A Pair of Code Reds #1: Witchmaker, Witchmaker, Make Me a Witch

1969's Witchmaker is one of those great, but definitely not for everybody, little off-road horror movies.  I originally encountered it at an Exhumed Films screening in 2005 (lovingly sandwiched between Night Of the Bloody Apes and When the Screaming Stops), and was excited when Code Red gave it its official DVD debut in 2011.  It was even a bit of a special edition, so to my mind at least, it became a real Code Red staple title... One of those films the bigger labels weren't hip to even though it was better than a lot of stuff they were putting out.  And so it was only natural when, in 2017, Code Red revisited the title on blu as a "Ronin exclusive" (in quotes because that's what they called it, though you can also purchase it from sites like Diabolik and Grindhouse Video ūü§∑) with a brand new edition.
2011 Code Red DVD top; 2017 Code Red BD bottom.
The reason I say Witchmaker is not for everybody is that it's very 60s.  So, for one thing, the characters just look a bit silly, overdressed in this case for trekking out in the swamps of Louisiana.  It's not quite as bad as the lady in the short pastel dress, beehive and bright white go-go boots from It's Alive, but those are the sort of vibes you'll be getting.  It's also somewhat corny and very talky, with plenty of wooden acting from the days when doing multiple takes was a serious expense.  And while it's a fairly dark, serious horror film in some aspects, it's from the days before real gore effects, so the most gruesome moments were just depicted by pouring more red paint over clearly unbroken skin.  Guaranteed your kids will spend the whole time on their phones complaining your dumb old movie is boring and not scary.  And, you know, they're not objectively wrong.
2011 Code Red DVD top; 2017 Code Red BD bottom.
But if you're open-minded, the pros outweigh the cons.  It's a fun little story about a professor and his students who travel deep into the swamps to study local legends about a series murders being the work of witchcraft.  Of course, they turn out to be right and in for far more than they bargained for.  Luther the Berserk is out there murdering nubile young women like there's no tomorrow (why they keep wandering off on their own into remote swampland is never questioned).  The stakes are raised when Luther learns that one of the pretty blonde co-eds is also a "sensitive" that the professor brought along to take his research to the next level.  Luther thinks she'd make an excellent addition to his coven, because, oh yeah, he's got a whole army of witches out there in the swamp with him.  And so it's war between modern man and ancient magicians, with both sides using every trick in the book.  Seances, mind control, shooting fire balls and a special garlic that allows the wearer to wander in and out of Luther's cave invisible to all witches.
2011 Code Red DVD top; 2017 Code Red BD bottom.
Yeah, with a little patience, there's lots to be entertained by.  While all the good guys are giving those stiff, clunky performances I mentioned, all the witches are having a blast creating their crazy characters.  The leads are great, and the background ones all have fun gimmicks, coming from different ages (a Spanish conquistador, a black cat who turns into a sexy lady, a mad monk, an Egyptian belly dancer, etc) and played by a heck of a collection including Seymour, host of the real Fright Night show, and several Playboy bunnies.  The story's inventive and fairly outrageous; well shot, with atmospheric locations and moody music.  This isn't one of those fly-by-night flicks made by hacks doing the bare minimum to qualify for the B spot at drive-in theaters.  I mean, they might've been hacks, but they clearly put in the effort and dedication to make a fun, quality film.
2011 Code Red DVD top; 2017 Code Red BD bottom.
So, you may've noticed I've been including more than the usual number of comparisons in this post.  That's because the differences between the two are a bit complicated and raise questions.  Although, right off the bat, before anybody gets the wrong idea, yes, the blu-ray is a worthwhile upgrade over the DVD.  But some of the changes are curious.  Both the backs of the DVD and blu-ray case simply promise a "brand new 2.35:1 (16x9) transfer."  That alone was a big deal in the case of the original DVD, since previous grey market tapes, VHS tapes and online rips were always in the wrong aspect ratio, non-anamorphic, etc.  So Code Red were the first ones to really do this film right.  Clearly, their transfers are based on prints, and damaged ones at that.  We see dirt and specks, hear pops in the soundtrack, and most noticeable are the vertical, green chemical lines appearing sporadically throughout the picture.
2011 Code Red DVD top; 2017 Code Red BD bottom.
But one of the questions I have is whether both discs are sourced from the same print.  Some obvious signs point to no.  The DVD's on-screen title card actually reads The Legend of Witch Hollow, while the blu now reads Witchmaker, and some of the damage is different.  So two different prints, right?  But some of the damage is exactly the same.  Look at the very first set of shots.  That red mark appears on the old man's mouth at exactly the same frame and only that frame.  Yet on the DVD, it's bigger, extending farther across his face.  Are we seeing the partial results of some kind of automatic clean-up?  Are the differences in color timing the result of two differently aged prints or some attempt at correction?  Is this another case of CR Frankensteining the scans of multiple prints to get the best of several, like they did with Redeemer?  If so, then why do the colors stay consistently warmer on the DVD and cooler on the blu?
2011 Code Red DVD top; 2017 Code Red BD bottom.
I guess only the hairdresser knows for sure.  And at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter.  All we need to know is what we've got on screen before us.  And what's that?  Well, the DVD is actually closer to 2.31-2.32:1, slightly squishing the image horizontally, which the blu corrects to an exact 2.35:1.  The framing's a bit lower on the blu, and sometimes shifts side to side, which I generally prefer on the updated scan; though in a few shots, like that one of Luther stabbing his paper, I think the DVD is right not to clip off the top of Satan's head.  Color-wise, the DVD is clearly to red and has a hue wafting over the whole thing, but the blu feels like they've over-corrected a bit to being too blue.  I'd say the blu's colors beat the DVD's, but the ideal is probably somewhere in the middle.  Most importantly, though, is just the blu's resolution.  We're obviously not looking at a fancy, high-end restoration, but what we have been given is a clearer, bolder HD scan with sharper image and some natural grain the DVD couldn't hold.  And we've also had the mono track, which is still a bit hissy and worn, bumped up to a lossless DTS-HD.
2011 Code Red DVD top; 2017 Code Red BD bottom.
And Code Red didn't just give us the first proper presentation of this film on home video, they made it a pretty nice, little special edition.  The DVD features two main extras, the first of which is an on-camera interview with producer L.Q. Jones.  This guy is a lot of fun and quite forthcoming; he'll tell you whatever you want to know about this movie.  And whatever he doesn't get into the interview he provides in the film's audio commentary, where's he joined by the DP, John Morill and moderator Bill Olsen.  The guys are enthusiastic and remember a good deal; Morill has a lot to add.  Jones does get sidetracked a lot, talking about his past meetings with Sam Peckinpah to the point where even Morill gets frustrated.  But even that lengthy derailment is fairly interesting.

Besides that, the DVD just has some bonus Code Red trailers.  And the blu-ray carries all of that over (though they update to a different batch of Code Red trailers), which was a relief, because I really enjoyed the DVD extras.  Unfortunately, the only new addition they come up with is the actual Witchmaker/ Legend Of Witch Hollow trailer, but it's nice to finally get that.  The blu also includes reversible cover art an a supposedly limited slipcover, but I don't think any copies have been released without it yet.
2011 Code Red DVD top; 2017 Code Red BD bottom.
This is classic Code Red: an obscure cult film that turns out to be surprisingly rewarding for fans dedicated enough to take the plunge.  They released the definitive DVD at the time, and then boosted it to blu that's a distinct improvement.  Sure, you could imagine what Arrow might do with this if they ever found the original negatives and a generous budget, but you'll turn blue if you hold your breath waiting.  This is a cult film by a cult label who did right by it.  Most people will never see this, and they wouldn't appreciate it if they did.  But a handful of us are delighted to have been welcomed into the coven.

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