Witchcraft and high school girls is one of those cliches that pops up every now and then in films, the most notable being Andrew Fleming’s The Craft. Given how directors have treated the idea of teenage girls dabbling in the occult, it hasn’t had much exploration outside of the typical. Director Caryn Waechter looks to take a different approach with her feature debut film, The Sisterhood of Night, which is based on the short story by Steven Millhauser. But with that status, does The Sisterhood Of Night fall into the ambitious to the point of failure category that new directors are wont to do, or does Waechter play the safe route of predictability?
Mary (Georgie Henley) doesn’t really fit into the typical student body at her high school, but then again, neither do her two friends, Catherine (Willa Cuthrell) and Lavinia (Olivia DeJonge). Mary is the subject of harassment by Emily Parris (Kara Hayward), who steals texts from Mary and posts them online. In response, Mary, Catherine and Lavinia find solace together in the woods late at night, providing a safe place for one another to say those things they’d fear being exposed from any online forum. The trio soon begins to handpick other girls to join the “Sisterhood”, with the understanding that whatever is talked about, remains within the group. Emily isn’t having any of it, and proceeds to make accusations of the group dabbling in witchcraft, lesbianism and so on through her blog. Moral panic increases, and things start to come to a head.
Given that the original short story was written way before the advent of social media and the internet (1994, if you’re wondering), you have to hand it to Marilyn Fu for adapting the screenplay to update the story and bring it into more modern times. As such, what could’ve been a dated story with some relevance to today’s life of high school girls and the challenges they face both at home and at school has been given a facelift. The idea of taking things away from cyberspace and to a more “unplugged” setting, while still incorporating aspects of the online world, has been nicely executed. While the overall theme of the story doesn’t stray far from the familiar “group of girls have a secret club that someone doesn’t have access to, so someone starts rumours” idea, it still works very well and still resonates, especially the feelings of being isolated and left out by your peers/family.
Of course, a big part of making this work comes back to the acting (as always). Luckily, everyone’s on board with this one. Henley stands out as the leader of the group, showcasing a hardened exterior. But like the other girls, at times also shows her vulnerability. This vulnerability is also key in giving the characters their much-needed depth for this type of film. Whether it’s Cuthrell’s character struggling with her mom dying from cancer or DeJonge’s Lavinia dealing with her broken family, to even the film’s antagonist in Hayward feeling the isolation and having to resort to bullying to prop herself up. It all makes for a very authentic-feeling group of characters. It’s not just the four leads, either. Kal Penn, for example, plays the girls’ guidance counselor who is sympathetic to their situation.
Now after reading all of this, I know that some horror fans will be disappointed. No, this is not The Craft. No, there’s no unleashing of unspeakable evil that possesses the girls (witchcraft is really only mentioned as part of the rumours). It’s essentially a modern update to a cautionary tale that has the typical high school drama that spirals into more serious problems that unlike the rumours spread by Emily, are true. So yes, it’s not the escape that some fans will want. But then, this isn’t meant to be that type of film. On the other hand, despite the update to the original story, this is still one that’s predictable and isn’t going to reinvent things. But sometimes you just don’t have to make that kind of a splash.
Really, from reading the synopsis, you’ll decide whether you’re going to like this film or not. What here as a grounded and realistic portrayal of a group of high school girls looking to belong that quickly grows into helicopter parents doing the mob mentality thing while ignoring the real problems. If you’re in the mood for that, this film does it well, complete with some great acting by the principal actors. Those who aren’t will probably pass. Honestly though, film fans would still do well to give this one a viewing, as sometimes, it’s just not all about blood and guts horror.