Many moons ago when I was at boarding school, there was a patio restaurant across the main drag from campus that had a detached building containing the restrooms. In the short hallway between latrines, there was a poster for a horror flick I had never heard of, entitled Screams of a Winter Night. After some research using 2004-era internet access (no small feat, to be honest), I found that the movie had been filmed in and around Natchitoches, Louisiana (where my boarding school was located) by college students in the late seventies. They made three prints of the film and took them to drive-ins in the nearest cities, where Screams was discovered and picked up for nationwide distribution. Although it’s my understanding that the film has since found a home on DVD, it took some time to locate a pirated VHS copy of the movie at that time; although it has a certain nostalgic appeal for me, it’s not a very good movie, being largely amateurish in its narrative cohesion and poorly filmed in general, with lighting that renders much of the film impossible to see at points. Maybe I’ll get around to reviewing it for the site one day, but this is really just a preamble to discuss today’s selection, another cheap regional production, 1970’s Mark of the Witch, which, unlike Screams of a Winter Night, is actually a lot of fun and definitely worth seeking out.
In the late sixties, two Dallas women named Martha Peters and Mary Davis noticed that, although the horror genre was exploding, very few films were being made by or for women. Since both women had an academic interest in the occult, they composed a draft of Mark of the Witch, in which a young co-ed is possessed by the spirit of a centuries-dead witch. The film was shot with a cast and crew comprised mostly of local Texan amateurs: Peters seems to have never written anything else, while Mary Davis’s sole other screenwriting credit was for 1974’s Scum of the Earth. This was the first directing credit for Tom Moore as well, although he would direct Return to Boggy Creek (sequel to The Legend of Boggy Creek) seven years later before going on to have a largely unremarkable career as a TV director for episodes of various programs, including Cheers, Picket Fences, The Wonder Years, Mad About You, and L.A. Law.
The film opens with the hanging of the titular witch (Marie Santell), overseen by the betrayer MacIntyre Stuart (Robert Elston); he and two other members of their coven turned on the other ten members, leading to their execution. With her final words, the witch curses Stuart: he and all of his descendants shall bear her mark, until she returns to exact her vengeance. Some three centuries and change later, Leonard Nimoy lookalike Alan (Darryl Wells) is buying some books on witchcraft at the local university bookstore, where his girlfriend Jill (Anitra Walsh) is assisting with a book drive. They briefly discuss the psychology course that they are taking from Professor “Mac” Stuart (Elston again) and make plans to attend one of his parties/seminars that evening. After Alan leaves, Jill discovers a real spell book, later identified as the Red Book of Appin. That evening, she brings the book to the meeting and encourages her friends and classmates, including horndog Harry (Jack Gardner) and ditzy Sharon (Barbara Brownell), to participate in a ceremony outlined in the book: summon a witch.
When nothing seems to happen, the group disbands for the evening and Alan, unaware that Jill has been possessed by the witch, gives her a ride back to her dorm, shrugging off her strange behavior as a kind of joke. Jill returns to Stuart’s home and tells him the truth. Stuart had donated the Red Book, a family heirloom, to the book drive in the hope that it would be found and a ritual performed as a psychological experiment; after a few demonstrations of her power, Stuart and Alan realize that they have unleashed an old evil in modern times. While the possessed Jill seeks out and kills Harry and Sharon to complete a rite that will make her ruler of the world, Alan and Stuart work together to try to find a way to exorcise her possessor before it’s too late.
This is a fun little movie, and surprisingly impressive for a film made on such a small budget and with only local talent. The fun is mitigated in a few places by special effects failures (the fire that the possessed Jill uses in her rites at the wooded grove is no larger than a dinner plate, for instance) and some repetitiveness (the witch uses the same overlong invocation in a few separate scenes), but it’s obvious that all of the players involved are having fun, and that sense of bonhomie and good humor is infectious enough that it’s no trouble to get swept up in the moment.
I saw the film at the Alamo Drafthouse’s weekly Terror Tuesday event in Austin, and the reels themselves were provided by the American Genre Film Archive, which is committed to preserving little oddities like this. Host Joe Ziemba noted that the film had never been checked out from the archive since its induction, and that only a few dozen people had seen the film in its original release. Although the quality of the 35mm print was imperfect (some parts of the film itself had actually turned to dust, resulting in a few skips in the narrative and a blank screen), it was still a great viewing. The entirety of Mark of the Witch appears to be available on YouTube, so viewing it in your own home is not only easy, but highly recommended.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond