Film Viewing #4: ‘Willow’

It’s time for some more nasty witches and maybe a touch of nostalgia.

Enjoy and look out for the review tomorrow.

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Witches in Computer Games

[Written by Witch Awareness Month, contributor Andy Yates]

I feel that witches have a bad rep in video games. Well, OK, not just video games, but too many times they so often appear to be the bad guys or “in” with the bad guys. Evil Lyn from He-man, the White Witch from Narnia and the evil sorceress Ultimecia from Final Fantasy 8.

Ultimecia – obviously an evil witch..

So for Witch Awareness Month it made sense to bring awareness to some of the witches in games that are not necessarily evil (and maybe one that is) but who, more importantly, have remained memorable for me.

Starting with the Voodoo lady from Monkey Island adventures. Telltale games have brought out some of my favourite game series in recent years, and this continuation of the famous Monkey Island games was just excellent. These are interactive adventure games where you direct the gallant hero, Guybrush Threepwood, around each area picking up useful items and then completely misusing them elsewhere to progress through the story.

The Voodoo Lady in action.

The Voodoo lady sits comfortably in her lair practicing her powerful magic, performing tarot card readings and carefully manipulating the cast around her. While a rather over the top character I kind of liked that Telltale had no problem in portraying her as a plus sized Jamaican woman. Kind of brave from within an industry that is famous for its head-sized boobs and arm sized waists. The only other game I’ve known this happen in is Saints Row 3 but that’s a whole other story.

While the Voodoo lady hardly has a starring role in the game she does come up a lot and you’re never quite sure if she’s on Guybrush’s side despite her clues and help throughout the series.

Let’s move onto a completely different kind of game and a completely different kind of Witch. Dragon Age: Origins was the acclaimed new game and IP from Bioware back in 2009 and sported quite traditional western RPG mechanics and Tolkien-ish settings featuring huge castles, elves living in forests, powerful magic and epic battles against undead enemies (in this case called the Blight).

Your chosen character was part of a company which included the lovely Morrigan. And what a character she was; tough, intelligent, sharp tongued but also somehow very human and just evil enough so that you thought you could change her if you were nice enough! Although her dress sense was a little … unconventional, again this was most likely designed to appeal to the male dominated audience of the time (have things really changed that much though?)

Morrigan really provided an opposing balance to the team of otherwise mostly good characters and also had some of the best dialogue in the game. This was helped by having the best voice actor in the game, too.

Morrigan

Now we move from the slightly borderline evil to the most definitely evil Witch from Valve Software’s multiplayer action game series; Left4Dead and Left4Dead2.

This game pits you and three friends (or computer controlled players) against a zombie horde where your objective is to reach several safe zones and then be rescued in dramatic last-minute style! As well as the usual, generic standard (but quick) zombie there are also some special zombie types which includes the “Witch” special character. Ironically, where most games call their Witches “Mages” due to their special powers, the Witch in L4D has no special powers as such. She’s just very, very fast and very, very tough!

By default she’ll be sitting on the ground somewhere sobbing away, or slowly shambling in a random direction, also sobbing (aww). However get too close or foolishly take a pot shot at her and you’ll turn that sadness into a rage that has no end! To my mind the Witch is the most interest zombie you come across. This is because with most of the zombies you’ll do your best to take them head on and take them out, but the Witch is definitely best avoided. And because avoidance is the recommended strategy the “director” (the AI that controls the zombies) is very good at placing Witches in just the wrong (or by its judgement right) place so they’re bang smack in your way. Avoidance is not always possible and there’s just no way around them so you have to take them on. Usually this means one poor team-mate (sacrifice?) angering the Witch and taking the brunt of her attack while the others do their best to take her out!

So there we have it, three witches (well, OK, a mage, a voodoo lady and a zombie) that make up my fantasy football-coven of computer game characters. It’s a shame really that very few games use the term witch at all. Perhaps “The Witcher” which isn’t really a game about witches ironically enough. Or perhaps the Facebook game “Bubble-Witch Saga”, which I couldn’t bring myself to mention in full.

In fact I think I’ve yet to see a mainstream game that has a witch as a main character, but who knows in future! Maybe when the point-and-click adventure game conversion of Hedge Witch comes out we’ll finally have that experience.

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Simon, King of the Witches – Review

[written by Witch Awareness Month contributor, Mikko Sovijärvi]

Simon, King of the Witches

Directed by: Bruce Kessler

Starring: Andrew Prine, Brenda Scott, George Paulsin, Norman Burton, Gerald York, Ultra Violet

(1971/USA)

The occult explosion that infiltrated horror films by the tail end of the 60’s left a lot to wonder. More often than not, badly put together spectacles of unintentional hilarity mixing what sixtyish producers mistook for hippie sensibility with off-the-wall Satanic rituals and at least one bearded, wild-eyed Charlie Manson lookalike to use for the poster. Then Simon, King of the Witches. Arguably the most unique American genre films of the 70’s, and one of the most often ignored. Usually dismissed as a Z-film by people who don’t quite get it, or dismissed for not being one by people looking for the immediate hilarity of Manos: The Hands of Fate, Simon is a different beast than most of anything. For starters, it’s not really a horror movie even if it was sold as one. It’s a story of a real world warlock with a very casual, working man’s approach to his magick trying to make his way up in the world. As expected, things don’t go nowhere near as planned. A one word description of Simon would probably be “satire”. A satire of what is another matter. Having seen the film a good ten times or more, I am still never quite sure. Possibly of other films dealing with the same subject matter. Perhaps of American counterculture in the early 70’s. Quite probably of something.

Simon is a Andrew Prine Show from start to finish. All the other actors are there, present and performing from mediocre level to quite good, but exist merely as props for Prine, who defines a career. He was and is an actor who never really put out a bad performance, from no-budget horror films like The Centerfold Girls to proper Hollywood fare like Chisum, but here Andrew Prine doesn’t really perform a role. He becomes. Simon is. Simon Sinestrari is a warlock living in a storm drain wishing to attain godhood through magick, weaving his spells in a world of decadent parties, having discussions with trees, and attending nude goat worship rituals. Through all of this, Prine remains resolutely convincing in a part that would baffle most actors and viewers alike. In the shadow of Prine, George Paulsin at least puts up a struggle to be noticed as Simon’s happy-go-lucky sidekick, Turk. Whether or not Paulsin’s boyishly grinning performance is good in any traditional sense of the word is up for debate, but amusing it most definitely is.

It wouldn’t serve any purpose to put down a critical analysis of Simon, for it is a film that defies basic notions of critique as much as categorization. For better or worse, it just is, and to be taken as such with love or hate, but probably not with indifference. Simon is best defined by a scene about halfway through the film. The titular warlock and his little helper crash a somewhat Wiccan ceremony, where Ultra Violet of Andy Warhol fame leads a coven of sorts to take off their clothes in front of a live goat. Simon observes the obviously hokey rituals with a look of wry bemusement, knowing his magick to be the real deal. He then proceeds to ridicule the faux witchiness with a grandiose monologue, and is promptly chased out by the irate worshippers alongside with trusty Turk, who has been getting it on with a nude girl on an altar in an adjacent room. If this sounds appealing to you, Simon might appeal to you. If it doesn’t, Simon won’t. As simple as that.

Bruce Kessler, predominantly a TV director, masters the ceremonies with a slick, professional touch if not particular flair. Simon looks pro on a low budget. It’s not all that visually inventive short of a few scenes with psychedelic optical effects that look very 70’s by now, but the no-nonsense style rather fits the workmanlike attitude of Simon the magician. Off-the-wall visual stylings and wandering narratives of a Jean Rollin film wouldn’t really work here, for Simon has a clear, linear plot and structure, no matter how bizarre it may be.

All I touch, I corrupt, quoth Simon Sinestrari. Fittingly enough, that’s more or less what the producers and distributors did with the marketing of a film they had no idea how and to whom to sell it to. Enter tag lines like “He curses the establishment!”, “The evil spirit must choose evil!”, and promises of black masses and ceremonial sex in the poster artwork. It failed. Simon tanked at the box office and wandered off into the netherworld of very marginal cult status, where it pretty much still resides.

In all honesty, had Simon, King of the Witches been put out under its intended title of plain Simon and advertised as something other than a sex-and-Satan-fueled orgy of occult horror with the added Mansonsploitation elements of the time, it wouldn’t probably have been much more of a critical and commercial success than it was. Simply put, Simon is far too odd a film for that. A combination of now-dated countercultural vibe of the early 70’s, exploitative elements, serious drama, social satire, intentional and unintentional comedy and a script soaked in the esoteric and completely out of step with the normal world, Simon is a movie with no target audience. There’s always something to mess up the suspension of disbelief of the casual viewer. Too much of something or too little of something else.

A special edition DVD that Dark Sky Films put out in 2008 generated some latter day interest and favorable reviews, but Simon, King of the Witches remains a minor cult film, worlds away from any mainstream acceptance. There are probably more fans of the band Mars Volta who own their t-shirt that used the old theatrical poster to Simon for illustration than people who have both seen the film and liked it. Occult is by definition hidden, and all of this only adds to the lure of Simon. The select and elect who have viewed Simon and understood its occasionally misintentional intent as a work of genius adapting the Kenneth Anger maxim of film as a magic ritual to create something well and truly magical, are the lucky ones. The rest of the world have no idea that one of the brightest stars in the sky is one they have never laid their eyes upon, or saw it but understood not.

 

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Film viewing #3: Simon, King of the Witches

What an absolute treat we have in store for you this evening.

Or do we…

Enjoy and look out for the review tomorrow!

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Macbeth and Wyrd Sisters

[Written by Witch Awareness Month team member, Simon Kewin]

wyrd

Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches

First Witch
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Second Witch
When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

Third Witch
That will be ere the set of sun.

These, of course, are the opening lines to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which contains arguably the best-known witches in literature. It’s a scene that is beautifully parodied in the opening paragraph of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters:

As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: ‘When shall we three meet again?’
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: ‘Well, I can do next Tuesday.’
© Terry and Lyn Pratchett, 1988

Pratchett’s witches – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick – are each wonderful characters, even if they do lean heavily on the crone/mother/maiden triad. But at least they are three-dimensional, believable individuals, unlike Shakespeare’s. The witches in Macbeth aren’t even given names. It’s not really possible to tell them apart. They’re essentially plot devices, delivering the ambiguous prophecies that drive the play along. They are the ominous agents of chaos and conflict. And, of course, they also allow the drama to be amped up with a few supernatural thrills. But Shakespeare’s capacity for portraying character does not extend to his trio of witches.

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the early seventeenth century, at a time when witchcraft was still widely feared. Anti-witchcraft laws had been passed a few years earlier and the trials of the Pendle witches were to begin a few years later. Pratchett, of course, is a much more modern writer. As such, he is sensitive to themes of oppression and prejudice. His witches are most definitely individuals, with their own foibles and idiosyncrasies and weaknesses. In Pratchett, as with other modern writers, magical beings and monsters are people, too. Granny Weatherwax and the rest are characters the reader can empathise with.

Pratchett’s witches don’t even use magic that much. Granny Weatherwax is just as likely to rely on headology: her understanding of human psychology and frailty. Most of the time she gets by on people knowing she could work some terrible magic if she wanted to. The witches in Macbeth, on the other hand, use magic readily. The words of the incantation they use to conjure up visions for Macbeth are given in Act IV Scene 1. They are often dark lines that must have worked well once. Too often to modern ears they manage to sound both rather silly and offensive at the same time:

Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg’d i the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,—
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

So, it’s fair to say that the weird sisters in Macbeth and the witches in Wyrd Sisters (and all the other Discworld witch books come to that) are products of their respective ages. As with all literary characters, each period gets the witches it needs and deserves. Macbeth is a wonderful piece of drama, but for interesting witches with real character (and better jokes), read Pratchett too.

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Oz, the Great and Powerful – Review

[written by Witch Awareness Month member, Mark S. Deniz]

[Beware of minor spoilers here]

Nostalgia plays a massive part in our lives: music we listen to, films we watch, food we eat, etc., it is a hard thing, nay almost impossible, to neglect when trying to objectively judge the worth of something.

Imagine then, watching a film for the first time and wondering if you enjoyed it as much as you thought you did or whether a previous film that is linked to it has affected that opinion.

It is here I find myself when reviewing Oz, the Great and Powerful, because watching a film that pays obvious homage to its 1939 predecessor, is a recipe for confusion. Taking a step back from the film a few days later I can say up front that I enjoyed much within the film and took quite a lot from it, whilst at the same time admitting frustration and annoyance.

The opening credits of the film are fantastic and follow that with a sepia opening, which switches both colour and screen size as it moves into Oz and this as good a homage to The Wizard of Oz, as you are going to get. There are similarities in look and feel and enough of a mention of the characters from the earlier film without it feeling that they are being crowbarred in to keep the hardcore fan happy.

I must state here that I watched the film with my love of The Wizard of Oz, as a constant gauge. I watched the film first when I was very young, as part of one of my many wonderful childhood Christmas memories and didn’t read the novel until much later. There are things I remembered about both the book and the film that made certain decisions within this one strange. I mean, it seemed as though Sam Raimi was making a film that was to be the prelude to The Wizard of Oz but linked things to the book or the film.

Two examples of this are: Glinda, the good witch and the Emerald City. Glinda is the Good Witch of the North in the first film but is the Good Witch of the South in both the newer film and the book. The Emerald City is not actually emerald in the book but appears that way as everyone wears emerald tinted glasses. In both films the city is actually emerald, making the continuity film-based there. This is nit-picking at its finest and I’m not saying decisions like this ruined the film but they niggled somewhat.

Glinda rocks!

I loved the look and feel of Oz in the film (except maybe the wizard’s arrival to the land) and I was pleased that they had three of the witches instead of just the two in the first film (well the third features there two – or her legs at least).

The Wicked Witch of the East

Glinda was excellent, she felt very much like a younger version of the original good witch and it seemed like Michelle Williams had studied the earlier film to get the character just right. Rachel Weisz was solid too, maybe as she didn’t have to tailor her role to another in the previous film. I’ve been a fan of Weisz for many a year and think she would have excelled whatever the challenge.

Not so Mila Kulis, as I’ve not seen her perform in any film so far where she has seemed a credible character and her portrayal of one of the stars of the original film, the Wicked Witch of the West, was woeful and over acted to excess. If this was a homage I’m just pleased that Margaret Hamilton hasn’t witnessed the travesty.

“I’ll have you know, I’ve been to acting school!”

I still haven’t made my mind up about James Franco in general but I don’t think he was the right casting here. He was great as the arrogant, self-obsessed Oz in the early part of the film but his transformation was hard to believe, especially as he maintained his smug grin throughout.

“Smug? Moi?”

Other things grated, like the flying baboons, as they were bloody vicious and not at all in keeping with the originals which were more mischievous and cunning than just outright bloodthirsty (and were not actually baboons). I hated all the one-liners, usually uttered by Franco and it gave the film more of a ‘suit the viewers of today’, rather than a ‘suit the original fans’ feel.

However, some of the ideas were wonderful: characters that appear in both Kansas and Oz, especially the crippled girl who in the opening scenes asks Oz to make her walk again, appears in Oz as a china doll which has had its legs broken off. Oz glues them back together and fulfills his prophecy as the wizard and achieves what he couldn’t in Kansas. That was probably my scene of the film.

The action is not overwhelming, letting the story of an arrogant man turned saviour develop and giving us a credible back story as to how Oz ended up in, well, Oz, and why he is the ethereal form which appears to Dorothy and her gang.

And it brings back memories, it kindles the light we felt from the original film, makes me want to watch that one again, listen to Somewhere over the Rainbow, makes me remember all the Christmases again.

Try as I might, objectivity eludes me and I suppose we will all have to settle for that.

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Film viewing #2: Oz, the Great and Powerful

We continue the film viewing with a return to Oz, and to where it all began.

Nostalgia and emotions are at an all time high!

Enjoy and look out for the review tomorrow!

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