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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – The Mark of the Bell Witch (2020)

My notes on The Mark of the Bell Witch

There have been several fictionalised film versions of the Tennessee legend of the Bell Witch – most prominently, An American Haunting – but this documentary refrains from the sort of speculation necessary to shape a typical set of paraphenomena into a narrative.  In the early 19th century, the Bell family of Adams, Tenn., were troubled by a ‘witch’ – though the term was somewhat elastic – and various people, including Andrew Jackson got involved, with patriarch John Bell and his daughter Betsy the apparent targets of Kate, a chatty entity perhaps identified with a grudge-holding neighbour woman.

Writer-director Seth Breedlove has made a bunch of films on American cryptids – The Mothman Legacy, Momo: The Missouri Monster, On the Trail of Bigfoot, The Bray Road Beast, etc – and tells the story through tableaux-like recreations in stylised hi-def black and white (which run to a few effective scares and a lot of sharp-focus cobwebs and nature shots), readings from historical documents (illustrated by woodcuts, some animated), and talking heads chats with historians of various pedigrees.  An American Haunting makes John Bell out to be an abusive father whose fault the whole thing is, but the historians tend to go with contemporary accounts that regard him as a good man – excusing even his explusion from his church on a usury charge as the result of another feud with a neighbour and more or less glossing over the fact that it’s hard in the 21st century to present a slave-owner of any kind as unproblematically a regular nice guy – and view the haunting as just one of those things that happens … inexplicable, as well as impossible.

No one presents anything like a rational explanation, though it is mentioned that Bell’s fits were likely a medical condition and that there’s not much supernatural about death by poison unless we conclude a ghost switched philtre bottles, because it’s too much fun to recount the doings of ‘Kate’, who saw off silver bullets, churchmen and others with undefined displays of supernatural power.  Kate was inconsistent enough to persecute two members of the Bell family – Betsy seemed to be the focus of poltergeist phenomena, though Kate also made a fuss to stop her getting married – while being predisposed to look kindly on and praise John’s wife (which would make her a likely culprit in my amateur ghost-buster’s book, though no one takes that route).  Some commentators pick up on threads from Breedlove’s filmography and point out when elements of the story are typical of other legends of American monsters – there’s an incidental two-headed demon dog though also one strange creature which might have prosaically been a hare described by someone who never saw one before – and spooks.

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