The most curious character in Lifetime’s Amish Witches: The True Story of Holmes County (debuting Saturday, October 29) is someone who’s never seen or spoken of, but whose existence is a given. As a Sunday-school dropout, I’d love to know why the Devil wants to keep crowding his house with the worst of humanity, like Jesse Pinkman on an eternal bender. More relevantly to the TV movie at hand, if stockpiling souls like some Hoarders subject is his main #squadgoal, why would he let some rando newcomer go back to her old house as soon as she’d arrived in Hell? And if that afterworld tourist squandered her clearance to return home with the weakest scare-pranks since Moses’s frog plague (which we could actually really use right now), what’s the Devil’s preferred method of venting his diabolical spleen?
Amish Witches is a horror tale, but only technically. Free of frights and reluctant to indulge in the exploitative sleaze implied by the title, the found-footage film flunks every possible measure by which a spooky movie can be judged: creepy atmospherics, a logical villain, menacing production design, even jump scares. Forget the heebie-jeebies. Amish Witches’s ineptness is much more likely to instill a fidgetiness that’ll distract you with a different anxiety: You know you probably aren’t, but what if you’ve been suffering all this time from restless leg syndrome?
For a film in which nothing seems to happen, there’s a fair bit of plot. A three-person film crew (played by Nicole Rodenburg, Amanda Jane Stern, and Chase Conner) arrives in an reclusive-even-by-Amish-standards community to shoot an exposé — of what, we never learn. The death of the local brauchau, or Amish witch, brings together three young women: the old woman’s protégée, Iva (Kaylyn Scardefield); granddaughter Ruthie (Evangeline Young); and the latter’s cousin, Esther (Hayley Palmaer). Shunned by the rest of the town during her lifetime, the brauchau is denied a proper burial by the bishop (David Winning), and thus condemned to Hell. Or not: As the cameras roll, the brauchau expresses her rage at the living women, along with a mysterious smirking girl (Michelle Young) claiming kinship to the deceased by ... giving the faceless scarecrow outside a sinister visage and ... leaving smudgy handprints on the window. To a modern viewer, forcing her victims to clean glass with pre-industrial cleaning solutions seems like the brauchau’s cruelest revenge.
The fixed, wide-shot compositions, many in night-vision black and green, mean it’s not always clear which character is doing what. Little matter, since the eeriest effects are probably the occasional Nosferatu-like shadows approaching the sleeping women. But the most disappointing element is in the dopey script, which fails to conjure a single compelling character and bungles the story’s internal coherence. The dead go to Heaven or Hell, unless they’re ghosts. Witches are just misunderstood women, until they’re not. They actually are murderous monsters, but worse than a witch is a bitch. I don’t really know. Neither will you.