THE WITCHMAKER (1969) Blu-ray
Director: William O. Brown
Code Red Releasing

"They came to investigate witchcraft... and found terror" in Code Red's Blu-ray of THE WITCHMAKER.

The eighth in a series of murders of young women drained of blood deep in the Louisiana bayou spurns a paranormal investigation expedition lead by Dr. Hayes (GREEN ACRES' Alvy Moore) who brings along psychically sensitive Tania (Thordis Brandt, UP YOUR TEDDY BEAR), doting secretary Maggie (Shelby Grant, THE PLEASURE SEEKERS), students Owen (Tony Benson, RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP) and Sharon (Robyn Millan, MURPH THE SURF), and skeptical reporter Victor (Anthony Eisley, THE NAKED KISS). Ferried to an isolated hunting cabin (by ubiquitous movie and episodic TV old timer Burt Mustin) surrounded by miles of quicksand-laden swampland on all sides, the group is all the more vulnerable to Sabbat master Luther the Berserk (John Lodge, REVENGE IS MY DESTINY!) who is drawn to them by Hayes' experiments utilizing Tania as a psychic compass. Discovering that Tania's grandmother was a witch, the lustful Luther conjures retired Sabbat mistress Jessie (Helene Winston, WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?) to help him induct the unwilling girl as the thirteenth member of his coven, offering to restore her youth in exchange using the blood of Sharon who has been lured into the swamp by Tania in a trance. Learning Luther's intentions through hypnosis, Hayes, Victor, and Owen endeavor to protect Tania and Maggie – whose blood is needed to for Tania's initiation ritual – from the black magic of Luther, a rejuvenated Jessie (transformed into THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS' Warrene Ott) and his coven of twelve (among them FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!'s Sue Bernard, Playboy Playmate Nancy Crawford, THE BABYSITTER's Patricia Wymer, and SINTHIA: THE DEVIL'S DOLL's Dianne Webber).

Although it looks very much like regional production – particularly a Floridian Bill Grefe production with a more "upscale" cast – THE WITCHMAKER was actually lensed largely on Monogram soundstages in Los Angeles with location photography in Louisiana. While the story drags, the visuals of cinematographer John Morrill (A BOY AND HIS DOG) are frequently creative, with foreground Spanish moss framing compositions, sometimes strategically so in the M-rated film's efforts to show nudity without actually showing anything. Genre regular Jaime Mendoza-Nava (LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK) provides an underscore that occasionally stretches into the burlesque as the revels of Luther's coven include carousing and belly-dancing. The film's effects are performed in-camera with straight cuts to materialize the coven members (including one's transformation from cat to human) and much wind and lightning flashes to suggest more than is actually occurring. Lodge and Winston give the standout scenery-chewing performances while bland Eisley fares a bit better here than as the middle-aged beatnik in DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN.

Released in 1969 by Excelsior Distributing Company and reissued in 1974 by Claude Alexander's Alexander Pictures as THE LEGEND OF WITCH HOLLOW – in a double bill with the Alexander/Larry Buchanan co-directed THE NAKED WITCH (1961) – THE WITCHMAKER was released on tape in Canada by Interglobal (copies of which ended up in American video stores). While a widescreen version became available through grey market sources, THE WITCHMAKER got its first official American release from Code Red in 2011 utilizing a print with the reissue title. In the absence of the original negative, Code Red's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray utilizes a print that restores the original title. White base scratches abound throughout but this is still a crisp and colorful experience of an expectedly grainy production – the film was shot in Techniscope, a non-anamorphic 2-perf shooting format that allowed twice as much footage to be shot per roll of film before the final cut was then blown-up and optically squeezed to 4-perf for Cinemascope-compatible projection – and producer Jones' interview regarding Morrill's photography suggests that the darker scenes were deliberately underlit to draw focus to set elements while obscuring what simply was not there. There is only one noticeable instance of missing frames with a jump in the music more jarring than the second or so of lost footage. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track has some hiss but the dialogue is always intelligible.

Extras from the DVD are carried over to the Blu-ray, starting with an audio commentary by producer Jones and cinematographer Morrill who discuss their producing partnership with Moore and the decision to do THE WITCHMAKER over producing a Sam Peckinpah film. Jones reveals that he had intended to play a role in the film but broke his leg on the Elvis film STAY AWAY, JOE so he remained off-set and viewed the rushes as they came in, and that Lodge replaced the intended choice of John Davis Chandler (THE YOUNG SAVAGES). They also discuss shooting in the small Cajun town, and that the budget was so low that they patched into the telephone lines rather than rent a generator for the location lighting. Jones also appears in an interview (18:11) covering much of the same material but also discussing his research at UCLA into the occult to create an original story when he could not afford to option ROSEMARY'S BABY, and that the film was intended to preempt the Polanski film's release. Also included are the LEGEND OF WITCH HOLLOW reissue trailer (1:14) as well as trailers for SOLE SURVIVOR, THE DARK, BRUTE CORPS, WARLOCK MOON, and SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES. A Ronin Flix exclusive, this release comes with a reversible cover and limited slipcover. (Eric Cotenas)