Duelling families The Whitlocks and the Laniers have been arguing since the 17th Century. Landowners The Laniers had one of the Whitlock’s female descendants Vanessa burned as a witch during the witch trials- this was in a ploy to get their hands on all the land. Ever since the Whitlocks have been looking to get revenge for this injustice and it would appear they are about to get the perfect opportunity. The modern day contingents of both families come to blows again when the Laniers start ploughing up the ancient graveyard to develop the land, and accidentally damage the grave of Vanessa Whitlock. In the process the bulldozer manages to damage the protective seal on the coffin that keeps Vanessa’s powers contained within. With a Witches Sabbat fast approaching, the modern-day Laniers are about to find themselves in deep water, as their rivals set about using a magical connection with the past to put right an ancient wrongdoing.
The biggest name here is Lon Chaney Jr who plays Morgan Whitlock, the irate Whitlock who is about to take on the Lanier family. Chaney doesn’t have a very big role to play, but makes his usual impression when he does get some screen time. What is most amusing is the fact that Chaney is the only person on the cast spouting off his lines with an obvious American drawl, everyone else has typical cut glass English diction. Given that Chaney’s character has supposedly grown up in an English village and lived there all his life this, well for me anyway, added a layer of comedy that I came to enjoy very much. For the rest of the cast, well everyone else is just there going through the motions- as was the case with plenty of these quota quickie low-budget potboilers. It’s not that the acting is bad in any way- and it might have been more memorable if it was-, it just is what it is, mundane, adequate and sadly nothing to write home about.
Director Don Sharp was involved in some far more interesting projects than this including Psychomania (1971), Kiss of the Vampire (1963), and Hammer’s Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966). For anyone familiar with the director’s other work there is the risk this example may disappoint in comparison.
The lack of budget and relative obscurity of this film is probably best explained when looking at the production company involved, the short-lived Lippert Films. The company were not prolific, or indeed genre focused, turning out less than twenty low-budget numbers in their thirteen year existence, very few of which were horror.
If you had to try and sum up Witchcraft (1964) in one word the overarching sentiment you can take away from it is “twee”. The film is very British- in a repressed and tame way, but then it is early sixties and the swinging sexual revolution hadn’t quite hit British horror at that point (not that it ever really did in the same way it influenced Mainland Europe). Try and imagine Dennis Wheatley, without any of the actual horror elements, but you know the cocktails at six, and posh people stood in front of fireplaces discussing things rationally over a sweet sherry, etc…, and then you pretty much conjure the vibe of this film. After watching this for review in the same week I watched Renato Polselli’s Black Magic Rites (1973), well the two could be considered polar opposites on the ‘taste’ scale. Ironically both films contain plots that revolve around reincarnated witches who might have been wrongly burned at the stake.
Not that there is anything wrong with playing it safe, and Witchcraft– despite the lurid sounding title- is, if nothing else, a film that veers on the side of non-offensive. On a plus side this makes it the type of film you can pop on if you have friends or family that have yet to cut their teeth on the likes of Cannibal Holocaust or anything with a bit of boobage on display, popping round to watch a horror flick and you don’t want them to think you are any weirder than they already do. The film in essence plays out like something perfect for a cosy Sunday afternoon, not remotely creepy, slightly prosaic for its meandering plot, but something you can just curl up, relax to and it won’t tax you in the slightest- just be careful you don’t accidently nod off. It does come with the benefit of Lon Chaney Jr. in one of his later roles- one of the few cast members who doesn’t appear to be on strings or made from part of the cardboard set for the proceedings- and Chaney is always dependable whatever the occasion, accent issues aside. Plus it has some smashing witch-type set designs, a creepy ghost woman and the aforementioned iconic horror star Chaney clad out in Satanic/Witch garb.
For all its flaws and weaknesses there is something quite endearing about Witchcraft. Perhaps it is the corny scripting, the moments of hilariously unintentional camp, or blatantly silly behaviour of some of the characters, but somewhere deep within the pores of the film is a lot of heart. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t a lot of money involved, but someone has at least tried to make this an interesting story, and there appears to be a certain amount of enthusiasm applied to the scriptwriting, that perhaps doesn’t translate very well to the screen, but you can tell it’s there. A decent book on the occult might have been the first port of call on this front- if you are going to go bandying names of sabbats about it is probably best to find out when they are. This said, I doubt very much the makers were thinking that deeply in terms of realism when they made this.
Verdict: Looking for something light to watch for a cosy weekend afternoon? Then this could be perfect viewing. Witchcraft (1964) may prove slightly vanilla and predictable for hardened genre fans but it is a mildly entertaining classic piece of witchcraft horror nevertheless.