Sunday, December 7, 2008

Witchcraft (1964)

The two British country families of the Laniers and the Whitlocks have been feuding for more than 300 years now. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Norman Laniers managed to discredit the Saxon Whitlocks as the leaders of a local witches' coven, leading to the death of family matriarch Vanessa by being buried alive. This little coup made the Laniers the leading family of the community, with the remaining Whitlocks their eternal enemies.

In 1964 not much has changed between the families. Although the Laniers' head of family Bill (Jack Hedley) is a rather civilized man, it does not take much to rekindle the hatred of Morgan Whitlock (Lon Chaney junior in one of his more dignified late performances).

The Laniers have fallen on hard times and are in need of money. Bill is planning on building a housing estate on his land, but needs the help of the shady (is there any other kind?) building contractor Myles Forrester (Barry Linehan) for its funding.

Trouble arises when Forrester thinks it cheaper to just flatten the graves and crypts on an old cemetery where the ancestors of the Whitlocks (of course including Vanessa) are buried, instead of moving the gravesides.

Lanier himself had nothing to do with the decision, but the enraged Whitlock does not care much.

When Lanier visits the graveyard at night to assess the damage he hears scratching and moaning from Vanessa's sarcophagus. This can't of course be real - or so the man thinks until the people around him start dying in strange accidents. All this can't have anything to do with the devil dolls that are found near the victims, or the strange mute woman in the mud-crusted coat (Yvette Rees), don't you think?

Then there is the little tryst between Lanier's younger brother Todd (David Weston) and Whitlock's niece Amy (Diane Clare) to cope with. Lanier couldn't care less if the girl's a Whitlock or not, but Whitlock does have a different perspective on things.


Director Don Sharp and writer Harry Spalding were two of the more talented workhorses of British genre film in the late 50s and early 60s, both probably not all that artistically inclined, but very capable of making the best of low budgets and tight shooting schedules.

With this in mind, I went into Witchcraft expecting a solid film, no more, no less. What I actually got was an effective and moody piece about the collision of the supernatural and modern times.

The script is stronger than usual in this type of film - the protagonists are understandably skeptical when it comes to the reality of witchcraft but are not disbelieving their own experiences so much that the viewer stops taking them seriously anymore. Spalding even goes so far as to make everyone in the film act rather sensible. As sensible as I'd expect someone suddenly confronted with a hidden coven of witches with real supernatural powers to act, at least.

Sharp's direction is a career high, making good use of the clear black and white of the early 60s and reaching a quite perfect gothic mood in the second half of the film. The attack on grandmother Lanier alone is worth the price of admission.

Even if Witchcraft does not reach the dream-like heights of Bava's masterpiece, the photography and the look of Vanessa bring to mind Mask of the Demon, and I'd be very surprised if the Italian film hadn't been an influence on it.


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