Witchcraft is a solid British gothic horror flick from the early 60s (1964 in fact). With the very competent Don Sharp at the helm it hits most of the right notes and provides plenty of entertainment.
The core of the plot is a family feud dating back to the Norman Conquest. The Laniers, a Norman family, dispossessed an old Anglo-Saxon family, the Whitlocks, of much of their land after the conquest. In the 17th century the Laniers used the witch trials as a mean of despoiling the Whitlocks of even more of their property, and had Vanessa Whitlock buried alive for practising witchcraft.
The feud turns even nastier when the latest scion of the Lanier clan, Bill Lanier, becomes involved in a major housing development. The development will require the relocation of an ancient cemetery, which happens to be where the Whitlock family have buried their dead for countless centuries. When bulldozers start smashing gravestones the current head of the Whitlock family, Morgan Whitlock, is understandably enraged. He threatens dire consequences for the Laniers. Bill Lanier visits the construction site, and finds an odd carved stone, the carvings being indicative of witchcraft. As he drives off the grave opens, and a woman emerges, a woman we assume (correctly as it turns out) is the long-dead Vanessa Whitlock.
There’s a further complication, in that Bill Lanier’s brother Todd and Morgan Whitlock’s niece Amy are in love. Which enrages Morgan Whitlock still further.
The matriarch of the Lanier clan predicts grave danger for the family, and this danger is soon seen to be very real, although the first victim is Bill Lanier’s business partner. The Lanier women already suspected Morgan Whitlock of heading up a coven of witches. Bill is sceptical at first, but when he realises that his wife is in dire peril he starts to reconsider his views on the existence of witchcraft in the modern world.
Lon Chaney Jr is great fun as Morgan Whitlock. The other players are quite competent, and Yvette Rees is suitably creepy and mysterious as the centuries-old witch Vanessa.
The methods used to exact vengeance upon the Laniers and their allies involve devil dolls and auto-suggestion, and the killings and attempted killings are handled quite well.
The very old house in which the Laniers live, with priest-holes and secret passage-ways and vast subterranean cellars, provides the required gothic flavouring to the setting.
While the plot contains nothing startlingly original it’s executed with energy and a certain amount of style. Don Sharp was always good at pacing his films, and this is no exception. The black-and-white cinematography looks pretty good, and most of the ingredients you’d expect are there, including the obligatory Black Mass.
The movie was released on DVD as a Midnite Movies double-feature, paired with Devils of Darkness. There are no extras but both movies look very good. Devils of Darkness was made by Planet Pictures while Witchcraft was a product of Lippert Films, both small companies seeking to cash in on the gothic movie boom started in Britain by Hammer. And while neither movie can be accused of being a horror masterpiece they’re both reasonably entertaining in a rather lightweight way. It’s pretty good value as a double-feature, and definitely worth picking up if you enjoy early 60 British gothic horror.