Witches have been a popular topic for film audiences since the medium began.
From Swedish film Häxan in 1922 through to recent films like The Love Witch (not to mention witches on the small screen a la American Horror Story: Coven, Charmed and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), the practice of magic has captivated audiences time and again.
This year, Victor Fink and Joshua Land’s Bad Witch delves into an area that is not often explored: the male witch.
Don’t be fooled by what you learned at Hogwarts: the masculine version of a witch is still called a witch (just ask your Pagan and Wiccan friends), and the titular bad witch of the film is Xander Perkins (Chris Kozlowski), a self-centred manchild whose use of black magic gets him into serious trouble when he curses the wrong person.
Xander’s target and his friends enact revenge, leading Xander to retreat to the home of his high school friend Henry (James Hennigan) vowing to never use black magic again. The problem with magic, however, is that it’s addictive and hard to give up.
After getting a job at a diner, Xander encounters fellow co-worker Roland (Jackson Trent), the local high school nerd who is the regular target of vain, chauvinistic Conrad (Jonathan Helwig) and pines for popular girl Veronica (Clare Lefebure).
Aiming to help Roland empower himself, Xander befriends him and begins to teach him magic. Roland’s life is opened up by the possibilities of being able to get revenge, get the girl and also get into a good college thanks to the magic he’s learning from Xander. But magic always has its price and some pretty dire consequences…
Bad Witch provides the viewer with a narrative that shows that magic is not just the domain of women.
It also examines masculine relationships: the father and son relationship (Roland and his father), friendships (Xander and Henry, Conrad and Hans), and mentorships (Xander and Roland). In particular, the relationship between Xander and Roland is particularly endearing, and that’s partly down to the delightful chemistry between Kozlowski and Trent.
Interestingly, there is one male relationship that is not explored in great detail (apart from in the very beginning of the film): Xander’s relationship with his father who was also a witch.
This would have been an interesting thread to pull on, but we don’t know much about Xander’s father other than he too practised black magic. Was their magic inherited through the male line? How did his Dad get into it? Was his Dad okay with him also getting into black magic, or was he against it?
Perhaps it’s a narrative that ended up on the cutting room floor, but the film runs lean duration-wise and I would have liked to have seen more about Xander and his Dad.
Chris Kozlowski is fun to watch as Xander. There’s an endearing nature to the character. His ignorance to the worries of other people (for instance, Henry being threatened with eviction) doesn’t seem to seep into his consciousness because he’s been able to get by through using magic.
Having to live in the ‘real world’ sees Xander looking awkward and helpless… until he finds Roland to become his new ‘project’. His transition into mundane life is a little like watching a baby giraffe taking its first steps: it’s awkward but you hope he’ll get there.
Xander practices what’s termed ‘black magic’, but it is black magic lite.
In fact, in some cases it would be considered grey magic: definitely not white, but certainly not so black that there are ghastly sacrifices or demon conjuring. In a way, his grey magic mirrors his mentorship of Roland: the big brother figure that teaches Roland magic while also teaching him how to roll the best joint.
His companionship is healthy for Roland, but smoking weed, teaching him questionable spells and doing shots with him is definitely not.
Any story about witches and witchcraft can prove to be a filmmaking headache, especially for indie filmmakers. CGI can eat up a film budget, and then there’s the risk that the effects will look unconvincing.
Thankfully, directors Fink and Land have made the magic convincing by not using CGI.
Instead, they have opted for practical effects and even a little sleight of hand. Makeup effects see Conrad turning from too-cool-for-school to a pimple popper’s wet dream. A rival’s teeth fall out, which proves that simple curses are sometimes the most effective (and the same goes for practical effects).
There’s even some vomit that I’m pretty convinced was minestrone soup, and I’m not even mad about that. Don’t get me started on the pumpkin – that’s going to not only mess with your mind but gross you out (it’s pretty brilliant).
So, weighing things up: is Bad Witch a good film?
It’s definitely ambitious, but there are elements that may have added just a little bit extra to the film, like the aforementioned relationship between Xander and his Dad.
That being said, it is a decent watch. It doesn’t get itself bogged down by the burden of CGI which means that the narrative isn’t overpowered by flashy special effects.
Most importantly, however, is the honesty and organic nature of the filmmaking. It has heart, and you can feel that in every thread of the film.