1 of 5 | From left, Rene Leech, Andrew Gabriel, Shaun Duke, Jr. and Greg Poppa star in "Falling Stars." Photo courtesy of Raven Banner and XYZ Films
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- Minimalism can work wonders in horror because no special effect is scarier than the imagination. The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity capitalized on what wasn't seen, but Falling Stars, which screened at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, does it without the gimmick of videotaped footage.
In a modern world where witches exist, a town prepares for the harvest on Oct. 15. Mike (Shaun Duke, Jr.), Sal (Andrew Gabriel) and Adam (Rene Leech) are missing one ingredient of their witch repelling ritual.
They visit Rob (Greg Poppa) to borrow the missing ingredient, but Rob offers to show them a dead witch he found. Even a dead witch curses the four men leading to a panicked night trying to break the curse.
Falling Stars establishes a solid world in which witches are a common annual occurrence. They say witches look like falling stars to the observer.
The characters casually discuss witches and the procedures for dealing with them because they are used to it. It's not extraordinary. It's like prepping for hurricane season.
Witches are so mundane that it gives the main characters a false sense of security. They think they can handle seeing a dead witch as long as they follow the rules.
That means they also know when they've gone too far and stepped in it. The only witch Falling Stars ever shows on screen is the dead one, but the panic the actors portray sells the horror without showing any creatures.
The guys try to dig themselves out of their hole but realize every step of the way that nothing and no one can bail them out. As their anxiety ramps up, they even contemplate more horrifying decisions to save themselves.
Even when the witches finally attack, they're so quick the viewer doesn't get to see them. That conveys how overwhelming it is for victims who don't even know what's coming.
Writer Richard Karpala and co-directors Karpala and Gabriel Bienczycki create a palpable tone of dread that escalates for 80 minutes including credits. It never feels like a ripoff because this is better than any monster they could have shown.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.