Witchcraft (1964) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Jack Hedley, Jill Dixon, Yvette Rees
Director: Dan Sharp

The idea of a coven of witches still operating in modern-day England is hardly an original one, nor is a centuries-old witch coming back from the dead. Both tropes are well-worn, and rarely surprising.

1964’s Witchcraft hits both these concepts, but does so with a charm and knack for atmosphere that it rises above it’s basic structure. Notable as one of the last batch of films made by the great, if mercurial, Lon Chaney Jr in the twilight of his career, director Dan Sharp’s film relegates the iconic actor to a supporting role, instead giving the younger side of the cast more of the heavy lifting and it works extremely well.

A feud between the rival families of Lanier and Whitlock is ignited when the former bury Vanessa Whitlock (Yvette Rees) alive for crimes of witchcraft and take over their land. 300 years later, the Lanier’s send in bulldozers to the Whitlock estate to make way for a construction project, much to the ire of patriarch Morgan Whitlock (Lon Chaney Jr).

His daughter Amy (Jill Dixon) is also in love with Bill Lanier (Jack Hedley), flying in the face of centuries of mistrust and conflict between the two families, but there are more serious concerns ahead. The bulldozers have disturbed the grave of Vanessa Whitlock, who had returned from the dead to join the still-very active witches coven., beginning a campaign of terror and revenge against the family who put her in the grave all those years ago…

There’s an interesting thread running through Witchcraft about family loyalty, integrity and how inescapable the past can be, but it’s somewhat jumbled at times.

Both families have legitimate complaints against the other, but for most of the film, it seems like the supposedly good Lanier family are the real aggressors. Sure, their ancestors killed Vanessa, but she was an actual witch, but in recent years there’s been nothing to condemn the Whitlocks for, not really, but still the Laniers allow their business partner to destroy their ancestral graveyard in the name of “progress”.

They’re equally, if not even more, disapproving of the love between Amy and Bill, for no other reason than history, though the suspicion of witchcraft still hangs over their distrust, giving the whole narrative a nice shade of grey, at least until Vanessa turns up and starts dispatching her enemies at least.

As the vengeful ancient witch, Yvette Rees isn’t given much to do other than look statuesque and malevolent, but she makes for a striking presence all the same. The scenes where she suddenly appears to wreak her vengeance are the standouts of the film, coming out of nowhere in the back seat of Helen Lanier (Viola Keats)’s car as she the witch walking through a rainy cemetery, Satanists marching in single file through the woods her drive off a cliff or looming at the top of the stairs just as old Malvina Lanier (Marie Ney) finally musters up the courage to get out of her chair and walk.

It looks and feels beautiful too, with the old houses of both families being imposingly and with a constant background noise of howling wind, giving the impression that there are no safe places in this rural setting. It’s certainly the case too, what with Vanessa’s ability to turn up anywhere, as well as extend her reach long-distance with the aid of devil (voodoo) dolls.

Lon Chaney Jr, for all his limited screen time, is still a charismatic figure, even with his incongruous American accent making no sense at all. His dislike of the Laniers isn’t entirely unjustified and he knows rightly what disturbing the graves of his ancestors will entail, though he’s a more than willing participant in the repercussions, which lets Chaney give a performance that isn’t fully on the side of evil. Likewise his relationship with his daughter Amy is well-drawn and the older actor brings no small amount of warmth to it.

Witchcraft is an often gorgeous film to look at, with scenes of the witch walking through a rainy cemetery and the hooded coven marching in single file through the woods. It’s very British setting is offset by a dark, brooding atmosphere, resulting in (if not a classic) a solid entry in the history of cinematic witches.

Rating: 3.5/5.

JULESAV The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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