Mark of the Witch (1970)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2019-10-06 14:41

Written by: Mary Davis, Martha Peters
Directed by: Tom Moore
Starring: Robert Elston, Anitra Walsh, and Darryl Wells

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

Innocent Co-Ed...Or Bride Of The Devil?

Mark of the Witch straddles two eras in more ways than one. Not only does its story stretch across centuries, but it’s a production that has its feet firmly planted in two ages. Behind it is the classical, gothic-tinged 60s, home to restrained, atmospheric stories about witchcraft; ahead of it is the more grisly, exploitative 70s, which would soon give rise to increasingly sordid, graphic fare. In its ungainly attempt to respect both tradition and the rising, crimson-soaked tide, it awkwardly splits the difference, resulting in an uncanny, idiosyncratic effort that exploits an old genre staple for titillation and shock. A regional oddity bearing the southern-fried charm of a slight Texas twang, Mark of the Witch is both incredibly dated and weirdly timeless all at once as it repurposes a familiar tale.

To wit: it opens on a scene that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the likes of Black Sunday and City of the Dead: in 17th century England, an accused witch defiantly strides the gallows, a noose fashioned around her neck, as she vows to take revenge on the descendants of the man who sold her out. 300 years later, one of those descendants is Mac Stuart (Robert Elston), a college professor who specializes in the history of superstition. Very much the cool professor on campus, he even hosts parties where his students can come and indulge themselves on both beverages and whatever occult nonsense their studies might turn up. Doe-eyed student Jill (Anitra Walsh) arrives at one such gathering eager to show off a massive volume on witchcraft, which naturally leads to the group jokingly performing a ritual to summon spirits. They’re left disappointed when nothing happens—or so it seems. Before the night is through, it becomes apparent that Jill is no longer herself; rather, her body has been hijacked by the spirit of the long-dead witch still hellbent on revenge.

Mark of the Witch proves to be a bit of an incantation itself as it conjures cinematic echoes of past and future. Having a witch raise some collegiate hell subtly calls back to the rampant creature features of the 50s that had monsters running amok on campus, while the possession angle anticipates the likes of The Exorcist. If you squint hard enough at the sight of dopey kids dabbling in witchcraft, you might even consider this a forbearer to stuff like Night of the Demons and Witchtrap. No matter how hard you might do that, though, you can’t reasonably expect that sort of mayhem, not from a 1970 cheapie hatched on a shoestring budget during an era that was just coming to embrace unrepentant schlock. In this respect, Mark of the Witch again tries to split the difference by having a corrosive evil lay siege to wholesome college students: it’s quaint but also slightly twisted.

It’s more quaint, though: this is pure exploitation in the sense that the filmmakers have to string together all of the cool stuff with long stretches of dialogue in order to fill out an increasingly nonsensical plot. Prepare yourself as the witch badgers Mac into teaching her about coffee and telephones. Thrill at the sight of her going to class in order to maintain the façade that she’s still Jill. Marvel as kids—who feel like a square adult’s gross approximation of a contemporary college student—file into class to the strains of an AM Gold soundtrack. Witness them come to the slow realization the Jill isn’t quite herself after all as she carries out strange rituals out in the woods, forcing Mac and his star pupil to concoct some nonsense scheme to drive her spirit out.

This, of course, is what you’re here for: bizarre occult shit, which surfaces just often enough to keep Mark of the Witch afloat. Figuring out what the witch is up to proves to be tricky; sure, we assume she’s going to exact revenge on Mac for his ancestor’s transgression, but she spends a lot of the movie actually cozying up to him. When she’s practicing overt witchcraft, it’s of a cryptic sort that finds her conducting strange seances in an attempt to resurrect her 13 followers or some such nonsense. Sometimes this involves luring unsuspecting victims into the woods, where she slays them, yielding brief shots of bloodied hands and topless writhing from Walsh to heighten the titillation. Most of it set to a droning moog synthesizer, creating a sort of hazy, dreamy ambiance that secures the movie’s midnight movie credentials. I imagine this one is best enjoyed at the witching hour, witnessed through blurred eyes and a foggy brain.

With the exception of Walsh’s inspired turn as the conniving title character, Mark of the Witch can only offer such base grindhouse theatrics, including a psychedelic ending that can best be described as an exorcism via a Pink Floyd light show. Director Tom Moore embraces the film’s warbling, nonsensical drone during the climax and sees it through to a trippy, clever resolution. Perhaps most importantly, he has the good sense to deliver it after a scant 75 minutes, thus ensuring that Mark of the Witch doesn’t wear out its welcome. This also means it doesn’t linger long enough to leave much of an impression: this is the more familiar path of the regional, low-budget scene, where movies often slipped out onto the drive-in circuit and were swiftly (and, often, rightfully) relegated to obscurity. While Mark of the Witch sometimes feels like a weird, unassuming nexus point of the genre’s past and future, it’s mostly a curiosity just for that: it’s not exactly embellishing the tradition, nor is it innovative enough to consider it an unsung forbearer to greater glory, leaving it stranded as a strange, purgatorial dispatch.

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