to winds and weather when the actual forecast seems to be for sudden disappearances. 

Three brothers on the cusp of manhood – Mike (Shaun Duke Jr), Sal (Andrew Gabriel) and Adam (Rene Leech) – decide on a risky excursion through the desert night to see the body of a dead witch. Mike, as the oldest and savviest, gives the warnings of what mustn’t be done, which, as an audience, we know will be done. Don’t take photographs; don’t take a memento for a charm and don’t piss on them. That last one feels like a head scratcher but also hints at the reluctant respect that must be paid. Their friend Rob (Greg Poppa) comes along with his beer, leaving behind his wife and infant child. Sure enough spilled beer touches the witch’s body and, though the letter of the law hasn’t been broken, dire consequences begin to take place. The boy’s mother (a creepily unsympathetic Diane Worman) demands Mike return to the desert and burn the body before dawn: the only way of lifting the curse. 

The closest cinematic predecessor is Andrew Paterson’s The Vast of Night (2019), but if anything Falling Stars is slower burn and lower fi. The story and the world around is told more than shown – not necessarily a bad thing when the script by Karpala is cunningly oblique and well-paced – and it manages to convey the sense of how the weird and Wiccan can become the new normal as easily as pandemics and terrorism have become. The bigger questions remain the same: what to do with your life? Leave or stay? 

Although terrible things happen, they happen off screen and quickly (and no doubt cheaply) but the effect is disconcerting and integral to the story. Falling Stars’s limitations are not really budgetary so much as conceptual. The sexual politics and misogyny of witchery goes largely unaddressed and unspoken – an aspect of the film where a more powerful spell could have profitably been cast.