Also known by the affectionate moniker Mr. BIG, director Bert I. Gordon’s incredible career of drive-in and exploitation efforts were launched in the 1950s with a string of films which concentrated mainly on invasions by giant mutated insects and men-turned-to mammoth monsters! By the mid 1960s – at least for about a decade – Gordon deviated from the massive menaces in favor of just about any subject which would sell tickets, including family-friendly fantasies, psychological thrillers and at least one failed sex comedy. The early 1970s saw Gordon jumping on the occult cinema bandwagon, delivering what would turn out to be his most rarely seen and often sought-after genre effort, now given the Blu-ray treatment from Code Red.
After her baby boy is born dead, young Lori Brandon (Pamela Franklin, THE NANNY) agrees to move from Los Angeles to the small town of Lilith after her husband Frank (Michael Ontkean, THE PEACE KILLERS) accepts a dream job for an obscure toy manufacturer. Bad omens are plenty on their four-hour drive there. An oncoming car goes off a cliff and bursts into flames and at the scene of the accident, Lori discovers a rag doll with the photo of a woman attached to it and fingernail clippings in its pocket. After their car conveniently runs out of gas, Frank treks off for fuel and Lori, drawn by the sounds of man chanting, witnesses a funeral attended by people wearing robes and the corpse of a young boy in coffin, but her husband tells her she imagined it all. When they arrive, they meet Frank’s new employer Mr. Cato (Orson Welles, COMPULSION) who assures them that his workers make magic rather than toys. Curious about Lori from the start, Mr. Cato interests her in a “black arts” book upon her called Grande grimoire; at first Lori is uninterested but her page-browsing coincides with more peculiar particulars about the town of Lilith. At a party held in honor of the couple’s arrival, resident Dr. Jay (Harvey Jason, COLD TURKEY) mentions pleasure as a cardinal rule, and it’s soon revealed that the townspeople (all of them under 30 except for Mr. Cato) operate as a coven of witches, in which the Brandons are invited to enter. As Frank disappears, Lori keeps seeing the presence of young boy (and no children are permitted in Lilith), befriends a coven member named Priscilla (Lee Purcell, STIR CRAZY) who reveals more about the strange rag doll that was found, and discovers she’s to be a pawn in a ritual to bring Mr. Cato’s dead son back to life.
Originally in production under the title “The Toy Factory” (and possibly “A Life for a Life” as well), NECROMANCY was not only directed by Gordon, but written and produced by the drive-in movie auteur as well. Gordon had just done an X-rated sex comedy called HOW TO SUCCEED WITH SEX which failed to receive any positive notices, and with his next effort, he was obviously influenced by the major success of Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY. NECROMANCY went into production in the Fall of 1970 (actress Franklin and actor Jason met on the set and were married soon after), but due to some legal entanglements over control of the independent film, it wasn’t released until 1972 when horror specialists Cinerama released it at a time when they were dominating the drive-ins with British-made Amicus anthologies like THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, as well as homegrown smashes such as WILLARD and its sequel BEN (NECROMANCY was often double billed with other Cinerama product, including Edward Dmytryk’s 1972 version of BLUEBEARD starring Richard Burton).
Although the influence of ROSEMARY’S BABY is clear as day (you just know that Ontkean’s hunky husband character is up to no good), the screenplay includes a lot of interesting ingredients, and although they may seem convoluted and cliched, you have to remember that this was shot in 1970, before witch coven and black arts movies where as common as movies of week (and the subject of a number of those). The film has a very early 1970s California gothic feel to it (much of it was shot on location in Los Gratos) and that gives it an appeal in itself, as it's all laid on nice and thick at times; camera shots through tarot cards and the inside of drinking goblets, a bull’s head over a shirtless male celebrant, funky funerals sessions (with some great decomposing corpse make-up by William Tuttle), a quick rat-attack bit in the cellar and a very trippy title sequence that has Franklin floating around in outer space. British-born Franklin (who had just went from a talented child actress to a beautiful grown-up star, and she’s never looked more lovely than here) gives a worthwhile performance (even when struggling to maintain an American accent) and carries the film well (Franklin would soon appear in the terrific THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, and some years later would be reunited with Gordon for FOOD OF THE GODS, probably his most fun film). Welles (who has frequently been accused of “slumming” here) might be subdued and going through the motions, but he still delivers his lines as if he was reciting Shakespeare and though he wears a false nose and thick eyeglasses, he sometimes comes off like a portly Vincent Price. The great Renaissance man by this time was appearing in anything for a paycheck (including genre pictures like Harry Kümel’s MALPERTUIS) and was notorious for being difficult on the set. In his autobiography The Amazing Colossal Worlds of MR. BIG, Gordon feared he would have problems with the actor when Welles’ secretary informed him that he didn’t work before 10AM or after 4PM. But Gordon appeased Welles with a gourmet chef and all his favorite foods and drinks, and the larger-than-life thesp then agreed to be at his director’s disposal!
NECROMANCY has largely been unseen since its 1972 theatrical release, as it was hardly ever on TV (though it did appear on The CBS Late Movie twice in 1977). In 1983 for a re-edited home video version called THE WITCHING, new scenes were added to it (omitting the original ending among other bits) which mostly concerned nudity (some from the original shoot which was apparently unused) and debauchery as a way generating more witch orgy-type activity for the rental market (B movie queen Brinke Stevens appeared in some of these new scenes). Also, the terrific music score by veteran composer Fred Karger was replaced with a typically chintzy synth score by Rob Walsh, who specialized in Saturday morning network cartoon programs. It’s not clear who directed the new scenes for this bastardized version, but it certainly wasn’t Mr. BIG.
Putting the altered version known as THE WITCHING to the side (and gladly discarding it), Code Red has released NECROMANCY on Blu-ray from the only surviving element in what is believed to be the original R rated version before it was cut to get a PG (both MPAA PG and R rating tags appear at the beginning and end), and this print source offers a good amount of nudity. Some who have seen the film on its original 1972 run claim that theatrical prints did have nudity, so whatever the case may be, Code Red has offered an uncut release (with possibly some extra footage) of the original unaltered version for the first time on home video. The film is presented here in 1080p HD in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and looks pretty good overall. The colors on the surviving source elements definitely show some fade, but the full spectrum is there in most scenes with sharp detail throughout and a healthy grain structure. Blemishes on the original elements are fleeting (a few light scratches and reel-change cue marks) so the image is generally clean and free of any jump cuts or missing framing due to print damage. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is perfectly clear with no noticeable setbacks (no subtitle options are available on the disc).
Extras include a recent audio interview with Pamela Franklin (3:52), who says that meeting her husband (actor Harvey Jason) was the only good thing to come out of the movie. Although she thought the script was good, she felt Welles was dismissive of other actors (“he was not a nice person”), calls Ontkean very nice, and talks briefly about the legal feud between the producer and director. A full frame theatrical trailer (1:03, so perhaps it’s a TV spot) is also included. Before we could get this review together, we learned that the NECROMANCY Blu-ray is not available for sale at the moment, but keep checking Code Red’s and Diabolik DVD’s sites for it to be back up for sale again. In a world where other nearly-forgotten early 1970s American horror favorites have been or will be available on Blu-ray (Scream Factory’s BLOOD AND LACE, THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF and their upcoming WILLARD and BEN for example), NECROMANCY deserves a place on your shelf right next to them. (George R. Reis)
BACK TO REVIEWS