JON KANEKO-JAMES takes a look back on Lon Chaney Junior’s Witchcraft 1964
YEAR RELEASED: 1964
DIRECTOR: Don Sharp
CAST: Lon Chaney Jr, David Weston, Diane Clare, Jack Hedley and Jill Dixon
Witchcraft is a film with a fairly honourable cast and crew. It is produced by Robert. L. Lippert, who would release Vincent Price’s fantastic Last Man on Earth the same year, and directed by Don ‘Fu Manchu’ Sharp.
Don Sharp would go on to direct a number of absolute classics. Not only did he direct an episode of the original Hammer House of Horror, but he contributed bank holiday classics like The Four Feathers (1977) and The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978.) He even directed a personal favourite film of mine, the 1974 Edward Woodward movie Callan … And here we have something very telling, because Sharp’s best work isn’t horror, it’s action adventure.
The film itself doesn’t have a lot in the way of horror credentials. Leading man David Weston had a brief dip into horror films afterwards, as did Diane Clare who played female lead Amy Whitlock… but apart from that, the cast are all fairly stalwart British Film and TV actors without a horror film between them (the exception to this is the awesome Lon Chaney Jr. who breaks loose from his scenery-free diet about two thirds in and starts chewing his way through sets at a delightful rate of knots).
They do alright, with the stand-out performance being Lon Chaney Jr. as the angry American head of the Whitlock family, which he plays wonderfully entertainingly. The fact that Chaney plays the part with an American accent when his daughter Amy (Diane Clare) is played RP, suggests that Chaney probably couldn’t do a British accent, and that his legendary on-set violence (his drinking binges frequently resulted in bloodshed and he assaulted a number of co-stars) coupled with his stardom probably meant people weren’t prepared to make an issue of it.
Poor Yvette Rees gets stuck with the part of Vanessa Whitlock, a 300-year-old witch risen from the grave. It should be a great part. Between Vanessa and Chaney there shouldn’t be a scrap of scenery unchewed… but for whatever reason, the character of Vanessa is virtually inanimate. She appears in the background of various scenes, but with so little expression (through no fault of Rees, whose other work is superb) that she could have been replaced by a mannequin. Even while burning to death, her biggest expression is restricted to a horrified widening of the eyes.
Apart from that, Witchcraft gives it a good try: Diane Clare plays Amy Whitlock as being torn between forces, but manages to keep her from being whiney, helpless or annoying; David Weston is suitably square-jawed and the rest of the cast are eminently British.
There are some really fantastic scenes that do create some suspense: when Viola Keats’ character, Helen Lanier, is deceived into driving to her doom you find yourself almost shouting at the screen. Yvette Rees gets a great moment as Vanessa Whitlock, sobbing, claws her way out of the grave (this is literally the only moment where Rees is allowed to act). Some of Chaney’s later scenes do a fantastic job of conveying utter barking insanity and in general, there’s a lot to recommend Witchcraft.
The one thing I’d say is that it plays out more like an episode of Tales of the Unexpected than a horror film. The cast knew how to do strange and uncanny, but even when witches are killing people left, right and centre, the film never gets that out of control feeling that you need to lose yourself in a horror film. It’s not tight enough to be understated, and too understated to be schlock.
There’s too much of a feeling that the whole thing runs on rails. Witchcraft never quite manages to surprise you, despite the fact that it does a fairly good job of misdirecting your expectations and makes a good start at giving you a lot of sympathy for the ‘evil’ Vanessa… but Sharp’s movie never quite capitalises on any of the openings and the result is a very solid two-and-a-half star movie.
JON KANEKO-JAMES of Boo Tours, which runs ghost and supernatural tours around London, including talks about human skin covered books. Check out Boo Tours website is www.bootours.com.
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