And once more I find myself riding through the valley of Larry Buchanan. It is a sensation not unlike Ichabod Crane slowly, fearfully prodding his nag through the darkened night in Sleepy Hollow except that I know if I dare look over my shoulder, I will not see some terrifying specter holding his own head aloft; instead, I shall see something ... boring.
When the decision was made to base this roundtable on the works of Larry Buchanan, there was a collective intake of breath, like a prize fighter who suddenly realizes he can't block that blow coming for his head. This is the reason the planned "Masochism" roundtable was eventually declared redundant: we do these things to ourselves on a regular basis. In fact, as I write this, my wife is downstairs watching whatever bread-and-circuses competition is on TV tonight, where the contestants have to take turns eating disgusting things. Spend a few hours on Planet Freex, you ninnyhammers. You'll be begging to drink the liquified pig liver.
But back to Larry Buchanan, a Texas filmmaker of some note: for one thing, he has made more than one movie. For another, his career stretches across three decades. For another
Oh dear Lord, let's just look at the facts.
In the early 50s, Buchanan paid his dues in a variety of jobs in the film industry bit part player, editor, second unit director. In the early 60s, however, he graduated to the director's chair (while still wearing the producer hat, much of the time), working in the lucrative exploitation trade. Bankable titles like Under Age, Free White & 21, and The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald all bear the Buchanan name. The most infamous - perhaps undeservedly so is Naughty Dallas, which traded heavily on the fact that it includes a shot or two of Dallas' Carousel Club, a strip bar owned by Oswald assassin Jack Ruby.
Buchanan would return to this exploitation trough several times in particular, he seems unable to let Marilyn Monroe rest in peace but we are here, largely, to celebrate (?) his genre offerings, the horror and sci-fi movies that form the larger part of his oeuvre. The Naked Witch is his first effort in this field.
Wait, I didn't feel you shudder enough. Let me repeat that: The Naked Witch is Larry Buchanan's first attempt at a genre movie. That means he wasn't as good as when he directed Zontar, the Thing from Venus or Mars Needs Women.
Are you sufficiently terrified yet? Good. Pass the liquified pig liver.
Doc, how could you? you may utter in a tense whisper. I know you call this thing The Bad Movie Report, but have you finally gone round the bend? Do I need to shove this spoon between your teeth before you swallow your own tongue?
I tell you what, Mama Freex didn't raise no fools. There's a reason I chose The Naked Witch for my entry. Mainly it's only 59 minutes long. And barely that.
One reason it even reaches that goal a minute short of an hour is a prologue added by producer Claude Alexander. (In his commentary track on the Something Weird DVD, Alexander refers to this flick somewhat bitterly as "a home movie") A narrator tells us about witches, witches, witches! set against a background of sparse animation and details from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and maybe a Brueghel or two. It sets forth the history of witchcraft as a war between "those who have given their souls to the devil" vs humanity, which is eventually saved by the forces of rationality and science. Any power this segment possesses derives from the mastery of the paintings and a dead serious reading of the rather purple prose by a young man just starting out in his trade, a young man named Gary Owens.
In particular, whenever Owens says any version of the word "witch", the noun leaps out in large, screen-filling letters. The effect is risible enough that you can get through at least half the movie by hoping that whenever a character says "witch", the word will reappear, blotting out the action with six-foot letters. No such luck, though. After this prologue which adds an astounding eight minutes and thirty seconds to the running time! we begin the movie. No, wait! First it's the opening credits, with shots of an impressively ancient graveyard backed with some eerie library music which will be instantly familiar to viewers of the original Night of the Living Dead. There. That added another minute and forty-five seconds to the movie.
Let us meet The Student (Robert Short), for that is the only name he will be given, as he drives through the hill country of Central Texas in his peppy little 1964 sports car. First he tells us that if he had known what would happen, he would have driven no further. Then he eats up another three minutes with a travelogue about German settlers of the mid-nineteenth century and the little village of Luckenbach, where, it seems, the children all go to school in lederhosen and dirndls.
The Student is travelling to Luckenbach to gather material for a paper by attending the annual Saengerfest, or song festival, there (ah, that explains the children wearing colorful folk costumes. I don't know, I'm a little disappointed that the movie isn't implying they wear them year 'round. Just like movies assure us that Mardi Gras is celebrated every night in New Orleans). The Student confirms that he is in a crap movie by running out of gas somewhat short of his destination. Grabbing his suitcase, he legs it into town.
He first meets a Miller out sharpening his knives on an antiquated wheel, much like you see in cartoons (and what a missed opportunity for an ominous scene!). The Miller speaks in a colorful mixture of high school German and English, and introduces The Student to his grandniece, Kirska (Jo Maryman), the gorgeous blonde we saw in the travelogue footage. The bad news is Kirska just took the Von Trapp clone-children home from the very last event of the Saengerfest. The good news is her grandfather, Hans Schöenning, runs the local inn, and there's vacancies aplenty. Though not a gas can, as the sports car will languish unattended for the remainder of the picture, all 42 minutes of it. Oh yeah, when The Student brings up the subject of "witchcraft and superstition", The Miller makes like a clam and returns to grinding. The Student dismisses The Miller as "overly sensitive".
The Student also doesn't get much out of Kirska on the walk to the Inn, either. She's more interested in what life is like "on the outside", leading The Student to the astounding insight that he is out of place in Luckenbach. Kirska does have a slight warning for him, though, that "the old ones do not like to speak of the spirits and der Hex." Nevertheless, The Student tries to pump grandpa for information, and gets no further than the words "The Luckenbach Witch" before the old man promptly issues a "Guten nacht" and falls to silently puffing his long pipe.
The Student settles in for the night and Kirska brings a pitcher of water, "fresh from the well". She finally gets him to admit that he is actually writing a paper on immigrant German folklore and legend, not music, and slips him an old book entitled The Early Germans in Texas: An inquiry into their customs, legends and superstitions. How handy! It must be old, as in defiance of publishing standards, its title page is printed on the left-hand side
This indispensable tome provides a flashback to the first year of the settlement, when an epidemic killed one-third of the settlers. As happens in such times, a scapegoat is sought, and in this case it appears to be a local widow, who is quickly suspected of being a WITCH. (sorry, I really wanted those six-foot letters to come back) The narrator (not Owens, alas) reminds us that "this was time when a man of power could conveniently denounce as a witch any woman discovered with him in his bed. Such a man was Otto Schöenning."
Yep, the "widow witch" (Libby Hall) has been doing the Perpendicular Polka with the original Innkeeper (the flashback takes place in the same room with the same furniture as the room The Student is inhabiting). The woman is entreating once more, it seems Schöenning to leave his wife. "I cannot break charity with my woman while she is infirm," entones the philanderer with the solidity and acting talent of a rock. Eventually it develops that Schöenning himself has started the rumors about witchcraft as a means to rid himself of all unwanted entanglements with the widow.
So the newly christened witch is taken to a nearby graveyard and executed with an oaken stake through the heart not the usual way to dispense with witches, but hey those crazy krauts, eh? We are informed that she muttered to herself over and over again "Death to all Schöennings I will return!" before being staked and laid to rest "not a hundred yards from where she had lain with the cruel and deceptive Otto Schöenning." Wait a minute where she had lain ? Why that's the very bed on which The Student is reading the book! Looking out his window, he sees the local graveyard (and no wonder Hans has more vacancies than Norman Bates, with scenic views like that). Time for some scholarly nocturnal exploration!
Predictably, The Student finds the witch's grave (though why a condemned witch would be buried in consecrated ground is beyond me), and realizing he is in a crap movie, he digs up the corpse with his bare hands. Luckily, they bury pretty shallow in Central Texas. The Student's narration informs us that he has found the mummified remains of the Luckenbach Witch, which is fortunate, because to a layman's eyes, it looks like he found a buried Halloween mask. Naturally, he also picks up the aforementioned oaken stake, which results in a welter of bad lap-dissolves as the Witch comes back to life. (There is some powerful mojo in that sharpened stick, too, as it wasn't even in the corpse, it was just lying on top of it).
Reacting with horror (I guess), The Student runs back to the Inn and collapses on his bed, still clutching the stake. So finally, at the 34 minute mark, we have Naked Witch. We're going to have to trust Buchanan on that one, since most of the shots that contain nudity were censored, apparently by a distributor. Though some long shots of Hall striding through the night appear to briefly deliver the promised nudity, other shots that might have been more well, revealing look like spray paint has been applied to the camera lens, blocking out Hall's torso. (To once again reference Something Weird's DVD, Buchanan seems surprised on his audio track whenever these blots appear) Though they seem a bit ragged, the blots also have some artistry to them an attempt seems to be made to make them match shadows and horizon lines, so they only become truly obvious when the camera moves.)
So don't go seeking this movie out for the Nekkid Witch footage. That's in the other feature on the DVD, Crypt of Dark Secrets, which has its own pitfalls, annoyances, and pain, unending pain! But back to Larry Buchanan.
The Nekkid Witch makes her wanton way to the Inn, where she retrieves the stake from The Student and tears Kirska's sheer nightie right off her sleeping body (sorry, fanboys, but Ms. Hall is going to be the only actress you'll see in this movie in something approximating the altogether). Then wearing her new and tattered in a most salacious fashion outfit, she seeks out The Miller and fulfills Part One of the Prophecy, killing him with the stake.
This murder sends the village into a panic, by which I mean a guy in a beard comes to the Inn, followed by two people who keep their backs to the camera. The Witch's empty grave having been discovered, there is no doubt in the villager's minds as to what is happening. The Student stands silently by, his narration informing us that some power is making him keep his mouth shut (and apparently it's also keeping him from his car, which has likely already been towed away by the Department of Public Safety, anyway). And for a group of people clinging to The Old Ways, I have to say the people of Luckenbach are remarkably clueless in dealing with the situation. No good luck charms, no anti-witch hexes painted on the barn, no folk-remedy versions of a burglar alarm they just lock all the doors and windows when night falls. So, of course, Grandpa Hans falls victim to the stake that night (and given that the camera angle makes it look like he got stabbed in the groin, The Nekkid Witch is definitely working through her issues).
The Student, finally owning up to the fact that he's to blame to two peoples' deaths (and, unspoken, the danger that blonde hottie Kirska is now in) goes to the local library and asks the librarian where a Nekkid Witch would go to hide. Ha! I kid! He actually asks if there is some nearby cave where the settlers went to hide during Indian raids (though here's a bit of Texas History trivia for you: Luckenbach is one of the few settlements that prided itself on never breaking any of its treaties with the local Comanches. Go, my German forebears! Go!)
Armed with this information, The Student heads for the rocky outlands, where he comes upon The Nekkid Witch bathing in a river. The distributor let most of this sequence ride, since Hall's naughty bits are underwater, I suppose. I had also originally thought that she was wearing flesh-colored pasties, too, but having now seen this movie a soul-grinding seven times, I have to admit that those are actual nipples we are seeing.
Anyway dear God, is there still 15 minutes left? Okay, okay, I employ a mantra that has seen me through many a pain-filled episode in my life: It's only fifteen minutes. I can stand anything for 15 minutes. I can stand anything for 15 minutes. Anyway, The Nekkid Witch discovers The Student spying on her and sneaks up on him, tackling him into the river (hey! It's the return of the censor blob!) and The Student finds himself under the spell of this "lovely creature", following her through seemingly interminable vistas of the hill country (two minutes, forty seconds what, like my mind has anything else to do during this thing than glance at the time?) into her cave, where she doffs her purloined nightie and takes off his shirt. Then, miraculously wearing the gown again (well, she is a witch, after all), she proceeds to dance for The Student (one minute, thirty seconds). I find myself wondering where she got the modern panties and the slippers. Then flopping on his prostrate body, she turns off the lights by gesturing at a nearby torch which snuffs itself through the magic of in-camera editing, and we assume they proceed to have sex with their clothes on.
Time for another glance at the time. Five and a half minutes left. I can stand anything for five and a half minutes
The Nekkid Witch wakes up first, and checking her chopping list conveniently scrawled on the wall in chalk decides it's time for Kirska to meet Mr. Stake, and slips out of the cave without waking The Student, 'cuz he looks so cute when he's sleeping. More picturesque shots of The Nekkid Witch carefully crossing rock outcroppings (the slippers have disappeared again) and running through fields of wildflowers. She finally winds up at the Inn, where we engage in that sequence, much beloved by low-budget filmmakers, where The Nekkid Witch emotes hypnotically into the camera and Kirska somnambulistically wanders out to meet her in the graveyard.
Meantime, The Student wakes up in the cave and realizes that there's only about three minutes left in the movie (or maybe I'm projecting, because that's what I'm realizing, too) and he had better get hustling or he'll lose his hero status and the blonde hottie who likes to visit hotel rooms in a sheer nightie. Still shirtless, The Student runs back into town and intercedes just in time to save Kirska. In the struggle, The Nekkid Witch falls into her own grave, stabbing herself once more with the stake. In one last act of magic, her body mysteriously goes from lying face down in the grave to face up, so the cheap "special" effects of the resurrection scene can be reversed.
The Student re-buries the Witch, his narration musing whether "she was witch or wronged widow. It's not for me to say." Well, I have a clue for you, College Boy SHE WAS WALKIN' AROUND KILLIN' PEOPLE A HUNDRED FREAKIN' YEARS AFTER SHE DIED!!!! WHAT DO YOU THINK????!!!!!
If one is looking for positive things to say about The Naked Witch, there is the fact that it only cost $8000 and is yet made in color. Not that the palette on display here is particularly impressive, but...
Okay, let's try again. There are several scenes that provide peeks at what might have been. The first is the sequence in The Student's room leading up to Kirska bringing him the book that will doom them all. Before she leaves the first time, The Student makes a ham-handed attempt at a compliment: "With your German good looks and something simple and black, you'd look like a little cameo." When Kirska returns with the book, she has changed into the semi-sheer black nightie that will later be appropriated by The Nekkid Witch. After some strangely charged dialogue, she leaves The Student to the book. If nothing else, Buchanan often had extraordinary luck with his actresses, and Maryman's performance here leaves the audience just as confused as to Kirska's intentions as The Student.
Another powerful image occurs when The Nekkid Witch kills the Miller: his body falls into the mill pond, and the small waterfall turns red with blood. Equally memorable are the scenes of the Witch striding through the rocky outcroppings of the hill country, passing through flowers and ancient graveyards. This could, in fact, point the way to the major failing of Buchanan's filmography: he is a fine technician, just not a good director.
Well, the title director actually covers a lot of bases, so I should qualify that. Buchanan's features are often shot competently; it is in the editing and the acting that things fall apart like cotton candy in a rainstorm. We can forgive the sparseness of the set decoration in The Student's room, we're used to poverty row productions. Harder to overlook is the apparent inability to reconcile day and night shots in the same sequence, which is also something of a continuing motif throughout the man's career, cf. The climax of The Eye Creatures. After a while, Buchanan seems to simply give up on even attempting day-for-night shots, and the viewer finds himself foundering in a strange universe that shifts randomly between broad daylight and the dead of night.
The Naked Witch often works best when the action unspools without words; in fact, in keeping with it's impoverished budget, there are very few attempts at sync sound, the awkward scene with the negligeed Kirska and the extended flashback (the scene I call "The Origin of The Naked Witch") being the most memorable.
No, most of the picture is moved along by The Student's narration. Relying heavily upon a narrator is always a sign of trouble, and when it happens over a scene so important as the meeting at the Inn after the Miller's murder, you start expecting The Creeping Terror to shuffle in through the front door, enticing the extras to crawl into its maw. The situation is definitely not helped by the non-existence of Robert Short's acting talent, who utters the picture's opening sentence, "If I could have known of the strange and haunting experience that was waiting for me, I never would have driven any further into the hill country of Central Texas" with all the dramatic foreshadowing of "I went to the corner store to buy some chocolate ice cream, but since they were out, I got rocky road instead."
I think that as a director, Buchanan just doesn't work all that much with his actors. With over twenty years in the trade, I can generally recognize when actors are being left to their own devices, and I get that vibe heavily from the Buchanan films. As I mentioned before, Jo Maryman is fine, and though Libby Hall as The Nekkid Witch could have used a little coaching to get rid of the stagebound parallel gesturing in the Origin scene, she also does well. The older Schöennings need do little more than be likable and get killed, and they do both fairly well. Ancestor Otto Schöenning, though, could get work as a Piltdown Man, and Robert Short is just a poor choice as a framework on which to hang your entire picture. He looks good enough, and is acceptable in the silent scenes, but when called upon to open his mouth either onstage or off the movie comes crashing to earth.
I haven't even touched on the dramatic contrast between the sudden bursts of library music and what forms the score for the rest of the movie, which is played on a single Wurlitzer organ, making it sound for all the world like the background music of an old radio mystery show. Or perhaps one of the salesmen at a mall organ store noodling around. It's equally creaky in either case.
Overall, I feel that The Naked Witch is Buchanan's attempt at a color remake of the 1960 Black Sunday (which, much as I like it, I have to admit could have benefited from a nude Barbara Steele gadding about). In that respect, it must be deemed as some sort of a success, because AIP-TV soon struck a deal with Buchanan. Needing color versions of some of their older sci-fi standards for the television market, they hired Larry to remake four features on the ultra-cheap over the next few years. I've already spent my time in that cathode-ray hell; I'm leaving it up to Braineater to navigate that particular minefield, this time around.
So I find The Naked Witch has a sort of vague historical interest in the world of crap cinema, though certainly not enough to recommend it to any but the most hardened crap cineaste or the Larry Buchanan completist (if there truly is such a thing). If nothing else, the experience of this roundtable has caused me to examine some priorities, and what I came up with was this:
H.G. Lewis, if you're interested, is probably slotted between Buchanan and Mikels; I haven't reviewed a second Lewis film yet, so quantification is not possible. You see, I do have standards. They may be so low as to be located somewhere in Pellucidar, but I do have them.
So much so, that I actually feel kind of bad, spending all this time trashing Buchanan; by all accounts, he's a very nice man, and made sure everybody who worked on his movies got paid; as an actor who is still owed a few paychecks, I can attest to just how uncommon and appreciated is such a thing. And I hope that particular reputation follows him around a lot longer and a lot closer than "that guy who made The Naked Witch and Mars Needs Women."
New Rule: Any mention of nudity in the title = BORING.
June 28, 2003