The Craft of Don Sharp: Witchcraft (1964)

witchcraft_1964_posterShot in less than two weeks, Witchcraft stands as testament to the skill of its director, Don Sharp, who died in 2011.

With the American Lon Chaney, Jr, as star, and a tight shoot of only 13 days, the results were hardly guaranteed. After a fairly good 1940s as the successor to Karloff and Lugosi at Universal, Chaney’s career had plummeted. By 1964, he was a notorious alcoholic, known for telling directors to get what they could out of him before noon. Sharp remembered a very friendly but lonely man on set, a gentle soul who would be “almost grateful when someone would spend ten minutes talking to him.” He also remembered the difficulty working with him as the day went on and the drink gradually took its toll. “But by the next morning, he would be so eager, so keen to do right. He was a very sad man, indeed,” Sharp recalled.

Although he received top billing, the bloated and worn-looking Chaney’s screen time in Witchcraft is limited. When he does appear, he stumbles about ineffectively and practically shouts his lines. The merits of this film can be attributed to a not-bad screenplay by Harry Spalding, competent production values on a low budget, and efficient, constraint-defying direction by Don Sharp.

Spalding’s script was inspired by a news story about a graveyard in San Francisco, where people had protested at their ancestors’ bodies being exhumed and relocated to make way for a property development. In Witchcraft, a property developer, Bill Lanier (Jack Hedley), recently arrived in England from Canada – Spalding was a Canadian – becomes embroiled in an age-old family feud when his unscrupulous partner decides to bulldoze a cemetery. Morgan Whitlock (Chaney) is furious at this “blasphemy,” and his ancestor Vanessa Whitlock (Yvette Rhys), buried alive three centuries earlier as punishment for witchcraft, is even more furious. Rising from her grave, she haunts the Lanier family, sending them one by one to their deaths in revenge for the desecration.

witchcraft_1964_1It’s a story of the old versus the new, set firmly in the context of a changing Britain. The conflict between ancient and modern is deftly symbolized in the opening shot, when the camera pans across from a busy highway to the adjacent cemetery. Having been introduced to the contemporary urban setting, immediately we are plunged into an archetypal Gothic setting. No sooner have the titles finished, than the stillness is shattered as the sound of modern machinery fades in and another pan takes us from a wrought-iron gate, covered in dead branches, to a bulldozer as it begins to tear up gravestones. At this, Morgan Whitlock enters, and like the actor Chaney, he is of another era. The large, cloaked figure waves his cane as he shouts: “This is blasphemy! Stop it!” Whitlock constantly looks out of place in the modern world; later, his 1930s saloon car will look decidedly old-fashioned as it pulls up alongside a shiny, new sports car outside the Lanier house. (Actually Oakley Court, the Gothic mansion next door to Hammer’s Bray Studios on the banks of the River Thames.)

The image that opens the next scene is that of a model of a property development. Yet again we see a stark contrast: The camera zooms out to reveal the model is sitting on a table in a large, old-fashioned sitting room in the Lanier house. But in Lanier’s world, the old and the new can co-exist. Though he is essentially progressive, he is a decent man who simply wants to build a future for his wife and children, and he sympathizes with Whitlock. “I know all about the population explosion,” he tells his business partner. “We can still make money without desecrating a cemetery.”

witchcraft_1964_3When Lanier arrives at the cemetery that night to inspect the damage for himself, he is pictured with a cross-shaped gravestone to one side and his car to the other; he is a man trapped between two worlds, striving to strike a balance. It is juxtapositions like this – helped by Arthur Lavis’s atmospheric lighting – that elevate a film that, if not for Don Sharp, could easily have been cinematically dull.

As the Whitlocks begin to execute their revenge on the Laniers, one particular sequence stands out as an example of Sharp’s taut direction. It is midnight, the witching hour, and a clock chimes. The camera zooms out from a clock tower we assume belongs to a church or chapel (it is actually part of Oakley Court), pans along the side of the house and then tilts up, giving a low-angle shot of the building, reminiscent of Robert Wise’s filming of Hill House in The Haunting (1963). We then cut to the bedroom where Helen Lanier (Viola Keats), Bill’s sister, is asleep. The sound of the church clock chiming fades out as the subtle ticking of a house clock – we never see it, but it sounds like a small alarm clock – fades in. The transition takes place without music; the ticking of the two clocks as they intermingle gives a suspenseful rhythm to the scene and once again beautifully reflects the interaction of the two worlds, with the church bell evoking the ancient, the bedside clock evoking the modern, the everyday.

witchcraft_1964_2Sharp seemingly enjoyed giving nods to Hitchcock, although never in a clumsy or tacky way. In Witchcraft, for example, as Tracy (Jill Dixon), Bill’s wife, ascends the staircase with a glass of milk, one can’t help but think of Cary Grant’s ominous journey upstairs with a glass of milk in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1944). Similarly, the attempted murder of Bill’s grandmother (Marie Ney) on the stairs brings Psycho (1960) to mind. His earlier The Kiss of the Vampire (1962), for Hammer Films, contained several allusions to the Master of Suspense, including a title sequence echoing that of Vertigo (1958, with which Kiss has some themes in common) and the oft-noted conceit of a missing person whose existence everyone denies (as in The Lady Vanishes).

Sharp did have a knack for articulate, well-paced suspense sequences. The ball scene in Kiss is an example. Another well-crafted sequence in Witchcraft is that in which Helen discovers the witches’ coven. The roving camera and sparsely scored music (by Carlo Martelli) as she explores the Lanier family crypt give way to a disquietingly static camera as the music ends abruptly and she observes a satanic ritual in progress. The lack of movement makes the quick but relatively subtle zoom-in on Helen’s face as she winces at the sacrifice (of what we assume is an animal) particularly effective. This stillness also heightens the impact of the sudden chaos – no less than two zoom shots and an accompanying scream – as Helen discovers her brother-in-law’s girlfriend and Whitlock’s niece, Amy (Diane Clare), is participating in the ceremony. The tight execution brings life into what is, in fact, a fairly predictable plot twist.

This sequence also dovetails nicely into the next sequence, the afore-mentioned murder attempt, as the sick, elderly Mrs Lanier hears the screams from inside the house. Before going to investigate (and leaving her room for the first time since her husband’s death several years earlier), she stops to cross herself at a homemade shrine, a holy altar whose existence parallels that of the satanic altar of the Whitlocks’, the family that has warred with the Laniers for centuries. With this entire episode, Sharp has once again produced something compelling from material that is merely perfunctory.

Sharp was later to prove his mettle time and again in horror and other genres with films such as The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), Psychomania (1971) and, following Hitchcock once more, The Thirty Nine Steps (1978). He may not have had the pioneering role of, say, Terence Fisher, but Don Sharp proved himself a consummate craftsman, shaping astonishingly effective thrillers out of meagre resources, of which Witchcraft is so elegant an example.

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Don Sharp was born in Tasmania, Australia, on April 19, 1921, and came to Britain after World War II to pursue a career as an actor, turning his hand to direction in the late 1950s. He died in Cornwall, England, on December 14, 2011, aged 90.

Bibliography

Rigby, Jonathan. English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema. Reynolds & Hearn, 2000
Smith, Don G. Lon Chaney, Jr.: Horror Film Star, 1906-1973. McFarland, 1996
Weaver, Tom. Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants. McFarland, 1994

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