‘Falling Stars’ Review: A Compelling Folktale Hampered By Its Smaller Budget
This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.Witch stories often center around the feminine experience, but Falling Stars flips that concept on its head by presenting a tale focused on the folly of three brothers who find themselves on the receiving end of a curse that threatens their entire family. Set amidst the Inland Empire, in a world not too dissimilar from our own, Richard Karpala crafts a wholly unique piece of folklore that is steeped in its own history and carefully built up across the 80-minute runtime.
In Karpala’s world, witches are a real—yet entirely unseen—threat. A threat that preys upon the world every year during the first harvest, sweeping up unsuspecting men, women, and children, and whisking them away into the unknown. The initial premise is vaguely reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” though the comparison stops there, as Jackson’s story had nothing to do with falling stars or witchy absconsion. The concept of an annual supernatural-tinged harvest in a small, rural community is far from new, but Karpala manages to keep his take on the idea fresh and compelling.
However, Falling Stars disobeys one of the main filmmaking rules, opting to tell instead of show—in more ways than one. Beyond the corpse at the center of the tale, the witches are unseen and their malevolent actions occur off-screen. Fortunately for Karpala and his co-director Gabriel Bienczycki, this tactic largely works for them in most cases. The film opens with some heavy-handed exposition, as the eldest brother Mike (Shaun Duke Jr.) regales his younger brothers Sal (Andrew Gabriel) and Adam (Rene Leech) with the dos and don’ts of the harvest and, more importantly, what shouldn’t be done to the corpse of a witch. Of course, the don’ts are a clear signpost of what will happen when they get the bright idea to go dig up a witch’s corpse that is buried out in the desert. All of this is mostly forgivable considering Karpala’s script is snappy and shorter runtime forces their hand. This is a new world, with new stakes, and new terrors—and the audience has to be swiftly informed of those details. Just don’t think too hard or long about why Mike would need to tell them about these strictures, when they’ve apparently grown up in a world where all of this is normalized and anticipated.
Despite the long list of reasons why they shouldn’t go out during the first harvest or fool around with a witch’s corpse, the boys pile into their pickup truck, rope their friend Rob (Greg Poppa) into the scheme, and embark on their adventure to find the grave. While they don’t take pictures, piss on the corpse, or any of the other ways to disrespect the burial, the youngest brother Adam accidentally spills his beer, promptly desecrating the body. It’s the sort of blunder that’s telegraphed from the opening scene where Adam has his very first sip of beer, but it is still a fascinating choice, as it technically doesn’t break any of the rules Mike detailed. Nevertheless, the witches enact their vengeance on the brothers and their affable friend, and the price they’ll have to pay to undo the curse is a steep one.
With their new reality weighing heavily on them, the brothers turn to the one person they know will have answers for them: their no-bullshit mother (Diane Worman) who is a fount of knowledge about the witches and first harvest. In order to break the curse, they’ll have to drive back out to the gravesite and burn the body before the rapidly approaching dawn or sacrifice someone to the witches. Either way, it seems dangerous and morally questionable. If they venture back out to the desert they might be snatched up anyway, preventing them from stopping the curse that extends beyond just the three brothers.
Each of the film’s actors is quite talented in their own right, but together they sometimes feel like they are playing towards a different version of the film. Duke and Gabriel are both grounded in their performances, rooted more in the quiet introspection of Falling Stars, where Leech reaches for a more dramatic and heightened story that is never quite shown. The stakes might be high, but only Leech seems to be aware of the ever-present danger, which is at odds with the other brothers. While Karpala’s script is tight and well-paced, the dialogue sometimes feels stilted, and it’s never more obvious than when the brothers are alone together. They feel more like acquaintances than the members of a tight-knit family.
The cast is rounded out by the hitchhiker Ouami (Piotr Adamczyk), radio host Barry (J. Aaron Boykin), and his assistant Elana (Samantha Turret) who are all fairly underutilized due to the film’s short runtime. Barry and Elana are Falling Stars‘ most compelling secondary characters, though they feel more like a tool to provide further exposition, rather than well-rounded characters. It’s through the radio program, which intercuts throughout the brothers’ adventure to defile a grave, that the audience learns important details about the harvest, how witches came to become a part of their society, and how the harvest is discussed in “mainstream” media. Throughout it all, folks are informed to stay inside due to high winds, with no mention of the real reason they’re forced indoors once a year.
How ‘Falling Star’s Budget Helps and Hurts It
Despite these flaws, Richard Karpala’s script has moments of sheer brilliance, where it brushes at the edges of something really profound. Falling Stars finds a lot of its strength in its simplistic fly-by-night styling, reminiscent of cult classics like The Blair Witch Project, but it is also hampered by its smaller budget. The world feels painfully small—and while the isolation works to fuel the sort of psychological power play at hand—it ultimately makes it feel like something is missing. Something right on the edge of the camera lens, that a bigger budget or larger production, may have been able to explore. As it stands, Falling Stars is a very compelling and beautifully simplistic film, one that recognizes its limitations and doesn’t try to stray beyond them. It could easily be a proof of concept for something larger; something that more deeply delves into the lore Karpala has crafted, and explores the aspects that will leave audiences wanting more.
For horror fans who prefer a more subtle and nuanced brand of horror that verges on the very outskirts of psychological horror, the lo-fi grunginess of Falling Stars will certainly appeal to them, though the outcome may leave them with more questions than answers. There is a suddenness to the final moments of Falling Stars, one that almost feels unfinished. But its abruptness neatly matches the lore about the witches snatching up victims during the harvest—they come swiftly, without reason, and steal away people just as quickly as the credits close in on the audience.
The Big Picture
- Falling Stars is a unique witch story that subverts traditional narratives by focusing on the folly of three brothers who become cursed.
- The film effectively creates a sense of an unseen threat posed by witches that prey on the community during the first harvest.
- While the film’s budget limits its scope, Falling Stars showcases moments of brilliance and could serve as a compelling proof of concept for a larger exploration of its lore.
Falling Stars screened at the 2023 Fantastic Fest.