As I've mentioned elsewhere, the films in the Italian horror series La Casa 3 - 5 had as little to do with each other as they did with La Casa 1 and 2 (the Italian release titles of Sam Raimi's first two Evil Dead movies). Part 3, directed by Umberto Lenzi, is also known as Ghosthouse; Part 5 was directed by Claudio Fragasso, and is ignored by American audiences under the title Beyond Darkness. Part 4, Witchery, is probably the worst entry of the series, in spite of one or two good ideas.
It's the worst principally because of budget decisions: while all three installments of the series were made on the cheap, Part 4 seems to have squandered its funds on hiring some "name" actors. Having obtained Linda Blair, David Hasselhoff, Hildegard Knef and Catherine Hickland, the producers must have had very little left for the rest of the movie. For the rest of the cast, the film makers hired a bunch of non-actors whose ineptitude more than cancels out the "star power" of the four leads. As for production values? Witchery lacks even the surface gloss that characterizes other productions by Joe D'Amato's Filmirage group. The cheap and ugly look of the film makes the ugliness of its screenplay even... um... uglier.
D'Amato himself confessed his disappointment with the results. He pointed out that the inexperienced director, Fabrizio Laurenti (credited as "Martin Newlin"), found himself out of his depth working with such big international stars as Hildegard Knef, David Hasselhoff and Linda Bpfffffffff...
No; I'm sorry. There's just no way I can finish that sentence without laughing.
So poor Laurenti was given a production which was doomed from the outset. That's a shame, because the script represents something of an improvement over Ghosthouse. Admittedly, it's a combination of elements from any number of previous, successful horror flicks -- Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, that other film with Linda Blair in it -- but it steals so blatantly from so many other sources that in the end, it turns into something completely different. There are even some startlingly good ideas in Witchery, but because of the constraints of time and money, these bits are all left undeveloped.
The film opens by introducing us to Blair as Jane Brooks. Jane, who is expecting a child very soon, has a dream in which she sees a woman being chased down long empty corridors. It's a little odd to see that the woman is being chased through what appears to be a 19th-century building by people dressed in 18th-century garb, but then again, it is a dream... The woman finally evades her pursuers by jumping through a high window (evidently to her death). As the woman launches herself through the glass, Jane awakens.
From that point on, Jane and others close to her begin seeing a strange old woman in black (Knef, looking about six thousand years old). Jane is walking home after having bought a present -- a kid's tape recorder -- for her little brother Tommy, when she sees the old woman. Taken aback by her appearance, and by the shiny pin she's holding in her hand, Jane stops short -- just as a huge I-beam from a construction site plunges to the sidewalk in front of her. Did the old woman just save Jane's life? Or was this "accident" a little taste of things to come?
Little Tommy is the next to see the old woman: chasing after his lost ball, he runs into her. Here we have our first true moment or horror, as we realize that the movie's Cute Kid simply can't act. We're going to be seeing a lot of Little Tommy, and he's dreadful. "Caaan aaaaii haaaave maaaaiy bawwwwl baaaaack?" he drawls in a monotone. Frau Hildegard mutters some cryptic words in her thick German accent, and is gone.
Next, we find oursleves on a "remote" "isolated" island, where a girl named Leslie (Leslie Cumming) and her photographer boyfriend Gary (Hoff) are investigating an old abandoned hotel. The hotel looks very much like the location of Jane's dream, and in fact there is a broken-out window on one upper floor (it's a little ridiculous to think no one's repaired the window in a couple of centuries, so perhaps it's just a coincidence). Leslie is researching a legend mentioned in an obscure German text about witchcraft. The text describes a "witch light", an unexplained flash observed at the spot where a persecuted New England witch fell to her death. Or something like that. Anyway, Leslie is there to document the witch light, and Gary is along to photograph it, should they be so lucky as to see it.
At least that's what Gary's supposed to be doing there. What he spends most of his time doing is trying to weasel his way into Leslie's pants. Apparently they've been dating for some time, but Leslie is totally uninterested in sex.
Here's where you have to really give David Hasselhoff some credit. It's easy to joke about him as a cinematic lightweight, unlikely to reach the lofty thespic heights of an Olivier, or a Gielgud, or a Schwartzeneggar. But when you see him on screen with "actors" like Ms. Cumming, you start to appreciate his professionalism. Hoff is asked to play the unsavory role of a guy trying to force his unwilling girlfriend into having sex with him... and yet, even in the context of a brutal and squalid horror film, he doesn't completely lose our sympathy. Even when he does his James Mason impression.
It's Leslie and Gary's last day on the island, and they have managed to catch sight of the infamous "witch light". How they identify what they've seen as a witch light, instead of a random flash of sun on an opposite window pane, I don't know; but they're the experts, not me. However, the couple is in for a little surprise: it happens that Leslie never got permission to do her research on the island, and the property's new owners -- Jane's family, the Brookses -- are on their way for a quick visit.
The old hotel has been abandoned for so long that extensive repairs are needed. Mrs. Brooks, who wears the pants in the family, had intended to bring along an architect to go over the place and make recommendations; however, her regular architect proves unable to go, so she calls an Emergency Backup Architect, Linda (Catherine Hickland).
As it happens, Linda is not the person Mrs. Brooks intended to call. There are Other Powers interested in the little party which is shaping up for the old hotel. When Linda gets the call, she's just stepping out of the shower (thus satisfying the movie's requirement for a scene with a pretty girl stepping out of the shower)... and suddenly, the reflection of the woman in black appears in the foggy bathroom mirror. Mind you, many of us find Hildegard Knef staring back at us from the mirror at 5am on a Monday; but since this is the late morning on a leisurely day, Linda is considerably startled.
She'd be even more startled to learn that at that very moment, Knef was on the distant island. She waits in the room where the witch light had appeared to Leslie and Gary, crooning in German over an empty crib. Leslie even catches sight of her, very briefly.
Linda the architect goes off to meet the Brooks family at the realtor's office. The reator's inexperienced son Jerry has been assigned to take them all out to the island, and to provide the Odious Comic Relief. Jerry explains to the party that electricity has been restored to the old building in preparation for their visit... thus explaining why Gary and Leslie have power, and removing a potential gripe from my list. Linda, who's been introduced to us as something of a slut, starts moving in on the hapless Jerry with embarrassing speed.
Before the boat sails for the island, little Tommy meets a young girl in a wheelchair. When the girl finds out that Tommy is going to the island, she tells him that a witch used to live there. Apparently this tale is common around the town, since the local sailors are reluctant to take the family out. Eventually a boat is hired, and on the journey out Jane takes the opportunity to give Tommy the tape recorder she bought earlier. She shows him how to use it, recording the phrase "Jane loves Tommy very much", and playing it back for him. Tommy goes off to play with the recorder, testing it by taping "I love you, Jane" over and over again.
If you surmise that this tape recorder is going to have something to do with the resolution of the film, give yourself a nice pat on the back.
On the island, Gary is tinkering with an old movie projector he's found when Leslie sees the boat approaching. The pair run to gather their belongings and hide. Once ashore, Jerry takes his charges over the crumbling property. Hilarity attempts to ensue: Jerry does his Used Building Salesman spiel while the doorknobs fall off. Heh. Jane and Tommy each go off on their own (because that's what pregnant women and children do in movies like this)... and before long, Tommy has run into the woman in black again. "Do you live here?" he says, with his usual flat delivery. "Nobody liffs hier, Tommy," says the woman in black.
Up in the attic, Gary suddenly remembers he's left the hot plate plugged in down in the kitchen. Too late -- Mrs. Brooks has found it. And in the meantime, the woman in black has found the unlucky sailor who brought the Brooks family to the island. While Jerry explains about one of the last residents of the decrepit hotel before its abandonment -- an aging German silent film star -- the boat chugs away with its captain dangling from the mast.
Jane is upstairs, investigating a bathroom -- not an unexpected thing for her to do in her condition -- when she stops by a bathtub. In the tub is an inch or so of vile standing water; Jane accidentally drops her medicine bottle into it. As she reaches down to retrieve the bottle, something grabs her and pulls her straight through the bathtub and into a different dimension.
Somehow, this doesn't come off looking as silly as it sounds.
Jane suddenly finds herself in some squalid backwater of Hell. Behind a sort of grating, she sees a filthy old man and woman, dressed in rags and gibbering at her through the slats. They pretend to fight over something they carry -- a dried-out fetus, which they maul and slam against the walls. The old man tears the hand off the fetus and gums it, all the while grinning at Jane...
Poor Jane comes to, back in the bathroom. In her hand, she finds a tiny plaster doll's hand, just like the limb of the dismembered fetus.
Downstairs, the legitimate visitors catch up with the trespassers, and Leslie explains to them, "Ah was deturmined to visit this ahland". Everybody's stuck on the island anyway, since the boat is gone and there is apparently a storm on the horizon. Tommy goes up to the bathroom to fetch Jane's lost pills, where he runs into Knef again. More cryptic muttering.
As dusk approaches, Mrs. Brooks (Rose) goes off on her own to look over her property. She discovers an old wall safe: since her character has been established as a greedy old bag, it comes as no surprise that this should excite her. However, as she tries to find out what's inside, an unseen force drags her into the safe, and off into that strange dimension that Jane had visited earlier.
Meanwhile, downstairs, the old projector Gary has been trying to repair suddenly turns itself on. Without power, without film, the projector begins showing what is apparently Knef's last, unreleased film: something about a witch on an island, being pursued by figures in 18th century dress.
Back in Hell, the two old beggars have tied Rose to a chair. "There are three doors to Hell," chants Knef (actually, she says something more like, "Zere are tsree dauhs to Hell..." but imitating her thick accent phonetically is more effort than I care to spend); "The first one leads to Greed1. That one must be closed now, forever." As she says this, the old man begins sewing Rose's lips shut. Knef has other business to attend to: she has to get back to the Real World in time for little Tommy to overhear her singing her German lullaby over the empty crib. Fortunately, the kid still has his toy tape recorder with him, so he tapes the strange sounds he hears coming from the attic room.
Rose reawakens in the Real World only to find herself, lips sewn together, stuffed upside-down in a chimney. Unable to scream or call for help, she hears her husband announce his intention of starting a fire in the fireplace... Curious how the chimney fails to draw particularly well once the fire is lit. Oh well: after a little while, the current of air improves, and the smoke goes more easily up the chimney. It's odd, given the general tackiness level of the goings-on so far, that nobody seems to notice the smell of something cooking around the chimney. At least we get to see what's starting to drip in the flue.
It's growing late, and the "storm" is approaching, so everybody goes off to get some rest. Linda, predictably, takes Jerry the realtor off review her construction details. Leslie goes off to sleep alone, in spite of Gary's further attempts to pursuade her to let him join her. Outside, the apparently supernatural storm rages: there's no wind, there's no rain... it looks like a clear and beautiful night, yet everyone both on the island and ashore keeps talking about how the terrible storm will prevent anyone from looking for the people stranded at the hotel.
Next, of course, it's Linda's turn to go to Hell, with Jerry close behind. "The second door is the door of lust," says Knef, and Jerry sees Linda on the other side of the grate, being garrotted by the old couple. Linda ends up being nailed to the wall with a spike through her throat, while Jerry is crucified upside-down.
Having dealt with the Door of Lust, the denizens of Hell go looking for its opposite. Leslie has what seems to be a horrible dream: she's in Hell, where the two old beggars have pinioned her to her bed. Up pops a naked man with a really bad skin condition on his chin: the credits refer to him as Satan. The crusty-mouthed demon ceremonially rapes Leslie, while cutaways show her writhing alone on her bed in the hotel.
Leslie awakens from her horrible "dream" in time for the others to start wondering where half their party has disappeared to. Somewhere in the hotel, Knef sets fire to a voodoo doll... and somebody notices Jerry, nailed to his cross and burning, outside on the rocks. Leslie begins to put the pieces together: the burning man, the dream, the disappearances... it's "part of a Sutonic ritual!", she mispronounces. Just then, Rose's icky remains fall out of the chimney.
Freddy Brooks is the next to go: as he sits, stunned, in his chair, he suddenly begins to bleed. All at once, his veins start to swell and burst, and he disintegrates into a mess of gore. Exit character actor Bob Champagne, who had also played an undertaker in Lenzi's Ghosthouse. Knef and the house then thwart an attempted rescue by a team from the mainland. Unable to see any signs of life in the old building, the would-be rescuers fly their helicopter back through the "dangerous storm".
Jane appears in imminent danger of miscarrying her baby, so Gary decides he'll risk taking his Zodiac raft back to the mainland. As Gary and Leslie run out, they seem to catch sight of Knef in an upstairs window... but is it really Knef? Hmmm... it also seems that the infamous broken window isn't broken any more. And -- hey! Will you look at that! It seems Hildegard Knef has possessed Jane. Linda Blair is possessed: who would have seen that coming?
"I chose you all carefully," says Knef through Jane. To open the doors of Hell, she required Lust, Avarice and Ire: Lust, obviously, being Linda, Avarice being Rose, and Knef herself providing "the Ire of the persecuted Witch." Add to this mixture the Blood of the Virgin (Leslie's rape), and a baby to sacrifice (Jane's unborn child). Evidently the budget couldn't sustain the full Seven Deadly Sins, so they had to make do with three Deadly Sins, three and a half tops... plus the Annoying Peccadillos of Timidity (Freddy), Gullibility (Jerry), and Assholery (Gary) for good measure.
Gary and Leslie try to get out of the hotel, which throws bits of itself after them in an embarrassing attempt to imitate the climax of a Corman Poe flick. Reaching the Zodiac (on a clear, stormless morning, I might add), Gary realizes he's forgotten something: Tommy. Gary goes rushing back to save him, and Leslie, in spite of Gary's instructions to stay by the Zodiac, soon runs after him. The Zodiac floats away.
Gary reaches the attic first, where he finds Evil Jane. Jane earns spontaneous applause from the audience by disembowelling David Hasselhoff. Just as Evil Jane corners Leslie and Tommy, and things are looking their bleakest, the dying Hoff... er, Gary... manages to crawl into the hallway and toss Tommy's tape recorder at La Blair. The tape recorder begins playing Tommy's message: "I love you, Jane! I love you Jane!"... and Evil Jane, coming to her senses for a brief moment, hurls herself out the Window of Death. Jane is killed and the spell is apparently broken. Ah, the irony of it all.
... leaving out the coincidence of the tape machine being left in the one room wherein Gary gets impaled, we have a few more problems with this particular deus ex machina. We can assume (grudgingly) that Gary might have rewound the tape and listened to it, so that he knew what was on it before Tommy recorded the old woman's chanting. Fine. But there's still the fact that the tape recorder's batteries had failed earlier in the movie. The incident is particularly memorable because a slowed-down tape recorder had figured prominently in Ghosthouse as well. So: Gary, losing blood by the quart, manages to find the tape recorder, rewind it to the place he wanted, change the batteries, and hurl it at Jane just as she's standing in the right place to... ahhh, forget it. At least the movie is almost over, right?
If you're a carbon-based life form of the phylum Chordata, and you've either been alive for more than 24 hours or dead for less than 12, you've probably guessed that there was a stinger ending waiting for us. And you'd be correct. Leslie awakens in the hospital on the mainland, where a nurse reassures her that Little Tommy is going to be just fine. The two worst actors in the bunch are the only ones to make it out alive: there's justice for you. Oh, adds the nurse: Leslie's baby is also going to be just fine. Leslie turns toward the camera with a look of Dull Surprise appropriated from Pia Zadora and says: "Muh babuh?" The End.
I doubt the gestation period for even the Fetus of Satan is measured in hours. You expect me to believe that in the short time that's elapsed since Leslie had her dream episode, she's developed unmistakeable signs of pregnancy? What a ridiculous way to end a ridiculous movie.
In its broadest outlines, Witchery has some decent elements, all of which languish undeveloped. The simple idea of a witch whose spirit causes strange lights to appear on a deserted island could have been the basis for a tolerable crap-horror movie. The story of an aging silent movie actress whose last film, about an executed witch, may have trapped a piece of her soul in it... well, that's not such a bad idea either. And the idea of a Satanic cult that wants to possess the unborn child of an innocent woman (played by a reasonably well-known actress)... something tells me that could be the basis for a stunningly successful film. Put all the pieces together, and you have the ingredients for a decent direct-to-paperback horror novel... something like the 200-pagers that Graham Masterton and J. N. Williamson used to crank out during the 1980's... but they're too much to cram into an eighty-minute, zero budget movie. And in any case, the actual screenplay is so poor it does no justice to its plot.
So what are we left with? La Casa 4: Witchery is certainly tasteless and crude, but these are not unforgiveable traits in a horror film. It's also stupid; but again, many beloved horror films are equally inane. Its special effects are less convincing than a bunch of kids playing fort on the living room couch, and its cast is less than ideal. But the most damning problem with Witchery is that, for all its brutality, it simply isn't very scary. In fact, when lips aren't being sewn shut and fetuses aren't being slammed against a wall, it's downright dull. The only real reason to watch it is to see Linda Blair off her co-star David Hasselhoff in an enjoyably bloody manner.
Witchery used to be available only as a rental VHS. These days, with the availability of so many obscure movies on inexpensive DVDs, we sometimes forget about the Bad Old Days of video. Often, rare titles didn't make it to inexpensive "Sell-through" status, so if your local Mom-n-Pop video store didn't carry Witchery or Burial Ground, you had to special order it for 80 bucks. Major studios have tried to bring back this two-tiered system for DVD, threatening to reserve certain titles as Rentals and charging $100 or more per copy. Fortunately, the strength of the consumer market, the success of companies serving "niche" markets like the horror genre, and the commitment of at least one major studio (MGM) to providing good quality at low cost, have kept this terrible practice from coming back.
But I digress: back in the day, if you wanted to see Witchery at all, you either had to find a video store that had a copy, or you had to pay through the nose2. Eventually, somebody will probably put out a restored, wide-screen version on DVD, with commentary by David Hasselhoff... or worse, by Leslie Cumming (Hildegard Knef having passed away in February of this year ); but in the meantime, something interesting has happened. The cheap Canadian video company Front Row Entertainment, whose products seem to turn up in K-Marts and supermarkets everywhere in the US, acquired Witchery. They put it out on one of their horrible EP-mode tapes. I picked up my copy for $3: still more than it's worth, but better than $79.95.
The box cover has a big glamour photo of Linda Blair from Some Other Crappy Movie, with drawn-in lightning flashes and the title in huge, glowing letters. I had to stare at the cover for a few minutes before Front Row's strategy became apparent to me.
"Linda BLAIR: David HASSELHOFF," I read... "WITCHERY".What on earth possessed them (excuse the expression) to re-release this obscure little film? I looked again...
Blair -- Hasselhoff -- Witchery.
Something looks familiar there. Once more:
And suddenly I knew why episode 4 of the series La Casa was now available to a larger audience than parts 3 or 5 are ever likely to be.
1. Actually, you'd have thought the door led from greed. This is the sort of film where half the dialog is unintelligible, and the other half is incomprehensible.
2. This is why I won't be reviewing Claudio Fragasso's La Casa 5: Beyond Darkness any time soon: when Businessbuster Video moved into our town, all the local video stores went under. Some of them went out of business so quickly that we didn't even realize they had disappeared. One of the stores which closed up and faded away in a single weekend was the store that had the only copy in a hundred mile radius of Beyond Darkness.
I remember seeing Beyond Darkness (which is different from Beyond The Darkness, the US DVD title for Joe D'Amato's classic Buio Omega) back in 1995. I also remember being surprised that it didn't suck as badly as I expected it to. Much as I'd like to see that film again, I'm disinclined to make an effort to track it down: I've survived too many other Fragasso movies since then, and I don't trust my memories.
Of course, if anybody out there has a copy or a dub they don't want...