Color, 1970, 76m.
Directed by William O. Brown
Starring Anthony Eisley, Thordis Brandt, Alvy Moore, John Lodge, Shelby Grant
Code Red (US R0 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Deep in a Louisiana swamp, young women are being killed and bled dry by Luther the Berserk (Lodge), a member of a coven of a dozen surviving witches who once ruled over the area. Their still-legendary antics draw in a new group of psychic researchers posing as movie scouts, led by Dr. Hayes (Moore) and including Anastasia (Brandt), a buxom blonde with supernatural blood in her past. The coven's leader, Jessie (Winston), communes with Luther about the possiblity of inducting Anastasia into their fold, and soon the blood begins to spill again.

Made hot on the heels of Rosemary's Baby, this low-budget occult thriller mixing elements of witchcraft and satanism became a frequent drive-in staple well into the '70s. However, it's most significant now as the first of three significant genre teamings between producers Alvy Moore and one-time Sam Peckinpah colleague L.Q. Jones, who later reteamed on two more exercises also shot in expansive scope, The Brotherhood of Satan and the sci-fi classic A Boy and His Dog. All three films make excellent use of very limited resources, with imaginative framing, lighting, characterization more than compensating for the lack of stars or fancy effects. This first stab at a horror film is obviously way ahead of the pack in terms of exploitation films from the period, with Moore also offering a particularly solid performance as the inquisitive doctor in charge with veteran trash film favorite Anthony Eisley (The Naked Kiss, The Mighty Gorga) along for the ride as a skeptical reporter. There's also enough blood and bare skin to appease audiences for the time (including one odd but memorable sequence with a topless Brandt running through the swamp cupping her cleavage), though by today's standards it would probably qualify for a PG-13 rating. On the downside, the pacing of the first half is, to put it charitably, on the pokey side at times; you have to be in the mood for a film that only delivers in occasional bursts before finally going full-on crazy after the 45-minute mark.

Far more frequently written about in horror reference books than actually seen, The Witchmaker has seldom been seen in anything resembling a decent presentation. A budget VHS version from Interglobal was the first home video option for a lot of fans, though the severe cropping and muddy picture quality made it almost unwatchable. A subsequent bootleg scope version (not 16x9) popped up on the horror trading circuit, but it's massively damaged, vertically overcropped, and crippled by extreme color fading; until now, the best option out there was a "special edition" from Sinister Cinema containing a better full frame transfer (but missing over half the image) or the splicey scope version.

The first official version on DVD from Code Red comes with the participation of L.Q. Jones, one of the very few surviving participants. Bearing the alternate title of Legend of Witch Hollow, the print used is head and shoulders above previous options, and while it's still nowhere near reference quality compared to the pristine restorations afforded to many of its counterparts, the restoration of the original vibrant color schemes is a major boost where the film really needs it. The coven sequences are a riot of hues reminiscent at times of Hercules in the Haunted World,, and at least you can now tell more or less what's going on during the exterior night scenes. There's still a fair amount of debris and print damage at times (including a couple of jumpy dialogue lines), but again, it's such a huge improvement that you have to take the film's history into account to realize the value of what you're actually getting. On top of that, you get two nifty extras, both with Jones: an 18-minute video interview (in which he mentions Peckinpah and discusses his dissatisfaction on various levels with all of the TV and film projects he's done, as well as mentioning how people still believe in witchcraft because they say "God bless you" when someone sneezes) and a more film-specific audio commentary in which he's joined by director of photography John Morrill and Code Red's Bill Olsen. Some of the topics covered include the swamp location shooting, the hiring of director William O. Brown (an industrial films vetern who made no features after this one), and the Technicolor techniques of the time, which account for the hyper-saturated color schemes on display. Also included are bonus trailers for films like Brute Corps and The Undertaker.

Reviewed on 7/2/11