Bert I. Gordon
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 08 October 2008
Source Paragon Video Productions VHS
Categories 31 Days of Horror V
“Is he father… mother… friend… warlock… or insane?” asks the back of the VHS packaging for The Witching, and it’s as good a pitch as any for a film that doesn’t seem to know the first thing about its characters or itself. The question is being asked about the film’s villain Mr. Cato, the bizarre leader of a town called Lilith, where all of the denizens are witches (Or Satanists, or whatever. The film uses the terms interchangeably, cobbling together bits and bobs of clichéd movie occult indiscriminately.). Orson Welles plays Mr. Cato; and it was indeed a robed Welles’ appearance on the video’s cover artwork that piqued my interest in The Witching.
Sitting down in front of my TV to take in The Witching, I had my film critic ears perked up, my pen and paper ready to take down any personal revelations or important quotes. I was ready to go Carol J. Clover on this thing.
But along the way, I had to give up. The Witching seems like it’s almost ready to be saying something. It seems like there should be significance to the town being called “Lilith,” after the archetypical bad girl; or to the fact that the women there are forbidden to become mothers; or to the casually sybaritic lifestyles of Lilith’s denizens; or to the odd infantilization of the female lead, Lori, a grown woman seen clutching at dolls or sitting on a tree swing. But The Witching’s incoherence wore me out; it comes out as a loud jumble of anxieties that haven’t quite settled into the screenplay, as free-floating as the eerie, translucent visions that dance before Lori’s eyes. There are some creepy images here and there, but the film tries to cheat its way toward a sense of dread by injecting sudden jolts into a narrative that doesn’t gel. Imagine a friend of yours trying to tell you about The Wicker Man, but it’s been a while since they’ve seen it, and they don’t quite remember it, and they’re getting it a little bit mixed up with Rosemary’s Baby. Trying to suss out a meaning in The Witching feels a little like that.
So the pleasures of The Witching are most likely to be in simply relaxing and drinking in its utter strangeness. The disjointed nature of the script and some uneven performances (particularly from Pamela Franklin, whose Lori shifts rather arbitrarily from quietude to shrill fear and back) make it feel as though the film itself is having mood swings. It’s hard to explain why the characters react with relative calm to some disturbing events only to lurch into anger or horror when the script suddenly calls for it. (A very young Michael Ontkean is saddled with an outrageously oblivious character in the role of Lori’s husband, but at least his presence here provided me with a Twin Peaks cast member sighting. And I did spot Sherilyn Fenn in Zombie High, making my track record on that front fairly respectable this month.)
Of course, the key curio factor here is Welles, whose unmistakable presence feels somehow separate from everything else that’s going on. It isn’t that there’s a tour de force performance from Welles buried in this mess—the muddled plotting and characterization could never support such a thing, and it would be a shameful waste regardless. But it is fun to hear his halting, suspicious delivery as he explains that he owns a factory that makes, “Toys… toys for… children…” And it’s even better to step out the film and appreciate the Old Hollywood icon’s assertion that, “Our factory creates magic.” Reading Mr. Cato as a domineering Old Hollywood studio exec is a massive stretch, but it’s as pleasing a way to pass the time as any when it comes to this picture.
But the question remains: is Mr. Cato father, mother, friend, warlock, or insane?
I’m still not sure.
Paragon Video Productions
Orson Welles, Michael Ontkean, Pamela Franklin
Is He Father… Mother… Friend… Warlock… Or Insane?
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