Ryan Murphy (Glee, Nip/Tuck, Eat Pray Love, et al.)—purveyor of cotton candy tinged television shows that dive headlong into the zeitgeist of current popular culture—reached the apex of his Ryan Murphy-ness with Coven, the third season of his immensely popular horror anthology American Horror Story. In it, Murphy takes everything he’s ever heard about covens and witches, mixes them into a pungent Satan’s brew and assaultively hurls his batshit crazy concoctions (not an indictment, his willingness to be weird is the only facet of Murphy’s storytelling I respond to) at the viewer. Problem is, American Horror Story: Coven—just like the seasons that preceded and followed it—lacks developed mythology or plot construction to actually stand as anything other than a flashy bit of trite horror fare. Similarly, Cherry Tree—the new film from director David Keating—treads similar territory and produces a final product that leaves the audience in an all-too familiar boat: well this certainly feels like a horror movie, but why am I not scared?
that (has) made (its) home Faith’s small town. When Jennifer (Minnie Phipps)—local coven leader and the new coach of Faith’s field hockey team—sees the opportunity to spawn the antichrist (not sure when this particular coven got into the Satan-spawning business), Faith is forced to conceive a demon seed in return for her father’s health.
In a vacuum (read: without taking the film’s dialogue or plot into consideration) there are a lot of exciting things happening in Cherry Tree. With an assist from cinematographer Eleanor Bowman, David Keating manages to generate simultaneously dreadful and beautiful imagery. Shots of the titular cherry tree (for reasons that are mostly glossed over, this particular cherry tree and the fruit it produces are the main tenants of the coven’s witchcraft) are often more compelling than the story itself. Though Keating’s camera isn’t exactly dynamic or exploratory, he’s quite skilled at setting a tone through camera placement; there are a number of shots that are unsettling and unnerving without actually concentrating on anything particularly frightening.
But alas, characters speak and a story unfolds, and herein lies the downfall of Cherry Tree. At the film’s core lies a preposterously lazy screenplay, one that prefers the convenience of gore over the practicality of mythology and character development. Large swaths (which is to say all) of the coven’s history is revealed in the first few seconds of the film, as an opening crawl drones on. None of this information proves to be relevant to the film, instead it’s a lazy attempt to establish mythology and give unearned weight to future revelations. Cherry Tree is lovely to look at and Keating has an obvious knack for tone and atmosphere, but the screenplay (by writer Brendan McCarthy) is a sordid mess of half-baked ideas and all-too convenient contrivances.
Cherry Tree is a modest offering with plenty to enjoy (in addition to the cinematography, Naomi Battrick is quite compelling as Faith, despite being a static character on the page). But Cherry Tree seemed doom from the very beginning, operating from a screenplay that could have used a half dozen more passes before going into production. What’s left is a gripping tone poem that’s undermined every step of the way by an undercooked and tepid story.
Craig is a writer living in north Florida with his wife and ornery dog. He writes about film and TV. He creates and publishes comic books under the label Gentleman Baby Comics. He's currently wishing his bio sounded more engaging.