Fantastic Fest 2023: Falling Stars Showcases the Power of Indie Filmmaking

Image provided by XYZ Films

One of my favorite things about witch movies is that they can be just about anything. In fact, as I write this, I’m staring straight at the witch section of my Blu-ray collection, and every single film in it is unique. To take just a couple of examples, Night of the Eagle is completely different from The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and both of those movies are miles apart from The Witch. When it comes to witches, there are pretty much no rules, so when you sit down to watch one of these films, you never know what you’re in for. And that’s what intrigued me so much about Falling Stars. It promised to put a completely new spin on this time-honored horror staple, and as a fan of the witch subgenre, I couldn’t wait to see it.

Falling Stars is the feature directorial debut of Richard Karpala and Gabriel Bienczycki, and it stars Rene Leech, Greg Poppa, J. Aaron Boykin, Diane Worman, Andrew Gabriel, and Shaun Duke Jr. In this world, witches apparently live up in the sky, and every year in October, they descend to earth for something called ‘the harvest’. This event takes place over several nights, and when people see the witches falling, they look like shooting stars (hence the movie’s name). On paper, that might sound really pretty, but the harvest also has a dark side. See, these witches come to earth to harvest people, and if they find anybody outdoors without protection, they snatch them up.

One day, three brothers named Adam, Sal, and Mike find themselves sitting outside and talking about witches on the first night of the harvest, and Mike says that his friend Rob saw one of these creatures the previous year. In fact, Rob actually shot the thing and killed it, and he buried it in the middle of the desert. Unsurprisingly, the three brothers decide that they just have to see this dead witch, so they go to Rob’s home and ask him to show them where he buried it. He obliges, and when one of them accidentally desecrates the corpse, he puts all their lives in imminent danger.

People standing in weird circles
Image provided by XYZ Films

I’m not going to lie, the first 20-25 minutes or so of Falling Stars aren’t great. Granted, this part of the film is by no means bad, but it didn’t grab me the way I wanted it to. It’s mostly just the three siblings sitting around and talking, and while they’re decent lead characters, they’re not terribly charming. I cared enough about them that I was willing to stick with them to see where their story would go, but I wouldn’t quite say that I enjoyed spending this time with them.

It’s borderline boring, but once the brothers find Rob and dig up the dead witch, the movie finally makes good on the promise of its premise. For starters, the corpse looks fantastic. Since this thing has been buried for a year, it’s almost mummified, and if I didn’t know any better, I would’ve guessed that the filmmakers found a real dead witch to use as a prop. It looks that realistic, so the minute I laid eyes on it, I was all in.

Then, when one of the characters accidentally desecrates the corpse, Falling Stars gets even better. It immediately becomes saturated with a sense of impending dread, and that feeling is so pervasive it’s almost palpable. The directors do a great job of making you feel just how screwed these guys are, so you can’t help but worry about them. You genuinely want them to make it out of this predicament alive, but you know that’s probably not going to happen, at least not for all of them.

What’s more, this part of the film also makes you wonder what the witches are going to do to the main characters, and that uncertainty had me on the edge of my seat. See, Falling Stars doesn’t reveal much about these monsters, so you don’t know what they’re capable of. Will they quickly fly down from the sky and violently attack Rob and his friends, or are they going to employ subtler, more The Blair Witch Project-esque methods? You simply have no idea, and as usual, not knowing is the scariest thing of all.

People in the desert at night
Image provided by XYZ Films

On top of all that, I also have to give special mention to one of the side characters. The three brothers’ mother is played by Diane Worman, and in my opinion, she gives the best performance in this movie. She doesn’t get much screen time, but she makes the most of her few minutes in the limelight. In particular, there’s a point in the story where she gives a monologue to her sons, and it’s quite possibly my favorite scene in the entire film. To be fair, I’m a huge fan of monologues, so your mileage may vary. But even if you’re not a monologue maniac like me, it’s hard to deny that she gives an absolute powerhouse performance here.

Last but not least, we have to talk a bit about the ending of Falling Stars. I’m obviously not going to spoil anything, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give the directors (one of whom, Gabriel Bienczycki, is also the cinematographer) props for crafting an amazing final scene without the use of fancy special effects. Instead, it’s all about crafty camerawork and editing, and they manage to create a finale that’s so riveting you might not even notice the budgetary restraints.

If you couldn’t guess, I had a really good time with Falling Stars. It’s a great new take on a time-honored horror staple, and it features some of the best minimalist horror I’ve seen all year. I don’t know when or where it’ll be showing again, but if you get the chance to see it at another festival or after it’s released, I highly recommend that you do.

Falling Stars had its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 22, and it’ll be playing again at the festival on September 26.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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