The genre film franchise is a tradition that’s been around as long as horror films themselves. Universal’s classic series of horror films may have started with the literature-based DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, but they soon milked the characters for all they were worth, continuing characters and storylines (loosely, in many cases) throughout the likes of HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and RETURN OF THE CREATURE to ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE CATMAN OF PARIS GOES CALYPSO. It’s a tradition that continues to this day, with the remarkably resilient PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and RESIDENT EVIL franchises.
But for every HALLOWEEN, there’s a 976-EVIL. In the VHS era, any title that served as a halfway-decent seller could be counted on for a sequel or two, even if they had nothing to do with the original. In cases like the CURSE series, the franchise was used as a catch-all title for movies that were filmed under entirely different names in an effort to make them better sellers.
The FRIDAY THE 13th films have their HIS NAME IS JASON, and ELM STREET has its NEVER SLEEP AGAIN, but what about the GHOULIES movies? Or THUNDER WARRIOR? Or DANGER ZONE? When will we truly understand the full chronicles of Benjamin Knight? In this column, we’ll be slowly making our way through the many, many franchises of exploitation film that may not be getting feature-length documentaries about them as a whole. The serial genre pics that new technology has forgotten about.
I wanted to start big and inexplicable, and there’s no bigger or more inexplicable franchise than the WITCHCRAFT series. In a history spanning two decades, Vista Street Entertainment churned out 13 (!) of these flicks, which had continuing characters even as it moved from being straightforward horror to erotic thriller to detective yard out of a CAST A DEADLY SPELL sequel. It’s especially surprising as I’ve never met anyone who claimed to be a fan of the series – there are no WITCHCRAFT conventions or fan sites, and nobody out there is expressing worry that the series will inevitably be rebooted for a new generation.
WITCHCRAFT’s longevity is a puzzler, and it’s even more puzzling when you consider the first film. Essentially a low-budget ROSEMARY’S BABY knockoff with minimal violence, no sex and unremarkable staging, WITCHCRAFT is a case study in unmemorable ‘80s direct-to-video horror films.
After a prologue involving the a pair of witches being burned at the stake being intercut with the birth of a baby, we’re pulled into the life of Grace Churchill (Anat Topol-Barzilai, the daughter of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’s Topol), the mother of the newborn Will. Her husband John (Gary Sloan) gets in to visit her, but her quirky best friend Linda (Deborah Scott, the wife of director Rob Spera) isn’t allowed in due to hospital regulations, so there’s a zany hospital sneaking sequence for no discernable reason.
Upon getting released from the hospital, John insists that they take residence with his mother, Elizabeth, played by the unlikely-named Mary Shelley. It’s said that the family “owns half of Massachusetts,” but judging from the condition of the house, it’s the half that’s underground. It’s less a “decadent mansion” than a “antiquated piece of barely-standing rubble that the Munsters would consider a fixer-upper,” but Grace doesn’t mind because she’s with family and remarkably dumb.
Suspicious things begin to happen, like Grace’s discovery of an abandoned area of the house, and some bizarre visions that she sees inside a mirror. The fact that the mute butler Ellsworth (Lee Kissman) scowls a lot doesn’t help, though Grace tries to warm to him by offering him a flower. Even more suspicious is the attempted baptism of the child, where Father James (Alexander Kirkwood) gets ill and leaves suddenly. That he ends up being covered in boils and then hangs himself right outside Grace’s window probably should have been some sort of clue that something weird is going on.
But, as I mentioned, Grace is remarkably dumb and has also never seen ROSEMARY’S BABY. If you have, or even if you’ve just read a TV Guide plot blurb about it, you can probably figure out the climax. Quirky best friend gets decapitated by from what I can only assume is weird editing, visions get worse and, hey, John and Elizabeth turn out to be those witches at the beginning and have used Grace as a vessel for the coming of Satan.
WITCHCRAFT is only occasionally actively bad, but at no point does it become anything we haven’t seen before. It’s got about enough plot to fill an episode of “Monsters,” stretched out forcibly to feature length by having a lot of wandering down the house and growing slowly suspicious of the fact that her husband doesn’t seem to want to spend time with her. In a short form, this may have worked, but at feature-length, it just makes the lead character come off as so incredibly dense that you’re amazed she’s not still on the drugs that her husband allegedly rescued her from.
The one thing WITCHCRAFT has going for it is a very nice VHS box, courtesy of Academy Home Video, the same company who made a cinematic silk’s purse out of the sow’s ear that was DEALERS. It’s provocative and strangely erotic, with the name rendered in a great, flashy font with a pentagram that promises witchiness up the wazoo. It’s no wonder that when the series continued, the big sticking point was the font of the title and the sex appeal, even if nothing like it ever appears in the first film.
It was the first directorial credit for Spera, who continues to be active today. He never returned to the WITCHCRAFT series, but he did make headways into other franchises, helming BLOODY MURDER 2 and probably his most well-known feature, LEPRECHAUN IN THE HOOD. Writer Jody Savin, who gave WITCHRAFT a few good moments of dialogue, recently wrote the recent CBGB “biopic” along with quirky indie dramas BOTTLE SHOCK and MARILYN HOTCHKISS’s BALLROOM DANCING & CHARM SCHOOL.
WITCHCRAFT is such an unremarkable little movie that, using any sort of logic, it would have vanished without a trace and relegated to the occasional discussion of “hey, neat cover art” on a VHS collector’s forum. Instead, Vista Street decided they had a cash cow, and one they could milk for years, even if the film itself ends on a conclusive note with only Grace and the infant Will surviving.
But their story would continue…
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