Director/co-writer/editor/cinematographer/producer Pierre Tsigaridis’ feature debut is not only, as its title baldly states, a tale of two witches, but also of two halves, formally separated into two numbered and headed sections, ‘The Boogeywoman’ and ‘Masha’, plus a prologue and epilogue.
In Chapter I, 27-year-old, six-months-pregnant Sarah Johnson (Belle Adams), already uncertain about her relationship with her insensitive boyfriend Simon (Ian Michaels) and about her impending maternity, is now also unsure whether the dark visions that she keeps experiencing are just part of the normal imbalances and anxieties undergone by an expectant woman, or are a supernatural assault by the older creepy stranger (Marina Parodi) who recently gave her the evil eye in a restaurant. When the couple visits Simon’s old friend Dustin (Tim Fox) and Dustin’s wiccan wife Melissa (Dina Silva) out in Temecula, events that night will leave one person dead, another missing, a third grievously injured, and everyone – including the viewer – ‘in the dark’.
In Chapter II, hard-working student and gallery curator Rachel Howard (Kristina Klebe) will find her relationship with her fiancé Charlie (Clint Hummel) and her mother Mary (Danielle Kennedy), not to mention her very grip on reality, turned upside down by her new housemate in the build-up to Christmas. For mysterious, malicious Masha (a show-stopping Rebekah Kennedy) is a misfit who deeply covets what others around her have, and who is about to come into one hell of an inheritance that will enable her at last to take all that she wants for herself.
These two stories are indeed both about witches, although they have other ties binding them too. Some of these ties are genetic, as characters from both chapters turns out to be related by blood (and by a different, more occult connection). Meanwhile, more circumstantially, some personnel will cross over from one chapter to the next, creating a connective tissue that lends coherence to this film with two backs. And where the Boogeywoman in the first chapter steals other people’s babies, Masha steals people’s identities, partners and life narratives (“I so enjoy stories,” she says).
Theft is of course key to a film which overtly appropriates imagery and ideas from all manner of other films – e.g. the pre-partum paranoia of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the sparkly silver dress from Harry Kümmel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) and the low-angle shot of someone hammering at a door from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), as well as elements from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) and Drag Me To Hell (2009) as well of course as Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). Here Tsigaridis draws directly on a lengthy horror tradition, including his decidedly retro use of practical effects and a giallo-esque lighting palette, yet from all these he fashions something new and very much his own.
Much of this innovation comes from inversions of gender. For here, there are two kinds of witches: on the one hand, the malevolent figures who “worship the devil and eat children”, in accordance with what Rachel calls the “patriarchal narrative”; on the other, ‘witches’ as a reclaimed term for “badass women” (again to quote Rachel) – icons of feminist recalcitrance and resistance to the norms of patriarchal society. Two Witches gets to have it both ways, pitting conventional ‘wicked’ witches of old, who bite into forbidden fruit like their Biblical antecedent Eve and work mischief upon both sexes equally, against modern women like Melissa (who uses her rituals and candles to make the world better), Sarah (who stands up to Simon’s crass dismissiveness) and even Rachel herself – who has got herself out of an abusive relationship and is now the director of her own gallery, forming a positive coven-like female triad with the two women working under her. This old ‘Good Witch’/‘Bad Witch’ dichotomy, which has its cinematic origins in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), is also expressed in the film through the Manichean dualities of light and darkness, mother and whore – but all these will in the end prove unstable, as a ‘good girl’ Sarah can, merely in giving the finger to male privilege, readily break bad (do not miss the post-credits coda).
Further confounding our expectations of conventional male and female rôles, here the part once played by Rachel’s male partner in gaslighting her is now taken over by a female roommate. Although she may expertly play the weeping victim, the petite yet predatory Masha is (twice) shown sexually overpowering, even raping, a man. Conversely, the same man whom we initially deplore for his casual chauvinism is later lionised precisely for punching and burning a woman. And in a screenplay co-written by a man (Tsigaridis) and a woman (Klebe), in which Rachel explicitly challenges the conventional ascription of the male gender to God, even the Devil ‘himself’ transgresses a sexual divide, combining a female body (Trystin Ariel) with a male voice (Tsigaridis).
This is a messy battle between, and within, the sexes, where the ultimate victor is unease, toying with our current anxieties about shifting gender boundaries, in a film that simultaneously celebrates and demonises female empowerment, while utterly equivocating over the figure of the witch. For in the end, it will be revealed that there are not just two, but a whole pantheon (or pandemonium) of witches, conspiring – with their sexually ambiguous master and shifting Queen – to enact further undermining, ensorcelling assaults on the status quo.
strap: Pierre Tsigaridis’ feature debut is a sinister retro freakshow that all at once demonises and celebrates female empowerment.
© Anton Bitel