This month Netflix released the true-crime documentary The Ripper which tells the history of the Yorkshire Ripper, the investigation process, and the many perspectives on the events as they unfold. Half of what made the documentary so exciting was not just seeing the different interpretations of the killings, but also how it let the story take center stage and the chronological events be the exciting reveals. It was a very enjoyable experience and was a fine example of an event piece done well. The Mark of the Bell Witch, on the other hand, has a good amount of facts and history on an event but has nothing entertaining to hang the knowledge on.
200 years ago farmer John Bell breathed his last breath after years of being tormented by the spirit of Kate Batt’s, better known as the Bell Witch. Now a group of historians and locals seek to better understand the longevity of the legend and explain the history of this supernatural event. Through reenactments and past accounts they hope to create a clear retelling of the events and share the story of Robert County, Tennesee’s most famous legend.
At first glance, the reenactments segments in The Mark of the Bell Witch bring a bit of much-needed entertainment to the rather dry talking heads and historical notes, but soon even those moments become stale and cheap. When we begin to see characters in, to my knowledge era period clothing, wandering through a house with brick walls and a metal staircase railing in what should have been an all-wood house for the time, the immersion is broken. From there the segments just act as a reprieve from the factoids that make the torment of a family at the hands of a supernatural entity somehow boring.
When the reenactments and the talking heads lose your interest, the focus becomes drawn more and more to how sloppy the documentary has been put together. The first hint, shocking enough, was only seconds into the documentary when it announces we are in Adams, Tennessee Present-day just to immediately travel into the past of 1820. Next, The Mark of the Bell Witch takes a chapter-based approach to storytelling which sounds like a good route to take but the chapters often don’t have enough story to flesh them out. One chapter, in particular, is less than 5 minutes long even including a separate unrelated tangent.
While it would seem unfair to compare the small budgeted The Mark of the Bell Witch to a documentary produced by Netflix, what drags down the Bell Witch are simple problems that could have been easily improved. Even though the documentary is based on a single event around a very small window of time, there is so much extra information involved that makes the film feel unfocused and cluttered. In the end, it is unclear what the documentary set out to do, whether it is simply a bit of ghost lore that fails to be entertaining or a passion project explored in the least passionate way possible.
3 out of 10