Category Archives: Black Magic

The Love Witch 2016

Witches are all the rage at the moment, from The Conjuring to Don’t Knock Twice to, well, The Witch you can’t move for the amount of broomsticks, cauldrons and potions. What most of these films don’t seem to do is to portray witches in a very good light. Real witches of history were not hagged old crones having sex with the devil but women living alternative lifestyles, or sometimes just saying no to men, who were persecuted and executed because they didn’t fit in with what a patriarchal society expected of them. The current glut of genre fair doesn’t seem to acknowledge this, so it takes something as mad as The Love Witch to take it upon itself to exact witch-kind’s revenge. All in spectacular Technicolor.

That’s not to say that the witches are portrayed as particularly decent or kind here. Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, a sultry vixen of a witch who, after terrible goings on in San Francisco, finds herself in Eureka, California looking for love and generally destroying everyone in her path. Elaine, you see, is addicted to love. All she wants is to meet Prince Charming and give him all the passion a man could ever want. Unfortunately, for Prince Charming, Elaine loves the ideal of love, rather than love itself. She easily seduces men with the most basic of flirtatious moves, together with her extraordinary beauty. However, being a witch, she feels the need to ensure their unquestioning devotion with the extra help of her home made love potions. These, unfortunately, soon makes the men paranoid, then furious and angry, before becoming pathetic crying babies who mostly kill themselves or just drop dead. Elaine is deeply disappointed in all this: the men have failed to live up to what she expected of them and the love she wanted from them. However she soon gets over it, often whilst the man is still alive, moving onto the next Prince Charming she sets her sights on.

Elaine might actually be a terrible witch, but she’s an even worse lover. She tells one foolish man that she is the ultimate male fantasy: beautiful, sexy, subservient and can make a cracking steak dinner. But Elaine is nothing of the sort. She makes a friend in Eureaka, Trish (the great Laura Waddell), who can’t understand why Elaine only wants to do everything to make her man happy. “Don’t you want to rise up against the patriarchy?” Trish asks. Really Elaine is doing just that: by giving the man what he thinks is his heart’s desire, she exposes him as weak and childish. Its only when she comes up against chisel jawed cop Gruff (Gian Keys) who’s secret view of all women is different and much colder than the other guys (the more he knows a woman the less attractive he finds them) does Elaine’s power start to unravel.

You might think this all sounds a bit dry and heavy but you could not be more wrong, because The Love Witch is not shot like a modern horror at all. No, it is filmed as if it is a very pretty 1960s melodrama. The colour and sets burst off the screen in vivid Technicolor – genuine film stock was used! The costumes and hairstyles seem to have come straight from Biba on Carnaby Street in swinging sixties London. The whole production looks fantastic with a wonderful attention to detail of time and place, with classic Mercedes driving on projected back drops and eyelashes large enough to blow people over. This period look is perfect… right up until you see modern cars in the background. At first you think this could be a mistake or a result of budget limitations. But then Trish drives a modern BMW and later pulls out a mobile phone. Its a wonderful conceit… the movie sucks you into this sixties dreamy love letter then snaps you straight back out of it with modern touches. It both undermines its period setting and reinforces it at the same time; The Love Witch might seem like it was made in the past, with its ludicrous production values and weird dream like qualities, but it is dealing with issues which are bang up to date, and the juxtaposition of the old and new imagery reinforces this.

The acting is also top notch. I watched some god awful movie the other day which was trying to recreate a B-movie feel with exaggerated performances. However the actors were clearly not up to the task and the whole thing came across as laboured and amateur. Not so in The Love Witch. The performances are often stilted and wooden but they are deliberate, they are clearly performed by actors who really can act and it works perfectly. Think about it: acting badly enough that you give a really good performance is no easy feat. It reminded me of Johnny Depp’s terrific turn in Ed Wood – so bad its good, but on purpose… terrific.

It’s not all technicolour perfection though: the film feels way too long at just over two hours. Obviously it has a deliberately slower pace which helps recreate the mood of the sixties era, but there are some scenes which just go on for far too long. These are mostly parts involving the extended witch clans in Eureka. There are far too many long ritual scenes which could have easily been cut out and would not have made the slightest difference to the story. In fact these scenes are mostly not even shot as well as the main chunk of the film, as if they weren’t sure what to do with them so feel even more surplus to requirements.

I wouldn’t let this put you off though. The Love Witch is a unique and clearly insane film: watching all its prime-colour melodrama is like dipping your mind into a sixties acid-tinged fever dream. On top of that it gives you something to think about: how love can be a destructive curse for both men and women, and how the witch, certainly in modern cinema, isn’t helping.

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Halloween III: Season of the Witch 1982

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I think it’s fair to say that the Halloween sequels are like doner kebabs – even when they’re good they’re still pretty bad. You can cover them in as much chilli sauce or Jamie Lew Curtis cameos as you like but ultimately they’re still only worth having a go at when you’re right royally pissed up.

Upon its release Halloween III: Season of the Witch was considered the worst of the lot. This is mainly because it has nothing to do with Michael Myers or Donald Pleasance or killing teens with a kitchen knife and leaving their corpse spread out on your bed with a stolen headstone as a bedstead. Audiences felt short changed – this wasn’t what they paid their hard earned money to see: some gubbons about killer Halloween masks. They wanted The Shape in a boiler suit dealing out death wearing William Shatner’s face. This was not to be though. Whilst the Friday the 13th franchise was doubling down with more and more of the same, the great John Carpenter had had enough. He was not going to be doing the same old sequel. It was bad enough that he’d had to write and produce Halloween 2 (the night HE went to the hospital for a check up). Now Carpenter had free reign to persuade his original idea for Halloween sequels: an anthology series with a different horror story set at Halloween in each film.

Season of the Witch was the first of the anthology films, it was also the last.

You can see why it annoyed people so much. It is such a U-Turn from Halloween. Its a weird mix of witchcraft, Videodrome and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. An ordinary man, escaping suited strange figures, is carried into a hospital clutching a Jack-o-Lantern children’s mask and claiming “they’re going to kill us all”. He’s soon bumped off by having his eyes pushed into his skull and its left to his tending physician (Tom Atkins) to unravel the mystery of who killed him. Meanwhile the nation’s children are in the grip of toy fever over the “Silver Shamrock” Halloween masks – the same as the mask the dead man was holding…

Atkins is assisted by the deceased’s daughter, Stacey Nelkin. She is firstly, trying to find out who killed her father and secondly, waaaaaaay too young for Atkins. Nelkin may have been in her early twenties when she filmed this but she looks a hell of a lot younger than that. Add in the fact that poor old Atkins always looked about ten years older than he ever was (although here he was 47) and the whole coupling starts to feel more than a little uncomfortable. And they couple a lot. They do it twice before Atkins even asks her how old she is (risky attitude there Tom) and when someone in the next room gets zapped in the face by a laser, Nelkin worries “What was that?!?” “Who cares!” says Tom as he goes down on her breasts once more.

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Anyway, I recounted the entire plot to the always delightful, and soon to be my wife, May. She proclaimed “wait! What! That’s the actual plot of a film! Nonsense! That sounds dreadful!” May has a point, it IS kind of ludicrous. However, on the other hand how can a film involving slimy suited robots, children’s heads melting into a mountain of insects, stones stolen from stone henge and a villainous Irish magician ever really be that bad? Okay, yes. Maybe quite easily, but the way Season of the Witch is made it feels like a lost John Carpenter movie, mainly because that’s what it is.

Tommy Lee Wallace would go onto direct a number of interesting projects (including Fright Night Part 2 and Stephen King’s It) but, whether by choice or not, here he is purely channelling Carpenter’s directional style. He does it through framing with sinister characters just being out of shot and then stepping into view, or being revealed with a slow pan. He has some great use of steady cam, especially early on when Atkins is chasing the suited killer out of the hospital, the villain always just at the edge of Atkin’s (and our) view. Wallace also uses dark very effectively with mysterious shapes running through the night. Add into all this a great synth score by John himself (along with Alan Howarth) and this feels like vintage Carpenter.

I mean, it’s NOT vintage Carpenter. May was right, the story is nonsense, but it has the mood and feel of the master. Plus the mystery, whilst it’s being solved, is weirdly compelling. And there is something disturbingly hypnotic about the Silver Shamrock masks and that repetitive advert that plays throughout the film: promising fun and prizes for all the children but really only giving death and sacrifice in the name of something old and horrible.

If you thought Halloween III: Season of the Witch was also old and horrible then maybe it’s worth giving it another shot. It’s certainly better that Halloween: Resurrection which is set on a reality TV show. Now that really is dreadful, like as a doner kebab from “Chick Pizz”* in Stoke Newington on a Saturday night.

 

*They do Chicken AND Pizzas (and Doner Kebabs) and are the worst in London. I’m not being cruel, its been scientifically proven.

 

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The Witch 2015

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Back before the good old days, if you were a woman who wanted to live independently and have your own mind you were considered a witch and burnt at the stake. Now of course, things have moved on so much: if you are an independent woman with her own mind you are called a feminist and burnt on Twitter. Somehow being a witch was, and still can be, a bad thing, even if now we (mostly) accept that the torture and murder of witches was a travesty of history.

The witches of Robert Eggers’ The Witch are certainly not shown in a very good light. In many ways their portrayal here is a step back from Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General from 1968, which firmly placed the evil doings at the feet of men, not the innocent women who were executed for being different,  being in the way or, you know, being a woman. However despite dealing with some familiar territory about false accusations and the power that fear can create, I don’t think Egger’s aim is to make a political point about the supposed witches of the past. To me it seems to be a film about  faith, and how that faith is not enough to survive the harsh realities of the real world.

We start with a family cast out from a puritan community (for being TOO puritanical, which must have been saying something in those days) in New England who set up a new home at the edge of a forest. The family consists of the parents, a pubescent boy, young twins, a baby and the eldest –  a teenage girl, Thomasin . You can probably guess who is going to get a hard time about being a witch.

I don’t think we in the modern western world can ever understand the hardships the first settlers must have experienced when they arrived in America. Within their communities it must have been hard enough, but this isolated family is constantly on the brink of destruction even before the witch turns up to steal the baby. The crops are failing, the father William is a terrible huntsman in a place where there is hardly anything to hunt anyway and they are all very, very alone: the nearest village a couple of days away by horse -and they’ve lost their horse! When the baby disappears and the twins take a joke Thomasin makes far too seriously, suspicion falls to her and whether she is the witch of not.

This film is no Crucible-style witch hunt movie, it is more of a study of a family in free fall as they fail to survive the new frontier. Although Williams and his wife Katherine have a deep devotion to their faith and each other, they are unable to find comfort in their beliefs as their children disappear or die and their world falls apart. When the puritans left England for America I suspect they thought that they were expecting to find “God’s own country” but The Witch suggests what they discovered was quite the opposite: William and Katherine can only see evil and the Devil’s work in this new land.

The Witch was promoted as the latest big scarefest, but what hits you after about two minutes of the film, is that even more so than It Follows, this is not a mainstream horror but an art house film. Scenes are often long and silent, reflecting the big and empty new land of America. The scenery itself is beautiful for sure but it mostly looks cold and muddy and unwelcoming – who would want to start a new life here? Not me. Not even one of the characters who spends much of the film angry and bitter until one small, quiet moment when she says that all she wants to do is go home. This may be New England but, for her, this is nothing like England – it is too hard a life, too lonely and too much of a test of her faith.

That isn’t to say that this isn’t a horror film. I’m surprised how many people I know who have said it isn’t horror at all but a dark historical drama. The emphasis is indeed on the interaction of the characters and the effect their surroundings has on them but the importance of character and the unflashy direction doesn’t detract from the horrific core of the story. I was more reminded of Werner Herzog films whilst watching this than anything, but then again even he’s made a horror film (or more depending on how you view some of them). There may not be many obvious horror tropes presented here but there are still plenty of witchery things going on. More importantly there is a really scary goat.

Yes, for all the deep questions The Witch asks about faith and nature, it also has time to have a goat who will freak you out.

Plus his name is Black Philip.

It is NEVER, EVER going to happen but in an alternative universe somewhere The Witch is the number one box office movie of the year and they are talking about making a sequel and putting Black Philip front and centre. “He’s the new Freddy Kruger!” a studio exec is saying. Fortunately we’re not in that universe, we’re in ours and Black Philip will just remain what he is: a goat in a little film, but a damned creepy goat at that.

First time feature director Robert Eggers  breaks the rule of not working with animals. He manages to russell up some wicked performances from all of them – on top of Black Philip there’s also a rather unsettling rabbit, if you can imagine such a thing. The he goes even further and gets great performances from the children too. Okay the baby doesn’t have much to do but giggle and scream but the twins are absolute shits which is just what we are after from them with all the trouble they cause. Harvey Scrimshaw as the twelve year old boy has lots of tricky dialogue to pull off for such a young age (the dialogue is all 17th century dialect) and does so admirably, and Anya Taylor-Joy leads with a genuine depth to her performance (as does Kate Dickie as her mother). Towering above them all however is Ralph Ineson as William. A proud, god-fearing man who is out of his depth but still trying to hold his family and faith togethe. It is hard to reconcile that this is the same actor who played David Brent’s “best mate”, Finchy in The Office. Ineson manages to pull off a multi layered performance that shows William as physically strong but emotionally weak at the same time, more fearful of his wife than of the supposed witch. Inseson grabs this lead roll by the balls and pulls you into his plight. You don’t even see his face properly for the first few scenes but his gravelly Leeds accent draws you in. You can see why his family travel with him to the end of the world even if he is doomed to fail them.

The Witch probably isn’t for everyone. I guess I can see why some people weren’t moved by it – it is slow paced and deliberate, its chills are limited in the traditional sense and its ending is either bonkers and brilliant or deeply unsatisfying, depending upon your point of view. For me however it was incredibly intense, gripping and sad, with fantastic performances from everyone, from the giant Leeds lad all the way down to the evil rabbit.

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