Friday, September 5, 2008

Witchery (1988): or, Witches and Rainbows and Shit

I can say this for 1988's Italian spookhouse freakout Witchery (aka La Casa 4, aka Witchcraft)--it doesn't believe in mollycoddling its audience. A lot of movies come on slowly, set up an establishing shot, introduce a couple of characters, give the audience some idea of the situation before easing our posteriors gently into the churning, steamy waters of the hot tub that is the plot.

Director Fabrizio Laurenti (credited for export as "Martin Newlin") says fuck that noise. If you want to learn to swim, the best way is to strap yourself to a catapult and get launched right into the middle of Lake Eerie! Sink or swim, baby! Film's a wastin'!

Splashing down into the Great Watery WTF, we open on a pregnant woman with BIG 80s hair and an old-fashioned nightgown running across a craggy wasteland, terror in her eyes. We see that she's being pursued by an angry mob (GOD I love angry mobs), with pitchforks and pilgrim hats in full effect. Then we jump to...a jewelry commercial? Close ups of a bejeweled brooch or hatpin dazzle the camera with its shiny shiny brightness. Then--hey! We're rushing into an abandoned house!

Before we can appropriately admire Laurenti's odd camera angles and cool shot compositions (long halls of doors, cobwebs swaying in the breeze, furniture stacked strangely in empty rooms) the mother-to-be and her pursuers are jogging up the stairs and down the hall where a wide window offers a lovely view of the sea. Quicker than you can shout "Zygotes Away!" the pregnant lady has launched herself out the window and...Linda Blair wakes up panting from her horrible, horrible dream!

"Breakfast? No thanks. I gestate."

Yes, it's THE Linda Blair, eleven years removed from her last ride on the Possessionmobile and still sporting the same stylish hairdo from that flick--a hairstyle not unlike the aforeseen Flying Fetus-bearer's. Hmm... When she gets out of bed in a similar white nightgown that shows she TOO is pregnant, the astute viewer might begin to ponder whether there's some sort of connection...

But ponder quick, because next thing you know we're back at the abandoned house, where yet another young woman is walking around, admiring the shot compositions and corridor tracks we already enjoyed moments ago. (It must be said that the set here is great--a nice abandoned seaside resort, full of long hallways and dusty furniture--and Laurenti uses it fairly well.) She happens upon a broken window--the same one from Linda's dream!--and notes the broken quadrant where Mum left the building. Just when you think things might start to come together...

Yes, TV legend and Mad Movie veteran David Hasselhoff pops up, camera in hand, shooting the hotel for a book his girlfriend is writing on (wait for it) Witchcraft! NOW it's all starting to make sense, I think...

But then we're back in the city, where Linda Blair is going through a shopping montage of kids' toys. She settles on a Sesame Street cassette recorder and heads out into the street, working her shoulder-padded coat and stylish 80s boots past a construction site, when she is suddenly attacked by an I-Beam! The falling Looney Tunes-style construction materials miss her by inches, and the creepy-enough Goblinesque score seems to imply there's Witchery afoot here, even however-many miles from the seaside resort. Or not. Maybe. It's unclear at this point.

"Waitaminnit! The beach? I just had a GREAT idea for a TV show!"

Suddenly, we're in a city park, where a hitherto-unseen freckled toddler loses his baseball and finds it at the feet of a wrinkly, aristocratic-looking woman with a strangely familiar jeweled brooch. We get some terrible acting from both parties (the kid sounds like Froggy from Our Gang but with a quarter the dramatic chops, and the woman speaks English like she was reciting it phonetically under hypnosis), the upshot of which is the kid gets his ball back. Do you hear seagulls?

Why yes! We're back at the seaside resort, where Hoff's incredibly mushy-mouthed girlfriend is reading from either an ancient text or a Stephen King novel without its jacket, something about how witches loved to hunt down and possess virgins in order to get up to evil doin's. "See?" Hoff says, pointedly, "Even your poet knows virginity is not normal for a grown woman!" Sexual tension! After another arch shot about how wrong it is "being a virgin at YOUR age," which is met by a squinty-eyed pout and more mealy, unintelligible line readings, we cut to...

Linda's parents' apartment in the city! Although it takes us a minute, we soon figure out that Linda's folks are thinking about buying the seaside resort where we've already spent so much time, remodeling it and maybe selling it for a profit. Linda--who has yet to speak a real line of dialogue--continues her dumb show by snuggling with the little freckled toddler in the corner (we later learn he's her brother, Tommy, though her mom looks implausibly beyond childbearing years), who seems to like his casette recorder. That little bit of business done, it's time for...

A SHOWER SCENE OUTTA NOWHERE! A lovely blonde of whose acquaintance we've not yet had the pleasure is standing under the tap, shoulders bared in the manner that tells you right away that's all you're getting, bucko. She gets a phone call (two, actually--her loser boyfriend doesn't answer the first one), which it turns out is from Linda's folks, who need a new architect for their plans, which the hot blonde just so happens to be. She agrees to accompany them to the resort to scope it out. Her loser boyfriend says petulantly, "I'll never understand which you like better--building, or sex." She settles the question by straddling him and dropping her towel. Character development wahey!

We really are just like linoleum, ladies.

Back at the resort, the Hoff is still on the wild cherry hunt. His main tactic--long conversations that boil down to "I'm VERY concerned about you and your continued virginity!"--strangely doesn't seem to be bearing fruit. Meanwhile the witch from the park appears via superimposed portraiture in a couple of scenes, and also steps in to rock an empty cradle before vanishing. Why? Wherefore? What? Suppositions abound, but Laurenti still stubbornly refuses to give the viewer any help.

Back in the city, Blair's folks visit the realtor's office (you can tell because of the HUGE Monopoly Boardwalk card print on the wall) to pick up the realtor's Jerry Lewis-lookalike son for a trip out to the resort that they're thinking about buying...or have already bought. I mean, they've hired a nympho architect--you don't do that site unseen, do you? ANYWAY, our The Haunting-esque crowd now assembled, it's time to get everybody out to the island so the Witchery can really commence, right?

Well, not quite. First little Tommy has to have an encounter with Random Wheelchair Girl in the port town, who says something vague about legends of witches on the island before cruising off. Then cut to the resort itself, which is suddenly in the middle of the freakin' AURORA BOREALIS! As the wonderfully cartoony illumination dies away, an excited Hoff tells his virgin that he got "The Famous Witch's Light" (wot?) on film for her! Score! She's GOT to give it up now...


But now we're on a BOAT, where an alcoholic sailor is ferrying the rest of the group out. Upon landing the superstitious seaman warns them he won't hang around after dark, and then sees the witch's face reflected in his whiskey bottle...which strangely DOESN'T inspire him to shake his head comically, throw the bottle away and swear off the hooch. (Missed opportunity, Fabrizio!)

Inside the house, Tommy meets his old playmate the Witch and doesn't seem terribly surprised (he's not even upset when she goes all old-school Snuffleupagus on him and disappears when the grownups come around), Blair's dad leers creepily at the Hawt Architect, and the Realtor's son tells about the old lady who used to own the place, a Nora Desmond-type silent film has-been who nobody seems to know what happened to. Meanwhile the sailor gets netted in his own rigging and the boat idles out to sea, leaving our intrepid real estate customers high and dry. Upon discovering their plight and returning to the house, they find Hoff and the Virgin, and NOW we're ready for Witchery to occur!

Blair goes upstairs to pop some kind of pregnancy relief pills in the bathroom, and gets pulled down the drain (career metaphor?) into a psychedelic vortex down to the basement, where she witnesses scenes of spookhouse horror perpetrated by the witch and two elderly, smelly-looking minions. (In the first effects set-piece in the film, the two homeless tatterdemalions pull out a rubber fetus, play a game of TUG-OF-BABY, and then gnaw on its little limbs most distressingly. Don't ask why, just ROLL with it!) She wakes up with the family around her Wizard of Oz style. Time to lay off those pills, Lindy.

A Modest Proposal: Stop Doing That Shit

Meanwhile the Nympho Architect has decided the Realtor is her best bet to get the lay of the land IYKWIM, leaving lecherous Pops out in the cold. Blair's mom--who by the way is an UBERBITCH--greedily investigates a wall-safe in one of the rooms and gets her own psychedelic transport to the underworld, and Hoff finds some film reels and a projector that give show us the witch walking around in a Bergman landscape before replaying the opening scene of the movie in glowing black and white. Downstairs in Hell, Mom's getting a lecture from the witch about "The Three Doors" she has to open, the first being the Door of Avarice. Opening the door seems to necessitate sewing Mom's mouth shut in a long, bloody, gleefully sadistic scene, and then stuffing the bitch up the chimney so that she's roasted when the rest of the crowd gets cold and breaks up some furniture for a fire! No one smells the burning hair or searing flesh, but hey, that salt air has a way of freshening everything, I guess.

Meanwhile Tommy's allowed to wander through the HUGE resort all by himself, and nobody seems too worried about him until it's necessary to the plot. They all turn in for the night. Hoff makes his move on his virgin authoress and is summarily DENIED, further straining our already fragile suspension of disbelief. Submeanwhile, the realtor and the architect GET IT AWN, only to be whisked away in flagrante de psychedelico and sacrificed to open the DOOR OF LUST. (They're tortured by hoboes--such are the wages of sin--and the girl is strangled while the realtor is crucified upside down on the beach and set on fire! That'll teach 'im to sign substandard loans!) Pops--looking to be a voyeur if he can't be a playa--finds the architect's body IMPALED ON A WALL-MOUNTED SWORDFISH, which is unexpected and kinda cool.

Now it's the virgin's turn for a dream sequence, and it's a doozy--surrounded by the witch and her suddenly-numerous coven, the girl finds herself face-to-face with SATAN, who unlike Hoff is not about to take no for an answer. It's another sadistic, lengthy, and more-than-a-little disturbing scene as the Devil (here a skinny pale Germanic dude with slicked back hair and a half-dissovled face) mounts the screaming girl and introduces his demon seed into her previously untapped vagina. Also disturbing: the puffball-like nipples displayed by Mush Mouth (the girl, not the demon). The girl wakes up screaming, naked, and bleeding from the crotch--which, you know, is never good.

You got a little schmutz, there.

Finally hip to the fact that something bad is going on in the house, Hoff and the other grown-ups decide it's time to leave. Hoff sends a flare out as a distress call, which is spotted on land by...the random wheelchair girl from earlier! And no one else, apparently. The girl wheels into her parents' bedroom to tell them the news, only to find Mom passed out drunk in the waterbed while Dad smokes and reads The Godfather. Seriously. He tells her to quit bothering him and wheel herself back to bed, which seems a bit harsh. In fact, it's almost a continuing theme in this movie--the shocking unconcern of grown-ups for the kids in the movie, even those with special needs. I mean, has anyone asked about Tommy lately? (Near the end of the movie, the survivors actually get all the way out to the boat before remembering they need to go find the kid--leading of course to tragedy.)

After Blair's dad has a bloody hemorrhage we get some ineffective searching (and acting) by RealtorChrist's dad and the local cops, Linda Blair finally gets to do the scene she was hired for--possessed by the witch (which witch? The Nora Desmond one, or the one from the credits? Are they the same? Will that diamond brooch ever pay off at all? Where's my belt?), she confronts Hoff and his Ex-Virgin and explains that thanks to getting the blood of a virgin, the doors of hell can now open. (Hoff tactfully refuses this opportunity to point out to his girlfriend that none of this would be happening if she'd just PUT OUT.) It leads to the appropriate climax where the Hoff makes the ultimate sacrifice (NOOOOOOO!) and Tommy reappears with a deus ex Sesame Street to spare the life of the mushmouthed girl. But once rescued, she's got another surprise in store, and a fabulous last line to put the cap on things.

"Yeah, this is what I fuckin' DO now. Thanks a heap, Friedkin."

So yeah--there's a lot of stuff going on in Witchery...but maybe because of the narrative incoherence, the many loose ends, and the stuff that just doesn't make a damn lick of sense, it often feels like there's not. Blair and Hasselhoff are the only actors worth their salt in the whole thing, and when they have to interact with the rest of the cast, their superior ability to read lines and pretend they're having emotions just puts everyone else to shame. Even taking his age into account, the little boy is AWFUL; and the mush-mouthed virgin is even worse--that is when she's intelligible at all, which isn't often. And Blair, even though her basic acting competence here shines like Academy Award-level work by comparison to the rest of the cast, is really underused in my opinion.

In the plus column, you do get some cool and sometimes disturbing effects work, a nicely filmed creepy set, some psychadelic transportation, and Hoff doing a random line in a Scottish accent for no good reason, so it's not all bad. And even though very little of it makes any sense, the disorientation was entertaining for long stretches, kind of like when you're spinning on the merry-go-round at the park and the dizziness feels like drunkeness. Of course when it stops you're likely to spew ice cream all over your shoes, but while it lasts, it's fun.

"Muhshnffl frunsch muffawuffa BAYBEE?"

Producer Joe D'Amato blurbs on the back of the DVD that Witchery is "the best of the Ghosthouse series," and I guess he would know. As for me, such praise doesn't make me want to rush out and see the rest right away, but I did find some stuff to enjoy here, so I give it a possibly over-generous 2 thumbs. See it if you want. :)

Note--the Nympho Architect is played by Catherine Hickland, who not only starred in several soaps and guest starred on Knight Rider, but was actually Mrs. David Hasselhoff at the time of filming! Maybe that explains why she kept the skin exposure to a minimum, and why Hoff's girlfriend had to remain a virgin.



Tenebrous Kate said...

This is a truly masterful review of an absolutely dreadful movie that's become a staple during Tenebrous Movie Night, Vicar-my-dear.

I love the fact that people trade lines that appear to've been written on cue-cards just off-screen, as if the scriptwriter is winging it and coming up with plot development on the fly. "OK, abandoned hotel, old German lady, a bunch of baby dolls, some chicken wire, stage blood--what sense can I make of this?"

I'm not sure if the kid who's playing Tommy is really a bad actor or not. I mean, clearly he's playing a retard in this film. That's the only explanation for the things he gets up to. It's really a nuanced portrayal of the mentally underprivelaged--watch again and I think you'll agree.

>>"Muhshnffl frunsch muffawuffa BAYBEE?"

If you hadn't already proposed to *me*, I'd have to ask for your hand in marriage. I'm DYIN' over here! :D

The Costuminatrix said...

"deus ex Sesame Street"

Marvelous. Your robes of state will now be sewn gratis.

The dreadful child actor is Michael Manchester and apparently this year he popped up again in a movie about the Alamo. As a general. Can you imagine?

The Duke of DVD said...

Tug-of-Baby and random Scottish accents you say? Dearest Vicar, once again you bring us the best in cinema, and by "best" I mean, of course, anything that stars The Hoff. Why he doesn't have a closet full of Oscars is anybody's guess. Politics, I assume.

Bravo, sir. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

You know, I just discovered, while searching for a title to a movie I wanted to mention in passing on Tenebrous Kate's site (which sits in comment-approval limbo), that I in fact own Witchery (it was in a box set with Jess Franco's Faceless, which was worth the price of the box). I was going to watch the new Portuguese (as in from Portugal -- no Brazilians were harmed in the making of the movie) horror movie Coisa Ruim, but I may have to watch Witchery instead.

Oh, hell. Who am I kidding? Whether I get to Witchery tonight depends on how long the alcohol takes to take hold.

Mr. Karswell said...

And when the hell do I get my turn on the Possessionmobile? All this daily devotion to The Devil and he keeps on just driving by and waving. At least let me honk the horn or help clean some souls off the windshield.

If you haven't mailed my dvds back can you throw this in with 'em as a loaner?

The Vicar of VHS said...

>>If you haven't mailed my dvds back can you throw this in with 'em as a loaner?

That depends on whether I get a couple more souls to fill up the tank on the ol' Possessionmobile. That thing's a GUZZLER! ;)

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