Thursday, January 12, 2017

"One of Those Drive-In Grocery Stores" - Mark of the Witch (1970) - Part 3 of 3


This is Part 3 of our discussion of the 1970 film Mark of the Witch. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

At this point in the story, the witch from three centuries ago has possessed the body of college student Jill and moved in with Jill's boyfriend Allen in the home of Professor Stuart, ancestor of the man who betrayed the witch in an earlier life.


Allen, Professor Stuart, and the witch have a nice breakfast with, as might be expected, Harry's occult murder the topic of conversation.

   

The witch, a brilliant strategist, plays mind games with Allen. When he asks why she killed Harry, she says it is not her fault their friend Jill had murderous impulses. After all, if they told the truth, Jill would be implicated as the murderer.

Allen is thoroughly cowed by her cold logic. The professor asks how long the witch will be in control of Jill's body. "I am Jill for as long as I must be and as long as I am, you're helpless."

But the witch has not counted on Sharon, Harry's girlfriend. After knocking politely, Sharon pushes her way into the house to confront the witch. Sharon knows Harry was at the grove because of Jill.

The witch uses another stratagem worthy of the tragedies of Shakespeare, or even of Three's Company. She tells Sharon that Harry had planned to ask Sharon to marry her, and he was in the grove to ask Jill how he should propose.

Of course, Sharon is overjoyed to hear all this. She is no longer suspicious of Jill, even trusting Jill to give her some kind of potion. Sharon drinks quickly. "A fitting memorial," the witch says, and there is a sinister musical sting. "So you can be with Harry, Sharon," the witch clarifies after the potion is drunk.

The witch pulls the same trick on Sharon that she played on Harry. Sharon is now unable to speak for herself. The witch means to induct Sharon into the coven, as she apparently did with Harry the previous night.

Meanwhile, Professor Stuart and Allen are at an Italian restaurant, complete with a wicker bottle of chianti. They are making fun of a spell in the red book that calls for boiling herbs, identified by the professor as stimulants and aphrodisiacs, in brandy to drive out evil spirits.


Stuart believes the recipe as written is incorrect. Somehow he knows the correct spell despite the errors in the book. His occult powers appear to be kicking in. Later, at his desk, a sleeping Professor Stuart writes the key to the spell in his notes. The key involves enveloping the witch with a symbol of goodness.

Meanwhile, the witch has taken Sharon to the grove to complete her induction into the coven, which involves, as it must, opening her shirt to reveal her bra, as well as branding Sharon with the mark of the witch. The witch cackles madly at the successful spell.

The next morning, Allen wakes up on Professor Stuart's sofa. "If we could just get her to tell us what she's going to do next," Allen laments, ignoring or forgetting their previous attempt to do just that. "Maybe Harry was enough." Allen is interrupted by a phone call informing them that Sharon has also been killed.

Later, at what appears to be a ski lodge, Allen and the professor are still discussing the problem when the witch enters.


She informs them she is done with Jill's body. It is time for the charm to be reversed. They are in luck, for the signs will be right tomorrow.

Tomorrow, they set up a table to perform the reversal. Allen enters with a paper bag, saying "Hardware store was closed, so I had to go to one of those drive-in grocery stores. This was all the extension cord I could get." They are wiring the living room as part of some unexplained plan that is set to go off at 10:15 with an automatic timer. Probably sensibly, they do not trust the witch.

At 10:00, the witch arrives to perform the ceremony. Allen and Professor Stuart play their roles in the spell, even drinking a potion from a wine glass and sitting still while the witch unsheathes a knife.


As part of her invocation, the witch reveals her plan to bring "the Stuart" back into the coven tonight. She calls forth the coven, naming their names (Dagon, Asmodeus, Leviathan, etc.). Nothing responds, but the witch continues to unspool her plan by raising the knife over Professor Stuart.

At that moment, however, the electronic timer activates. The result is a projection of a cross onto the witch's face.


Indeed, this plan did require a long length of extension cord. It is fortunate the drive-in grocery store was open!

The witch screams as lights flash around her.


The image of the cross has succeeded in separating the witch from Jill's body.


Allen and the professor grab Jill and carry her away while the witch is imprisoned against the wall by the beam of light. They subdue the witch with a silver crucifix, but in a shocking, ambiguous ending, we see that Macintyre Stuart is now at the end of the hangman's rope. He and the witch are hanged together.

   



Mark of the Witch works so well because it is not just an occult revenge movie, and it is not just a supernatural mystery, and it is not just a light romantic adventure. It is all three of these, and more. Where most witch movies simply concern themselves with the tired trope of good vs. evil, the filmmakers of Mark of the Witch are more interested in exploring a question that is more relevant to our times: How would an immortal child of the devil assimilate into the culture of a 1970 Texas college? How would she deal with coffee and table lamps, not to mention negotiating the social environment in order to sacrifice college students to restore her coven.

Above all, the film illustrates the hubris of modern generations. When the witch says,  "you will remember my words to your dying day, yea, they will be pondered upon by your sons and the sons of your sons until the last star gutters from the sky; they will ponder my words until they gibber in madness and remember unto their unhallowed graves the curse I now lay upon the Stuarts," she probably believes this to be true. However, the Macintyre Stuart of 1970 has no knowledge of the curse. It is interesting for us as the audience to consider how many generations, in fact, did ponder upon the witch's curse. Perhaps one or two generations, but certainly no more. If only the family had pondered her words until gibbering in madness, etc.--they would have been prepared for the relatively predictable occurrences of this film.

In addition to shining a light on modern man's hubris, another of the film's many positive qualities is the element of surprise. For example, we do not expect there to be a domestic love triangle between the witch, Allen, and Professor Stuart, but the three of them occupy a high proportion of the film's running time as they cohabitate with varying degrees of supernatural conflict. As another example, an audience might expect Professor Stuart's attempt to train himself in the occult heritage of his family line to play a part in the defeat of the witch, but in fact the witch is defeated by an electric light, an electronic timer, and an extension cord.

A final example of the element of surprise is Jill's immediate transformation into the witch. An inferior film might spend some time hinting at the transformation subtly, building mystery, in this film Jill becomes the witch instantly and the audience is made aware of the transformation almost as instantly. Mark of the Witch has no time for such mysteries, as its plot must move forward quickly to show us the details of the domestic triangle discussed above, not to mention to impart the specifics of running a book fair and to eliminate all of Professor Stuart's innocent pets.

I believe I have made my point that, contrary to much of your universe's critical opinion, Mark of the Witch is a sophisticated and heady exploration of the sins of the father and the hubris of modern man. Farewell until next time!

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