Studio: Dark Sky Films
Director: David Keating
Writer: Brendan McCarthy
Producer: John McDonnell, Brendan McCarthy
Stars: Anna Walton, Naomi Battrick, Sam Hazeldine, Elva Trill, Patrick Gibson, Caroline Murphy, Caoilfhionn McDonnell, Leah McNamara, Minnie Phipps, Valerie O’Connor
To save her dying father, a teenage girl becomes involved in a witch coven’s conspiracy to birth Satan’s child.
NOTE: "Cherry Tree" was retitled "The Devil's Sorceress" for Redbox rentals in the U.S.
Faith Maguire is facing the usual trials and tribulations of a 15-year-old girl. Her attraction to classmate Brian is complicated by best friend Amy crushing on the same boy. A prime spot on the school’s field hockey squad is routinely spoiled by catty confrontations with senior teammates Caroline and Jennifer. Then there is the more serious matter of her single father Sean’s losing battle with leukemia leaving him with only a few months to live.
Head hockey coach Sissy has an unorthodox remedy for that last problem. With a sudden jump in pacing that is either alarmingly abrupt or a welcome relief from the slow seduction usually accompanying such setups, Sissy brings Faith to an underground chamber, reveals herself to be a witch, kills a chicken, and then brings the fowl back to life using a demonically possessed centipede. How’s that for cutting to the chase?
Sissy claims she can do something similar to save Faith’s father, provided Faith agrees to bear a child for her first. Faith carefully considers the proposition over the course of a minute-long montage and agrees. What she doesn’t yet know is that the spawn in her stomach is to be sired by Satan himself.
Appreciation may be in order for “Cherry Tree” dispensing with predictable pleasantries by getting its coven curse conspiracy up and running in short order. On the other hand, sometimes one prefers the courtesy of being taken out on a date before getting in the mood.
“Cherry Tree” is fit to burst with many such “how should I process this?” elements, not the least of which is getting comfortable with the core concept of Satan impregnating a virgin on her sixteenth birthday. Actresses appear naked or nearly nude in simulated sex and community shower scenes, yet their characters are as young as 15. Does the movie intend to titillate or does it understand the deep discomfort inspired by sexualizing girls not yet old enough to drive?
Subtlety is not the movie’s strongest suit. Production design has a creative edge that is visually intriguing while simultaneously garish in its overly cinematic brazenness. Director David Keating is obsessed with cutting to close-ups of crawling centipedes, even when they are not directly relevant to current onscreen events. Blinking blue lights appear during a coven ritual with no motivation other than amplifying ambiance. And aside from an unnecessary use as a temporary disguise later down the line, the witches have no practical use for wearing stylized burlap hoods other than to look creepy for the camera.
Considering the conflicting impressions “Cherry Tree” leaves regarding whether it does a terrifyingly terrific job or a terrifically terrible one, it is little wonder why many written reactions received the film unfavorably following its festival circuit debut. “Cherry Tree” is scattered in style, often unclear in tone, and always bizarre in both conception and construction. Depending on personal preference, all of the above ambiguity adds up to either fascination or frustration.
Though the film has capacity to come across strong in purpose, everything working in its favor buckles tremendously under the weight of contrived third act silliness. More than one moment begs the question of if the filmmakers ran out of time, ideas, interest, or all three. One scene of particular Adam West “Batman” villainy sees someone caught in a time-delayed trap, but the person who set it can’t spare three minutes for sticking around to ensure the outcome. The final shot is such an eye-roller that it practically demands any on the fence opinion to simply conclude “Cherry Tree” is worth hating.
Except it isn’t. “Cherry Tree” regularly progresses its plotline with difficult to believe clumsiness, but the film respects itself enough for none of the nonsense to play as campy. Despite the not necessarily favorable notes above, there is a ring of enchantment around how unusual the film is that keeps eyes fixed on the screen at all times.
Perhaps what makes “Cherry Tree” so interesting is how its murky execution is able to inexplicably inspire allure as often as it does confusion. Whether it is admiring the performance of Naomi Battrick as Faith, or contemplating how much Anna Walton resembles “Inside” actress Beatrice Dalle (review here), there is always something wonderfully weird occurring within the film as well as without to keep imaginations engaged through mysterious means. Whatever that x-factor quality is, “Cherry Tree” has it, and it counts for more points than combined strikes from questionable quirks.
Review Score: 65