In the past few years, Facebook Watch has grown in popularity, consistently releasing quality web-series. Debuting in 2017, Facebook Watch is a video on-demand service that is available to viewers free of cost and offers an assortment of shows that vary in length from just a few minutes to some that are over a half hour long. Facebook Watch has produced a lot of quality content, and all of their series have managed to find the winning recipe in a very crowded, streaming-giant-owned world.
With the advent of horror web series, The Banshee took the opportunity to review The Birch. This 2019 web series was inspired by the short film created by Ben Franklin and Anthony Melton and was featured on Crypt TV in 2017. The original short is available to watch for free on YouTube and clocks in at just under 5 minutes. The terrifying short follows a teenager who learns about his family’s dealings with the supernatural from his dying mother. Looking for answers, he goes into the woods searching for an ancient symbol. When his high school tormentors follow him there, he inadvertently summons a monstrous tree-like creature who defends him. In the expanded 2019 series, The Birch has three protagonists (Evie, Thurston and Lanie) and each episode unfolds almost entirely from one of those characters’ point of view. Evie, dubbed “Creepy Evie” and Thurston are at odds because the former has lost her mom to an overdose and the latter is still selling the laced drugs that killed her. An accidental killing sets the events of the first season in motion, with Evie gaining a supernatural way of getting back at Thurston and his family for the harm and abuse they have perpetrated. Meanwhile, Lanie’s narrative occupies a separate slice of the show, but is just too good to spoil – the less you know about where it’s going, the better.
For a show with episodes that are sometimes just 7 minutes in length, the themes are quite varied and well-explored. This is in part due to the above-mentioned structure, and also because of the plot twists and brilliant character moments. Essentially a supernatural teen slasher with light folk-horror elements, The Birch starts out similar to the 2017 film Death Note, with both in their opening minutes depicting high schoolers being harassed by bullies. Not only that, but the two are also eerily similar in depicting a deity that offers a helping hand out of the blue, and a list of ill-fated names in a notebook that appears to one of the main characters. Those names are of course bumped off one by one in creative ways. Let’s just say the deaths give a whole new meaning to the pushing daisies idiom, recalling the line “I shall be one with nature, herb, and stone” from Wilfred Owen’s A Terre. It will also remind viewers of the stunning effects used by Jaco Bouwer’s 2021 eco-horror Gaia in depicting its “Fungi People.” The Celtic roots of the beliefs displayed in the series are also highlighted early on – the god Cernunnos, lord of the forest and its protector in Celtic mythology is not directly mentioned, but the Birch could be viewed as a manifestation of him.
High-school bullying and injustice are recurring themes, and the violence, often inflicted by humans, is gruesome and feels unscripted. Whether that is a good or bad thing is up to the viewer to decide. Each character has something or someone to protect, and the show does well to point out similarities between Evie and Thurston, while using Lanie and her strict upbringing to shock at every turn. The cycle of revenge just continues to escalate – partly due to human nature, and partly because of the supernatural forces at play. The subtle character transformations achieved by Xaria Dotson as Evie are especially impressive in these short episodes. The themes presented are not only profound, but also assimilated into the plot flawlessly, unlike similar web series that feel the need to state the obvious. Some of the issues tackled in this series include motherhood and sacrifice, the desire to be liked (or the desire to just be left alone), rebellion, kindred souls, survival, necessary evils, family rivalries, social media, and even brainwashing. To say that those are what make the show work so well is an understatement. It’s very impressive how the tight runtime almost forces the creators to be very upfront, but also very careful in their approach, and while the dialogue might not always impress, the first season still feels like a spellbinding dance once it’s over. This show is simply a treat when it comes to the multitude of its themes.
For fans of other Facebook Watch shows, it is no mere surprise that The Birch ends up being so complex: Limetown, the mystery series starring Jessica Biel and inspired by the titular podcast, surprises with its dedication to go to weird and unexpectedly horrific directions straight from the get-go. The web series Sacred Lies is a stunning adaptation of the novel The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes, in which a teenager with no hands, on the run from a cult ends up landing herself in juvenile detention. Also noteworthy is that Stereoscope and The Birch are both based on short films developed by Crypt TV, which has already created an engrossing “monster-verse” to rival that of Universal. All of these series master the art of leaving you wanting more with every episode, but they also explore their settings and themes with utmost proficiency, making binging each season a no-brainer. Facebook Watch and the now-defunct Quibi (a streaming service focusing on shows with a runtime per episode of under 10 minutes, designed mainly for mobile viewing) have made the case that series can exist outside any traditional format, free of Netflix bloat, filler material and aborted arcs.
The cinematography in The Birch has an impressive consistency to it, especially when one considers that the episodes are basically free to watch. The sleek camerawork makes the titular creature the imposing monster that she should be, although it has to be said that the effects aren’t up to par with those in the short film. This version of the forest creature is less terrifying and more sullen, almost foreshadowing the tragic reveal in the season one finale. No one (except a certain uncle) is a complete monster in this first season, which makes every decision made by Evie and Thurston feel almost suffocating. While the main characters are busy fighting each other, the literal Big Bad is always shown to be one inch away from a total meltdown and quite able to just kill everybody and be done with it. Each time Evie and Thurston retaliate, the other is simply forced to react by their own set of circumstances, and disaster, collateral damage and loss are just very small steps away. However, the empathy shown by the two for their loved ones – and even for each other – makes the first batch of episodes gain the proportions of a Greek tragedy, and pyrrhic victories become the norm.
The second season is unfortunately not nearly as effective as the first, but it is definitely a must-watch if only for the return of two important characters, and the furthering of a character arc that no one could have anticipated. With just ten short episodes all amounting to just half of the initial runtime, season two simply doesn’t manage to keep up the delicate balance or the “essence” of what originally made the show great. While season one excelled at toying with your expectations and offering surprises at every step, season two feels like a streamlined race to the finish-line. In short, it becomes a straight slasher focused more on the body count and breakneck pacing than on surprising character beats, and definitely rushed out the door.
Rory, the second season’s protagonist, is not nearly as compelling as Evie when it comes to clarity of mind, which limits her potential, but it helps that newcomers Jihan and Razi are there to offset the loss in the complexity behind the motivation for revenge. At the same time, the Garden of Lost Children is an amazing Gothic setting that even Guillermo del Toro should be jealous of (you could actually describe a lot of The Birch‘s visuals as a mix of Pan’s Labyrinth and Blair Witch), and every moment spent in it feels earned. The involvement of the creators of the original short this time around makes the very brief second outing much more visually arresting: darker, moodier, with a more vindictive “Birch” and two dueling protagonists. Season two shines in this regard and could have been alternately titled “Survivors of the Birch”. The last episode hints at a third series to complete the surprising redemption arc of one of the main characters and to bring the show full circle. Viewers can be hopeful for a third outing since Crypt Tv’s ongoing collaboration with Facebook Watch can be seen as a reassurance.
Ultimately, The Birch is a standout web-series that will please a lot of horror fans with its character development, breakneck pacing and delicious atmosphere. As a story about the effects of exacting revenge, it couldn’t be more timely, since that has been a pervading theme as of late. For instance, only a few years back, everything from superhero movies to revenge thrillers was focused on glorifying violence and picturing revenge as an almost empowering act, when in real life everything has a domino effect. Additionally, The Birch’s mix of slasher, supernatural and survival horror, together with its unpredictable structure and tight runtime easily makes it one of the best web-series ever made. Tree-horror might even become a popular horror subgenre (that one controversial Evil Dead scene aside). The Birch itself is also a popular monster online, and even makes an appearance in some videogames such as Dead by Daylight. Both seasons of The Birch are free to watch if you have a Facebook account, and certainly make for a worth binge-watching experience which will leave viewers raving.