The Witchmaker / The Witchmaster / Witchkill / The Legend of Witch Hollow / The Naked Witch (1969/1975) **˝
It hit me about five minutes into the typically vile Three Stooges short that immediately preceded The Witchmaker at the 2010 Drive-In Super Monster-Rama: the title of this movie didn’t make any goddamned sense. How exactly does one go about making witches? And furthermore, what the hell kind of threat would that be in the first place? Beware the Witchmaker, lest he impart to you a bunch of totally badass superpowers and grant you VIP access to all the best devil-orgies! The remarkable thing about this Louisiana-shot oddity is that it fully lives up to its seemingly nonsensical title, and in a way that fully makes sense of it. For despite having been released originally in a year now associated primarily with rebellion against any and all age-old cultural assumptions, The Witchmaker is refreshingly scrupulous about embracing all the background implications of its premise, no matter how square or reactionary they might be considered. While other products of the contemporary vogue for diabolism and the occult generally looked at matters like demonic possession, incipient Armageddon, or the birth of the Antichrist through a primarily temporal lens, treating them as threats to people’s physical wellbeing first and foremost, and all but ignoring their spiritual ramifications, The Witchmaker is unabashedly all about the fate of one woman’s eternal soul.
Dr. Ralph Hayes (Alvy Moore, from The Brotherhood of Satan and Intruder) is a researcher of paranormal phenomena looking to study the practice of witchcraft. His hypothesis seems to be that “witches” are really just people who have learned to tap into some manner of paraphysical force not as yet understood by science, and that their “magic” is therefore akin to such psionic talents as telekinesis and extrasensory perception. Hayes has come to an out-of-the-way stretch of the Louisiana bayou with his secretary, Maggie (Shelby Grant, of Fantastic Voyage), two grad students named Owen (Tony Brown) and Sharon (Robyn Millan), and a third young woman called Tasha (Thordis Brandt). Journalist Victor Gordon (Anthony Eisley, from The Mighty Gorga and The Wasp Woman) is along for the ride, too, and his imperfect understanding of the professor’s aims give us an excuse for some vital exposition. There have been eight murders in this area over the past two years, all of them seemingly ritualistic in nature, and the locals are of the opinion that there’s a witch in the swamps again. Evidently witches are something of a recurring nuisance in these parts. Leblanc (Burt Martin), from whom Hayes is renting his cabin in the wilderness, and who is currently providing the party’s water taxi service, holds forth at this point to draw a distinction between your run-of-the-mill “conjure woman” and a true witch. The former is mostly harmless, wielding no power greater than a talent for herbal medicine and maybe a bit of second sight, but the latter is in cahoots with Satan and is effectively immortal with the aid of regularly scheduled blood sacrifices. Hayes is at pains to keep this secret (deflecting Leblanc and his neighbors with a cock-and-bull story about location scouting for a movie producer), but it is precisely the rumors surrounding those ritual murders that have brought him here. He hopes to find Leblanc’s swamp witch and study his or her methods. That, by the way, is where Tasha comes in, and it’s also the reason for setting up shop in a cabin miles deep in the bayou with no phone or electricity. Tasha, you see, is a sensitive— a psychic— and Hayes means to use her as a sort of paranormal high-frequency direction-finding rig. She should be able to sense any use of the witch’s powers and pin down the approximate source of the signal, provided that she does her “listening” in a place free of interference from stronger signals like radio transmissions and electromagnetic fields.
Let’s take a moment now to appreciate what a clever and carefully orchestrated setup this is. Not only does it score high concept points as a spam-in-a-cabin version of The Haunting, but it also supplies a fairly plausible reason for six reasonably intelligent people to strand themselves in the middle of nowhere for some weeks, cut off from both communication with the outside world and every sort of modern convenience. Plenty of big-time studios have spent big-time money on screenplays that don’t show nearly as much attention to detail.
Inevitably, the perpetrator of the murders is still in the area, and he truly is a warlock in the full sense explicated by Leblanc. He calls himself Luther the Berserk (Riot on Sunset Strip’s John Lodge), and he’s the sabbat-master of a coven that has been in business for a very long time. Luther slaughters yet another girl just as Hayes and his team arrive in Louisiana, leaving her for the authorities to find stripped, strung up, and drained like a kosher-killed cow, with an ankh traced on her belly in her own blood. He catches on pretty quickly that he has uninvited guests in his swamp, and snooping around in the vicinity of the professor’s rented cabin leads the warlock to take an interest in Tasha. Sensitivity runs in her family, and her maternal grandmother was actually a full-fledged witch (although from the sound of things, Leblanc would probably have classed Granny as a mere conjure woman instead). That family affinity is pronounced enough for Luther to detect it, and by a fateful coincidence, his coven is currently operating at less than regulation strength. As the sabbat-master retreats to his lair, he conceives a plan to recruit Tasha and bring his circle’s number up to the preferred thirteen members. (We’re probably not supposed to suspect that Tasha’s habit of sunbathing topless has as much to do with Luther’s attraction to her as her magical heritage, but under the circumstances in which he observes her, it’s kind of hard not to.)
Luther does not intend to risk a refusal from Tasha. Rather than invite her aboard in the usual sense, he plans to stretch the “of your own free will” clause of the standard Satanic contract to the breaking point by artificially stimulating Tasha’s latent predisposition toward magic, drawing out her inner witch. Tasha can then be placed into trances allowing her “mentor” to make her lay the groundwork for her entry into the Devil’s fold. It would appear, however, that Luther lacks either the knowledge or the power to work this transformation on his prey, even despite his exalted status in the hierarchy of malefaction. Perhaps that’s only to be expected, for when we see Luther’s followers assemble in full force later on, several of them will look to be considerably older than their leader. Be that as it may, Luther decides that he needs the help of Jessie (Helene Winston, from The Killing Kind and A Boy and His Dog), the oldest and presumably wisest witch in his employ, to divert Tasha onto the Left-Hand Path. Jessie knows the spell that Luther wants worked, but casting it is no fun at all, so she demands in return that the sabbat-master call in a special favor from Satan to restore her long-lost youth. (The dehagified Jessie is played by Warrene Ott, of The Undertaker and His Pals and The Phantom Planet.) Once Jessie opens Tasha up to the Unholy Spirit, Dr. Hayes and the others are going to find themselves wishing she hadn’t been so sensitive after all.
The Witchmaker is an excellent illustration of how little details done right can, in sufficient numbers, gang up on and overcome a few big, oafish flaws. The plot contours are familiar to the point of exhaustion. The dialogue is uniformly clunky, and most of the acting is feeble enough that Anthony Eisley stands out like an actual movie star. The precocious 70’s-style shock ending is insufficiently justified, and there are a couple moments that are just unbelievably silly. The foremost example of the latter comes when Luther the Berserk first spies Tasha sunbathing behind the cabin, and takes a peek inside her mind. Tasha notices the intrusion (as you’d like to think any remotely competent psychic would), but is unable to discern anything about its source beyond an impression of close proximity and overwhelming evil. She panics, leaps up from her beach blanket, and flees at once for the dubious safety of the cabin. What’s unbelievably silly about that, you ask? Only that the virtually naked Tasha flees in slow motion, the better to accentuate every bounce and jiggle. And because that by itself would have been too much titillation for the M-rating the producers were shooting for, she does so while clutching her giganimous boobs in the cups of her hands— which somehow makes it twice as lewd, even though it prevents us from seeing anything censorable. (Presumably the producers had overcome their ratings shyness by 1975, for the reissue that year under the title The Naked Witch reportedly added quite a bit of nudity that was neither contained by grasping hands nor obscured by quicksand residue or strategically positioned foliage.) But despite all that, The Witchmaker is salvaged by the collective strength of countless tiny touches of good craftsmanship. The film is wonderfully atmospheric due to the combination of smart cinematography and visually engrossing shooting locations. Luther the Berserk is an unusual villain, in that his practice of witchcraft is calculated to augment his already considerable physical prowess, rather than to compensate for the lack of it, and John Lodge plays him with a crude enthusiasm that further emphasizes his feral nature. The movie makes interesting use of Dr. Hayes, too, turning him into a kind of Van Helsing figure even as he remains personally ineffectual and completely flummoxed by the wrong turn his investigations have taken. It’s an unexpectedly realistic characterization; Hayes has plenty of potentially useful witch lore rattling around inside his head, but because he never thought of it as anything but lore, he has no real idea whether or not any of the tactics and techniques he suggests to the others might actually work. The coven’s rituals are very fully developed for a quickie regional drive-in flick, and the lack of solemnity in their observances is a canny choice. I mean, if chanting and incense are what you want from your religious life, you might as well just go Roman Catholic, right? And of course I’ve already praised the fit and finish of the movie’s setup. None of this stuff is enough to make The Witchmaker a forgotten classic or anything, but it does add up to an enjoyable minor film that rewards close attention and deserves wider exposure than it has thus far received.