This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the work of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film discussed here would not exist.Witch stories often revolve around the female experience, but Falling stars turns this concept on its head by presenting a story that focuses on the folly of three brothers who fall victim to a curse that threatens their entire family. In the midst of the Inland Empire, in a world not too dissimilar to our own, Richard Karpala creates a wholly unique piece of folklore, steeped in its own history and carefully constructed over its 80-minute running time.
In Karpala’s world, witches represent a real – yet completely invisible – threat. A threat that plagues the world every year during the first harvest, sweeping unsuspecting men, women and children away and carrying them off into the unknown. The original premise is vaguely reminiscent Shirley Jackson‘s short story “The Lottery,” although the comparison ends there since Jackson’s story had nothing to do with shooting stars or witches’ escape. The concept of an annual supernaturally-tinged harvest in a small, rural community is far from new, but Karpala manages to keep the idea fresh and compelling.
However, Falling stars breaks one of the most important rules of filmmaking and chooses to tell rather than show – in more ways than one. Beyond the corpse at the center of the story, the witches are invisible and their malevolent actions take place off-screen. Luckily for Karpala and his co-director Gabriel Bienczycki, this tactic largely works for them in most cases. The film begins with a clumsy exposition as the eldest brother Mike (Shaun Duke Jr.) entertains his younger brothers Sal (Andreas Gabriel) and Adam (René Leech) with the do’s and don’ts of the harvest and, more importantly, what not to do with a witch’s corpse. Of course, that Bans are a clear signpost of what will happen when they get the bright idea of digging up the body of a witch buried out in the desert. All of this is mostly forgivable considering Karpala’s script is snappy and the shorter running time forces her to act. This is a new world with new stakes and new horrors – and audiences need to be made aware of these details quickly. Just don’t think too hard about why Mike would tell them about these restrictions when they obviously grew up in a world where all of this is normalized and expected.
Despite the long list of reasons why they shouldn’t go out during the first harvest or fool around with a witch’s corpse, the boys pile into their pickup truck and tie up their friend Rob (Greg Poppa) into the plan and embark on the adventure of finding the grave. While they don’t take photos, pee on the corpse, or otherwise disrespect the funeral, youngest brother Adam accidentally spills his beer and desecrates the corpse. It’s the kind of blunder that’s already evident in the opening scene where Adam takes his first sip of beer, but it’s still an intriguing choice since it technically doesn’t break any of the rules Mike detailed. Still, the witches seek revenge on the brothers and their more affable friend, and the price they must pay to reverse the curse is high.
With their new reality weighing heavily on them, the brothers turn to the only person they know has answers for them: their mother, who doesn’t do anything stupid (Diane Worman), which is a source of knowledge about the witches and the first harvest. To break the curse, they must drive back to the burial site and burn the body before dawn quickly approaches, or they must sacrifice someone to the witches. Either way, it seems dangerous and morally questionable. If they venture back into the desert, they could still be kidnapped, preventing them from stopping the curse that extends beyond the three brothers.
Each of the film’s actors are quite talented on their own, but together they sometimes feel like they’re acting out a different version of the film. Duke and Gabriel are both anchored in their performances and more rooted in quiet introspection Falling stars, where Leech resorts to a more dramatic and heightened story that is never fully shown. Although the stakes are high, only Leech seems to be aware of the ever-present danger, which is at odds with the other brothers. While Karpala’s script is tight and fast-paced, the dialogue sometimes feels stilted, and this is never more evident than when the brothers are alone together. They feel more like acquaintances than members of a close-knit family.
The cast is rounded off by the hitchhiker Ouami (Piotr Adamczyk), radio host Barry (J Aaron Boykin) and his assistant Elana (Samantha Tower), all of which are used relatively little due to the film’s short running time. Barry and Elana are Falling stars‘ are the most compelling supporting characters, although they seem more like tools for further exposition than well-rounded characters. Through the radio broadcast, which cuts through the brothers’ adventure to desecrate a grave, the audience learns important details about the harvest, how witches became a part of their society, and how the harvest is discussed in the “mainstream” media. All the while, people are being told to stay indoors because of the strong winds, with no mention of it real That’s why they are forced indoors once a year.
How “Falling Star’s” budget helps and hurts
Despite these flaws, Richard Karpala’s script has moments of pure brilliance where it touches the edges of something truly profound. Falling stars finds its strength above all in its simple fly-by-night style, which is reminiscent of cult classics like The Blair Witch Project, but it’s also hampered by its smaller budget. The world feels painfully small – and while the isolation fuels the psychological power play at play, it ultimately makes it feel like something is missing. Something right on the edge of the camera lens that a larger budget or production might have explored. As it stands, Falling stars is a very compelling and beautifully simplified film that recognizes its limitations and doesn’t try to go beyond them. It could easily be a proof of concept for something bigger; Something that delves deeper into the lore that Karpala has created and explores the aspects that leave audiences wanting more.
For horror fans who prefer a more subtle and nuanced type of horror that borders on the edge of psychological horror, the lo-fi griminess of Falling stars will certainly appeal to them, even if the result may leave them with more questions than answers. There’s a suddenness in the final moments of Falling stars, one that feels almost unfinished. But its abruptness fits well with the lore of witches kidnapping victims during the harvest – they come quickly, for no reason, and steal people just as quickly as the credits reach the audience.
The big picture
- Falling stars is a unique witch story that subverts traditional narratives by focusing on the folly of three brothers who become cursed.
- The film effectively creates the feeling of an invisible threat from witches preying on the community during the first harvest.
- Although the film’s budget limits its scope, Falling stars shows moments of brilliance and could serve as a compelling proof of concept for a broader exploration of its story.
Falling stars will be shown at Fantastic Fest 2023.