Monday, January 14, 2019

“This Is a Nice Town, With Okay People” - Necromancy (1972)

I must admit to an oversight here on Senseless Cinema, and that oversight is the lack of coverage of the truly excellent cinematic work of the famous director Bert I. Gordon. The oversight will now be corrected with a discussion of one of his finest works, 1972's Necromancy (aka The Witching), starring Orson Welles.

As usual, not all of your universe's critics recognize the quality of Mr. Gordon's masterwork. For example, cfc_can writes that the director "seems to be deliberately trying to confuse the audience by using flashbacks and dream sequences." Reviewer lucyskydiamonds writes, "This movie is so inherently awful it's difficult to know what to criticise first." And reviewer BaronBl00d writes, "This is not a good movie in any way under any name." Needless to say, these three reviewers and countless others are misguided and incorrect, so let us proceed on a tour of the cinematic wonders of Bert I. Gordon's Necromancy...

Like all fine motion pictures, Necromancy opens with a hand turning pages in a dictionary, and a voice reading the definition of the film’s title. Then it cuts to a shot of its heroine floating in the vast reaches of space while the credits begin.

The narrative begins as a woman, Pamela Franklin, wakes up in the hospital, crying that she wants her baby. “You can have many babies,” the doctor says. “Everything is okay.”

“I don’t want another baby! I want my baby!”

The film then flashes forward as Ms. Franklin returns to her life married to the frankly sexist Michael Ontkean in blue pajamas. She believes her baby was born dead (the baby is never mentioned again), so the couple moves away from the city to a town called Lilith. Before moving, Mr. Ontkean and Ms. Franklin have a long, long argument that seems to be about the occult and someone called Mr. Cato. Ms. Franklin also flashes back to an occurrence where she mystically saved a girl’s life at a public pool just by saying, “I don’t want you to die.”

They drive through the desert to Lilith, but on a mountain road they swerve to avoid another car, which rolls off a mountainside and, of as cars are wont to do, explodes halfway down the hill. Somehow, Ms. Franklin stands next to the burning wreckage, though her car remained on top of the mountain. She picks up (and steals) a doll that was thrown from the wreckage.

Later, the couple continues driving. “Hey, you know what I found in the doll’s pocket?” asks Ms. Franklin. “Fingernail clippings!”

Soon, the car runs out of gas, so Mr. Ontkean leaves to walk into town and Ms. Franklin stays in the car—until she hears the soothing tones of Orson Welles’s familiar voice and follows them to a hilltop funeral over which a mumbling Mr. Welles presides. The coffin holds a young boy, and the tombstone says “Timothy - Sleep With Love Until Someday.” Then Ms. Franklin realizes the funeral was a vision, and she is standing alone on the hill.

The couple finally reaches Lilith in time for lunch with Mr. Welles, who sits in a throne in his house and mumbles unenthusiastically, “I am aware that my products in spite of their unique qualities are nevertheless toys. Toys for children. Toys for adults. Will you forgive me? I sometimes lose myself in my enthusiasm.”

Mr. Welles (wearing one of his famous false noses for his performance, this one noticeably discolored) tells Mr. Ontkean that, as the owner of a toy manufacturing company, he needs someone young and clever to be creative. “I need a magician.”

Oddly, Mr. Ontkean responds, “I don’t know anything about the occult.”

Mr. Welles, however, tells them he has a library full of occult books—which creeps Ms. Franklin out. She wants to leave Lilith immediately but resigns herself to stay for her husband’s sake. She also lulls herself to sleep by reading an occult book given to her by Mr. Welles, a book about voodoo dolls.

Ms. Franklin strikes up an acquaintance with the woman who lives down the street. She admires the comic book-like artwork on the woman’s wall.

“You know,” she tells her new friend, “I never imagined there was a town like this—old and everything. Don’t they ever build new houses here?”

“Mr. Cato likes it this way,” is the response. “Old grows on you, and you can’t imagine it being any other way.”

The friend is also pregnant, which means that she and her husband must leave Lilith. It seems that the residents of Lilith are not allowed to have children because Mr. Welles lost his son. Not only that, everyone in Lilith is under 30 years old, except for Mr. Welles’s Mr. Cato, who owns not only the town, but also the people.

In bed at night, Ms. Franklin again tries to get Mr. Ontkean to agree to leave the town. He argues against it: “This is a nice town, with okay people, and my job here does mean a lot to me. We’re just gonna have to stick around for a while.”

At a town party, which everyone in town attends, Ms. Franklin is introduced to the town’s philosophies by the different partygoers she passes.

“Isn’t there more to everything than following a bunch of old rules?”

“Why are you afraid of being superstitious? Your eyes tell that you are.”

“If you take Lilith like a trip, it’s really far out.”

She goes up to Orson Welles, who supplies her with a vision in her drink of a grotesque demon, and--more disturbingly--Orson Welles laughing.

At a Tarot card reading, the reader says profoundly, “The question will be are you now living a reality looking at a fantasy, or are you now part of a fantasy looking at reality.”

Back at home, she is startled by a stuffed bobcat, drops her coffee cup, and cuts her feet. When Mr. Ontkean helps her upstairs, she says understandably, “You know, I’ve decided I’m going to do some serious thinking about religion.”

The next day, she confronts Orson Welles. “I don’t want to become a witch, Mr. Cato,” she says.

He replies: “What I’ve developed here in Lilith has given me every power...except one, the one power I really want. Can you guess what it is?”

The power is necromancy, the “true power of God,” the power to bring back the dead. (A quibbling audience member might object that necromancy is well known to be the power to speak with the dead, but such a quibbler would be no match for the voice of Mr. Orson Welles.) He believes that Ms. Franklin has the power over life because she brought the drowning girl back to life. “You were brought here for one...purpose. You’re going to use your power...for bring life to the dead. To bring me back my son.”

Later, she reads in the occult book that the necromancy ceremony requires a life for a life, and thus that she will have to die so that Mr. Welles’s dead son—whom she sees swinging on a swing in town—may live again.

At night, she and Mr. Ontkean visit the local doctor (who bears a strong resemblance to Willy Wonka-era Gene Wilder), who explains that he is having a meeting of his club. This climb appears to be made up exclusively of young women in white nightgowns, and one dog statue.

Of course, Ms. Franklin and Mr. Ontkean see nothing unusual about the club meeting, which seems quite pleasant and innocent. The doctor asks the newcomers to join their religious club. “Witchcraft is the only honest religion that makes things happen now, in this life. That’s why all of us here in Lilith believe and practice it.”

The scene quickly ends, and we do not find out if the newcomers have joined the club.

In an extended suspense sequence, Ms. Franklin is beckoned into the expansive basement of her house by a vision of Orson Welles’s little boy, only to be scared by a cellarful of rats.

The rats, however, prove to be a vision as well, and Ms. Franklin is soon free to wander aimlessly around the streets of Lilith, where she sees her pregnant friend being carried into an ambulance, victim of a miscarriage.

Later, she finds that the witches cast a spell on the young woman so she would lost her child, through the use of a voodoo doll with an unflattering monochromatic photo of the woman pasted onto the face.

Ms. Franklin continues to threaten to leave Lilith right away, and continues to remain in town, apparently unable to leave without her husband. She calls around town, trying in vain to find Mr. Ontkean while for unknown reasons clutching the doll to her.

Frustrated, she then throws the doll into the fire, which allows her a vision of herself being initiated into the coven of witches. The ceremony, seen through the fireplace flames, last several minutes, though the audience is unfortunately unable to hear what is going on, and the vision is interrupted by a ringing telephone. One of her friends in town, Priscilla, tells her that she will help Ms. Franklin leave town—if she meets her down by the water.

Of course, Ms. Franklin climbs down to the edge of the lake at day-for-night o’clock. Unfortunately, she finds Priscilla’s drowned body in the water. She runs back to town and, instead of leaving Lilith on her own, she lights a witchcraft candle in her house. She fashions a voodoo doll of herself, gluing on a lock of her own hair and a photo of her face.

Then something happens involving multiple stabbings, as well as, for good measure, Ms. Franklin eating a poisonous mushroom given to her by Mr. Welles’s ghostly son. She also sees the funeral again, which becomes a necromancy ceremony for the son, who has a remarkably well preserved head of hair.

Will Ms. Franklin replace the boy in the coffin? Yes. [Note: Spoiler.]

In a twist, however, it is all revealed to be a dream.

In another twist, however, it is revealed to be starting over again from the beginning.

First, it must be said that Bert I. Gordon is a master of instilling fright by cutting suddenly from a person doing something (e.g., walking down a staircase, or conversing casually with Orson Welles with a putty nose) to a closeup of something disturbing (e.g., a rat, or a demon, or Orson Welles with a putty nose). When accompanied by a sudden musical sting, these cuts are frightening. Bert I. Gordon was a pioneer of this method, which is included in almost every horror movie nowadays (though I must admit the putty noses are less common now, sadly).

Second, it must be said that Orson Welles is a charismatic actor, even in a project where he mumbles eighty percent of his dialogue. With or without a false nose, Mr. Welles commands the screen, and Mr. Gordon is a master of drawing a magnetic performance from the great man.

Third, this will not be the last Bert I. Gordon feature that we champion on Senseless Cinema. With his extensive catalog of great films, Mr. Gordon is in the running with such luminaries as Bill Rebane and Andy Milligan for the number of unappreciated masterworks they created. Please...stay tuned!