Witchmaker, The (1969)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-07-08 00:52

Written and Directed by: William O. Brown
Starring: Anthony Eisley, Thordis Brandt, and Alvy Moore

Reviewed by: Brett G.

ďThe cock crows, the Sabbat ends;
The sorcerers scatter and flee away.Ē

You usually want to avoid hanging out in dilapidated old shacks in a backwoods swamp due to gators, psychotic hillbillies, and maybe voodoo priests. However, if weíre to believe writer/director William O. Brown, witches like to hang out in swamplands and murder unsuspecting victims too. Thatís right, witches--usually found in creepy villages and eerie British cult movies, 1969ís Witchmaker transported them to the bayou, where they had a good time slaughtering nubile delta women and holding Sabbath parties.

A slew of girls have actually been savagely murdered before the film begins; the opening sequence lets us know that itís a weird, bushy-eye maniac (John Lodge) carving them up. With a psychic (Thordis Brandt) in tow, a group of researchers journeys deep into the swamps to investigate. It turns out theyíve stumbled onto a coven of witches preparing for a traditional black mass. Even worse, their coven usually numbers 13, and theyíre one short--that is, until they target the poor psychic girl to join their clan.

Witchmaker manages to be an unexpectedly interesting take on the witch film; thatís never been a particularly prolific sub-genre, at least in terms of delivering our common conception of witches goes (pointy hats, cauldrons, black cats, all that good stuff). This one hews closely to that while providing its own spin to ground them into then-modern times; the main witch, Jessie, starts out as a typical old, cackling hag who holds sinister meetings with Lodgeís baritone-voiced warlock character (Luther the Berserk). She doesnít want to stay this way, of course--part of her goal is to regain her vitality, which will allow her to become the other type of witch: the sexy, alluring type, like Barbara Steele in Black Sunday. They also hang out in a creepy abode in the shadow of a statue of the dark lord, and itís all quite spooky, like something out of those great cult flicks.

The story sort of lurches along to get to that interesting stuff, though. Spending time with the main cast grows a bit tedious, but it is mostly comprised of solid, veteran actors (specifically Anthony Eisley and Alvy Moore, both of whom had solid careers). The two girls are a gorgeous set, brimming with that late 60s sexuality thatís just aching to burst through their tight-fitting wardrobe. Thereís probably an interesting subtext to the film, as, ostensibly, Brandtís possible transformation into a witch will change her into an uninhibited sexual jezebel and will free her from the stodgy, intellectual old men looking to ďsave her.Ē Perhaps not an intentional undercurrent, but one would hardly be surprised if the womenís lib movement of the time didnít inform this somehow.

Business really picks up once Luther the Berserk works his charms and begins terrorizing the crowd; at this point, Witchmaker becomes a great horror film, complete with dreamlike sequences, dreary, fog-drenched forests, and howling winds. Jamie Mendoza-Nava (another veteran who notably hooked up with Charles Pierce for Boggy Creek and The Town that Dreaded Sundown) crafts an old-fashioned score that subtly slithers in the background to deliver an brooding, suspenseful quality. Photography is often stylish and color splashed, giving the film a neo-gothic look at times to reflect the withesí other-worldly quality. A sequence that finally gathers the various witches, warlocks, and sorcerers for the climactic Sabbath celebration is particularly fun and full of pagan rituals, drinking, and general merriment.

For whatever reason, this was the second and last film Brown ever made; I canít imagine it was due to a lack of talent, as this proves he was certainly capable of crafting a solid horror tale. An interesting film that straddles the line between classic horror and contemporary style and shocks, Witchmaker is a cool flick that makes you wish Brown had continued to work in the genre. Itís a film that seemingly works in spite of itself sometimes; our villains (especially Lodge) are sometimes stage-bound and hammy, while our heroes are often left to figure out stuff we already know; without the combined powers of Techniscope and Technicolor, it would have been quite drab.

Odd that such a film has gone pretty much unnoticed this far into the 21st century, but Code Red hopes to change that with their latest DVD release. While the print they use is sort of rough and shows a lot of scuffs and scratches at times, the color and detail are good; the mono track is a little muffled, but ultimately fine. Producer L.Q Jones drops by for both an on camera interview and a commentary, where heís joined by DP John Morrill. Witchmaker proves to be quite bewitching, casting its spells in blood and fog. Itíll also raise your hair with a devilish ending that anticipates the demonic terrors of the 70s. Buy it!

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