Judge Gordon Sullivan has just dozed off. That's the only magick ritual of DVD reviewers.
The history and craft of modern day witches.
Witchcraft: The Magick Rituals of the Coven sends a very mixed message with its cover. On the front we're treated to a typically-occult looking desk, over which hangs a flaming rune circle and a pair of eyes staring out at the viewer. The back promises an interview with Jeanette Ellis who "reveals the truth behind many aspects of Witchcraft." The DVD is obviously trying to sell itself (which is why the back cover also features a young woman showing lots of cleavage), but to anyone not trying to sell something, this DVD is aiming for the impossible. Just as the various kinds of Christianity only share a few basic beliefs and differ on everything else, so too do practitioners and historians of witchcraft differ about pretty much everything. There are pagans, wiccans, Druids, Celts, etc, all who have a different view of what constitutes "witchcraft." Sure they'd all agree that it's generally based on nature and is probably more benevolent than not, but that's where the similarities end. So, from the opening frame, Witchcraft: The Magick Rituals of the Coven is starting from a hole.
Luckily, interview subject Jeanette Ellis (who wrote a book on the same subject, Forbidden Rites) starts out the interview (conducted by Karen Frandsen from Eerie Investigations) with a caveat that witchcraft has meant a lot of things to a lot of people. From there she generally talks historically, which means a lot of speculation and inference about how various practices were carried out and what they might have meant. This interview comprises the first hour or so of the feature. The next 15 minutes or so see Ellis and Frandsen travelling to Mistley, home of the notorious "Witchfinder General" Matthew Hopkins (who many fans will know because of Vincent Price's memorable portrayal). Once in Mistley, the pair visit the Swan Inn, where witch trials occurred and where Hopkins allegedly haunts.
There are two completely insurmountable obstacles that keep Witchcraft from being a worthwhile documentary. The first is the absence of anything at all new or surprising. The occult is a bit of a hobby of mine, and I didn't hear one significantly new piece of information I hadn't heard before. Sure there were a few dates here and there that were new to me, but the basics of traditional "homecraft," the persecution of witches, and the hatred and fear of "witches" by the Church are not terribly surprising.
Well, you might say, perhaps Witchcraft: The Magick Rituals of the Coven is aimed at a neophyte audience, one not versed in mystical mumbo jumbo. If that's the case, then Witchcraft's second problem rears its ugly little head: the documentary lacks even a hint of logical style. There's nothing wrong with a talking-head format in documentary, or even in focusing on a single interview subject (something that Errol Morris does ingeniously), but if a single interview is going to make up the bulk of a feature, it is the interviewers responsibility to structure questions in way that makes sense. That doesn't happen here. Instead, we get Frandsen saying stuff like "So tell us about spells" or "How did the Church persecute Witches," without any attempt to create a narrative, historical or otherwise. For instance, in the middle of a discussion of traditional witchcraft, Frandsen asks a question about magick in Egypt. While I grant that the roots of magick in Egypt might be significant, sandwiching it between a discussion of "homecraft" and midwifery does none of the subjects justice. Once the sit-down interview is over, the film runs into other problems.
Witchcraft is one of the most poorly produced DVDs I've ever encountered. The video (which looks to have been shot on consumer equipment) has been so badly compressed that artefacts roughly the size of the subjects' heads (at least during the first hour) are visible, rendering the feature almost unwatchable. The poor compression makes the visit to Mistley all but pointless, since the lack of resolution makes the location impossible to identify. It could be Scranton, for all I know. It's especially inexcusable because the video doesn't even take up all of a single-layer DVD, and there are no extras. The audio is only slightly better than the video, since I could actually make out what everyone was saying most of the time. To add insult to injury, the only menu includes the option to start the film, a chapter stop in the middle, and then an option that takes you to a series of trailers that have been appended to the end of the feature.
Whether you're for witches, against witches, or don't care either way, this is a DVD to avoid.
I hope I won't be cursed for this verdict of guilty.
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