I Am Not a Witch (2018)

The world Rugando Nyoni establishes in her debut feature I Am Not a Witch is so far removed from my own that it’s difficult to tell exactly where its true realism stops and its magical realism begins. Zambian born and residing in Wales, Nyoni clearly has plenty of real-world issues on her mind in her satirical look back on her African birthplace: governmental corruption, colonialist tourism, the subjugation of women, the clash of traditional ideals with worldwide homogenization, etc. Without contextual research, however, it’s impossible to parse out exactly how much of its minute-to-minute details are heighted for satirical effect. Its central story follows a young Zambian orphan who is accused of witchcraft by a local villager and subsequently sentenced to live out her entire life in a government-owned labor camp with other “witches,” who are all elderly women. As an outsider with no context for Zambian government structure or folklore, this premise initially seems plausible enough, or at least something I’m hesitant to question. From there, the details sprawl further into the realm of absurdist fantasy. The “witches” are tethered to spools of white ribbons that prevent them from flying away. The young girl can magically hear nearby schoolhouse lectures through a plastic funnel with superhuman clarity. The local economy appears to be built entirely on trading bottles of gin. There’s a lot of real-world pain & oppression at the center of I Am Not a Witch, but it’s all filtered through a disorienting, absurdist layer of satirical exaggeration.

While the obscurity & severity of its subject make it sound like a miserable watch, Nyoni smartly disarms I Am Not a Witch’s overt misery with a weaponized sense of humor. It may sound heartless to label a story about a young girl sentenced to a lifelong labor camp where she’s gawked at as a tourist attraction a comedy, but there’s a very broad, purposeful line of humor that runs throughout the film. The girl herself (played by newcomer Maggie Mulubwa) is mostly a silent, put-upon observer, but the world around her is increasingly absurd. Her t-shirt that reads “#bootycall,” the government goon who parades her around in public as a sideshow attraction, and the clueless white tourists who snap her photos as keepsakes all feel like they belong to a much broader comedy, confusing the borders of her real-life crisis. Nyoni & Mulubwa never lose sight of the seriousness her gendered subjugation represents, but a spoonful of humor often sweetens the medicine of that real-world issue so that the film is also palatable as an entertainment, caustically so. That absurdism can also achieve a sense of lyrical poetry, especially in the visual motif of the ribbons that keep the “witches” tethered to the earth and in the overwhelming orchestral score that heightens the atmosphere. The film’s overall tone is one of disturbed beauty and deep heart-heavy despair, but its function as a political satire also means that it finds plenty of morbid laughs to be had along the way.

I’m trying to imagine the inverse equivalent of what someone interpreting my own country & culture through this distorted of a lens might look like. If, for instance, a Zambian audience’s first vision of America were last year’s over-the-top sci-fi satire Sorry to Bother You, they might have a difficult time parsing out what was true & what was satirical exaggeration. However, Boots Riley’s film would still convey something very real about the corporate-labor hell we all live under here, no matter how fantastic the third-act details, and I suspect my own experience with I Am Not a Witch is much the same. I know too little of witchcraft’s place in modern Zambian culture to say for sure what is an absurdist exaggeration vs. what is a true-life cultural or governmental ill. Still, it’s easy to tell Nyoni is unloading some very real frustration about gendered oppression in that cultural context here, whether expressed through poetic lyricism, absurdist humor, genuine heartfelt despair, or a mesmerizing cocktail of all three.

-Brandon Ledet

Further into the Inferno: The Follies of Deepening Suspiria’s Mythology

I love Dario Argento’s Suspira. It’s very high among my favorite titles from the Italian genre film legend, matched only by the likes of Opera & Tenebre. At the same time, I could not care less about the story Suspiria tells if I tried. Like the murder mystery gialli Argento cut his teeth directing, this is explicitly a style-over-substance endeavor, one that pays much more careful attention to the lighting of a kill & the menace of the soundtrack than the logic or structure of its mythology. Suspiria is a gorgeous, gore-coated object that overwhelms in its sensual pleasures, but does little to develop its central story beyond the elevator-pitch premise of “A ballet school run by witches.” Argento doesn’t even save the revelation of that premise for a mysterious reveal; one of the earliest scenes features a track from prog band Goblin where whispers of “Witch, witch-witch-witch” overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s such a weird impulse, then, for each of Suspiria’s later follow-ups to lean so heavily into the witchy dance school’s background mythology as if that was something the original film was missing. No Suspriria descendent follows this trivial pursuit as thoroughly as Luca Gaudagnino’s 2018 eponymous remake. Guadagningo’s Suspriria sprawls into almost a full extra hour of runtime to make room for exploring the political struggles of the coven who run the dammed dance academy, the childhood background of their latest victim Susie Banion, the cultural climate of the country outside the academy’s walls, and any number of other lore concerns that were not on Argento’s mind as much as staging witchy, ballet-themed kills. The truth is, though, that Argento himself was just as guilty of needlessly fleshing out Suspiria’s mythology; he just saved that indulgence for his own sequels to the original film. It’s also true that no mythology-minded Suspiria follow-up—whether from Guadagningo or Argento—has been especially bad, even though every single one is remarkably goofy.

Argento himself wasted zero time diving into Suspiria’s unexplored mythology in his own sequels to the film. The second title in what would eventually be know as The Three Mothers Trilogy, 1980’s Inferno, opens with characters reading large blocks of text out of a fictional book titled The Three Mothers that details lore only casually referenced in the previous film. While Suspiria briefly mentions that its German setting is just one of three connected, international covens – the others located in Rome & NYC – it doesn’t waste much time wondering what’s going on with the witches who run those other houses. Inferno, by contrast, explains in plain academic dialogue how the Mother of Sighs, the Mother of Tears, and the Mother of Darkness divvy up their geographically disparate power structure—connecting its tale of NYC witchcraft to the German events of the previous film. Still, the actual narrative of Inferno has little to do with this suddenly complex lore until the final showdown staged with the Mother of Darkness witch who resides in New York. Mostly, Argento slips back into the sensory indulgences of complexly constructed kills that guided the overall trajectory of the first film, even joking with the supposed seriousness of its mythology when a character mistakes “The Three Sisters” for an R&B vocal group. It wasn’t until the much-delayed conclusion to the trilogy, 2007’s Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, that he really committed to pretending Suspiria’s lore actually meant something, now having spent decades fleshing out its legacy. In the film, his real-life daughter Asia Argento reopens the same The Three Mothers book to kickstart her fated path to confront the titular third Mother in Rome; only this time the pursuit of that mystery & confrontation are made to be the main thrust of the text, so that the brutal gore (and shoddy CGI scares) that interrupt the mythology are more a distraction than they are the entire point. It’s no coincidence that the most mythology-obsessed entry in the Three Mothers Trilogy is also the weakest picture, artistically. Its Roman Catholic mysticism & ancient texts mysteries approximate a mid-00s horror version of The Da Vinci Code, except its guidance under the Dimension Extreme label makes it way cheaper & meaner than that may sound.

As Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake is a shameless indulgence in pure excess, it can’t help but eat up all of the lore stretched out across the entire Three Mothers Trilogy in a single sitting. Gaudagnino goes beyond the establishment of there being a coven of witches in three major cities to ask who these witches are, what political climates they have to deal with, how they delegate power, and how they select their victims. He also picks up the idea of their being a book explaining the mechanics of these covens and their respective houses by filling entire notebooks with handwritten, geometrically diagrammed explanations of how witchcraft works in this universe on a practical, if not mathematical level. This elaboration of core mythology may seem philosophically opposed to the barebones, imagery-distracted lore of the original Suspiria, but it does touch on the most core aspect of Dario Argento’s work: excess. The giallo legend may have poured more of his excessive, obsessive detail into the lighting & staging of a kill than establishing a sense of logic in the witchcraft behind it, but Guadagnino’s overly-detailed attention to the lore is still in the same sprit of unbridled, maybe even ill-advised excess. Oddly, that over-commitment to mythology ultimately has the same effect on the audience that the disregard for it achieved in Argento’s original version. There’s so much going on in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria that it’s difficult to pay attention to or emotionally invest in any one narrative thread, so that what mostly remains is the film’s sense of style. Suspiria (’77) & Inferno recognize this effect outright and fully commit to Argento’s witchcraft giallo aesthetic once they establish the basic tenants of the lore that drives their conflict. Mother of Tears & Suspiria (’18) are much more frantic in their relationship with mythology, chasing a sense of meaning so desperately in their embellishment of witchcraft lore that an overindulgence in backstory & narrative itself becomes part of the filmmaking style.

Whether keeping the mythology as thinly sketched out as it was in the original film or over-explaining superfluous new wrinkles to the lore, the overall strength of a Suspiria follow-up still lies in the pleasures of its sense of style. Inferno may be the most underrated in this regard– mixing the neon witchcraft aesthetic from its predecessor with the gloved-hand giallo kills of other Argento works & Fulci-level shameless gags singular to its own vision (there are a couple cat & rat-themed eco-horror kills I find especially pleasurable) to achieve something truly special. Suspiria (2018) is similarly pleasurable in its stylistic deviations (ultimately landing somewhere between Possession & Society, but nowhere near Argento), even if its attention to lore often feels like wasted energy. Mother of Tears is the clear weak link in the chain, but even the cheap & cheesy violence of its large-scale horror mystery has a kind of charm to it, like an especially gory episode of Masters of Horror or an expired box of Easy Mac. There are no bad Suspiria movies, but there are certainly ones that try way too hard to pretend the series’ core mythology means something; it very much doesn’t.

-Brandon Ledet

Suspiria (2018)

On an aesthetic level, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspriria bears very little resemblance to Dario Argento’s Supsiria. If anything, this 40 years-later reimagining of that cult-favorite resembles an entirely different flavor of intensely stylized, European arthouse horror: Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. Guadagnino’s picture may have maintained the witchy dance academy setting & central character names from the Argento original, but it ditches all of that film’s intense giallo cross-lighting & prog rock sensibilities for the cold, greyed-out concrete & infectious madness of Possession. Where Suspriria (2018) deviates in tone & imagery from its source material, however, it did zero in on the most vital aspect of Argento’s work: excess. Everything about Guadagnino’s Suspiria is indulgently excessive: at 142 minutes, it’s structured as six acts & an epilogue; Tilda Swinton appears in multiple roles among an already sprawling cast of witchy women (including actors from the original film); unsatisfied with merely being a stylish tale of witchcraft, it also attempts to engage with the politics of post-war Germany; it features an original soundtrack from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. The most Suspiria (1977) thing about Suspiria (2018) is that it’s wholly confident that every self-indulgent impulse it has is worth exploring; the only difference in that respect is that the Argento version was more frequently correct in that shared delusion.

One of my favorite tactics that carries over from Original Flavor Suspiria to Nu Suspiria is that neither waste any effort hiding that they are about dance schools “secretly” run by a coven of witches. In the original, this mystery is “spoiled” by an early sequence of a frightened dance academy student fleeing into the woods while the prog band Goblin whispers, “Witch, witch-witch-witch” over the soundtrack. In the new version, that same freaked-out runaway character (Chloë Grace Moretz) blurts, “They are witches” in blatant terms to her old-man psychiatrist (a gender-blind cast Tilda Swinton) before continuing, “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate.” The psychiatrist, of course, believes this paranoia to be delusional and a large part of the narrative likens his dismissal of her cries of witchcraft to the ways he failed his long-gone wife during The Holocaust. That post-war grief & guilt swirls outside the dance academy, while inside the flesh-eating witches in question are undergoing a more insular political crisis of their own. Unbeknownst to the young dancers in their care, the women who run the academy as an incognito coven are experiencing a kind of civil war on two key issues: choosing new leadership & selecting an unwitting student for a mysterious ritual that will secure the school’s future (at the student’s own peril, of course). That freshly-arrived American student’s name is Susie Banion (Dakota Johnson in a role originated by Jessica Harper), who is afforded her own lengthy backstory in a distant Mennonite community, just in case the narrative wasn’t already overstuffed without it.

It’s probably safe to say that no one loves the original Suspiria for the strengths of its story. Like most giallo-related media, it’s a film best appreciated for its overbearing sense of style more so than the cohesion of its narrative. This only became increasingly apparent as Argento attempted to retroactively make sense of his witchcraft lore in the Suspiria sequels Inferno & Mother of Tears, expanding the original film’s elevator pitch of “A ballet school run by witches” into an unwieldy (but still charming) mess now known as the Three Mothers Trilogy. Guadagnino greedily eats up this now-sprawling mythology and attempts to reinforce each element with even more over-explained backstory: how the dance school relates to its German setting; why Susie Banion is targeted and what her life was like before the ritual was initiated; how the coven negotiates & organizes its collective will across hundreds of women in three separate locales. Beyond skewing its overall aesthetic closer to Żuławski than any gialli, Guadagno’s Suspiria avoids becoming a pointless retread of its Argento source material by pulling its narrative to the opposite extreme – from vaguely stretched-out elevator pitch to overly complex, unnecessarily dense mythology. Paradoxically, the effect of that overcorrection is oddly similar to how plot & lore work in the original film; its narrative is such an overdose of information that very little of it sticks to the walls and what’s mostly left for the audience to digest is the overbearing sense of style it’s delivered through.

As much as I admire Guadagningo’s dedication to excess here, this is the exact kind of messy ambition that invites viewers to pick and choose individual elements at play to praise or critique—as opposed to the more unified vision of the Argento original, which is more of an all-or-nothing proposition. Personally, my favorite aspect of the new Suspiria is the purposeful ways that the act of dance (modern here instead of ballet) is linked to the practice of witchcraft, establishing a cause & effect relationship between dancers’ beautifully contorted bodies and their grotesquely contorted victims’, left to stew in their own piss & mucus. I was also in love with the complexly detailed imagery of Susie Banion’s nightmare montages, each individual flash of a tableau carefully staged like fine art photography. At the same time, there were two glaring stylistic choices that harshed my buzz throughout: a camcorder-level choppy frame rate effect worthy of a Milli Vanilli music video & the jarring inclusion of Thom Yorke’s crooning vocals in an otherwise phenomenal soundtrack. My aversion to those choices are likely personal biases, given that they’ve also bothered me in previous works (specifically, the choppy frame rate in Daughters of the Dust, and Sufjan Stevens’s voice in Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name), but I can’t help but find them cheapening & distracting all the same for crashing me down from the film’s otherworldly spell to a much more pedestrian tone.

There’s so much on the screen in Suspiria that most audiences will find something to nitpick in their personal experience with its relentless over-indulgences in gore-soaked, lore-obsessed witchcraft horror. I envy those who weren’t distracted by stray choices like Yorke’s mewing, appreciating this love letter to excess in its overwhelming entirety. I also pity those who can’t find anything to enjoy here; Guadagnino offers so much to choose from that if you can’t latch onto something the problem is you. I’m personally falling somewhere in the vast middle between those extremes—in impressed, but frustrated appreciation of the film’s dedication to the extremes.

-Brandon Ledet

November (2018)

When James & I covered a few Andrei Tarkovsky movies for the podcast last year, I found myself impressed by the Russian auteur’s talents as a visual craftsman, but more than a little frustrated by his work as entertainment media. With features that sprawl past the three-hour mark and fret over political & philosophical crises of Faith, Tarkovsky’s work often feels like an academic prerequisite more than movies to be “enjoyed.” Thankfully for my unintellectual mush-brain, 2018 has already offered a couple correctives to my frustrations with the Tarkovsky aesthetic. Most notably, Alex Garland’s sci-fi puzzler Annihilation reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker as a much more conventionally entertaining genre picture with scary monsters, a manageable runtime, and a clearly discernible narrative. This year’s more esoteric Tarkovsky remix can be found in November, which feels like the long-lost blooper reel to the director’s interminable religious epic Andrei Rublev. Shot in a black & white digital haze, November continues Rublev’s grueling drudge among the intensely religious, beaten-down peasants who struggle outside the comforts of the Christian elite. Unlike Rublev, this low budget indie often lightens the mood of its descent into the brutality of abject poverty with matter-of-fact depictions of pagan witchcraft, shit jokes, and Three Stooges-style slaps to the face. Sometimes this intruding irreverence can hit a sour note, particularly when it finds its amusement in sexual violence, but for the most part it’s the exact Andrei Rublev blooper reel I didn’t know I needed until it was casting spells and farting directly in my face.

Much like how The Witch literalizes the superstitions of New England Puritans, November depicts in frank terms Eastern European (particularly Estonian) folklore. Witches prepare salves that transform their clients into wolves for a night (and a price). Peasants make deals with the Devil that bring their farm equipment to life as all-obliging puppets/sculptures (“kratts” in the film’s parlance). Ancestral ghosts visit the living from beyond the grave to break bread & offer advice. Among this black magic free-for-all and visitations from the Plague (personified as common farm animals, naturally), the peasants stave off Christian conversion efforts by mixing the new religion with preexisting pagan practices and stave off their own hunger by stealing from everyone in sight: their bosses, The Church, The Devil, each other, etc. A tragic story of unrequited love emerges from this grimy, surreal backdrop, but its circumstances are too bizarre to land with much emotional impact. November is slow and not especially funny, even when indulging in outright scatological slapstick. It’s absolutely fascinating as a curio, though. The D.I.Y. puppetry of the kratts has a distinctly humorous Eraserhead quality (which the film could have used more of; the kratts steal the show). The matter-of-fact depictions of practical effects witchcraft are persistently endearing, especially in their achievement of visualizing human-size chickens through miniature set pieces. The desperation & audacity of the characters’ thievery is cumulatively jaw-dropping, as it proves to show no bounds or shame. The only ways the film stumbles, really, are in being too aggressively odd to stage an emotionally engaging plot and in finding occasional slapstick amusement in rape. In every other way, it’s the exact pagan fairy tale farce it presumably set out to be, as much as anyone could guess what a film this deliberately loose in tone & logic intended to achieve.

I should probably do a better job of justifying my comparisons of November to Andrei Rublev, but most of the details they directly share are in the margins: religious fanaticism, pagan ritual, soul-crushing poverty, images of water layered with tree branches & other foreign objects that distort or drift away before your eyes can fully adjust. November is ultimately too silly & irreverent to be exactly comparable to that immensely personal Tarkovsky work, but I understand them as reflections of each other all the same. As the goofier curio that depicts supernatural witchcraft instead of real-world war, I much prefer November’s end of that aesthetic, just as I preferred Stalker when it featured Natalie Portman firing bullets at a nightmarish alligator-beast. Still, November has entertainment value limitations of its own. With more witches & kratts and fewer rape jokes I could have easily fallen in love with this weird little Tarkovsky blooper reel. As is, it’s enjoyable as a bizarre midnight movie curio, but still mildly frustrating for having had the potential to amount to more than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the exact kind of movie that’s destined to be undervalued & taken for granted on sight. The first picture from the Studio Ghibli spinoff production company Studio Ponoc, it’s automatically going to suffer many unflattering comparisons to classic Hayao Miyazaki works like Kiki’s Delivery Service & Spirited Away. Adapted from the 1971 fantasy novel The Little Broomstick, which heavily features a school for witches & wizards, the film is also likely to be compared unfavorably to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (which likely borrowed just as much from its source material as it did elsewhere; Rowling’s work is practically a pastiche). Instant familiarity is destined to temper a lot of enthusiasm for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but that kind of dismissive ungratefulness doesn’t consider just how rare of a treat this kind of thoughtful, traditionally animated work actually is on the modern children’s film cinema landscape. Given how much of a sucker I was for the goofy magic of The Worst Witch (speaking of works that likely heavily inspired Harry Potter) and the anime-lite tones of Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland at the time, I’m convinced this would have been my favorite movie as a kid, were it released in the early 1990s. Anime has gradually become the last refuge for thematically thoughtful, intricately crafted traditional 2D animation. It’s worth celebrating a new studio’s arrival as a contributor to keeping that tradition alive instead of brushing them off for feeling like they’ve always been around. Besides, as a subject, witchcraft is just inherently badass.

The titular Mary is a bored preteen wasting away the final scraps of her summer in her great-aunt’s gorgeous country home. This idleness inspires her to follow a couple mischievous kittens into the woods in a down-the-rabbit-hole experience that lands her in a magical realm of witchy universities, mad scientists, and wild hybrid beasts that resemble psychedelic Pokémon. She accidentally stumbles into a Chosen One plot arc in this new world thanks to a magical flower & a sassy broomstick that temporarily grant her extraordinary witch powers. From there, it’s a race against the clock for Mary to save a damsel in distress Anime Boy from the clutches of the evil schoolmarm & her side kick scientist and to put a stop to put their cruel animal experiments before she’s found out to not be the Chosen One at all, but rather an intruder & a fraud. The story Mary and the Witch’s Flower tells isn’t nearly as complex thematically as it is impressive visually. The lessons learned here are, again, familiar to classic children’s media narratives: learning to be confident in your own abilities and accepting the things you cannot change about yourself (especially your physical attributes). The movie is much more interesting in the way it wakes its young audience up the magic of the mundane. Simple, everyday activity like the pleasure of gardening and the science of electricity is framed as a kind of real-world witchcraft, enticing children to find interest in both magic & science and the grey area between them. It may not be a mind-blowing feat in intricate storytelling, but it is adorably animated and easy to love. This is the exact kind of immersive comfort food I would have ground into dust, were it released in the days of obsessively repeated VHS viewings.

Instead of focusing on how Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t quite as intricately animated as Ghibli classics or as immersive in its books-long world-building as the Harry Potter series, I was swept away by its warm, familiar charm. It’s an increasingly rare treat to see traditional animation on the big screen in recent years, anime or otherwise, and I greatly appreciate the arrival of Studio Ponoc (and the surprisingly trustworthy distribution company GKIDS) for keeping the experience alive. The onscreen witchcraft was dazzling. The glockenspiel-heavy score occasionally felt like a G-rated Suspiria. The world it created was a fantasy space I’d love to mentally dwell in for a magical eternity. The only real bummer for me was that the theater was sparsely attended by appreciative cinema & anime nerds instead of being packed with wide-eyed, witchy children. I would have loved for Mary and the Witch’s Flower’s easy familiarity to have been a result of it always being in my life the way titles like Little Nemo & The Worst Witch have; I hope it finds the right kids at the right time so they can have that experience in my place.

-Brandon Ledet

Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968)

As a huge sucker for both cinematic depictions of witches and the surrealist horrors of beat generation author William S. Burroughs, I was always predestined to enjoy Witchcraft Through the Ages at least a little bit. An experimental work assembled by beat filmmaker Antony Balch, Witchcraft Through the Ages re-interprets the landmark 1922 documentary Häxan for the druggy counterculture crowd of the late 60s. Satanism has a long history with hippie culture thanks to folks like Anton LaVey, so it makes sense that Balch would want to revive one of the great early cinematic works that depicts the Devil in the flesh for the stoners of his era. The spirit of Witchcraft Through the Ages is closely aligned with the dark times of the 1990s when outlets like Turner Classic Movies “colorized” black & white films to appeal to young audiences’ disinterest in outdated formats. Balch similarly punches up Häxan by shortening its runtime, soundtracking its imagery with the weirdo jazz of Daniel Humair, and lessening its challenge as a silent film by employing Burroughs, one of history’s greatest voices, to narrate. With jazzed up dialogue in its updated intertitles and a 77min runtime designed to maintain even the most drugged out of attention spans, Witchcraft Through the Ages feels like Balch tricking young weirdos into eating their Landmark Cinema vegetables by emphasizing the already-present exploitation film pleasures of its imagery. Häxan already openly gawks at the visual stimulation of witchy & Satanic iconography; Witchcraft Through the Ages pushes those cheap thrills just slightly further to de-emphasize its more educational endeavors. The only shame is that with Burroughs on hand to enhance Haxan director Ben Christensen’s already potent imagery, it could have done so much more than that.

As blasphemous (to God and to cinema) as Witchcraft Through the Ages appears to be from the surface, it’s a surprisingly tame work. Burroughs’s narration sticks fairly close to Häxan‘s original narrative, just at an accelerated pace. He even opens the film with the detailed history of how ancient Egypt believed the universe to be physically structured, just barreling through the details, maintaining the gist but wasting no time. That history lesson, along with later challenges to how The Church & The State have long used accusations of witchcraft to control & oppress, fit right in with the writer’s usual pet topics (especially in relation to his Western Lands trilogy). The disappointing thing is that Ben Christensen’s original film is already a timelessly powerful work on its own, so it feels pointless to have someone as cosmically talented as Burroughs on hand if he’s just going to color within the lines. I can happily listen to the author rattle on about Inquisitions, “old biddies,” torture, The Devil’s children, and “showing respect for Satan by kissing his ass” for hours, but Balch should have been smarter in allowing Burroughs’s voice to pervert the material. Whenever Burroughs isn’t talking & Humair’s jazz is allowed to overpower the soundtrack, Witchcraft Through the Ages feels intellectually pointless. Any personally-curated soundtrack synced up with Christensen’s original film would have the same effect, maybe even doing less to undercut the already-present sex humor & skip over minutes of Christensen’s eternally demonic imagery. Balch seems content to split the time evenly between Hunier’s jazz & Burroughs’s voice, which is just as much of a mistake as guiding his narrator to stick to the original intent of the script. In many ways, Witchcraft Through the Ages is not nearly blasphemous enough.

Theoretically, there’s a better version of this movie that plays like a 77min poem. If Burroughs were allowed to run wild with narrated, on-topic witchy versions of his cut-ups experiments like The Ticket that Exploded as a counter-balance to Christensen’s presented-as-is imagery, Witchcraft Through the Ages would stand a much better chance as a worthwhile perversion of (the far superior) Häxan instead of just a fascinating footnote. As is, it already kind of works like cut-ups: the results of the experiment are often fruitless, but when all elements at play line up just right, it feels like a work of cosmic genius. I’m not sure if Balch’s respect for Häxan dictated that he maintain its intended, educational effect in this jazzy update or if this idea was just hastily slapped together without proper thought given to the exciting ways it could go rogue. Either way, Christensen’s witchy imagery & Burroughs’s authorial voice are undeniably more impressive as separate entities than they come across as in this post-modern collaboration. That doesn’t mean that Witchcraft Through the Ages isn’t a fun, fascinating watch. A frenetic, jazzed up runthrough of Häxan featuring William S. Burroughs is just an inherently exciting idea, one that leads to many stray moments of brilliance even in its surprisingly well-behaved adherence to tradition. A more chaotic, poetic version of this same collaboration could have lead to something much more transcendent, however, a cinematic version of real life witchcraft.

-Brandon Ledet

Pam Grier’s Undervalued Career in Witchcraft & Voodoo

I often complain about how much of a shame it is that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they both suck. One of the all-time great personalities in genre filmmaking, Grier deserves so much better than the likes of the late career Eddie Murphy comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash and the nu metal era John Carpenter misfire Ghosts of Mars. If we’re only going to launch Grier’s visage into space twice in her career, she deserves a fate far more badass. It turns out, though, that her out-of-orbit sci-fi career isn’t even the most frustrating undercutting of her genre film potential. What’s even worse is the way Grier’s few performances as a witch or a Voodoo priestess have been deflated & underserved, when the idea of a Pam Grier Witchcraft picture should be instant B-movie gold. It’s not even that the movies where Grier dabbles in the art of magic are bad; they’re actually quite enjoyable. It’s that they don’t deliver the full power & glory that a Witchy Pam Grier should be able to command with ease.

My frustration with this witchy deficiency began with our current Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned 1983 Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes. In the film, Pam Grier plays The Dust Witch, a mostly silent agent of dark magic who commands immense power & beauty, but isn’t given nearly enough to do as a character when compared to her overlord, Mr. Dark. Grier elevates every scene she’s in with just her mere presence. An image of her in a white veil overlayed with flying shards broken glass is just as intense & effecting as any of Mr. Dark’s fervent monologues. Still, it’s a shame that for an actor who had proven before in films like Foxy Brown & Coffy that she could hold down a picture on her own, there was no room in the film’s dialogue for her badass, attention-grabbing voice. I love the witchy image Grier strikes in Something Wicked; watching her collect souls of hapless male victims while adorned in gold paint & black lace is enough to get me excited for her performance. It’s just frustrating that she isn’t given much to do outside that physical presence. I would have readily traded all of the film’s other pleasures to watch a movie centered entirely on The Dust Witch instead.

It turns out that wasn’t the first or last time Grier’s career in magic would be undercut. The only other time the actor appeared in a straightforward horror picture, ten years before her appearance in Something Wicked, she was cast as a Voodoo priestess named Lisa Fortier. Scream Blacula Scream, the 1973 sequel to the popular blacksploitation horror Blacula, opens with Grier, as Lisa, preforming a Voodoo ritual on her recently deceased mentor. According to other characters in the film, “When it comes to Voodoo, Lisa has more Natural Powers than anyone in the past ten years.” It’s instantly believable. Lisa’s study of the “extremely complex science of Voodoo,” which she treats with the proper reverence as a religious faith, is unquestioned, making her the most obvious candidate to replace her local sect’s recently deceased high priestess. Unfortunately, one of her fellow practitioners wants to jump the line of succession and raises Mamuwalde (Blacula, for the laymen out there) from the dead to get her out of the picture. The plan backfires, obviously. Mamuwalde builds a new little vampire coven, inducting nearly everyone he meets into his mind slave army, everyone except Lisa. Recognizing her power & beauty, Blacula instead ropes Lisa into performing a ritual to cure him, a ceremony that’s broken up by the cops, who he promptly murders much to Lisa’s horror.

Scream Blacula Scream should be the perfect vehicle for delivery on a Pam Grier With Magical Powers premise, but somehow her Voodoo priestess practices are just as undercut here as they are in Something Wicked. As Lisa, Pam Grier commands a quiet strength & skepticism that perfectly matches the movie’s oddly quiet, somber tone. Outside a scene where she’s walking arm in arm with Blacula like a power couple and the final, interrupted Voodoo ritual to kill him (which looks like the standard dolls, candles, and chants image you’d expect), however, she isn’t given much to do in way of practicing her craft. This is Blacula’s film, after all. The best Lisa could do is wait for her climactic ceremony to test her skills, a scene that isn’t even allowed to fully play out.

A better-realized version of Pam Grier’s brief career as a Voodoo priestess would have had her waging a supernatural war against a foe like Blacula instead of meekly attempting to serve him from a victim’s position. There was a moment in the early 90s where that dream more or less came to life, but it unfortunately served a platform much less prestigious than a live action Disney horror or even a blacksploitation horror sequel. Grier appeared again as a Voodoo priestess in an episode of the syndicated horror anthology television series Monsters, a direct descendant of Tales from the Darkside. In the episode “Hostile Takeover” a business dick attempts to take the Reagan-coined term “Voodoo economics” literally, by employing Grier’s priestess to help him cheat his way to the top. Like all EC Comics/Tales from the Crypt descendants, this thirst for power obviously comes with a price and he’s ultimately punished at the hands of the demon Grier’s priestess worships. Here’s where Grier gets to really practice magic, having great fun with the power she visibly commands. She drinks a white businessman’s blood, forms a pact with an all-powerful demon, sends faxes from beyond the grave, hacks computer screens through the power of her Voodoo, etc. The only shame is that the product this witchy Pam Grier free for all serves is sadly short & embarrassingly cheap. Grier only appears in a couple scenes in this Monsters episode and although she looks badass smoking a cigar in the Party City Voodoo priestess costume they afford, even she can’t elevate the show’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level budget, it might just have been the Witchy Pam Grier project of my dreams.

Something Wicked, Scream Blacula Scream, and “Hostile Takeover” are all enjoyable genre fare. Even though her power is undercut in all three instances, watching Pam Grier practice witchcraft & Voodoo is a large part of their fun. It’s just frustrating in each case that her power wasn’t put to better & more prominent use. The good news is that Grier is still working. She seems to have mostly moved on from the genre film roles that defined her career in the 70s & 80s, mostly playing police detectives now, but she’s still out there. If there’s even a small chance that the magic potential Grier showed as The Dust Witch could be developed in a much better realized Witchy Grier project, I’m going to keep the hope alive. Her brief forays into witchcraft & Voodoo have created an itch I didn’t even know I had, but I’ve yet to find a movie that satisfactorily scratches it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor The Watcher in the Woods (1980), and last week’s comparison to Bradbury’s other suburban horror feature adaptation, The Halloween Tree (1993).

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made BoomerBrandon, and Alli watch Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).

Britnee: From the mid 1970s until around the mid 1980s, Walk Disney Productions dipped its toe into the darker side of cinema. Escape to Witch MountainReturn to Witch Mountain, and The Black Hole were live-action Disney films that debuted during the 1970s. Instead of the usual family-friendly Disney flick, these films fell more into the spookier side of the sci-fi genre. It was during the 1980s that this pattern of creepy live-action Disney movies became legitimately scary. It started with The Watcher in the Woods, a supernatural mystery starring Betty Davis. In 1983 came what, in my opinion, is the scariest live-action Disney film of all time: Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film is based on a Ray Bradbury novel that shares the same name. Bradbury initially wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes as a screenplay for a movie, but the movie never materialized, so he converted the screenplay into a novel. It wasn’t until many years later that Disney decided to make a movie based on the screenplay/novel. Something Wicked This Way Comes is nothing short of a beautiful masterpiece. The film takes place in a small Midwestern town during the fall in the 1950s or 1960s. The landscape mixed with the quaint neighborhoods creates a cozy feeling comparable to a cold night with a bowl of chicken noodle soup. The film follows two adolescent boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, a duo known throughout the film as “The Whisperers” because they served detention together for whispering in class. On a spooky autumn night, Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival mysteriously rolls into town, and strange things start happening to the town’s folk. The carnival, led by Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), is no regular carnival. Mr. Dark and his carnival associates, including a fortune teller played by the lovely Pam Grier, are interested in tempting the small town residents with their deepest desires in exchange for their souls. The two boys catch on to Mr. Dark’s true intentions, and it’s up to them save the town from the evil carnival.

There are quite a few popular films that seemed to be influenced by this not-so-popular movie. I couldn’t help but think of Hocus Pocus throughout. When the evil carnival crew is searching for the two boys, a cloud of green smoke enters their room, much like when the Sanderson sisters were looking for Dani in Hocus Pocus. There’s even a scene where graveyard statues have beams of light shooting through them, which is exactly what happens to the Sanderson sisters at the end of Hocus Pocus. Also, the dark train coming into town with booming orchestra music in the background immediately made me think of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.

Brandon, were there any films that you noticed were influenced by Something Wicked This Way Comes, other than Hocus Pocus and the Harry Potter series?

Brandon: I don’t know if I could cite a direct influence for any of these films, since Something Wicked was something of a commercial flop, but there were certainly spooky titles from my own childhood that came to mind during our screening: Jumanji, The Pagemaster, Lady in White, The Monster Squad, the live action Casper, etc. Unlike Something Wicked, this kind of spooky children’s fare is typically set in or around New England, presumably because that region has the oldest cultural history in America (post-European invasion, of course). It’s also difficult to define, because it’s a kind of mystic horror carved out entirely by mood. Everything about Something Wicked and its more modern contemporaries is commanded by a creepy feeling, an atmosphere established by roaring winds and empty settings like a suburb or a carnival that makes its characters seem like they’re the only kids in the entire world, having to stage a world-saving battle between Good & Evil all on their own. Although this kind of kid-friendly creepshow is rarely as terrifying as you remember it being growing up, it’s the exact kind of film that sticks with you for life. Something Wicked made less than half of its budget back at the box office and was considered to be an embarrassing failure by Disney executives who filtered director Jack Clayton’s vision through a long line of expensive re-shoots & re-edits before its release. Yet, its reputation has been enduringly positive for people who caught it at a young enough age on the home movie market. When watching Something Wicked with Britnee, she commented that she’d never want to see a crisper, digitally restored transfer of the film, since the VHS-esque grain of her DVD copy is essential to how she’s always remembered it. I really enjoyed the first viewing of Something Wicked as an adult, but I’m kinda jealous that she has aged along with a film in that way. I would have loved to have grown up with it in my life the same way I cherished the spooky kids’ movies mentioned above.

What distinguishes Something Wicked from a lot of those kids’ horrors, though, is its dedication to remaining truly nightmarish. This is by far both the creepiest and the most deliriously horny Disney film I’ve ever seen. Mirror dimension mysticism, bloodied fists, parental anxiety, haunted carnival attractions, and Pam Grier (who plays a witch!) teasing perverted men into a fatal sexual frenzy all certainly would have kept me up at night as a young’n. The film’s central conceit about a villainous carnival ringmaster who tortures people with their innermost unspoken desires is its most disturbing & rewarding aspect, though. More so than any of the kids’ movies mentioned above, Something Wicked This Way Comes reminded me of the supernatural space horror Event Horizon, another film where unspoken wishes & desires are actualized as real-life horrors (to a much gorier effect). This conceit is established beautifully in the ringmaster’s big library speech, where he explains to his victim of the minute, “We are the hungry ones. Your torments call us like dogs in the night. And we do feed, and feed well. […] Funerals, bad marriages, lost loves, lonely beds. That is our diet. We suck that misery and find it sweet. We search for more always. We can smell young boys ulcerating to be men a thousand miles off. And hear a middle-aged fool like yourself groaning with midnight despairs from halfway around the world.” Disturbing stuff. The role of the ringmaster, Mr. Dark, was nearly cast as vampiric legends Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing (and I was fantasy casting Tim Curry as Dark in my head), but actor Jonathan Pryce more than earns his keep in that speech alone, giving me the willies even as an adult. His genuine creepiness in that exchange and the movie’s general theme of torturous desires are somehow far more disturbing than any of Something Wicked‘s specific nightmarish carnival images, which is a struggle for most horror films, made for kids or otherwise.

What’s most curious to me right now is just how much this movie was ultimately affected by studio interference. As Britnee explained in her intro, Disney wanted to intentionally take its brand into this darker, more adult territory, but its seems as if they weren’t fully committed to its implications. The re-shoots, the storied casting of Mr. Dark, Pam Grier’s relatively silenced witch, and Bradbury’s own admission of frustration with the final product all suggest a highly compromised vision, even if one that’s since proven to be enduringly beloved. Boomer, you’ve read the Bradbury novel the film is adapted from. Do you get a sense of what might have been lost or dulled in its big studio adaptation? Would this have been an even more nightmarish work if it were more faithful to its source material?

Boomer: I read an embarrassing amount of Bradbury in my youth and not so much since college. The thing about his body of work is that, although he is indisputably one of the great American writers in all genres (not just the science fiction for which he is most notable), his more grounded work has a tendency toward the saccharine. Although there’s something admirable about an old stalwart who clings to the exaltation of the majesty of youth, as a result much of his compositions end up lacking the humor, or at least the irony, of his stronger and more notable speculative fiction. That’s certainly the case with a lot of his later short stories–particularly grotesque demonstrations can be found in Driving Blind and Quicker Than the Eye–but the quasi-companion piece to Something Wicked, Dandelion Wine, is perhaps best at threading the needle of apotheosizing the magic of preadolescence without being too cloying.

Dandelion Wine, like The Martian Chronicles, was a “fix-it” novel, in that it was knocked together from shorter previously published pieces (the seams in Chronicles are much more noticable); Something Wicked was always intended to be a singularly cohesive work and thus has a clearer thesis, but it’s ultimately to the book’s detriment. The ghouls that make up Mr. Dark’s carvinal are defeated through joy, specifically those particular brands, the joy of boyhood and paternal love. Adult readers can find creepy novelty in the imagery, but the whimsy of the book means that only the youngest of readers can possibly dread the fate of the two boys. Bradbury never really had the heart to put children in truly dire straits in his stories (the nuclear shadows of two long-dead kids burned into a wall in a personal favorite “There Will Come Soft Rains” notwithstanding), so the novel’s conclusion feels foregone. By excising some of the more bathetic material for the adaptation’s finale, it works better as a climax, and there’s a more palpable sense of danger and urgency. Bradbury may have found the film to be flawed, but I found certain parts of the movie more engaging than the praise of youth that weighed down the novel. The film may not be better than the novel, but it’s as least as good as.

To add to the above discussion, I too found myself drawn to films like Something Wicked, if not that movie itself. I second The Watcher in the Woods as a pre-eminent example of this oddly specific subgenre and era, and further nominate The NeverEnding Story and especially Return to Oz. Return was likewise produced by Disney Studios in the eighties, and it has a striking cinematic resemblance to Something Wicked that I don’t think I’ve seen reproduced elsewhere. Thematically speaking, Stephen King’s Needful Things goes a bit deeper into the dramatic irony of giving people something that they want but denying them the ability to garner any happiness from it (the thematic connection is made manifest in the Rick and Morty episode “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” which takes the title pun from Bradbury’s work while more closely parodying the plot of King’s). This concept, however, is at least as old as “The Monkey’s Paw” and probably has several other premodern ur-examples that I’m overlooking. Alli, what do you think of the use of this narrative structure and device, and how do you feel Something Wicked ranks as an example of them?

Alli: I like the be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing, even though it is everywhere. The Twilight Zone covers this topic so many times and every time I just eat it up. The one that always gets me is the man with his broken glasses. The X-Files covers this humorously in the form of a literal genie. The stories I can think of it happening with kids are Coraline and Labyrinth. While they have female protagonists at the helm, it’s still kids fighting and besting this very real darkness based out of deep desires. Also, they both have super terrifying moments for family films. (There’s a strong argument to be had about whether or not Coraline is suitable for children at all.)  In those, though, it’s the kids doing the wishing; in Something Wicked, it’s the adults endangering themselves. In that way it sort of made me think of The Goonies, another dark family film, because of the kids going on an adventure to save the adults while the adults are too busy adulting.

This narrative structure is really effective as a coming of age arc. Nothing forces teens to look outside of themselves and take responsibility like a crisis caused by selfishness. It fills a very real need and anxiety of kids that age, when people are expecting you to start growing up after years of having someone there to fix your mistakes. To have these kinds of stories played out for kids and teens to see themselves onscreen tackling really big problems not only works as an escapism from their own boring real world problems, but it’s empowering to see kids beat the odds against them. I think it’s great that Something Wicked kind of put those anxieties on hold and at bay by having the message that you don’t have to grow up too fast. These kids aren’t actually forced to grow up exponentially to save a bunch of adults; a real adult actually comes through for them.  The kids are just running around being kids, which is ultimately perfect for them. Because of their child-like senses of adventure and mischief, they are equipped to take charge and save their whole town of adults living through real adult regrets.  I think the flip side of the coin is that it presents adulthood as a really depressing time where you’ve given up on all your dreams, make do with what you have, and live a life full of regrets; it doesn’t really do anything against that fear. Mr. Halloway was able to break through his regrets, which at first seem to be mainly about being too old.

What I was actually really taken aback by is the way they keep mentioning Will’s dad’s heart, his age, and how he wishes he could play baseball with his son, but what he wants to talk to his kid about the whole time is an incident when he was unable to save him from drowning. Bradbury really leads you down the old man path and then jerks the leash abruptly in another direction. It just seemed like a weird twist and strange thing to regret, especially because his kid didn’t drown and didn’t even know who saved him at all. I guess maybe that’s why he was able to break free from his regret, but for how much they talk about the old age thing, it doesn’t seem to bother him nearly as bad. I think it says a lot about his character that he cares more about his son’s childhood than his own pride. Britnee, what do you think about Mr. Halloway and his regrets? How do you think his compares to the other adults’?

Britnee: Mr. Halloway’s character is interesting indeed. At first, he sort of comes off as slightly similar to the beloved, depressing Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore. There’s just something about those big depressed eyes and all the weird death comments he made to William. I definitely agree that the audience is steered in the wrong direction when it comes to the big reveal of Mr. Halloway’s regrets because there is that focus on him being a senior citizen and the father of a very young boy for a good chunk of the film. Mr. Halloway makes uncomfortable comments about his age and heart troubles, but he isn’t obsessed with being younger or healthier. The core of him just want’s to be the best father he can be to Will, which leads to the love of a father and son being what saves the town and its people from being destroyed by the dark carnival.

The other adults in the town get royally fucked over because of their selfish desires: a horny barber’s desperate want to have relations with beautiful women, an aged teacher’s desire to be the young & beautiful woman she once was, a cigar store owner that wants to be rolling in cash, and an amputee’s desire to get his limbs back (which really isn’t as selfish as it’s supposed to be). Will’s father really doesn’t have a selfish desire other than the desire to go back in time and save his son from drowning years ago. Like Alli said earlier, he cares more about Will than he does about his own wants and desires, which makes him this film’s unlikely hero. I know many people who had elderly fathers when they were children, and it’s so rare to see a positive relation between an older father and younger son/daughter in film. It was really refreshing to have one of the main focuses of Something Wicked This Way Comes be the relationship between Mr. Halloway and Will so kids out there with the same parental situation don’t feel so alone.

A want and desire of my own for this movie would be to have more screen time given to the Dust Witch. I never read the novel in which the film is based on, so I’m unsure of how present she is in the book, but there’s always a little wiggle room for originality in book to screen adaptations. Brandon, do you think the near silence of the Dust Witch’s character made her seem more mysterious and dark or would you have liked to see a more solid presence of Ms. Grier’s amazing yet unknown character? 

Brandon: To be honest, if I had any say in how to improve cinema in general, I’d probably start by making Pam Grier a more solid presence all around. Since her earliest roles in blacksploitation action flicks like Foxy BrownFriday Foster, and (her all-time greatest) Coffy, Grier has been one of the most effortlessly cool, badass onscreen personalities in genre cinema. Just her mere presence in roles like the Dust Witch in Something Wicked or the robo-teacher with the cannon tits in former Movie of the Month Class of 1999 elevates the material tremendously, even while underserving what she could do with a bigger part. It’s wonderful to see Grier pop up in genre cinema throwbacks like Mars Attacks or Jackie Brown, but I can’t shake the feeling that she was never given her fair due. For instance, even though Hollywood couldn’t make room for the genre film icon in more serious dramatic roles she could surely handle, how sad is it that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they’re both miserably unwatchable? (My apologies to defenders of Ghosts of Mars and, less likely, defenders of Pluto Nash.)  It seems odd to hire someone as recognizable as Grier for a character as central as the Dust Witch and not afford her a bigger part, but she still manages to do what she always does in the role: improve every second of screentime she’s afforded. Some of the most memorable images in Something Wicked are of the Dust Witch painted gold or frozen in an ice coffin or wearing white lace while overlayed with flying shards of broken glass. Grier is endlessly watchable in the part, even without the aid of significant dialogue.

If there were an easy path to beefing up the presence of the Dust Witch, it might have been to give her characteristics and plot-related duties of Mr. Dark. It may have been a blasphemous choice to toy that heavily with Bradbury’s vision, but you’d think with all of the casting scenarios surrounding Mr. Dark, someone might have considered it a little redundant to have two distinct villains running the carnival. Again, I do think Jonathan Pryce proved himself worthy of the role of Mr. Dark throughout Something Wicked, especially in his big library speech, but my love for Pam Grier (and for witch media in general) makes me wonder how the film might have been improved if the Dust Witch had absorbed a lot of his narrative significance & dialogue.

Boomer, do you see the value in keeping the dual threats of Mr. Dark & the Dust Witch separate or do they more or less serve the same function in the film for you? Is the Dust Witch’s relative silence the only thing keeping her back from eclipsing Mr. Dark’s villainous power or is there more to their dynamic than that?

Boomer: In the novel, the ghouls who make up Dark’s carnival are more of an ensemble, so the book! Dust Witch definitely has more of a presence than in the film. This is especially notable in comparison to Mr. Cooger, whose narrative appearances remain largely unchanged, give or take a few details like the exact machinations of his ultimate fate. To me, it feels like the Almighty Pam was likely cast early on in the process, when the producers were probably expecting to translate more of her story to the screen. I agree that the world at large is better served by increasing her presence rather than decreasing it; however, from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, it makes more sense narratively to trim her appearances rather than Cooger’s. The Dust Witch is more integral to creating the atmosphere of Something Wicked, while Cooger is more necessary to the narrative. When you can use the language of film instead of the page to do the work of setting the tone, it’s a straightforward choice of what ends up on the cutting room floor. That’s not to say that the Dust Witch couldn’t have replaced Cooger altogether, but perhaps it was felt those actions would seem too inappropriate when performed by Miss Friday Foster herself.

Alli, you mentioned above that you were struck most by the illogical (and thus human) regrets that Mr. Halloway harbored for so long, and how the film subtly misleads its audience by letting him ultimately become the hero, if not the protagonist. Do you think this could be a result of affecting a child’s perspective of the archetypal hero father, balanced out by human failings, or do you see another narrative drive at work? Do you feel the film would benefit from similar inspection of the other adult characters, or no?

Alli: I definitely think there’s a certain amount of glorifying fatherhood that’s going on here, but I think there’s also the idea that only adults with imaginations, or who are in touch with their inner child, can help you as a kid. No, they’re not perfect, but they can support you. Mr. Halloway ended up not being the coolest or youngest dad, but he is the best adult role model. He believes in the power of books and stories. He saw an opportunity to use his strengths to be there for his kid and he took it. The idea that adults can make mistakes but still redeem themselves (to an extent) is an important thing for a children’s movie, no matter how scary it is, to get across. Then, there’s also the whole power of literacy thing.

The disabled barkeep could have definitely benefited from a similar arc, but every adult (who isn’t a librarian) is portrayed as dumb and selfish. Rather than these particular adults being weak minded and simple, maybe they’re just miserable? Small towns kind of suck. Of course the teacher wants to be young and beautiful again; these two boys are constantly ridiculing her for her looks. Who knows how many years, how many classes, how many children that’s gone on for. She also lives alone, so there’s probably some tragic lost love or other small town loneliness. Likewise with the barber. He could just be a very lonely man. Sure, that doesn’t excuse his casual misogyny, but that seems like it’s all an act. Jim’s mom has been a single mother for years! Of course she wants to find the man of her dreams. It’s harder to sympathize with the cigar shop owner’s need for more money, so I think he’s probably the least redeemable one.

Maybe the dark carnival can’t really tempt someone like Mr. Halloway for long, because he has a very complex reason for being regretful. Otherwise he seems to be a very happy man with a lovely family. Maybe they’re actually just not very good at doing their job and have been underestimating people and towns forever. That doesn’t make them any less spooky, though.

Lagniappe

Brandon: A lot of Something Wicked‘s charm is rooted in its old-fashioned sense of class, the kind of horror aesthetic that calls back to eras like Hammer House pictures or Universal’s Famous Monsters boom. The carnival setting, mat painting backdrops, hand-animated effects, and even the tension of swiftly approaching trains all add wonderfully to the this effect, making the film feel more like a timeless work instead of a meticulously planned early 80s production from one of the largest corporations in the world. You can feel that classy throwback aesthetic as soon as the film’s blood splatter typeface in the opening credits and it remains its greatest strength throughout.

Before we wrap up, I’d like to briefly chime in on the question of the source of Mr. Halloway’s regrets & desires. I don’t believe that his regret over not being able to save his own son from drowning is too much of a swerve from his overriding desire to be a younger, more virile father. I assume, because the man who saved his kid was likely much younger & more physically able, the pain of that memory is actually just an extension of the same desire for youth & good health that always drives his self-loathing & depression.

Alli: I couldn’t help but think throughout the whole movie, with its fall setting and pumpkins all around, about another Ray Bradbury film adaptation: The Halloween Tree. It has a similar eerie, dark tone balanced out with childhood mischief and adventure. It’s also pretty educational. I’m curious why Bradbury seemed to favor setting his children related stories in the fall. I guess it’s the amount of atmosphere and folklore surrounding the time period; or maybe his favorite holiday was Halloween.

Boomer: For a different (and in my opinion better) take on this idea in novel form, I recommend Tom Reamy’s Blind Voices. It too focuses on an evil carnival that arrives in Small Town America in the first half of the 20th Century, and there’s a pair of young boys. It further increases the number of viewpoint characters to include three teenage girls, one of whom is the older sister of the Will equivalent. It has the nostalgia factor of the original Something Wicked novel, but without the treacle (although it has a very sci-fi twist that you don’t expect, given the general magical realism tone).

Britnee:  I would love to see a Disneyworld/Disneyland ride that is based on the darker Disney films like Something Wicked This Way Comes. Could you imagine a hall of mirrors that gives you what most people desire most, and you have to find your way out before Mr. Dark gets you? Even just a backwards carousel with lots of green smoke coming out of it would be amazing.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)

-The Swampflix Crew

Mark of the Witch (1970)

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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

The Love Witch (2016)

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fourstar

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I understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by intentionally “bad” movies. Forced, manufactured camp value can often feel cheap & disingenuous, especially when the filmmaking it supports aims lazily low in its overall sense of ambition. Accusations of taking the low road and making an intentionally “bad” movie are certain to accompany Anna Biller’s erotic horror comedy The Love Witch, but the film is far from lazy in its ambition & attention to craft. The Love Witch carefully recalls the cheap sets, rear projections, absurdly stilted dialogue, and half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s. Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. Besides writing, directing, and editing The Love Witch, Biller is also credited with the film’s set & costume design. She exhibits a godlike control over her visual palette, crafting an intricately detailed work packed with occult paintings, pentagrams, potions, candles, jars, lingerie, and intensely-colored make-up. She elevates the depths of lazily decorated schlock to a new high standard of meticulous visual artistry, a kind of personalized, auteurist ambition that’s often missing from “bad”-on-purpose cinema. More importantly, though, Biller uses this backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch is more than a comedic exercise in camp-minded nostalgia; it’s also a beautiful art piece with an unforgiving political bent.

Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, the titular witch, who finds herself in constant trouble with the law for her deadly seduction of men. Elaine uses “love potions” & “sex magic” to lure men into her dangerous web of lust & overwhelming devotion. She doesn’t exactly murder her suitors & side flings in cold blood. Rather, the men she seduces just aren’t physically or spiritually capable of handling the immense pressure of true love & genuine emotion that accompanies her supernatural mode of romance. Their bodies crumble while trying to reconcile a basic human experience the women around them handle with grace on a daily basis. The Love Witch airdrops legitimate feminist criticism into its cartoonish narrative in this way. There’s plenty of inane banter played for laughs, like when Elaine babbles about “parapsychology” or explains that she first wanted to become a witch because she “wanted to have magical powers.” What’s striking, though, is the way these camp cinema callbacks are interrupted by lines like, “Men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way,” and “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.” The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology, particularly in relation to heterosexual power dynamics, through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect with an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

The Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of, one where time-traveling cellphones & feminist ideology appear as if they’re a natural part of the territory. The film is eerily accurate in its dedication to recreating cheap horror erotica, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. It plays exceedingly well with a crowd; the raucous audience I saw it with was enthusiastic and treated it like a midnight movie despite it being an early evening screening. Beneath all of the film’s gloriously bad visual art, eye-melting costume design, and absurdly overstated dialogue, however, it’s a surprisingly dark, quietly angry political piece. The men of The Love Witch range from selfish crybabies & power-hungry rapists and the way the film undercuts & subverts their privilege & control is surprisingly pointed for something so deliberately silly & narratively slight. Mixing in a little sugar to sweeten the medicine, the film appears to be an intentional exercise in dimwitted, oversexed schlock, but that “so bad it’s good” facade is only one layer to a work that’s much more visually & politically fascinating than it initially appears to be.

-Brandon Ledet