Thursday, January 5, 2017

"You'd Be Amazed How Many People Believe In It Now" - Mark of the Witch (1970) - Part 1 of 3

Let us now discuss a parable of the sins of the fathers and the hubris of modern man, 1970’s Texas-set Mark of the Witch.

As always, I will present a sampling of clearly mistaken reviews from your universe's most distinguished critics. On IMDB, Wizard-8 writes, “the movie could still have been a decent supernatural shocker. But it isn't. It's very slow moving, and with a LOT of chitchat to pad things out.” The author of The Horror!? writes about the lead actress, “I really wouldn't call her a good or effective actress…so dreadful as to make the witch automatically incredibly sympathetic.” About the film’s dialogue, Dan Scarpa on IMDB writes, “all the lines are incredibly cheesy and bad.”

As always, the description below includes spoilers.

The film opens on a striking image: a hangman's noose swaying in the wind. A young woman is led by soldiers through the mud to a gallows, observed by a nobleman with striking blue eyes. The woman helps the hangman--nontraditionally, he is hoodless and apparently nude--by moving her long hair out of the way.

The hanging party allows the woman to make a three-minute speech cursing the nobleman, Macintyre Stuart, because he betrayed the coven of witches to whom he had previously sworn allegiance. "The mark of my lord Satan will be with you always," is the extent of her curse, though she indicates that the cursed family will remember her words until the last star gutters from the sky.

Charmingly, and appropriately for a fantasy film, the hanging appears to be taking place in an unspecified time and place. The witch mentions the English county of Lancashire, but her accent is clearly American. The locale is universal, simply a blue sky over a muddy field, adding to the fairy tale feeling of the opening sequence.

It must be noted that the actress playing the witch, Marie Santel, displays a remarkable and fascinating range of facial expressions during this sequence.

Mcintyre Stuart is not impressed.

Once the witch's curse is fully spoken, the hangman does his job. The witch's bare feet dangle in the air. (The film is thus unclear about the apparently nude hangman’s allegiance, as he could have accomplished his executory task several minutes earlier when it became clear the witch meant to invoke a curse on Mr. Stuart and his family. The issue of the hangman’s allegiance is left undiscussed.)

We move forward in time, and elsewhere in space, to a Texas college campus in 1970. A student named Allen buys books on witchcraft for his psychology course, taught by a professor named Mac Stuart. Allen explains to the cashier that Professor Stuart "has got us all involved with this stuff. Ouija boards, tarot cards, witches, graphology, the whole bit. We're studying the psychology of superstition this term. You know, way back to the pagans and how they worshipped fire and water and how it grew into various kinds of belief in magic. You know, you'd be amazed how many people believe in it now."

The bookstore cashier is so intrigued he invites himself to Professor Stuart's weekly seminar. "How about that," says the cashier with a chuckle. "A spook seminar."

The next sequence of the film details a group of clean-cut college students organizing books for a book fair. This sequence runs for about five minutes until it finally culminates in Jill, Allen's girlfriend, finding a dusty book with a red cover, which she decides to buy.

At the seminar, Professor Stuart hosts a fun evening of ouija boards and palm reading conducted by a spectacularly clean-cut collection of students in colorful dresses and pressed suits. Allen confesses to his professor that "there really is a big thing about witchcraft." Demonstrating the defiance of the youth culture in Texas in 1970, Allen and the professor lend books to each other.

On the other side of the room, a loutish student interrupts a tarot card reading in which the subject asks about romance. "I like my chicks dumb, baby," he says, "but you really are something else. I mean, if you want romance in your life, you don't have to ask her. Let's just split and head for the grove. I'll show you all the romance you can use...if that's what you want to call it."

Of course, the girl is flattered. "Oh, Harry," she flirts with him. "Can't you ever think of anything else."

Jill arrives late to the party...that is, the seminar. She has the book she found at the book fair. "Listen, we can have our own black magic sort of thing," she says to Professor Stuart and Allen. "Honestly. I've got it all right here."

She presents the book to the gathered students. "Boy, it smells," one student says. "It's old all right."

Professor Stuart is impressed. The book appears to be real. The clean-cut group decides to conduct one of the spells to summon a witch, under the sponsorship of the professor.

During Jill's recital of the spell, Professor Stuart begins mouthing the words and flashing back to the witch's hanging from the prologue.

But the spell seems to be a failure. Nothing happens. The students return to the party.

However, Jill begins to act strangely. She looks more serious and her accent changes subtly. She calls Professor Stuart "Macintyre," which is Mac's full name, and the name of all the men in his family. (We are not informed whether or not he has brothers with the same name.) She starts calling people "impudent lackwits." The astute viewer might catch on that the spell has indeed had an effect, though its extent is difficult to predict.

We end Part 1 here. What will happen in Part 2? How will the witch implement her curse? Will the students be able to stop her? We will have to wait until next time to find out.