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Jacqueline Kirkham's low-budget indie film, Following the Wicca Man, revisits that tradition. Her film is about ... a filmmaker; a documentarian who chooses modern witches as his next topic, his research impelling him to infiltrates a local coven.
"My inspirations were the places that I grew up," said Kirkham to the Hollywood Investigator. "The film was shot in and around Crosby in Liverpool. Little Crosby is an historic village with strong Catholic beliefs -- to this very day, only Catholics can live in the village. I used to look at Jesus on the crucifix and wonder, what evil it was trying to keep out? The street had no road lights, which only added to the spooky feel I got when riding home.
"I went to a school close by. One day we found a goat hanging upside down from a tree in the woods. We got told not to play in the woods because of suspected witchcraft. When I grew up, I learned Gerald Gardner, the once famous witch, had lived close by. I linked a story together and knew I had to make my film one day."
Gardner is a controversial figure. In the 1950s he claimed to have rediscovered the ancient Wiccan religion. Others say that he merely hired the self-proclaimed "wickedest man in the world," Aleister Crowley, to ghost write Gardner's book on Wicca -- and that Wicca is just some stuff that Crowley invented for cash. Either way, Gardner is credited with popularizing what became modern Wicca.
Of that controversy, Kirkham says, "I believe in Gardner's claim that he rediscovered for himself what was an old religion. I think he was instrumental in bringing it out to a wider public."
Although Following the Wicca Man sets up the usual dichotomy between the good/white witches vs. the evil/black witches, the emphasis is on the latter -- it is a horror film. Seeking real witches for his documentary, Clayton (Gaz Elliott) first interviews the good witch, Freya (Kirkham), who warns him against investigating a local dark coven. Naturally, Clayton ignores Freya, and ends up in trouble.
Yes, Kirkham, who wrote and directed, also acts in a lead role. And she also served as producer, director of photography, camera operator, and editor. "It was really hard to pull off," she admits. "It was an exhausting challenge. I was lucky to be working with young, motivated graduates, whom I took strength from and kept me going. Now we want to get on with the next project."
It's refreshing that Following the Wicca Man doesn't add to horror's current glut of zombies, slashers, torture porn, and found footage. Striving beyond mindless scares, the film covers historical ground and weighty theological themes. It's also interesting to see what Gardner's old stomping grounds looks like today.
Even so, it's a first effort, and Kirkham perhaps over-extended herself. The cast is mediocre. Their performances are not too bad, but also not too good. In explaining witchcraft, Kirkham (as Freya) stiffly recites her lines, rather than speaking naturally. It's rarely a good idea for first-time filmmakers to both direct and star in their films.
The script and film both need trimming. Characters walk or drive for long stretches. Really, we don't need to see so much passing roadway. Conversations can be shorter, especially when the postman explains his son's dilemma. We only need the highlights, not every mundane detail. Running at an hour and 48 minutes, the film could lose 15 to 20 minutes without losing any story.
The sound recording is good -- we clearly hear what the characters say -- but the sound mix less so. The ambient noise varies at times, as when characters speak in possessed voices. The characters' voices during the awards dinner sound disembodied, as if recorded in a sound stage.
The lighting is mostly functional, but flat and uninteresting, yielding visuals that are sharp and clear, but without atmosphere. A few nice exceptions include the church interiors, dimly lit by candles and colored stained-glass windows, and the beach at dusk under a brooding sky. And a curious wicker-man-like statue, staring out to sea.
"The statue on the beach was one of 100 statues which are a permanent fixture on the beach," said Kirkham. "They are cast-iron molds, replicating the body of the artist Antony Gormley."
Following the Wicca Man was shot on a Canon 7D, with an 18 - 135 lens; 1920 24fps. It was edited on Final Cut Pro. Kirkham "personally financed" its £10,000 budget.
The film ends on a dark note, with Freya joining the evil witches. Kirkham promises a sequel, again featuring Freya, Clayton, and the Catholic priest. "The priest will pay an important role helping move the coven into the light. The question is, will he save Freya's soul? There isn't a full message in the first film, but by the end of the second film, a full message will be understood."
Kirkham has operated a still photography business since 2005. "I took acting classes in 2011, and changed direction into moving images." She has a website.
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