Sunday, May 5, 2024

Witchcraft (1961) [short]

... aka: Witchcraft: The Doll in Brambles

Directed by:
Harold Young

Though no one seems to know the first thing about this particular production, it was a TV pilot (running just short of 26 minutes) for a proposed series to be titled Witchcraft that was never picked up. The only available print (culled from a Sinister Cinema release) seems to have been taken from a VHS source, which suggests this may have been shown on television (or at least re-run) at some point much later than the 1961 production date. This first episode, “The Doll in Brambles,” was going to be one of many adaptations of the works of William Buehler Seabrook, who was apparently better known back then than he is today.

Born in 1884, Seabrook was a war vet, journalist, newspaper editor, advertising executive, novelist and extensive world traveler. He gained fame not only through his books but also through his interest in occultism and his admittance to consuming human flesh (!!), which he described as being "a little stringy" yet "mild, good meat," comparing it to "good, fully-developed veal." Did I mention this guy was also a painfully-insecure alcoholic, a sexual sadist into kinky photography (he commissioned an S&M-themed photo series that would later be dubbed "The Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook" at one point), conducted bondage "experiments" in a barn and spent some time locked away in a mental institution, plus wrote a book about that, too?

It's amazing that hardly anyone, perhaps most especially horror fans, even know who Seabrook is. His 1929 book The Magic Island is usually credited for introducing the Western world to the term "zombie" (back then, a voodoo-entranced 'living corpse,' not the post-Romero ones). It became a best-seller that led to a stage play called Zombie in 1932 and was the inspiration behind the Bela Lugosi film White Zombie from the same year. Seabrook's fascination with the supernatural led him to numerous countries to investigate their spiritual beliefs and customs, which he recapped in his 1940 book Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today. He ultimately drew the conclusion that there wasn't anything that couldn't be somehow explained through either psychology or science. The fact that a TV series could have existed about this guy's work but never happened feels like a missed opportunity if there ever was one.

There are a couple of names attached to provide some additional interest. Director Young had prior experience in the genre having made a trio of horror films as a contract director for Universal: The Mummy's Tomb (1942) and The Frozen Ghost (1945), both starring Lon Chaney Jr., and The Jungle Captive (1945), the third and final entry in their oft-ignored Ape Woman series. This appears to have been the last thing he ever worked on after leaving the studio system well over a decade prior.

Perhaps an even bigger draw for genre fans is Frank De Felitta, who adapted a portion of the first chapter in Seabrook's Witchcraft book titled "Sawdust Doll in Brambles." De Felitta was a horror / suspense novelist, screenwriter and eventual filmmaker known for his best-selling novels Audrey Rose and The Entity, both of which sold millions of copies and were adapted for the screen as major studio films by the author himself. He also stepped into the director's chair to make the made-for-TV killer dog movie Doberman Patrol aka Trapped (1973), which he also wrote, and the still-popular DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1981), which he did not write. He closed out his Hollywood career directing and writing Scissors (1991), which was a flop in theaters but did well on home video because its lead - Sharon Stone - would became a huge star (for two other films) shortly after filming it.

Former Oscar nominee Franchot Tone's (Mutiny on the Bounty) long career was winding down when he accepted the bookmarking gig on this low budget proposed series. Though billed as "Your Host," Tone never introduces himself by name and instead claims he was a friend of the late William Seabrook, who passed away in 1945. The general premise here is that Seabrook's study and many of his findings have been kept sealed until recently as outlined in his will, and are only now going to be revealed to the general public for the first time.

Tone picks up a copy of the Witchcraft book and notes that, through his decades of research, Seabrook came to the conclusion that belief in the supernatural can be chalked up to what he calls "induced autosuggestion," which our host elaborates is "...a recurring thought in the mind placed there by some outside agent through some outside force." He then turns to the camera and assures us that what we're about to see "is not a fantasy," that it "actually happened" and is based on "a true story."

"The Doll in Brambles" takes place near the rocky coasts of Brittany, France. It's a dark and stormy night when visiting American Fred Hunter (Darren McGavin, of Kolchak: The Night Stalker fame) arrives at an inn to visit his French buddy, Louis Bausset (John Baragrey), whom be met and befriending during World War II. The original plan was for Fred to meet his beautiful fiancée, Marie (Annemarie Roussel), and serve as best man in his upcoming wedding, but things have been put on hold for the time being. Not that Louis and Marie aren't in love and don't want to be married, it's just that Marie's evil, abusive step-grandmother, Madame Tirelou (Blanche Yurka), hates Louis and has forbidden the two to see one another. While you may be thinking, "Well, who the hell cares what granny wants?," Mme. Tirelou is rumored to be a witch and has threatened to place a curse upon Louis if he disobeys her orders.

Skeptical Fred laughs off the witchcraft claims and sets out to help, informing his friend, "I just came halfway around the world to see you get married and, by golly I'm not going home until you are!" He visits the cliffside home shared by Marie and her grand-mère, manages to secretly slip Marie a note from Louis and is then kicked out once the hostile Madame finds out who he's friends with. She claims she'd rather be dead than let them marry, vows to outlive Louis one way or another and has made a voodoo doll in his likeness that can be wrapped in thorny branches (the "brambles" of the title) at any time...

I read the story immediately after viewing (found here on Internet Archive) and this is a near pinpoint accurate retelling, laying out the events almost identically to how they're described and even carrying over identical passages of dialogue. The only major changes are the "Fred Hunter" character is actually Seabrook himself, he and Louis weren't war buddies, there's some bat torture and the grandmother gets punished for what she does. Not only pretty faithful to the events of the text, this also honors Seabrook's viewpoint by grounding the supernatural in realty. It neither confirms nor discounts witchcraft per se, though it certainly leans in the latter direction in this case. A doctor shows up at one point claiming a sudden paralysis we're led to believe was brought on by the voodoo doll isn't a physical malady at all, but a mental / psychosomatic one (called "compulsion neurosis" in the story).

What's truly surprising is that this 1961 production also includes a "witch's cradle" that granny uses to restrain her granddaughter so she can be tortured! It's described in the book as "an obscure sadistic-masochistic" piece of equipment with chains and leather straps that's "as perverse a device as twisted human ingenuity ever invented." The granddaughter tries to keep Seabrook from even seeing this contraption, and feels deep shame when does, in the book, which heavily implies it was used for, a-hem, other purposes, though that's obviously downplayed here. Naturally, this is also something that would have greatly appealed to the source author given his sexual proclivities, so him just randomly happening upon an elderly witch living in the remote French countryside with a bondage table in her cellar is quite the coincidence, ain't it?

To be perfectly honest, had I not researched all of this or read the story itself, I probably wouldn't have walked away from this too horribly impressed. It's clearly cheap, set-bound, talky and not exactly scary, action-packed or exciting. The acting is mostly OK (with veteran stage actress Yurka fairing the best and McGavin his usual likable self) and the few scenes actually filmed outdoors do cut down on the staginess a little bit, but it's really the stuff surrounding the production that makes it fascinating. That, and the care taken trying to capture the essence of Seabrook; at least as much as they reasonably could in a mainstream production intended for mass consumption in the early 60s.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...