Writing about Larry Fessenden’s new film Blackout, recently screened as part of the Fantasia Film Festival, we commented on its “shaggy structure” and noted that the “hand-made, rough-around-the-edges qualities are surely features, not bugs.” Much the same could be said of Gabriel Bienczycki and Richard Karpala’s debut feature-length film, Falling Stars. An obvious low-budget labor of love — the duo are credited as co-directors and producers, with Karpala also serving as writer and editor while Bienczycki acts as cinematographer — Falling Stars conjures an intoxicating atmosphere of creeping dread even as its screenplay leaves something to be desired. The film’s most intriguing concept is imagining a world where witches are real, even commonplace — the movie begins with a brief prologue as newscasters report on the upcoming annual “harvest” as if it’s an approaching storm system, while local DJ Barry (J. Aaron Boykin) takes calls from people sharing stories of their various encounters with these supernatural beings. In this scenario, witches live in the sky, coming down to Earth only to snatch up humans for food. The witches are referred to as “falling stars,” and are visualized as specks of light flitting through the air (they are so fast, we are told, that no one ever actually sees them).
The exposition is a bit ungainly, but we are then quickly introduced to a group of men hanging out around a campfire and knocking back beers. Eldest brother Mike (Shaun Duke Jr.) and best friend Rob (Greg Poppa) want to go see the body of a dead witch. Rob swears that he shot one out of the sky, and since none of them have ever seen a witch up close, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. They have to convince Mike’s younger brothers Sal (Andrew Gabriel) and Adam (Rene Leech) to make the drive with them; Adam in particular is hesitant, fearful of getting too close to such a creature. But the men make the journey and do indeed see the gnarled, desiccated remains of a witch. Mike explains some ground rules to his brothers; you can’t look at it for more than a few minutes, lest an overpowering urge to remain with the witch takes over. You can’t take pictures of it, remove any parts or relics from it, and you can’t desecrate the body. Of course, Adam almost immediately spills some beer on the body, instantly unleashing a curse. Rob is grabbed, and when the brothers go to give Rob’s wife the bad news, they discover that she too has disappeared, leaving their infant alone. The remainder of the film follows the brothers as they struggle to care for Rob’s now-orphaned daughter while figuring out how to lift the curse. Their first stop is to visit their mother, Danni (Diane Worman), an off-putting woman who nonetheless seems happy to take care of the child. It’s a long sequence that also allows Worman to deliver an odd monologue about a past encounter with a witch, ending with an ominous warning to her sons: burn the witch’s body or the curse will take their entire family. This is followed by a curious pivot where we return to the DJ as he debates whether or not to take a call from a despondent Mike, who is unsure if he should really do what his mother is demanding.
Shot on location in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, Falling Stars has a rambling, amiable charm to it, as if the wide-open spaces and barren vistas of the desert have seeped into the narrative itself. The film isn’t particularly successful as drama; the actors aren’t very believable as a close-knit family, much of the world-building is inelegant — in a world where everyone knows that witches are real, why wouldn’t adults already know the rules about encountering one? — and the last act inside the radio station dissipates much of the accumulated dread. Still, the filmmakers possess a distinct sensibility of sorts, and that goes a long way. It’s also an often visually beautiful movie; Bienczycki is an extremely talented cinematographer, utilizing drone takes to survey the vast landscape and long, winding roads, and filming nighttime scenes only via single light sources, like a flashlight or a car’s headlamps. Interiors are rendered with that specific kind of soft, hazy texture that digital does so well, creating a strong dichotomy between safe, cozy indoor spaces and the dark chiaroscuro of the outside world and its various dangers. The final product is ultimately all a bit clunky, but there’s a charming handmade quality to the proceedings that helps to smooth over some of the regrettable bumps. These filmmakers are clearly talented, and this uneven debut outing shouldn’t discourage viewers from keeping an eye out for whatever they get up to next.
Published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2023 — Dispatch 1.