Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Witchmaker
(William O. Brown, 1969)

A regional oddity written and directed by the otherwise unknown William O. Brown, ‘The Witchmaker’ was filmed partially on location in the Louisiana bayou (I could have sworn it was the Everglades, but it might as well have been shot in the Dagobah System given the quality of the print I saw) in 1968, for release on the drive-in circuit in ’69.

I’m not sure how it fared on initial release, but the film’s unprecedented (for an exploitation movie) running time of nearly two hours, its lack of explicit sex n’ violence, and its steadfast dedication to character-building yakking would not seem to be ingredients destined to make it a horror smash, perhaps resulting in its almost total obscurity even today. From the point of view of the more discerning devotee of low budget horror filmmaking though, (that’s us, in case you were wondering), ‘Witchmaker’ is an outright winner – a smart, well made and grimly atmospheric witchcraft shocker whose frequent descents into outright WTF goofiness only serve to sweeten the brew. So let's dive in...

This is Luther The Beserk:

Luther is a hulking Shakespearean ham who seems preoccupied with stalking around the swamps, slaughtering bathing beauties as and when he finds them. I wouldn’t have thought he was ideally placed for such activity – who the hell goes sunbathing in the middle of an impenetrable swamp? – but nonetheless, we’re told he’s knocked off eight young ladies in the past year – a pretty good score, considering.

The poor victims end up hanging by their feet, drained of blood, with an Egyptian ankh daubed on their bellies. A beastly business, and no mistake.

We get the facts and figures about all this from a well-informed swampboat captain, who is ferrying Dr Ralph Hayes and his team of psychic researchers out to a remote cabin deep in the swamp for a week of… well, at this point who knows – research, presumably. Our captain reckons it’s witches that are the problem, and he seems to know plenty about them too. All these new age kids toying with the occult are a load of baloney, he counsels, but a REAL witch – like the ones local legend says live in the swamps – they’re “damn near immortal”, provided they get a regular supply of blood to keep them alive. And them gurls wuz completely drained of blood, were they not?

Unconvinced by this jovial fellow’s reasoning, smug Dr Hayes sends him packing with $21, and his party – including psychic sensitive Anastasia, inquisitive reporter Victor and his secretary Maggie – start settling into the rat-infested shack that the doctor deems the perfect spot for a bit of psychic research.

Almost as soon as they arrive, the girls set out for a bit of topless sunbathing (my question above neatly answered), and it is here that we begin to see the film’s somewhat confused attitude toward its own exploitation elements. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some disagreement behind the scenes as to whether or not the film should include nudity and bloodshed, but whatever the circumstances, they seem to have ended up with a distinctly peculiar compromise. All the set up and implication is here, and it’s as sleazy as you could ask of a ’69 b-movie – brutal slayings, unclothed ladies, satanic orgies, all present and correct.

But at the same time, someone (or someTHING) seems determined that ‘The Witchmaker’ should remain within the bounds of good taste at all times. Which is fine – I couldn’t care less either way, and the lack of ‘money shots’ in the opening murder sequence is actually extremely effective in its grim restraint. But that’s not something that can be said of perhaps the film’s most obvious laugh-out-loud moment, when a sunbathing Anastasia senses Luther lurking in the undergrowth and flees (in slow motion, no less), guarding her modesty like so;

Chase that PG-13 certificate!

Luther The Beserk, as we’ve no doubt established by now, is quite into his witchcraft, although it turns out he is not a witch himself. As a ‘Beserk’, he is something of a combined handyman and overseer to a coven of immortal diabolists. He lives in a big, dark cave where he worships a bronze effigy of Satan, keeps the random gouts of flame burning, and performs the blood rituals necessary to keep the spectral witches alive.

For connoisseurs of vintage occult ritual action, ‘The Witchmaker’ is a must. It may be none too imaginative (apparently drawing ankhs on stuff and throwing blood around will usually get you the results you’re looking for in the black arts), but with all kinds of blood-curdling flame/altar/dagger/parchment/goblet type shenanigans going on throughout, and a great candlelit seance from our psychics, it’s hard not to just sit back and enjoy.

Witchmaker was filmed in Techniscope, the same process used on many Italian movies, and some low budget American films, including William Huyck and Gloria Katz’ 'Messiah of Evil', oddly enough. Like that film (absolutely fantastic by the way – review coming soon hopefully), 'The Witchmaker' benefits from widescreen framing, rich contrast and a groovy technicolor colour palette, which together with imaginative lighting and great use of the swamp locations create a really unique looking movie.

Sadly though, this uniqueness is often hard to appreciate, partially because the version I’m watching – an .avi downloaded from the now defunct Cultrarare Video site, probably sourced from an ‘80s VHS release - is about as bad as picture quality can get, and partially because, imaginatively lit though it may be, Witchmaker is also one of the darkest films I’ve ever seen, with many scenes seemingly shot night-for-night, lit by torches, solitary spotlights and so on. Not a good combination. Once you clean all the shit off the negative, I suspect the scenes in Luther’s cave might convey a Bava-esque splendour, and the exterior shots around the shack might seem to prefigure woodland atmospherics in “Evil Dead”. But for the moment, many scenes seem to take place in total darkness, with only vague shufflings to let you know what’s going on. Such is life.

I purposefully took screengrabs from lighter moments, but here’s a possibly more representative shot, and the absolute worst title screen ever:

Making up for the paucity of light though, I found the performances in “The Witchmaker” to be an absolute joy. The cast sound unusually committed, and bring a wonderful “local theatre group” feeling to proceedings, whilst the script provides them with some great, no nonsense material to work with – smart, but never clever, writing reminiscent of an above average ‘50s b-movie. Those raised on Hollywood’s huffin’& puffin’, post-Brando idea of what constitutes a good performance may deem the acting here stiff and workmanlike, but formality should not be mistaken for ineptitude, and I think it serves the film perfectly. Cut from a different cloth to the neurotic windbags and cynical losers who began to populate horror movies as the ‘70s went on, our heroes here are likable, reasonable guys and gals – they get along just fine, they make plans, they act in each other’s best interests and they keep it together. How refreshing is that for a daft witchcraft movie?

Alvy Moore, who was also the film’s co-producer, is especially noteworthy in the role of Dr. Hayes, as he makes the transition from smug know-it-all to determined leader, realising the danger he has put himself and his students in, thanks to what turns out to be his own hare-brained scheme to track down a modern day witch using Anastasia’s psychic powers. Laugh all you like, but the scene where he stumbles across the body of one of the girls is a genuinely moving portrayal of grief, and of horrified disbelief that this fucked up shit is actually happening.

By contrast, our villains really are a good laugh, with Luther and chief witch Jesse both taking their acting cues straight from an amateur production of Macbeth, making sure to project to the back of the hall at all times – “Satan, give me my PURPOSE!”

By now, we’re likely wondering why a promising young lad like Luther would dedicate his life to running around a swamp with a car mat draped over his shoulders, slitting people’s throats and arguing with a comedy hag. Must be a pretty miserable existence, right?

The answer comes loud and clear in the final twenty minutes, when Luther’s coven convene for their Candlemass celebration. The summoning rituals complete, a whole gang of voluptuous witchy maidens – and a few shifty sorcerer types, Satanic barbarians etc to make up the numbers – emerge from the shadows, each announced by Luther’s booming tones. Marta of Amsterdam! The Hag of Devon! El-Har Ishma! Ah, good times…

They proceed to get the party started, quaffing wine and making out, to a soundtrack of appropriately bacchanalian horn & kettle drum music! Awesome. In fact I think this has got to be one of the best witch hoedowns in cinema history.

And whilst all that’s going on, our dogged and resourceful heroes are working to bring things to a thrilling and action-packed conclusion, by way of hypnotism, invisibility, pig blood, fireballs and quicksand! Too much man, too much.

What more can I say? Despite being a 111 minute movie full of lengthy dialogue scenes, equally lengthy silences and people wandering around the woods in pitch darkness, 'The Witchmaker' kept me thoroughly entertained and happily weirded out through every one of those minutes. Consider it recommended!


El Ente Dilucidado said...

A very nice movie (and a hidden gem from the sixties, of course... Really unknown).
I have the american Sinister Cinema edition in DVD, and an old VHS spanish version. Here, in Spain, the film was titled "La Hechicera De La Muerte" ("The Death Witch" or "The Death She-Wizard"... some like that).

I love the movie.
In fact, I'm really in loved with all those american underground films from the late 60's and early 70's envolved in witchcraft (and, sometimes, a little bit of funny and innocent nudity, of course). Movies like "the Witchmaker", "Blood Sabbath", "Werewolves On Wheels", "The Devil's Rain", "Warlock Moon", "Brotherhood Of Satan", the most famous "Race With The Devil" and others.

I think it was a special kind of genre, a no-man's land, an underground line of semi-exploit dated between "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist" (not really between 1967 and 1973... Think in those years just like temporal references) but which has no debts with those two films. A peculiar stream completely independent

Elliot James said...

Saw this gem in a local theater during its theatrical release. Worth a fresh look/review is the DVD release by Code Red and (actor) L.Q. Jones. It's a beautiful, crisp 2.35 16x9 transfer. I picked up a copy as soon as it was released.