The curse of the Irish horror movie continues with Cherry Tree, a movie that was demonstrably filmed on the Emerald Isle but that inexplicably relocates the action to the UK. And almost everybody’s accent follows suit.
Our hero is Faith (Naomi Battrick), a teenage girl reeling from the news that her beloved father has cancer when she stumbles upon an ancient coven of witches, led by her hockey coach (Elva Trill), who promise to cure him if she carries a baby for them.
Naturally, she’s carrying the seed of Satan and it’s soon a race against the clock to give birth far away from the evil cherry tree of the title, lest her only begotten son be sacrificed to the dark lord before the big game or the 666th day or something.
The symbolism in Cherry Tree is so heavy-handed and obvious, it’s laughable. Many, juicy cherries are devoured, centipedes crawl all over everything and Trill’s coach/coven leader lurks in the background so often she gives Michael Myers a run for his money.
Everything is so ludicrously ham-fisted and silly that, if there was any shred of humour to it, Cherry Tree might have been guilty-pleasure fun. Unfortunately, it takes itself way, way, way too seriously. Every line is delivered with a withering glare, every shot darkened to suggest gathering storm clouds, every scare signalled by a loud crash, bang, wallop.It’s a real shame because the performances are mostly fine; Battrick does a decent job as the tortured lead; Peaky Blinders star Sam Hazeldine is a warm screen presence amid all the pessimism; and likewise newcomer Minnie Phipps is likeable enough as Faith’s confused best friend.
Elva Trill’s head witch, on the other hand, is a masterclass in over-acting. Nothing she does or says is believable, particularly when everything is turned up to eleven as she stalks Faith in her own bloody house.
At one point, she gives an impassioned speech about becoming “the queen of the underworld”. Queen Of The Damned was less campy, and Aaliyah’s performance in that role more understated, than this. She’s saved by some nifty prosthetics in the final act, but is otherwise annoyingly hammy as a villain–even more so as a femme fatale for Faith’s father.
The blame doesn’t hang entirely on Trill’s shoulders, however. A certain amount must be attributed to John Walsh’s overbearing score, which undercuts the movie’s nicer, quieter moments, Brendan McCarthy’s lazy, exposition-filled script and David Keating’s flat directing.
McCarthy and Keating previously joined forces on another rubbish Irish horror movie, Wake Wood, but at least that film attempted to do something new with the formula. Cherry Tree is like Rosemary’s Baby microwaved to boiling point and then stuck back in the oven for good measure.
Part of the problem is that it isn’t sure what kind of film it wants to be. It kicks off in energetic, bloody fashion with a gory sacrifice, before delving into typical teenage drama territory and then veering wildly off course into demon worship. There are a couple of needlessly nasty deaths that seem totally out of place, and the final jump scare is embarrassingly ill-advised.
Lengthy sequences of exposition towards the end are rattled off like video game instructions, and nobody behaves the way normal human beings do. Add to this the repetitive imagery of centipedes burrowing into skin (unsuccessfully captured using what looks to be Vaseline), juicy cherries being chomped, the red liquid oozing like blood down puckered lips, and a whole lot of glaring and Cherry Tree quickly dissolves into a muddled mess that isn’t saying much of anything, and absolutely isn’t scary.
Hellions, which also screened at Frightfest, utilises many of the same elements but in a much more accessible, interesting way. That movie actually has something to say, it has a pulse and a sense of purpose. This movie wants to distract us with weird sex scenes and boobies and centipedes and loud noises whenever something dark is about to go down, so we won’t notice there’s nothing beneath its glossy surface.
McCarthy, who wrote and co-produced Cherry Tree, previously held a position at Bord Scannán na hÉireann (the Irish Film Board). This may go some way towards explaining how he keeps managing to get films made. Considering there’s a wealth of talent available at home (The Hallow, an Irish-British co-production that also showed at Frightfest, and which was filmed in the west of Ireland, is a notable example) it’s disappointing that this is the best we can, supposedly, do.
A dreadful, hugely disappointing festival opener that made me as embarrassed to be Irish as the filmmakers supposedly were, considering they didn’t even bother to remove the car registration plates, giving away where it was filmed. Cherry Tree plays a bit like a Lifetime movie warning against the danger of witches, except it’s not nearly as much fun as that description suggests.
WICKED RATING: 2/10
Director(s): David Keating
Writer(s): Brendan Mc Carthy
Stars: Naomi Battrick, Patrick Gibson, Sam Hazeldine, Elva Trill
Studio/ Production Co: Irish Film Board
Length: 85 minutes
Sub-Genre: Demonic, witchcraft, evil trees