I’ve never been to Louisiana, but I’d sure like to go some day. See the old graveyards of New Orleans, visit the voodoo shops of the French Quarter, grab some delicious seafood at some shack out in the sticks. But more than anything, I’d love to go deep into the bayou. That’s a place of absolute mystery and more than a little danger, with an otherworldly feel to it.
Few movies catch the real feel of a true swamp. Southern Comfort is sure one. The Legend of Boggy Creek is another. But when it comes down to capturing that mystic feel, no movie ever did it better than The Witchmaker, a most unusual supernatural thriller from the hallowed year of 1969, the year the Devil broke through into mass culture.
Not only does The Witchmaker (also known as The Legend of Witch Hollow) catch that bayou ambience, but it’s a standout film in other ways as well. While definitely an exploitation film…sometimes overwhelmingly so… it’s also far more intelligent and genuinely spooky than you would think. And to its credit, it’s not just a knockoff of Rosemary’ s Baby, the film that started the Satanic avalanche in 1969. It unfolds in a completely different way and even creates an entire society of witches, complete with rules of conduct and rituals.
Who do we have to thank for The Witchmaker? Would you believe good ol’ Hank Kimball from Green Acres had a lot to do with it? Comic actor Alvy Moore not only starred in the film, but was a producer, along with character actor L.Q. Jones who was best known for being in Westerns, and the director, William O. Brown. Moore and Jones had quite an interest in esoteric film; in addition to The Witchmaker, they also co-produced another devilish film, The Brotherhood of Satan, and the cult sci-fi oddity A Boy and His Dog. Although he’ll always be best known as Hank Kimball, a look at Moore’s credits reveals a surprisingly long and eclectic career.
Director Brown was a bit of an enigma who only did one other movie, the forgettable sex farce One Way Wahine. He also wrote the bulk of The Witchmaker. Based on his clever script and some of the interesting visual touches of The Witchmaker, it’s a bit of a shame that he didn’t pursue further film assignments.
Well, you ready to head down to the bayou and meet Luther The Berserk? Follow me…but be warned, there are spoilers in the coming missive!
The movie starts with a bang and a scene of pure grindhouse hijinx. We see a blond hotty swimming in a swampy lagoon. Now why any rational person would be swimming in an area brimming with snakes, snapping turtles, leeches and presumably gators is a mystery that is never solved here. But our young miss eventually pulls herself out of the murk and goes about drying herself out.
Suddenly from out of nowhere, a huge man jumps her from the bushes with a roar! Yeow! It isn’t long before this bulky, grunting character has smothered the girl to death. One would then think something very unwholesome is about to occur. And it does, but not quite in the way you might be thinking. The girl’s body is strung up from a tree and hung upside down. In a queasy scene, he cuts her throat and gathers the blood in a metal bowl. Then he uses the blood to inscribe an ankh on the girl’s body.
This is our introduction to Luther The Berserk (John Lodge), the villain of the piece. Luther has a sallow, almost yellowish complexion, dark-ringed eyes and wears what looks like clothes from an earlier time. In this opening scene, which certainly grabs your attention, one might think Luther is just a depraved human beast. But we learn there is quite a bit more to him than that.
Next, we see a boat cutting through the dark waters of the swamp. In it are the protagonists of our film. Their leader is Dr. Ralph Hayes, an expert in parapsychology and the occult (Alvy Moore). Also, along for the ride is hard-bitten journalist Vic Gordon (Anthony Eisley), who is here to record what happens on the excursion. The others are students and associates of Dr. Hayes. They include his faithful secretary Maggie (Shelby Grant) and students Owen (Tony Brown), Patty Ann (Robyn Milan) and Tasha (the very statuesque and Nordic looking Thordis Brandt). Ferrying them to a remote cabin in the swamp is Leblanc, played by the beloved character actor Burt Mustin, who played an endless number of old codgers in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
It has to be remarked how absolutely eerie and otherworldly the swamp looks, even in broad daylight. Masses of Spanish moss are hanging everywhere and a constant foggy mist swirls about, muting the sun. The movie was filmed in Marksville, Louisiana in the heart of Cajun bayou country and it sure looks like it. This authenticity adds immeasurably to the ambiance of the movie, even more so in the spooky night scenes.
There have been eight unsolved murders of women in the vicinity, including the blond we saw slaughtered in the opening scenes. This bayou has long been rumored to be the haunt of witches. Leblanc, who believes the others are there to scout scenes for a future movie, discusses the legends of witchcraft with Dr. Hayes. He tells him that REAL witches are far different and more dangerous than the “conjure women” who cure ailments with magic herbs. They are immortal creatures who extend their lives by offering blood sacrifices to Satan.
Hayes and his crew are attracted to the area because of its reputation and its distance from civilization. Tasha is said to be very psychically sensitive, with witchery in her own bloodline. The remote swamp cabin they will be staying at has no electricity and they will essentially be cut off from the world during their stay there. Once Leblanc drops them off, he will not return for a week. Hayes reasons that having none of the radio and electrical signals of an inhabited area will enhance Tasha’s latent abilities, which he plans to study. She may even lead them to any real witches in the area. Well, be careful what you wish for….
We learn more about Luther and what makes him tick. He is the leader of an ancient and powerful witch coven and he’s been in the swamp for a VERY long time. In fact, there is no real sign that he’s a part of the modern world or even aware of it. He lives in a decrepit shack deep in the bayou, but it’s only a front…his real dwelling place is a huge, ornate cavern deep underground, dominated by a very evil and cool looking devil statue, which is prominently seen during the film. After praying to Old Scratch, Luther summons another member of his coven, the old crone Jessie.
The two have an interesting conversation which is alternately prosaic and chilling. They talk about their witchcraft and deviltry like old comrades who don’t fully trust each other. The movie’s clever script gives a lot of background information in a conversational way. An entire culture of witches is created, with detail and depth to it. What is currently troubling Luther is that his coven is currently understaffed. It lacks a thirteenth member that will bring it back to full strength. But he has sensed that a powerful new presence has entered the swamp…Tasha. He intends to convert her to his coven, but she needs to be weaned away from the other intruders who incidentally need to be killed to preserve the secret of the coven.
At one point, Luther spies a topless Tasha sunning herself in the swamp. In addition to enjoying the view, he also tries to establish a connection to her mind. The result is Tasha running in slow motion through the swamp in terror with hands covering her bounteous breasts. The scene reminds us that we are indeed watching a grindhouse film. But it also indicates that Luther’s interest in Tasha is not primarily sexual, but more that of a mentor getting a read on a possible student.
Back at the cabin, we find out more about our crew of psychic investigators. Vic is an avowed skeptic and gets into a prolonged but interesting conversation with Dr. Hayes. The scene is talky but provides a lot of information that makes the investigators seem like more than just a bunch of boobs bumbling around in the bayou. I can’t really say enough about Alvy Moore’s performance as Hayes. Not only does he come across as a learned academic with a broad knowledge of the occult, but he shows quirky humor and flashes of temperament. He comes across as a living, breathing human being with faults, hidden courage and more. If you watch his performance here and still see him as only Hank Kimball, then you’re watching a different movie than me.
A game of supernatural cat and mouse now begins between Hayes’ group and the forces of Luther. A séance testing Tasha’s power erupts into a dangerous scene. Old Jessie the crone casts a spell that turns her into a HOT young witch, mostly so she can try to seduce the males of the group, especially Owen. The swamp at night becomes a dark netherworld of fog and Spanish moss, where sudden death can strike at any moment.
When Luther ambushes and kills Patty Ann, Hayes realizes he and the others are in over their heads and they are in a fight for their lives. There is a very poignant scene where Hayes is overcome by grief at what has happened to Patty Ann. Reading between the lines, we sense there may have been more than a “student-teacher” relationship between the two. “You get to know some of your students,” he laments. “You don’t think you’ll have to bury them.” Again, a great acting bit from Alvy Moore.
Luther and the young version of Jessie finally manage to wrest Tasha away from Dr. Hayes and take her to the coven’s underground headquarters. Her heritage of witchcraft is revealed, and she watches as the two witches make their prayers to Old Nick’s statue. Luther is a strangely schizophrenic character, articulate and almost humble at some points but bestial and sinister at others.
Finally, Hayes makes the decision to fight the coven. He tells Vic that wild garlic will help make a person “invisible” to a witch. Vic volunteers to get the wild garlic treatment so he can find and infiltrate the coven’s headquarters and possibly rescue Tasha. Hayes and his faithful secretary Maggie will stay at the cabin and treat it with herbs and sigils so it can resist the witches’ power. Maggie is quite the loyal and courageous woman, but she isn’t afraid to talk back to Hayes or even stand up to him and tell him he’s responsible for what’s happened. With just a few scenes, Shelby Grant manages to infuse some energy and personality into her character.
Half expecting to get caught, Vic is amazed when he learns the garlic actually works…he can stand right next to a witch and not be detected. He enters Luther’s lair, where what seems to be a full witches’ orgy is in progress. Luther has summoned the rest of the coven from the four corners of the Earth in what is the movie’s best scene by far. They are quite a diverse group. There’s the Hag of Devon, who is actually an attractive young girl; Felicity Johnson, who turns into a black cat; Amos Coffin, a cadaverous Puritan looking fellow played by horror host Larry “Seymour” Vincent; San Blas, a bearded monk; and more, including a gorgeous Asian woman whose name I didn’t catch.
The witches conduct a sabbat, something like a meeting of the local Moose Lodge, where Luther tells them that Tasha may be a new member for them. During the course of the meeting, it’s revealed that the young (or young looking) witch Marta has transgressed against the laws of the coven, which she admits. As the others eagerly watch, she is whipped by Luther as punishment. The minute the whipping is done, it’s party time and all the witches, including Marta, participate in a raucous orgy where much alcohol is consumed and lustful shenanigans break out, including a belly dancer cutting loose with a hip shaking exhibition. This whole scene with the witches’ sabbat is the peak of the film.
During the course of events, the invisible Vic wreaks havoc amongst the witches, causing a Satanic ceremony to be botched and the wrath of the Evil One to descend on his followers. In the confusion, Vic snatches an entranced Tasha and makes a run for it back into the swamp, where he hopes to get her to the cabin.
An enraged Luther now lives up to his title of “The Berserk” and pursues them into the swamp, flinging mystic bolts of power at them. This scene reminded me of something from the Dr. Strange comic, with Luther standing in for a villain such as Baron Mordo.
I won’t give away the ending of the movie, but if you’ve seen enough Satanic movies from this period, you can kind of guess what direction things are going to go in. It’s an abrupt conclusion that in some ways doesn’t make sense, but in other ways seems perfectly logical.
The Witchmaker was very much a bridge between the old horrors of the ‘60s and the rapidly developing Satanic subgenre that would explode in the early ‘70s. There was a real attempt to create an actual society for the witches, an alternate reality for them to inhabit. Luther and his coven didn’t seem to be a part of the “real” world. I’m guessing most of them were ancient beings who dated back to an earlier time and who had no desire to join a technological, modern society. Or any need to, as well. The swamp belonged to Luther, that’s for sure, and any who entered it were stepping foot in his world. How many young girls did he sacrifice over the centuries?
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, parapsychology and ESP were also exploding. Writer/director Brown again did his research and much of the scientific side of the occult that Dr. Hayes and crew practiced is described in detail during the movie. Hayes trying to reduce the electromagnetic interference that could interfere with psychic phenomena sounds quite plausible. On the other end of the scale, he also knows older, more arcane lore like the usage of wild garlic. The Witchmaker has one foot in the old world and the other in the modern.
With all the cleverness of its concept and execution, it’s still an exploitation movie. In 1975, the movie was re-released on the drive-in circuit with the new name The Naked Witch, which contained some more explicit footage. I wonder if Alvy Moore and L.Q. Jones knew about this and had any hand in the new, sexier scenes. Did the coven’s orgy get more hot and heavy than the relatively tame scenes in the original? Did we get to see more of Tasha, Patty Ann and young Jessie? I honestly don’t know but I’d be interested to find out.
The Witchmaker is a low budget film that hits far above its weight class, to use a boxing analogy. While not perfect, it’s a very interesting and entertaining artifact from a lost era of horror history, one I find a lot more intriguing than the current time period. Check it out if you can!