It’s Women in Horror Month, so let’s shed a little light on a great woman-directed short film: Zena S. Dixon‘s short Night of the Witch.
The film opens on a young man walking alone at night. A voice-over reveals that this is part of a recurring dream, always the same, always with him wandering down the same dark sidewalk. “I don’t know where I’m going,” he says, “I just know I have to keep walking.”
He hears footsteps behind him, but as soon as he turns, as always, the footsteps cease and no one is there. When he continues on they start again, faster this time, and accompanied by low, sinister growling. He starts to run, abandoning the sidewalk and taking off into the bushes. The unseen assailant follows and the growling gets louder until you can almost feel whatever beast is lurking in the darkness breathing down our hero’s (and our own) neck.
The young man jolts awake in his apartment, visibly shaken by the nightmare. A uniform draped across the headboard of the bed reveals that he has served in the military — perhaps a veteran just returned home from overseas.
He breathes a sigh of relief that the dream is over only to freeze in fear a moment later: a black-clad figure hovers in the corner of this bedroom, presumably the titular witch and the monster that has been haunting his dreams. As he fights this supernatural intruder, the viewer is left to decide for themselves what is real and what is not.
From the start, Night of the Witch defies expectations of standard horror film practices. Dixon blends real word horrors with the surreal to offer up social commentary worthy of a 21st Century Twilight Zone episode.
Pick any random horror film from the past 40 years and picture the would-be victim walking alone at night, oblivious to the presence of the monster lurking nearby. What does the character in this image look like? In most cases: white, female, young, conventionally attractive. This long-standing trend and its relationship with the racial (racist) history of America is a can of worms for another day, but the point I’m trying to make here is that Dixon is deliberately challenging her audience by telling a different story. The trials of her film’s hero, a young black man, alone at night, vulnerable to dangers beyond his control, echo the stories of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, and the hundreds of other black men who became victims of racial violence, often at the hands of police officers, at an alarming rate in the past couple of years. Despite outrageous numbers of police shootings and hate crimes followed by widespread protests, the justice system has failed these victims and their families, the media has tried to distort the stories to make the victims into villains, and racists across the country continue to try and justify the perpetrators’ actions and their own. In Trump’s America, a black person walking alone at night (or any other time) is much less safe than the white woman of traditional horror fare.
Dixon’s hero is also a soldier, played by her own brother-in-law, who served in Afghanistan. Perhaps the horrors he experience symbolize or are actual manifestations of PTSD? An interesting note is the sign nailed to the post that he walks by over and over in his recurring dream, reading “BRING ‘EM HOME.” Again, the all-too-real nightmare many people face every day is weaved with the supernatural: a solider returned home, leaving the horror of war behind only to find himself faced with new horrors that no training could ever prepare him for. With the ending ambiguous and the fate of our hero unknown, we can only imagine for ourselves whether or not he wins the fight.
Though Night of the Witch is just five minutes long, Dixon makes excellent use of the short time frame, packing in plenty of nuance and memorable imagery that will stay with viewers long after the end. We can only imagine what she could do with the length and resources of a feature film — hopefully we will find out!
You can watch Night of the Witch on Amazon Prime — check it out! You won’t be sorry.