Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Lots of wood in the forest… Crypt of Dark Secrets (1974)

It’s not difficult to imagine how director Jack Weis came up with the foundation stone for this ill-fitting horror film. With no budget and some half-cooked mumbo jumbo ideas he had to work out a way of getting his female star, the astonishing Maureen Ridley, dancing naked for at least 5 full minutes. So, lithe body in place and nudity clause signed off in the contract he decided that she must be a swamp witch who needs to perform an ancient write in order to raise the dead.

From there he reverse engineered his entire story, just to arrive at that one moment of pure X-rated gold. Now this may or may not be the case, but I’m just putting it out there…

Of course, he may also have been looking for a way to shoot some quite glorious shots of the Louisiana swamps, as police launches glide their way through endless mysterious lagoons, snakes and alligators lurking beneath and mysterious mist enveloping the tangled trees on the shore. It’s a great location and the cats and crew deserve credit for working in it.

These things aside, the quality of story, dialogue and performance is not the best in this film but it adds to the period charm and this is a fun film to while away a rainy afternoon.

It concerns the legend of a swamp witch called Damballa who is rumoured to live in the deepest part of the bayou… a woman who is nearly immortal and who can turn herself into a snake at will.

The opening scene see the local policeman Lt. Harrigan (Wayne Mack, probably the film’s best actor) discussing the legend with a local investigator (not sure if I can call him an actor whoever he be… but he tries).

Then we meet Ted Watkins (Ronald Tanet, who is wooden enough to be a one-man log cabin) an army vet who has decided to retire to the most haunted island in the most eerie part of the swamp. No one has been able to live there without being driven out be mysterious goings on and so the Lieutenant and his Sergeant Buck (Herbert G. Jahncke, he too got wood...) go out to investigate.

Sgt Buck and Lt. Harrigan
Ted welcomes them and we find a house with a remarkable range of fixtures and fittings, electricity, fridge and hot water… not sure about TV reception. Ted is cool and isn’t bothered about no legends… nor is he bothered about keeping all of his army money in plastic bags under his bed or similar).

On the Lieutenant’s advice he goes to talk to the local bank only to be overheard by one of the local  criminal types – see: he was right about banks!!!

Max, Earl and Louise on the prowl
This criminal is Earl (Butch Benit – who also acts and has what sounds like an authentic drawl…) and he decides that his podgy pal Max (Harry Uher) and wife Louise (Barbara Hagerty) shall deprive Ted of his life savings and his life. Remarkably, in spite of their rubbish condition and lack of Navy Seal training they are indeed able to overpower the ex-military man and leave him to drown in the shallow waters as they make off with their ill-gotten gains.

But fear not gentle reader, the mysterious – and very shapely – figure of Damballa comes to the rescue and with the aid of a highly graphic naked dance sequence, wakes Ted from the dead not just because she likes him, but because he will serve a higher purpose.

The witches of old Orleans
Time for more remarkably attractive women, a few sundry old natives, a grave, a ghost and scotch mist… seems the ancient tribe, who exist in an alternate reality (I possibly lost the thread here…) have always kept one foot in our reality through Damballa but now it is foretold by a previous blonde-haired witch – who arises from her grave - that new brunette Damballa will be accompanied by a new male Damballa and all will be well. There’s some dancing and chanting and magic words are spoken by the, stunning, High Priestess (Susie Sirmen) and an, so-so-looking, High Priest (Vernel Bagneris, sorry Vernel…) whilst three Voodoo Dancers strut their stuff (Lois Tillman, Cindy Almario and Nattie Dear).

Blimey. You really wouldn’t want to be the guys to mess with all these supernatural forces would you… especially as the swamp witches are assisted by a human witch in spooking the baddies out as blood pours through their money and they begin to lose their nerves… and, there are voodoo dollies too!

Ted and Dembala entertain...
Dusty Verdict: Like Death in Paradise stripped of plot and performance quality there is still the same inevitability about the narrative. But there is a lively score and some wonderful shots of boats gliding through swamps and a mystical dance you would not want to watch with anyone else in the room.

The film is available on DVD from Amazon and is a curio and mid-seventies kitsch artefact for those who cherish such things plus those who just like to watch witches dance…