I always have time for a movie concerning witches and if it’s casting its spell in gorgeous black and white that’s even better in my book. Directed by Don Sharp (who helmed the equally atmospheric KISS OF THE VAMPIRE a year earlier), WITCHCRAFT is a surprisingly dark and moody tale with a superbly gloomy ending. I’m a little shocked that it has evaded me for so many years because it seems like it should be mentioned alongside some of my favorite titles like BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962), HORROR HOTEL (1960) and THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK (1945). Truth is, I found it streaming free on TubiTV and liked it so much that I went online to buy a copy only to recognize it as something I already owned and hadn’t viewed yet (it’s in one of those “Midnight Movie” double feature sets from MGM with DEVIL’S OF DARKNESS (1965)). I know that’s not a very interesting story but I want to publically yell at myself for purchasing movies and not watching them. Plus, I’d like to alert the world that my brain has seen better days.
WITCHCRAFT opens with gravestones being crushed by a bulldozer. Because this film takes place decades before POLTERGEIST (1982), it’s not yet public knowledge that putting a land development on top of a graveyard is a rotten idea. The legendary Lon Chaney, Jr. as Morgan Whitlock is seeing red about the desecration (as well he should) because the very same family disturbing the graves (the Laniers) buried his relative Vanessa Whitlock (Diane Clare) alive under (accurate) accusations of witchcraft there. It’s sort of a Hatfields vs. McCoys situation except one family are greedy jerks who steal land and the other family are cool witches who can make you think you’re driving your car on Main Street when you’re really driving off of a cliff. Making things even stickier is the canoodling of two young lovers (David Weston as Todd Lanier and Diane Clare as Amy Whitlock) from each clan who hope to bypass all this ancient history and start anew. Peace and tranquility are hardly in the cards though because Vanessa Whitlock has risen from the grave and she looks fierce, awesomely creepy and totally pissed.
This toasty flick is tailor-made for watching from under a blanket with a reliable cat at your side. There’s a big old dark house full of menacing shadows and dizzying wallpaper, foggy walks to a torch-lit crypt, a bed-ridden old lady cackling out warnings, and a funeral for nearly every character who doesn’t abide. Plus, you get chanting Satanic cults, voodoo dolls and the kind of lovable score that doesn’t mind beating revelations into your head with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Some of it may be a bit tame and hokey by today’s standards (at one point we’re meant to be alarmed by a toad) but underneath its reserved veneer, it couldn’t be more dark and pessimistic (one character, who seems primed for redemption actually ends up with a wicked demise). The resurrected witch Vanessa Whitlock is pretty charming and alarming to behold and in a world starved for female ghoul representation, I think she deserves much more notoriety. Like all great monsters, she’s as sympathetic as she is frightening and I’m a little sad she didn’t leave a deep enough impression to warrant a sequel. #justiceforvanessawhitlock