Director – Don Sharp, Screenplay – Harry Spalding, Producers – Robert Lippert & Jack Parsons, Photography (b&w) – Arthur Lavis, Music – Carlo Martelli, Art Direction – George Provis. Production Company – Lippert Films.
Jack Hedley (Bill Lanier), Jill Dixon (Tracy Lanier), Lon Chaney [Jr] (Morgan Whitlock), Viola Keats (Helen Lanier), Marie Ney (Malvina Lanier), David Weston (Todd Lanier), Diane Clare (Amy Whitlock), Yvette Rees (Vanessa Whitlock), Barry Linehan (Myles Forrester), Victor Brooks (Inspector Baldwin)
In a small English village, Morgan Whitlock is infuriated when the construction project headed by Bill Lanier bulldozes his family’s gravestones. In looking into the matter, Bill finds that this was done on the orders of his site supervisor Myles Forrester. He also finds that one of the disturbed gravestones belongs to Vanessa Whitlock, Morgan’s ancestor, who was buried alive as a witch in the 17th Century. She now returns to life and enacts a voodoo spell that kills Myles. The Laniers and Whitocks have a traditional hatred and Vanessa now moves on to start killing the rest of Bill’s family.
Witchcraft was one of the minor Anglo-horror films from Australian director Don Sharp (1921-2011). Sharp gained a name during the Anglo-horror cycle that had been created by Hammer Films between 1957-76. Sharp made several Hammer films of the 1960s, among other works. (See below for Don Sharp’s other films).
During the Anglo-horror cycle there were a handful of films that dipped their toes into witchcraft and deviltry themes with the likes of Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon (1957), City of the Dead/Horror Hotel (1959), Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn (1961), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Witches (1966), Eye of the Devil (1967) and Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), reaching a peak with Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out (1968). As opposed to the sinister visions of covens that became all the in-thing after Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or the outpouring of orgiastic depravities that came after The Exorcist (1973), these were notedly staid works often set in placid English villages.
Witchcraft often it feels assembled by a mix-and-match of elements from the occult genre around this time – of the resurrected witch wreaking vengeance that we had in films like City of the Dead and Black Sunday (1960), covens, various revenge deaths enacted on ancestors. Though the film is titled Witchcraft, it readily blends elements from voodoo, while the coven when revealed at the end give all the impression of being Satanists (typical of the blurring between witchcraft and devil worship that went on in this era). The script shuffles around various of these elements but they never cohese into much of a plot.
Don Sharp directs everything with some crisp black-and-white photography, which occasionally becomes quite moody and atmospheric – particularly the appearance of resurrected witch Yvette Rees in a bedroom. Other times Sharp’s set-ups are flat and unexceptional – like the thoroughly undramatic scene where Yvette Rees pushes Marie Ney down the stairs. Despite the occasional moodiness of some scenes, this is a rather prosaic work.
The film headlines Lon Chaney Jr, the son of the famed silent actor Lon Chaney. Chaney Jr appeared as Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941) and was thereafter propelled to the status of horror icon. Kept busy throughout the 1940s, Chaney’s career and stature faded after that and by the 1960s and until his death in 1973 he seemed washed up. Here he is an imported name star and gets top billing on the marquee, even if he is sidelined for much of the proceedings – all he does is barnstorm his way in the beginning, turns up briefly again once and then again at the end. Certainly, as compared to say his appearances in other films around the same time – see bottom of the barrel efforts like Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967) and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) – Don Sharp does a fair job of shooting him in a way that can almost be said he gives a passable performance.
None of the other cast went on to much distinction. Jack Hedley appeared in a couple of Hammer’s other non-horror films, although was mostly remembered as Lieutenant-Colonel Preston in tv’s Colditz (1972-4) where he perfected the role of an actor who projects the perfect elocution and implied snobbery of a British boarding school education.
After making a half-dozen of films of no particular distinction, Don Sharp made Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire (1962), which proved a reasonable success. He made two other films for Hammer with the non-genre The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) and the historical horror Rasputin The Mad Monk (1966), and returned some years later to make one of the films in the tv series Hammer’s House of Horror (1980). For other companies, Sharp made the genre likes of Curse of the Fly (1965), the first two films in the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu series The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) and The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), the period comedy Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon/Those Fantastic Flying Fools/Blast Off (1967), the psycho-thriller Dark Places (1973), the undead biker film Psychomania (1973) and the lost world film Secrets of the Phantom Caverns/What Waits Below (1984). He also made various other non-genre thrillers and action films, including Callan (1974), Hennessy (1975), the remake of Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978) and Bear Island (1979). Sharp appears to have retired by 1990 and died in 2011.
Witchcraft was produced by Lippert Films, the British production arm of American producer Robert L. Lippert, known for a great many Westerns throughout the 1940s and 50s, as well as occasional genre films like Rocketship X-M (1950), Lost Continent (1951) and Superman and the Mole-Men (1951). Lippert paired with Hammer Films in their early days before they attained success and then formed his own UK-based company Lippert Films. Under this banner, Lippert also produced other genre works like Terence Fisher’s alien invasion film The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) and The Horror of It All (1964), Don Sharp’s Curse of the Fly and Spaceflight IC-1 (1965).