Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Witchmaker (1969): or, Swimmin' in the Swamp O' Satan!

After immersing myself for so long in the wonderful 70s witchcraft films of Europe such as Crypt of Horror, Horror Hotel, and the great witchy elements of Mmmmmovie icon Paul Naschy's films (Curse of the Devil, Horror Rises from the Tomb, etc.), it's refreshing to have a chance to look at an American take on the subject from roughly the same period. Enter the 1969, Louisiana-filmed rarity, The Witchmaker (aka The Legend of Witch Hollow). While perhaps not equalling its European kinsmen in the realms of cinematography, gore, and nekkid witch-flesh, this entertaining little slice of history still manages to give the Old World witch story a fascinating New World spin.

The Witchmaker differentiates itself right off the bat, eschewing the traditional period setting and time-honored "witch gets burned at the stake and curses her Inquisitors' ancestors" set-up for a modern-day cult killing in the thick of the Louisiana swamp. As we open we spy on a young woman (Susan Bernard of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) going for a skinny dip--well, a bra-and-panties dip...this IS an American flick after all!--in the swamp, apparently all by herself. (Always a good idea.) Before you can cluck your tongue at the hedonistic ways of those long-haired American kids, she's attacked by a maniac in the bushes, strung up by her ankles, and bled like a Louisiana hog into a waiting receptacle! Her murderer uses her blood to paint a strange hex symbol on her exposed midriff (an ankh, also called the Ansate Cross), which itself becomes the "t" in the title card for a nice segue into the opening credits. As a fan of cult movies and a long-time navel fetishist, I was riveted.

Next we meet a crew of Yankees being ferried to a cabin in the midst of the swamp by Mr. Leblanc, comic-relief rube and exposition-delivery device. We learn that there have been 8 ritual murders in the town in the last 2 years (I like those odds!), and that many of the townsfolk are saying there might be "a witch in the swamp again!" Pressed for details by the condescending Northerners, Leblanc explains, "Some towns is famous for their rhubarb; we was famous for our witches." You don't have to have seen The Blair Witch Project to know that this is probably not something the Chamber of Commerce is seeking to capitalize on.

Actually the "Witch of the Swamp" legend is a fairly common one in Southern United States folklore, and Leblanc goes on to lay out The Rules of the Movie, explaining that a real witch--male or female, it doesn't matter--can actually survive for hundreds of years as long as he can get blood for his evil rituals. He then drops the group off at a pier, promising to return in a week. When the old man offers to come by sooner than that to make sure the city slickers are doing all right, he is rebuffed with extreme condescension and departs. This is the kind of urban hubris that you just know is going to come back to bite in a reel or two.

Hangin' back.

The tourist group is not composed entirely of idiots, however--we learn that they are in fact a squad of psychic researchers who've come to the swamp to investigate the possible supernatural aspects of the murders. (They didn't tell the boatman for fear of publicity; presumably they didn't inform the local authorities, either.) There are six people at the cabin altogether, three men and three women. The leader, Dr. Hayes (Alvy Moore of TV's Green Acres!) is an expert on witchcraft and psychic phenomena. He's brought his star pupil, Tasha (the lovely Thordis Brandt) is a "sensitive" who has witches in her family line. Also along for the ride are story-seeking journalist Victor Gordon (Anthony Eisley) and the Doctor's secretary Maggie (Shelby Grant), with young stud Owen and engenue Sharon filling the "expendable extras" slots.

I really liked the set-up here, which struck me as The Haunting meets The Evil Dead (researchers in the supernatural in creepy cabin setting). As the crew gets settled in we see they're being watched from the bushes by the as-yet-unnamed maniac from the credits.

So what's the most logical thing to do when you're getting ready to summon the evils of the swamp for scientific purposes? Why, go sunbathing of course! Tasha and Sharon lay out in the swamp while the men get everything ready inside, giving us as much flesh as the censors would allow with some nicely placed shrubbery completing the tease. Sharon leaves Tasha alone, and the blonde's witchy blood attracts our bush-inhabiting maniac, LUTHER THE BERSERK. Yes, Luther is the Sabbat Master of a coven of witches, and makes his home in the very swamp the researchers are searching. He puts a spell on her ('cause she's his!), which makes the topless Tasha flee in terror back to the cabin, in slow motion, her hands cupped over her bountiful breasts! This flick may not have the free-flowing nekkidity of an Italian witch-flick of the same vintage, but they make do with what they got, and it's pretty nice.

Her cups. Runneth over.

Next we follow Luther back to his headquarters, where he summons old hag Jessie of Coventry (well-acted by Helene Winston) to inform her of his plan to make Tasha the 13th member of their coven. Jessie agrees to help, but for a price. "There are some rituals," she leers, suggestively touching Luther's hand, "best performed by two!" They divvy up the projected profits--Luther will get Tasha's body, Jessie will get youth, and Satan will get some souls. It's win-win-win.

Back at the cabin, Dr. Hayes is getting ready to get the research started, and here we get one of the interesting and endearing things about the flick as the doctor explains that electricity and radio waves can interfere with the ability of a "sensitive" to sense supernatural stuff, necessitating the remote location and lack of electric lighting. It's a small thing, but the effort to explain why they have to shut all the lights off was appreciated, and something far too few movies go the extra mile for. (Later, the need to bury some bodies is also explained with a short but convincing line of dialog--a nice touch that made me wonder why other movies don't do it.) Of course Luther's machinations blow things up real good, and pretty soon the somewhat-reduced group figures out they're in real trouble in the swamp, leading to the expected showdown between good and evil.

The final confrontation is well-done too, as Luther summons his coven for an impromptu orgy and the increasingly evil-influenced Tasha is brought in for initiation in a pretty intense ritual, complete with the application of the Mark of the Devil, some invocations of Satan which must have been fairly shocking for the time, and some nice belly-dancing from one of the witches. (Apparently many of the coven were Playboy playmates, which is also nice.) Dr. Hayes uses his knowledge of arcane lore to good effect, giving Victor a wreath of garlic that makes him invisible to witches and allowing him to cold-cock Luther and replace the coven's expected vat of human blood with that of a pig.

Nothin' says lovin' like somethin' from the coven.

Before Luther can recover and warn them off the bad juju, the coven is poisoned by the unclean blood, leading the Sabbat Master to go even more berserker and swear vengeance on his new disciple and her protectors. But whose side is Tasha on, and can the men of science overcome centuries of witchy experience?

As you can probably tell, I was very entertained by The Witchmaker, a movie I feel is ripe for rediscovery (bootlegs are available and it shows up on cable and satellite every now and then, but as far as I know there's yet to be an official, extras-laden release). The witchcraft lore presented here is intriguing even if not entirely accurate (I admit to my ignorance there), and it adheres to the first commandment of Mad Movies by never being boring. And though William O. Brown's direction is fairly static for the most part, there are some nice images--the strung-up victims, the midriff-ankh, and some pyrotechnic witch-power displays among them (not to mention that slow-mo running scene...I think a young Hasselhoff must have been watching!)--and the coven orgy and wild finish are well-staged.

The acting is pretty good too. Alvy Brown acquits himself well as the stodgy but knowledgable scientist, and the juxtaposition of his 50s newsreel announcer voice with the strange arcane lore he spits is particularly entertaining. Thordis Brandt is captivating as the psychic whose fate hangs in the balance, and is pretty easy to look at. But it's John Lodge as Luther the Berserk who really owns the movie--his measured, evil performance makes you buy him as the all-powerful Sabbat Master, a role he eats up in every frame. (Note--though some web sources claim Lodge later went on to become governor of Connecticut, a little time-line verification shows this to be impossible...would that it were not!) And the bit players, from Jessie of Coventry to Leblanc the boatman, all add spice to the already tasty souffle.


So I give The Witchmaker 2.25 thumbs, leaning toward more. While not exactly audacious, it's very entertaining, and worth a look for students of the cinematic unusual. In short, if you get a chance to check this one out, take it.

And thanks to Karswell of The Horrors of It All! for loaning me a copy of this flick!


Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

I just "discovered" your blog and i am properly awed and addicted! That said, I am compulsively adding you to my blog roll...

Karswell said...

>And thanks to Karswell of The Horrors of It All! for loaning me a copy of this flick!

My pleasure Vicar! You know, I've lent this movie to 4 or 5 people over the years and you're the first one to truly appreciate it for what it is.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Sorry you can't say the same about Cemetery of Terror. ;) No me gusto, que lastima.

Karswell said...

>Sorry you can't say the same about Cemetery of Terror.

Taquito Terror!

Anonymous said...

Wheres the download link?

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