The Naked Witch (1961/1964) -**½
I seem to be watching an awful lot of Larry Buchanan movies these days; I really ought to slow down before I do myself permanent neural damage. The Naked Witch, which sat— perhaps deservedly— on the shelf for three whole years before anyone could be conned into releasing it, was Buchanan’s first horror film (if, in fact, it merits being called either “horror” or “a film”), and it’s every bit as stupid and shitty as all the ones he made after it. But it does have two undeniable advantages over all the suck-fests he made for AIP-TV in the second half of the 60’s. One, it has at least a little bit of sex to liven things up. And two, at a scant 59 minutes, it doesn’t have time to wear out its welcome in the manner of, say, Mars Needs Women.
The really incredible thing is that even 59 minutes was too long for Buchanan to handle without cheating. The Naked Witch begins with fully eight minutes of close-ups on paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, over which a voice-over gives us a run-down of the history of witchcraft which even your average seventh-grader would be ashamed to sign his or her name to. Then, we are introduced to an unnamed college student (Robert Short) who is driving through the hill country of central Texas, bound for the village of Luckenbach. If the student’s voice-over narration is to be believed (and by the way, I hope you like that narration, because it’s going to be our constant companion for the next 50 minutes), Luckenbach is the central-Texas equivalent to the old German settlements of rural Pennsylvania. The Germans, or so the student says, first came to Texas in 1846, and immediately set about transforming an isolated section of it into the closest approximation of the old country that could be contrived. The student has come to Luckenbach in order to study this curious pocket of foreign culture; he’s writing his thesis on the folkways of these people, particularly as pertains to their preservation of medieval European superstitions.
The student’s car runs out of gas well before he reaches Luckenbach. Not for any real reason as concerns the plot, mind you— a broken-down car is just part of the template for this sort of film, and far be it from Larry Buchanan to go messing around with a template that has served his predecessors perfectly well for 50 years or more. Anyway, the first person he meets when he gets into town is a miller named Franz Schoennig, who seems friendly enough until he hears why the student has come to Luckenbach. Fortunately, the old man’s niece, Kirska (Jo Maryman), happens to be present when Franz starts giving the traveler the cold shoulder, and she rescues him, leading him to the inn owned by her grandfather, Hans. Hans puts the student up in one of the rooms, and proceeds to talk his ear off all night long about life in Luckenbach. In fact, after a few drinks, Hans even drops a couple of hints that Luckenbach is an especially good place to study the survival of medieval superstitions; evidently, a “witch” was executed in Luckenbach as recently as the 1860’s. The innkeeper catches himself before he says too much about this touchy subject, however, and the student retires to his room with more questions than answers.
It’s a good thing, then, that Kirska stops by just after her grandfather has gone to bed to put the moves on her new guest. Kirska happens to have in her possession an old book detailing the story of the Luckenbach Witch, and she’d be more than happy to lend it to him. One suspects there are other things she’d be more than happy to do, too, if only she could be sure that doing them wouldn’t wake Hans. As it is, Kirska settles for changing into a sheer, black nightie before bringing the book to the student’s room, and dropping as many subtle hints as a writer of Larry Buchanan’s limited abilities can muster. Then she goes to bed, leaving the student to pass the night with her book.
So who was the Luckenbach Witch? Apparently, she was a young widow who had caught the eye of Otto Schoennig, one of Kirska’s ancestors. Schoennig’s wife was an invalid, and sometime in the early 1860’s, Otto began turning to the widow (Buchanan seems to have seen no point in giving her a name either) to pick up the sexual slack, as it were. This went on for a while, but eventually, Otto came to the conclusion that his mistress had become inconvenient, and denounced her as a witch. With a startling lack of fanfare (or at any rate, a lack of fanfare that would have been startling in a real movie— witch trials cost money, you know), the widow was taken to Luckenbach’s cemetery, lowered alive into a shallow grave (‘cause deep graves cost money, too), and pierced through the heart with a wooden stake. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that she died with a curse on her lips.
Our nameless student is apparently of an impulsive temperament, because no sooner does he put he book down than he wanders off into what that lantern he’s carrying tells us is supposed to be the night (Buchanan always had an exceptionally poor handle on day-for-night shooting), and heads straight for the cemetery. He finds the witch’s grave with little difficulty, and for no reason that I can imagine, immediately begins excavating it. About seven inches down, he finds the body of the witch, which the passing years have reduced to a mostly disarticulated skeleton with a rubber Halloween mask for a face, the now petrified stake still jammed between its ribs. Again for no reason that I can imagine, the student pries the stake free, and carries it back to the inn with him, leaving the open grave behind him.
Granted, I realize we shouldn’t expect much of the man responsible for The Eye Creatures and Mistress of the Apes, but surely even Larry Buchanan could have thought of a better excuse to bring the Luckenbach Witch back to life than that! Be that as it may, the witch’s bones re-grow the flesh of an attractive young woman the moment the student is out of sight, and the first thing she does is head back to Schoennig’s inn to do a little reconnaissance. After ascertaining that all is as she left it, and that the Schoennig family is not yet extinct, the witch retrieves her stake from the student’s room, and drops in on Kirska to rip the aforementioned black nightie off of her sleeping body. Then she heads over to the mill, where she runs Franz Schoennig through with the stake.
The death of the miller causes quite a stir in Luckenbach, and the discovery of the witch’s empty grave creates an even bigger one. Normally, this would be important, but we’ll never hear word one spoken about it again. Rather, no precautions are instituted whatsoever by the townspeople, and the witch is able to kill Hans the following evening without the slightest difficulty. In fact, the only person who takes any kind of action to foil the witch is our old buddy the student, who figures out by asking the local librarian that there is a cave not far from town where a person might conceivably be able to hole up for a while. Figuring this cave for the witch’s lair, the student sets off for it with the intention of sending her back to the grave whence she came. That isn’t quite how it works, though. The witch is taking a swim in the pond which her cave overlooks when the student stumbles upon her, and he finds the sight of her skinny dipping so, well, bewitching that he drops all his plans and has sex with her instead. Once the student is soundly sleeping, the witch sneaks back out, stake in hand, to do away with Kirska, the last living Schoennig. The student awakens just in time, and he does a slightly better job following through on his intentions when he rushes off to save Kirska. Presumably clothing interferes with the witch’s powers of mind control...
These days, the main value of The Naked Witch is probably as a historical artifact. Not only does it mark the beginning of Larry Buchanan’s career as the Ed Wood of the 60’s, it also offers a fascinating glimpse at what passed for titillation in the straitjacketed days of 1961. As is usually the case with such matters, the title is outrageously misleading; the witch is naked in only two scenes. This is just as well, though, because for those scenes when she is running around with no clothes on, somebody (Buchanan? His distributor?) censored the film by placing blackish, opaque streaks across it in such a way as to block out the line through which the witch’s torso would move. If this had gone on every single time the witch appeared onscreen, it would have made The Naked Witch virtually impossible to sit through. Bafflingly enough, however, this crude censoring technique was not applied to the skinny dipping scene, despite the fact that Libby Hall, the actress playing the witch, makes no effort at all to keep her breasts or her ass under the water while she swims! What? Are we to believe that it was somehow okay in the early 60’s to show a naked woman frolicking in a pond, but not okay to show her running across dry land carrying a petrified wooden stake?!?!