Tag Archives: Witch

Forgotten Gems: Avery Crounse’s Eyes Of Fire

Avery Crounse’s Eyes Of Fire is so rare and forgotten that it’s only available on YouTube, as far as I could tell, which is saying a lot because my net of sources stretches pretty far these days. It’s truly something special and who knows how long that video will be up for. Belonging to one of my favourite sub genres, the horror western, I’m almost convinced it largely inspired 2014’s celebrated horror flick The VVitch, as well as a few others over the years. It’s a bit of a heartbreak that it isn’t more widely recognized or even available (a DVD release seems to be nonexistent). On the American frontier in the 1700’s, a creepy minister (Dennis Lipscomb) is banished from a settlement for suspected adultery and witchcraft. The man and his followers venture out into a mysterious, little traversed valley and find themselves preyed upon by… something. The region is haunted by nature spirits who have imprisoned deceased Natives, now phantom spectres who stalk through the trees consuming souls of the living, also controlled by what the clan’s children call a ‘devil witch’. There’s various plot threads involving women in the group, one of whom has a mountain man ex husband (Guy Boyd) who has been living in the wilderness and has intuitive knowledge about the forces there, imparted in a well written, spooky campfire monologue. There’s also a Celtic witch (Karlene Crockett) who acts as a force of good against the dark magic. Once the folk start encountering all this though, plot takes a backseat to a spectacular array of very surreal and thoroughly scary special effects, colour filters, hallucinatory nightmares, unnerving musical sound design and all mannered spook-house atmospherics. It’s hectic as all hell and the acting sometimes gets super melodramatic, but what wonders of practical effects they’ve used here, a showcase of prosthetics, eerie photo-negative filters, Wiccan lore, earth magic and terrifying phantasms. Trees have faces, weird charcoal demons plague everyone, all set to a wonderfully warped score that uses experimental white noise, Gaelic thrums, ethereal tones and elemental cues to chill the spine. A hopelessly forgotten gem, but one of incredible value to any fan of unconventional horror.

-Nate Hill

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THE LOVE WITCH (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

 

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Anna Biller may be one of the cinema’s last truly exceptional auteurs. Sure, the term itself is thrown around a lot, and sure, it’s particularly challenging to register as one when dealing almost exclusively in homage. Somewhere and somehow, Biller – born and raised in Los Angeles – finds a way, but regardless of the individual viewer’s tolerance for the director’s unabashed parading of influences and intent, her voice is positively one-of-a-kind.

Nearly an entire decade may have separated Biller’s feature debut (2007’s VIVA) and her latest oddball offering, but the same powerfully progressive voice remains unmistakably in-tact. THE LOVE WITCH concerns, as you could probably guess, a contemporary (?) witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) pursuing a suitable male companion by means of black magic. Holed up as the new tenant in a gorgeous Victorian-style mansion, she practices making potions, but as we learn from her voice-over narration in the coastal cruise intro, Elaine’s still got a lot to learn.

The heroine’s quest is initially driven by the desire to be desired – preferably by all who should happen upon her but more specifically by men. The trail of gullible bastards she leaves in her wake – including but certainly not limited to suave University professor Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a police inspector (Gian Keys) perplexed by the prospect of a tampon submerged in a bottle of piss, and even her own ex-husband – ultimately leads the witch on a path to reclaiming individuality that is as hysterical as it is genuinely insightful.

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Firmly rooted in a bygone era (or several), the film features, among other seductive delights, exceedingly over-the-top performances, vintage costumes and décor, music borrowed from the likes of classic gialli A LIZARD AND A WOMAN’S SKIN and THE FIFTH CORD (both scores courtesy of Ennio Morricone), and M. David Mullen’s photography is spot-on in recreating even the most seemingly insignificant ticks of 60’s/70’s occult-sleaze cinema to a tee. It’s a seamless evocation of everything it claims to be, but there’s much more to this beatific brew than an ornate toast to the silver screen of yesteryear.

A great artist is always flourishing, and flourish is precisely what the writer/director/set and costume designer/composer/etc. has done in her absence. True to such developments, this is perhaps the furthest extension of Biller’s vision that she’s graced us with yet; more interesting than the obvious parallels between a witch and the contemporary female is, well, just about everything else regarding the patriarchy that the film dares to challenge under the guise of an amusing, consistently vibrant entertainment.

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Biller would rather her indignant criticisms fester on the surface, which allows for a remarkably articulate confrontation of gender stereotypes that feels empathetic where it could have just as easily been perceived as preachy. THE LOVE WITCH neglects to give off the impression of a work influenced too much by invasive contempt, instead seeking to explore equality by way of humility. A medieval-style wedding late in the game, complete with faux duels and a puppet-toting jester, holds the key to the filmmaker’s stance on both passion and passiveness alike. Elaine’s maturation, twisted as it is, is hardly glorified; in fact, she’s just as damned as her predominantly male victims. Nevertheless, the argument appears to be that it’s time the sorceress had her day as well, however demented and morally conflicting it may be.

It’s easy to surrender to the film’s campy, hallucinatory charms but Biller’s decision to balance her immanent cinematic fetishisms with such a biting, subversive critique is the true stroke of genius. Getting lost in WITCH’s candy-colored ocean is one thing, extracting individually invaluable observations is another. Once again, the filmmaker reaches into the past in order to look to the future – that of man, woman, and our relationship with one another – and the culmination of this particular excursion speaks for itself, loud and clear. It announces its spectacular existence until it knows that it doesn’t have to, and if this is indicative of where we’re headed, we might just be in good hands.

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SEASON OF THE WITCH (1973) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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George A. Romero is – or at the very least once was – the kind of socially conscious filmmaker the horror genre is in dire need of these days. His early films are the most blunt, angry, and effective in his oeuvre; though few would deny they are rough around the edges, their energy and ambition is nonetheless infectious. Sandwiched between NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Romero’s little-seen sophomore effort (1971’s THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA, a romantic comedy), and 1973’s THE CRAZIES is SEASON OF THE WITCH (known as JACK’S WIFE when it was in production, and before the distributor excised half an hour from its run-time), a surprisingly thoughtful musing on contemporary witchcraft, repressed sexuality and the patriarchy; an endlessly fascinating, mostly successful marriage of talky, sleazy soap opera aesthetics and surreal psych-out horror.

Joan Mitchell is a bored housewife facing a mid-life crisis. Her husband Jack has little time for intimacy, there’s a considerable distance she feels between herself and their daughter Nikki, and she has recurring nightmares in which Jack aggressively pays her no mind and she envisions herself as a pale-faced old hag. The psychotherapist she’s been regularly seeing feeds her the same old crap in response to her attempts to understand these dreams (“The only one imprisoning Joanie…is Joanie.”), Nikki’s seeing more action in her week than Joan surely has in years, and things are just overall rather drab.

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If nothing else, Joan’s got her circle of friends – a tightly knit community of fellow housewives who seem to share many of her anxieties. One evening at a dinner party, there’s talk of a new woman on the block that practices witchcraft. Joan, along with her closest friend Shirley, seeks her out and gets a Tarot reading, which surely opens up a couple of doors for them both. As Jack goes away on business, leaving her to her own devices, and terrible nightmares – in which a masked assailant breaks into the house and rapes her – continue to plague Joan’s mind, she dabbles in the occult as a way of reclaiming her sanity.

It wouldn’t be revealing too much to say that this is a film about – many things, but most importantly – a woman transcending her role in the household and discovering a new identity that has, in fact, been with her all along. Sexual identity, as is the case when Joan starts an affair with a teacher at Nikki’s school who had previously seduced her daughter as well and finds solace in the young man’s spirit, and personal identity go hand-in-hand. There’s also an emphasis on the pointlessness of the so-called “necessities” of life when one doesn’t truly believe in them, and at the beginning of this tale, Joan doesn’t believe in much of anything.

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As evidenced in the opening dream sequence, Romero gives it you straight in regards to what the themes are here – to a fault, it could be argued, as Joan wearing a leash and collar, led on by Jack, and being locked inside a cage is a bit much – but regardless of how obvious they may be, they remain as relevant now as they were then. There’s a lot more dialogue than action, to be sure, but this is the kind of film where all the talking somehow manages to get us somewhere in the end, somewhere that feels on a whole satisfying and even intellectually stimulating. Audiences didn’t embrace the film upon its initial release, though Romero can hardly be faulted; marketed as some of kind of softcore porno in its severely cut form as HUNGRY WIVES, it would be difficult to make something this smart and genuinely challenging seem exciting to purveyors of provocation. Romero’s original 120-minute version may have been left on the cutting room floor but what resurfaced in 2005 with the help of the good folks at Anchor Bay seems like a damn fine representation of his intentions in its own right. We’ve changed with the times, and the time for SEASON OF THE WITCH is now. Better late than never, as they say.

At the very least, this is an ambitious cinematic cocktail, and for the most part it works. No doubt most people won’t find it to be all that visually stimulating, but if it really is about what you do with what you’ve got, Romero is a miracle worker. As cinematographer and editor as well as writer/director, he establishes an intoxicating rhythm early on that luckily remains consistent throughout – there are some really neat tricks employed during the post-production stage, as well as some creative camera movements which keep the proceedings from becoming mundane, even when the story doesn’t seem to be moving forward. This is a chilly film, perfect for viewing during the Fall season, and once Donavan’s titular song blares over an occult shopping spree, Romero’s unique alchemy has all but won you over. It’s very much of its time – the fashion, the unquestionably ugly décor, the hep terminology – and appreciation may vary based on one’s tolerance of this kind of stuff, but a thoughtful viewer will surely find plenty to chew on here, if not even more to swallow.

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