BWW Review: MARK OF THE WITCH Has Italian Flair But Thin Plot, Acting
The first thing you may think when you see Jason Bognacki's MARK OF THE WITCH (aka ANOTHER) - and if you think it within five minutes, you will keep right on thinking it throughout - is that it looks, visually, as if you've landed in a Dario Argento movie. Small wonder, then, that Dario Argento receives special thanks in the credits. If only it were a Dario Argento film, however, there would be substance as well as style. Bognacki's intent to create a lush Italian horror film, full of cinematographic excellence, color beyond your dreams, and plushy classical music soundtracks, falls victim to weak plot and poor connection of the hallucinatory moments of which it is filled.
What starts as a rescue of a baby from a cult that meets in caves while wearing black Klu Klux Klan cult gear (right down, or up, to coneheaded masks) that suggests a run on black sheets at Macy's, becomes far less clear as the film proceeds. It cuts to Jordyn's eighteenth birthday, when Paulie Rojas displays Jordyn's first and last purely coherent scene, as she makes a wish on birthday candles and then sees her Aunt Ruth, who's raised her, stab herself in the chest with a kitchen knife after chanting "it is time" repeatedly. From there, the film becomes SUSPIRIA meets THE EXORCIST, with a side focus on filming ravens behaving oddly that keeps you wondering if THE BIRDS will show up as well. But it's too baroque for Hitchcock, who might have been a better influence on the plot.
Rojas is lovely in her own baroque way, an exotic beauty who looks right for something of this sort, in the same way that Barbara Steele made BLACK SUNDAY incredible. The difference is that Rojas isn't ready for this lead; she's beautiful and fresh-faced, but she seems overwhelmed by the part. Better is Nancy Wolfe as Aunt Ruth, who brings her A-game to this labyrinthine endeavor. Wolfe is without doubt the very best part of this film, besides its artful use of color and cinematography (also by Bognacki).
While the cinematography is a homage to Italian horror, it falls apart in editing. Argento's and Bava's nightmarish hallucinatory moments are lucid to the viewer, while here, it seems impossible to tell what parts are hallucination and what are real, and the moments that are clearly hallucinatory are almost unintelligibly spliced. Instead of dazzling the eye, the film confuses it thanks to this.
The plot, such as it is, focuses on the idea that Jordyn's turning 18, the age at which her mother died, makes her susceptible to being taken over by an evil being that may in fact be Aunt Ruth's real sister. Aunt Ruth, it seems, is the cultist who rescued the baby after finding Jesus, and has since tried to protect Jordyn from the curse of being possessed by this being that killed her mother and her grandmother. How did Aunt Ruth find Jesus? We don't know. What was the cult? We don't know. Are Ruth and her sister actually eternal beings created by Satan? Apparently. How is Ruth really connected to Jordyn? That's not clear. What in the film is real besides Jordyn and the cult? After fifteen minutes, you may give up trying to find out. As soon as you realize that it's impossible to distinguish between hallucination and story line, the task becomes pointless.
It might help if the tale had better pacing. MARK OF THE WITCH moves slowly in order to make the most, as it were, of the hallucinatory moments (there's a beautiful segment shown in sepia, in which only plants have color), but those moments, which add nothing for the most part to the story, drag on interminably at points.
This film could also have made a feminist statement, with its almost entirely female cast, but it doesn't even try to go there. Beauty and power, it seems, are hand in hand, and one without the other is like two eternal sisters separated by competing theologies. They must be brought together. Feminist, that's not. Had it pursued a more non-traditional theme, and stayed with it, the effort might be more successful; instead, it falls into the "wicked witch attempting to become beautiful by devouring a lovely young girl" theme at the end. Maybe it isn't SUSPIRIA meets THE EXORCIST - perhaps it's SUSPIRIA meets Elizabeth Bathory. It's no surprise that there's heavy symbolic visual content aimed at depicting loss of virginity or innocence tied in with the hallucinations and horror, and a scene in which Jordyn becomes enraged and sees herself begin shape-shifting uncontrollably when she encounters her friends having sex. The surprise would have been if that hadn't been included. Perhaps this dreary predictability makes the pacing feel worse than it already is.
If your goal in a horror film is amazing effects, and hang the content, this may satisfy you perfectly. There's CGI for miles, color for the long haul, and other tricked-out bits to keep effects lovers happy despite the pacing and plot weakness. If it's content you're after, you'll still be hungry when it ends. If your fetish for Italian horror is purely a visual aesthetic without care for the story, you'll enjoy this anyway, but if you wrestled with theme and symbolism in SUSPIRIA or BLACK SUNDAY, and felt the need to discuss them with others after watching them, this will disappoint. If your taste in horror runs more to gore and SLASHER flicks, however, this is in a totally different league, although there are a few delightfully squicky moments. But it's artistic rather than a gore-fest, and anyone looking for a cheap, revolting thrill had better go elsewhere. Bognacki and Epic Pictures haven't really brought back the great Italian horror films, but it has no comparison with what sadly passes for horror these days in mass market cinema.
Available on VOD 6/6/16.
Photo credits: Epic Pictures