Studio: Epic Pictures Group
Director: Jason Bognacki
Writer: Jason Bognacki
Producer: Aline Bognacki
Stars: Maria Olsen, Paulie Rojas, David Landry, Michael Rappaport, Lillian Pennypacker, Nancy Wolfe
A young woman questions her identity when a series of strange occurrences connects her birth to a coven of witches.
In 2014, writer/director Jason Bognacki’s interpretive horror film “Another” swept through a series of film festivals, earning some critical praise while seemingly finding less favor with general audiences and, presumably, distributors. Although some reviews hailed its artistic achievement, “Another” disappeared into the disappointment of a 2.9 IMDB user rating and more or less fizzled off the radar of buzz-worthy breakouts.
Then Epic Pictures Group, fine genre purveyors of everything from the bleak “Nina Forever” (review here) to the blissful “Turbo Kid” (review here), rescued the forgotten flick by rebranding it “Mark of the Witch” for release in 2016. I’m not sure how a title change is enough to pique interest in a niche indie that failed to catch popular fire two years earlier. Perhaps the hunch is to hitch a wagon to the success of Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” (review here). Perhaps the film’s theme of a wide-eyed beauty wandering a dreamscape in search of identity is meant to mirror “Starry Eyes” (review here), though with a far less coherent story.
It’s Jordyn’s eighteenth birthday, and the highlight of her odd four-person fete comes when weird Aunt Ruth suddenly stabs herself in the stomach. Beginning at that moment, Jordyn descends down a rabbit hole of increasingly strange visions while a demon witch supernaturally stalks her as a doppelganger determined to destroy Jordyn’s life.
Jordyn grew up believing she was an orphan. But a connection to a coven conceals the dark mystery surrounding Jordyn’s mother and the sinister secret of her birth. Jordan’s journey to uncover that truth takes her through a surreal test of self-discovery causing the troubled young woman to confront an occult conspiracy and question her own reality.
The real truth exposed in “Mark of the Witch” is that plotting is perfunctory, as unconcerned with literal sense as it is with linear structure. Its purpose is metaphorical meaning for something that didn’t impress me enough to give it much thought or invest significant interest. This fiction functions instead to kickstart filmmaker Jason Bognacki’s experiment in exploring cinematic creativity not necessarily motivated by narrative.
“Mark of the Witch” is a nearly ingenious example of how to turn a short film into a feature. Not by expanding a script with new scenes or deepened characterizations. But by including a nine-minute pre-title sequence, nine minutes of end credits, and lengthening the hour in between by playing it in slow motion.
“Mark of the Witch” runs a scant 69 minutes without credits, yet employs such an excessive use of slow motion that it would probably fill barely half an hour at regular speed. It’s not an exaggeration to estimate that at least half of the movie, maybe as much as two-thirds or more, plays out as slowed down. The film leans so crushingly hard on this technique to establish a dreamy atmosphere that it feels three times the length, leading to heavy-eyelid narcolepsy instead of inspiring imagination. Even the end credit crawl is drawn out to a painful point where a snail moving backward could outrace it.
The movie is still more stylish than most arthouse aesthetic horror films. Bognacki, who also takes a role as director of photography among several other hats, has a terrific talent for striking visual composition and dizzying editing techniques that are appealing rather than annoying. The issue with this is that “Mark of the Witch” is meant to be a movie, not a cinematography demo reel.
Those with more tolerant tastes for style over substance may be mesmerized by the hypnotic imagery and underpinned ideas about identity and evil. Then there are those simply fated to find it tiresome that so much footage is forcibly lengthened through slow motion. When that tactic joins hands with wince-worthy CGI fire and occasionally spotty sound, mismatched room tone sticks out during one particular dialogue exchange, technical warts add up to obstacles preventing the film’s fashionable skin from shining the way it wants to.
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 45