Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: A Threat From Above Exposes One Within in Richard Karpala & Gabriel Bienczycki’s “Falling Stars”

Mike (Shaun Duke Jr.) is quick to clarify when his friend Paul (Greg Poppa) compares himself to Frankenstein in “Falling Stars” as they head into the depths of the desert in the dead of night. One senses Paul’s already been to dark places, making where they’re heading fun in the sun by comparison as he tells Mike he’s just holding it all together as he tends to a wife and newborn at home in their trailer, and Mike corrects him by noting it is not Doctor Frankenstein he should be referencing when it is actually the monster he created from various spare parts when speaking about his life, adding “A lot of people do that.”

An awareness of genre films that came before Richard Karpala and Gabriel Bienczycki’s ruminative thriller has a way of freshening up the proceedings, as well as Karpala’s deeply ingrained understanding of how people talk in boonies of California, as Mike and Paul, along with Mike’s siblings Sal (Andrew Gabriel) and Adam (Rene Leech), ride towards the barren landscape that plays host to Coachella once a year, yet finds its foursome looking for a different type of entertainment. They don’t have the radio in their pickup, but if they did, they’d surely be tuning into the Barry Foyle Radio Hour when it may be the only broadcast picked up by their antenna where the host of the midnight call-in show warns that tonight brings the witches, an annual occurrence with a change of the seasons in late October. Karpala and Bienczycki leave this as unquestioned fact, but they also aren’t interested at all in whatever threat is posed by the supernatural, instead more curious about the reaction it inspires amongst the locals, who have bucked conventional wisdom simply by living where they do in such a remote region and are likely to have entirely different ideas about an arrival of witches than you might find elsewhere in society.

In fact, seeking out the landing spot for the witches seems like a good time for Mike and Paul, who swears from previous experience he knows where to find it, but when it appears they’ve stumbled into more sacred land than they expected – ceremony rings where the witches are thought to procreate – the group is caught between honoring the unknown or dealing with what’s actually in front of them. “Falling Stars” is a test of faith, not only for its characters but for its audience when all that’s there to create its fantastical scenario are a few title cards and references to events that happened long ago, but the film finds that fertile territory to explore the power of belief and the hold ideas can have over generations as Mike and Paul have had no choice but to accept the witches as fact given their parents’ fear of them, but the teenage Adam can afford to be a little more skeptical.

There’s an innocence about the film when the invaders are neither branded too severely as friend or foe and the awestruck ambivalence of those involved has a ring of truth to it that reminds of “Fire in the Sky,” with the acting ensemble convincingly creating a heightened reality that one suspects the scrappy production would be unwise to try building through a plethora of visual effects. Having more confrontations between families than with the supernatural make the stakes feel bigger anyways when the witches may come and go, but the locals still have to wake up to one another and in gazing up towards the sky, Bienczycki and Karpala find a savvy avenue to look within.

“Falling Stars” will screen again at Fantastic Fest on September 26th at 11:15 am at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar 5.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.