Director: William O. Brown
Screenplay: William O. Brown
Cast: Anthony Eisley (as Victor Gordon); Thordis Brandt (as Anastasia); Alvy Moore (as Dr. Ralph Hayes); John Lodge (as Luther the Berserk); Shelby Grant (as Maggie)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #96
You'd hope for the best with The Witchmaker. At least some sympathy for the movie as it's an early sixties horror film late to the party and arriving at the end of the decade instead. It starts promisingly for a regional horror film with its dank, atmospheric Louisiana swamp land and local colour in an amateur boatman, giving exposition about a long history of witchcraft in the area and a series of killings of women currently taking place. There's even a surprising amount of pep to the dialogue following a psychic researcher and his students as they lock themselves up in an isolated cabin without realising the danger they're in, a lot of pep to the dialogue in place of the usual bland dialogue I've had to suffer through in the past, giving The Witchmaker for the first twenty minutes a greater interest next to its peers, suggesting the best from it.
It's a film stuck in the transition to the grimier seventies exploitation films; the opening is of a fur clad "Berserk" (sic) named Luther (John Lodge), a Satanist who alongside practicing blood magic also likes to kill women and hang them up naked upside down off trees with a giant occult symbol painted in red paint on their bare stomachs. You don't however see any nudity and the gore's restricted, a drastic sense of prudishness to the film despite its date of origin, softcore without any scintillation and moments of sleaze which are fully washed away from imitating a Roger Corman movie in its bright colours and almost kitsch tone. The need to tease the viewer but not show anything goes as far as a sunbather having a strategically placed branch in the foreground covering their torso like an Austin Powers moment, adding an absurdity to it particularly as it goes out of its way to have this sensuality still there but not wanting to actually show it. Whilst its amusing to see, I have to wonder how films like it faired as product as the more notorious films of the seventies were starting to be released a year on from The Witchmaker's theatrical run onwards, its view of a witch's orgy in the finale being exotic dancers in skimpy clothes dancing on tables and actors pretending to drink and lull on top of each other. Even a year earlier when you have films like Witchfinder General (1968) or Night of the Living Dead (1968), this light fluffy tone even for classical tropes like witches was doomed to extinction or, as films would still be made into the seventies with this tone once in a while, as one off regional productions stuff in their own ghettos, likely having to up the ante in gore or sensuality to stand out even if they were still campy as hell. Even more family friendly films would still have to change with the times drastically from this type of movie.
Sadly the film not only starts to drag as Luther the Berserk starts to pick people off, recruiting an old witch turned into a youthful vamp through blood ritual to assist him, but becomes monotonously dull, Luther not living up to being an actual Berserker and the cast not reacting to having to bury at least a few people with greater intensity. It finally starts to become a cheap imitation of a Roger Corman movie as that pep to the dialogue starts to wear off; as one of the female psychics in the research group is being pulled to join the witch's coven and people are dying, the cast are just quoting exposition, becoming evidence to why most of those American International Pictures productions were less than eighty minutes rather than over ninety as The Witchmaker is. There's eventually a point in the middle half where my mind started to keel over in agony as the minutes stretched on and on without any sense of escalation. Considering its mix of a colourful interpretation of Satanic witches, psychic powers and parapsychology, aspects of sleaze and the perfect location of Louisiana woodland, a film like this shouldn't just have descended into asinine dialogue sequences but it's a common occurrence I constantly bump into with obscurer American horror movies. Even when it picks up by the end with the tamest Satanic orgy possible, even with lascivious whipping for punishment of a female member and colourful figures who can turn into cats, its perfunctory and only stands out as the script decides to beat the villains, in a nice touch admittedly, with old folk remedies involving wild garlic and boar blood, whether it's based on real folk lore or not still a difference I wish would've influenced the rest of the movie I suffered through before.