1964, UK, Directed by Don Sharp
B&W, Running Time: 80 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R1, Fox; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: DD Mono
(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) In the name of Progress a building contractor has an ancient cemetery bulldozed to make way for a new complex, against the wishes of the Whitlock family whose ancestors are buried there. Wrapped up in the building project is Bill Lanier, the head of a family who has traditionally been at odds over the centuries with the Whitlocks. His involvement brings him into conflict with an ageing Morgan Whitlock, the main person who is vehemently opposed to the reuse/relocation of the graveyard despite nobody having been buried there for aeons. While this domestic bickering is going on, one of the upturned coffins on the building site is revealed to be open, and from it has emerged a long-dead woman - a subject of the aforementioned arguments and someone famed for her witchcraft practice back in darker ages, and the fact that she was buried alive for her crimes. Before long the contractor who had the Whitlocks’ cemetery plots ripped up in the first place is drowning in his own bath, then the old lady of the rival Lanier family inexplicably drives herself off the edge of a cliff - the resurrected witch would appear to be extracting sinister revenge using uncanny powers of mental projection and psychological manipulation.
Don Sharp’s Witchcraft is comprised of a strong cast belting out their lines as if convinced by the proceedings, especially in the cases of Jack Hedley as main family man Bill Lanier and Lon Chaney as Morgan Whitlock. The latter, despite looking podgy and old, actually puts in a surprisingly aggressive performance that really grants his character an air of uncompromising intimidation. A sweet looking Diane Clare (from Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies) makes an appearance too as Morgan’s niece, someone who has forged a covert relationship with one of the Whitlocks adding an extra touch of complexity to the family feud. Sumptuously shot in Black & White this is a great example of the gothic chiller brought into the modern day (well, the sixties) mixing both worlds quite adeptly. At a glance resembling Barbara Steele in Black Sunday the witch who is accidentally returned from the grave is a creepy creation, one who wanders around quite mute but causing death in her wake, usually through some sort of mentally projected suggestion and/or the use of voodoo dolls. Her awakening is one of the film’s highlights: as Bill is surveying the damage during a nocturnal expedition to the graveyard he keeps thinking he can hear a sound coming from the upturned coffins, a quiet moaning in the dead of night - enough to make anybody jump in the car and rapidly exit I should imagine!
Coupled with Devils of Darkness under the ‘Midnight Movies’ monicker (adopted by Fox following the acquisition of most of MGM‘s home video distribution rights in 2006), Witchcraft is the better of the two by some margin. The pacing is improved, acting uniformly more interesting, execution higher in atmosphere. The link between the two conceptually lies first and foremost in the portrayal of a group of devil-worshippers at the heart of each story. As a further and less obvious connection, it’s amusing to note that Leslie Nielson lookalike Victor Brooks plays an inspector in both films. In fact the actor seemed to be typecast as police authority figures but this clearly stems from his credible ability in such roles. The DVD transfer is very good as far as the video/audio quality is concerned, however I believe the image is cropped from a widescreen ratio (of 1.66:1) to fullscreen. This is unfortunate but it’s far from unwatchable. Nevertheless, the double bill has always been reasonably priced and for one spooky chiller coupled with a fairly average one it’s certainly not bad value.