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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Witchmaker (1969) review


Anthony Eisley (Victor Gordon), Thordis Brandt (Tasha), Alvy Moore (Dr. Ralph Hayes), John Lodge (Luther the Berserk)

Directed by William O. Brown

The Short Version: This rare witchcraft movie produced by Hollywood actor-director L.Q. Jones is a mild diversion that will be appreciated mainly by horror fans who adore Corman's Poe series and those who grew up watching monster movies in the wee hours of the morning decades ago. The more adventurous genre buffs may find this of passing interest, but little else. Still, the plot is incredibly expansive and far more intriguing than what ends up on screen. Terribly tame for 1969, there's just enough sexual subtext, goofy acting and a bravura performance from John Lodge to make these satanic shenanigans a fair late night offering of bayou devilry indulgence.

Dr. Hayes, a paranormal scientist, along with a beautiful psychic named Tasha, a reporter and three other crew members journey into the Louisiana swampland to investigate a string of murders linked to the occult. Renting a cabin in the woods with no phone and no means of escape, the group run afoul of a brutish warlock who quickly becomes drawn to Tasha's otherworldy energy and plans to enlist her within his unholy coven populated by assorted satanic followers throughout the ages. Science meets satanism as Dr. Hayes matches wits with the hierarchy of hell to learn both the dark sabbat secrets and escape the fog enshrouded swamp alive.

This obscure and unusual witchcraft movie isn't exactly a forgotten contender for cult classic status, but it is a fascinating example of a low budget picture possessing an incredibly adventurous plot. The filmmakers have went the extra mile to compose a strikingly in depth script with several intriguing themes and ideas only the limited means constrict these elements from metamorphosing into something truly memorable. Shot in 1968, the film looks like it was shot much earlier in the decade. It doesn't have the feel of a latter 60s production.

The film is mildly bloody, but outside of the violent opening, the bulk of the brutality is fantasy oriented. At the outset a pretty blonde is taking a dip in the swamp which amounts to nothing more than an excuse to show a little skin. This hulking man appears and breaks the girls neck. He then hangs her upside down and promptly slashes her throat allowing the blood to pour down into a goblet. This is about as gruesome as it gets although we never see any nudity in this scene. Mixing both bare flesh and the cruel desecration of a beautiful woman's dead body would have easily pushed this film into trashy territory. The filmmakers prefer to play things somewhat safe attaining a level of violence akin to a Roger Corman Poe adaptation.

Furthermore, the movie presents multiple opportunities for nudity, but never crosses that line such as one scene where we see Tasha running through the swamp land in slow motion, her hands tightly clutching her breasts. There's several other cheesecake shots that merely tease instead of titillate. There's lots of bare backs and bare flesh conveniently obscured by moss vines or blondes in bathing suits and skimpy attire. What's baffling is that other similar movies were pushing the envelope in terms of onscreen mayhem and sexuality. Similar movies such as WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) and MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970) were pushing the boundaries of good taste, yet Brown and crew prefer to play it safe. Nothing wrong with that, only THE WITCHMAKER appears old hat and out of place by comparison.

Even so, THE WITCHMAKER is a prime example of the sort of thing you'd catch on the 'Late Movie' any day of the week back when television was fun to watch and not riddled with scabs of "reality shows". It's occasionally fun and entertaining, but does have a smattering of pacing issues when Luther isn't onscreen dabbling in black magic hidden away in his lair, or stalking his prey. Lodge, who plays the garishly named Luther the Berserk, does extremely well with his role coming off like a cross between Gordon Scott and Boris Karloff.

The authentic Louisiana locations are brimming with atmosphere and the cinematography by John Morrill is exceptional and often resembles the "lived in" look and feel of a European Gothic tale of terror from the likes of Bava or Margheriti.

As relatively unknown as this film is, some of the scenes bring to mind later movies that bear modest similarities. The cabin in the woods and the plethora of fog saturated locales brings Raimi's THE EVIL DEAD (1981) to mind. The research team out in the middle of nowhere studying local legends of witchcraft looks forward to the mega hit, no budget wonder THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999). Also, the confrontation between science, the supernatural and the learned doctor versus a motley clutch of satanists of all shapes and bra sizes seems to have possibly been inspired by Hammer's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1967) released in America as THE DEVIL'S BRIDE in 1968.

The filmmakers did seem to do a great deal of research on the subject of the occult that reportedly attracted the attention of satanic church founder, Anton La Vey, who enjoyed the picture. The scenes featuring Luther and his demonic perpetrators are the scene stealers here and these sequences look like they'd fit snugly within the framework of a period movie or some other medieval fantasy feature. Such is a sequence that comes at the 75 minute mark where Luther summons assorted minions from hell taken from various time periods; a handful of them looking like they were picked up at a Russ Meyer convention. The way in which this scene is shot is immensely creative and overflowing with energy. Various hellspawn--male and female--appear out of walls, change from an animal into human form, or appear drenched in colored lighting.

Had the rest of the movie maintained this level of spontaneity at a more manic pace, it would have been a more indelibly memorable enterprise. As it stands, THE WITCHMAKER is an undeniably interesting artifact that caters more to the lovers of atmospheric schlock than it will to those more in tune with mainstream genre product. Fans nostalgic for the likes of horror host shows in the vein of Shock Theater, Elvira's Movie Macabre and Creature Features will no doubt wish to dabble in this minor, yet ambitious occult item.

This review is representative of the Code Red DVD

DVD Link below:

Witchmaker: Legend of Witch Hollow


Jack Veasey said...

Thanks for this review. I've been trying to remember the name of this film for years so I could track it down again.

venoms5 said...

Hey, Jack, thanks for stopping by and commenting! Not sure why the amazon link wouldn't show the image. The DVD cover was on there when I ordered it a couple weeks ago.

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