Thursday, October 11, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 11

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

67. Witchcraft (1964- dir. Don Sharp)

The producers of Witchcraft must have had little faith in its power, hence the William Castle-esque “witch deflector” (a green badge reading “Only the witch deflector can save you from the eerie web of the unknown”) theatergoers were given. Such lame consolation prizes were hardly necessary and cheapened what is one of the scariest movies of its B-grade ilk. The plot is nothing new: religious freak family buries suspected witch alive in 17th century; witch returns in the present to take revenge on family’s descendents. Witchcraft rips off scenes from Dracula and Horror Hotel. The non-horror scenes are talky and static; the horror scenes are brilliantly realized, ripe with subtle detail and sumptuous photography, creating the sensation of constant seesawing between mundane wakefulness and nightmare-soaked sleep. Director Don Sharp stages a chilling sequence in which we see a potential victim chatting away on the telephone while the witch’s shadow appears on a background staircase. It’s a quietly terrifying moment, and all the more so since the expected attack does not immediately follow. Sharp’s way with rainy graveyards, misty roads, weird landscapes, crypts, and catacombs contributes much spooky atmosphere. The terror most often flows from Yvette Rees’s arresting performance as witch Vanessa Whitlock. Without uttering a word of dialogue, Rees commands the screen whenever she materializes in the darkest corners of the frame. Her extraordinary, cadaverous face and wan presence are unforgettable. Scary as Vanessa is, modern audiences may find themselves rooting for her to dispatch of the ostensible heroes, who derive from a family line of murderers and have such little respect for the victim that they plow right through the graveyard where she was buried alive to develop on the land. Doing so, the Lanier family unearths her casket, enabling her violence spree. Initially, the film seems to want us to side with the wronged witch, allowing her descendent Morgan (Lon Chaney Jr. in one of his final roles) to deliver an impassioned screed against the Laniers’s callousness. But this is still 1964, and the “monster” and her Satanist kin must be punished, causing a last minute shift in tone. It’s shameful that women who were so persecuted and treated with such unconscionable violence centuries earlier continued to be victimized in such a way, but the majority of Witchcraft plays like a righteous revenge tale.

 See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1960s here.
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