Witchcraft XIV, XV and XVI (2016)

Grade: C

Imagine my astonishment to discover that, after an eight-year hiatus, my favourite badfilm combo platter of sex and magic resurrected itself. [If you need to catch up, you can read our reviews of the first thirteen movies in the series, with extended coverage of the glory which is Witchcraft X] And not with one, but three entries, an approach clearly inspired by the Star Wars franchise. Er, or not. Shot back-to-back, I did toy with the idea of reviewing them that way, in one giant, commercial-sized block of cheese. But I hear you cry, ‘Jim, there is only so much occult flavoured Cheddar you can consume in one sitting without your digestive tract becoming completely plugged!” Your concern for my well-being is appreciated and noted. So for the sake of my sanity, there will be three reviews, with an appropriate recovery period between my viewings.

Indeed, it may take longer for me to watch them than they took to make. I read that the entire trilogy was filmed “over the course of a week and a half, on a total budget somewhere in the range of $8000 to $9000.” I don’t about you, but all I did over the past week and a half was eat a bunch of Doritos and burn through an ocelot of Netflix bandwidth. I’m therefore in no position to criticize any one who made three feature-length movies. Given the shooting schedule and paucity of budget, anything more complex than The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station is going to be a laudable feat. That doesn’t mean they will necessary be any good, however. But let’s see…

The Ann Summers party is about to take an unusual turn…

Witchcraft XIV: Angel of Death

Grade: C+

Dir: David Palmieri
Star: Molly Dougherty, Jeremy Sykes, Bernadette Perez, Leroy Castanon 

It takes only six minutes before we get the first sex scene (and that’s including four minutes of easy listening opening credits). However, overall the movie is fairly restrained in that department; indeed, this is the only significant aardvarking content. It’s followed by our protagonist, Rose (Dougherty), using her dark arts to sent the female participant into a thrashing, topless, bloody mess on the bed, before she expires. It’s kinda hypnotic. Apparently Rose didn’t mean to do this – who knew death curses were so easy? – but the guy was her ex-boyfriend, and she blames the woman for stealing him. Her vengeance is almost equal opportunity. He quickly follows suit, doing the thrashing and seeping thing too. Just not topless, since he’s a guy.

A coven of white witches, led by Samuel (Sykes) out of a yoga studio, is concerned by Rose’s inability to control her power. He sends blonde minion Sharon (Noël VanBrocklin) to check in on her and offer a free class or something (presumably if she signs up for direct debit). Rose is both descended from a line of powerful witches, yet still capable of being told by Mom to go to her room. Turns out there are also witch-hunters out there, and when Rose comes home to find Mom gone and a pentagram scrawled on the door – bit of a giveaway that – she accepts Sharon’s offer of help.

Investigating occult specialist coppers Lutz (Perez) and Garner (Castanon) have been following the trail of bodies, and meet old pal and warlock Will Spanner at the house. Of course, all of these people are played by completely different people from the last time we saw them, in line with franchise regulations. Meanwhile, the third member of the coven/yoga group, Tara (Zamra Dollskin – I’m guessing not her real name), takes a lengthy and quite gratuitous shower. This is literally the character’s sole purpose in the movie. Nice t…er, tats, Tara.

I do like the very prosaic approach to the occult: everyone just takes it as a natural part of the world. Lutz and Garner even pine gently for a case which doesn’t involve witchcraft, though the amount of spell-casting on view here is pretty low. After Rose disposes of her ex and his new totty, there’s a protection spell cast by the three yoga-pants clad women, a migraine given to an ogler… and that’s about it until the end. There’s the entirely mundane murder of Warlock’s pal Greta, which seems to be there to satisfy someone’s suffocation fetish. Will does still eventually realize Samuel is also a warlock, not just a sleazy gym instructor, and we get the immortal line, “How is this a suspicious murder?” Because it’s not one of those non-suspicious murders, I imagine.

Indeed, Samuel’s motives are far from pure, as we discover when he invites Rose to the yoga school for a midnight session – a request she in no way finds suspicious. Rather than witch-hunters, he was the person who kidnapped her mom, and is actually Samael, a powerful demon trapped in human flesh. Samael needs Rose to regain his true form, complete his evil plan for world domination, sucking on the souls of the wicked, etc. etc. That said, his evil minions are the most feeble pair ever to don the guise of henchpeople: they’d be mocked as nerdy at most D&D nights, and are hardly testament to his supreme power.

So how does Samue… Samae… dammit, Sammy get Rose’s power? “Through our sexual energy.” Considering they are standing right in front of her mother – maybe she’ll join in? – this appears to be an attempt to generate “letter to Penthouse Forum” material. [Kids! Ask your parents!] Perhaps fortunately, before that happens Lutz, Garner and Spanner show up. The cops gun down the minions and Will duels with Samael in a welter of third-rate digital effects, though it’s Rose who delivers the final blow. The good witches get to take over the yoga studio, so they’ve got that going for them.

All told, this was not unwatchable. I appreciated the world-weary approach of Lutz and Garner, and would rather have seen more of them than Rose. However, some of the other performances are quite terrible. In particular, Ryan Cleary as Will Spanner looks like he’s on day release from a Depeche Mode tribute band, all eye-shadow and stubble, and is more wooden than the sets. Not that there were any of those, with everything clearly being filmed wherever the makers could beg a location. The ending clearly sets up the sequel, and its nice they retained some of the original characters. Admittedly, if you hadn’t seen at least some of 1-13, you are given little or no knowledge of them, or reason to care. But really, if you start any franchise with the 14th installment, that pretty much counts as a self-inflicted wound.

Witchcraft XV: Blood Rose

Grade: D+

Dir: David Palmieri
Star: Molly Dougherty, Noël VanBrocklin, Zamra Dollskin, Bernadette Perez

This begins with a lengthy recap of the battle which formed the finale of Witchcradt XIV. Except, this time, we get it inter-cut with lesbian canoodling between Sharon and Tara for the purposes of… Well, I’m not sure, It’s something to do with sex magick and them lending their power to the battle participants. Though to be frank, who cares, even if it’s not exactly convincing lesbian canoodling. Between that and the credits, it’s 12 minutes before we reach the “ONE MONTH LATER” caption that is the true start of the film. Sharon is now in charge of the yoga studio, in between chats to the coven leader – it appears to be some kind of franchise operation – while Tara does all the actual work, from restocking the vending machines to creating a website.

I actually quite like Tara and her little gap-toothed smile, who gets more to do in this installment. She’s a perky creature of the night, given to quirky statements like, “How are we supposed to rebuild the coven without an effective Internet presence?” or “It sucks being a dyslexic witch!” This is quite a contrast to Sharon, who comes over as if dosed with methadone. It quickly becomes apparent she has designs on Rose’s power, in the same way Samael did. The nudity quotient quickly gets amped up in this installment with a supporting turn from adult star Diana Prince as a hooker, Eden. [She’s no stranger to long-running franchises having previously appeared in Seduced by a Cougar 37 and Lesbian House Hunters 8] In an unexpected twist, her john does the whole twitching and bleeding out thing.

Detective Garner arrests Eden, and it turns out Sharon is using Rose’s powers, piggy-backing on them to do evil. Will Spanner initially thinks that the victim did something to really piss off the coven, and so was taken out in punishment. But after a visit to Sharon, his warlock spidey-sense starts tingling. And so do those of Rose and Tara. Rose starts having nightmares, in which she makes honking sounds like a water-buffalo giving birth, sees her own conception, and begins to suspect Sharon may be little more than Samael v2.0. Plot-twist: Sharon tells Rose the victim was Samael’s son, and had to be eliminated for the good of mankind, as the coven’s seer told her the son would eventually try to resurrect his father. But can she be believed? For she again goes through Rose, this time to kill Eden.

Eden writes “Rose” in blood with her dying breath, so the witch is taken in for questioning by Lutz – the feebleness of the “police station” has to be seen to be believed. Sharon takes over the interview by possessing Rose through the astral plane, using a technique apparently involving gagging herself with a sweat-band. It eventually ends with Sharon’s plan being revealed: use Danielle (a new room-mate of Tara and Rose, whom I’d completely forgotten to mention, largely because her character has been entirely irrelevant to this point) to kidnap Rose and make her take part in a ritual. This will allow Samual to possess the corpse of the john killed two paragraphs up, which Sharon somehow managed to swipe out of the coroner’s mortuary, as shown above, without anyone noticing.

There’s another duel between Spanner and Samael, with Rose again tipping the balance in favour of the white witches, albeit at the cost of Sharon. However, it looks like Sharon’s spirit ends up in the body of Tara?  Oh, hang on. I mean, Rose?  Wait. Now it’s the roommate? [Danielle… we hardly knew ye…] It’s all very confusing: when the film doesn’t even explain the rules by which it’s playing, it’s impossible to say whether it is following them or not.

This is definitely not as good as XIV. The increased quantity of Tara is a good thing, and the makers do suddenly remember the important role played by gratuitous nudity in the franchise. However, any positives are more than negated by the greater volume of Sharon and Will, somnambulating through their lines, and the painful similarity in plot-line to its predecessor. The story has little to offer beyond the same ideas of Rose killing at a distance, and a plan to liberate Samael from his meat-suit. Not worth the effort, by and large.

Viewing the previous fifteen Witchcraft films back-to-back no longer seemed like such a good idea…

Witchcraft XVI: Hollywood Coven

Grade: C

Dir: David Palmieri
Star: Molly Dougherty, Bernadette Perez, Ernest Pierce, Leroy Castanon

As before, we begin with a “Previously, on Witchcraft…” segment, this time kicking off with the scene which finished XV, of housemate Danielle, possessed by Sharon, killing her boyfriend in a motel room. Except, plot twist! It’s actually a film-within-a-film, the final shot of a low-budget horror movie franchise, Crystal Force 15: Blood Angel. But, further twist! The actress becomes a blood sacrifice, killed by director Jamal (Pierce) to ensure the success of the series. After the traditionally languid opening credits, we join a script reading where the cast of CF15 are about to do a table read for CF16: Freshman Year.

So, for example, Ryan Clearly is not playing Will Spanner, he’s portraying actor Greg Andrews, a.k.a. “worst warlock witch hunter ever”, who is playing the part of Spanner in a completely different low-budget horror franchise. Confused? Well, I’ll take that over “bored”. But to keep things simple. I’ll still call his character Will Spanner – not least because that’s what the IMDb and end-credits say, and half the time the actors call each other by their character names, even when not in character. The players here discuss the “curse” of the Crystal Force film series. None of the actors from #13 ever did anything thereafter, and when one of the actresses bails on the reading for another audition, she gets incinerated in her car.

This could have gone in a batshit crazy, self-referential horror direction, blurring the boundaries between reality and Hollywood illusion. However, it seems instead, largely an excuse for lengthy scenes of the cast sitting around, pretending to watch previous installments. This allows the producers to recycle old footage – though amusingly, going by reaction shots severely lacking in whelm (as above), the actors are as unimpressed with the movies as most viewers. One ends up dead: supposedly killed by Sharon, but my working theory is, he ripped his own throat out to avoid having to watch any more old Witchcraft/Crystal Force movies.

Jamal tells Sharon the films are indeed hexed; by him, with the aim of finding those who have powers that can be used by his Hollywood coven. Which, bizarrely, seems to operate out of the same yoga studio used in the last two parts. Garner digs into the mysterious absences of the previous actors, though Lutz is considerably more skeptical. Spanner and Rose are doing the watching previous entries thing, when the hex kicks in, activating the actors’ powers. As Spanner puts it, “I feel so strong… I feel I could do anything… I feel… like a fucking executive producer!” He, Sharon and Rose duke it out, magically, with Spanner dissolving into the aether, and leaving the two women to move on to the callback stage. Garner, despite his qualms about Jamal, goes along to a rehearsal, and ends up stabbing Tara to death, though has no memory of the event.

Lutz knows a lot more about the situation than she has admitted. What’s supposed to be a prop book is a demon, bound in a day player’s skin, and written in previous actors’ blood. The yoga studio meanwhile is a gateway to hell, used as a location in every Crystal Force film, and was previously the scene of an occult murder. She knows about this because she is the coven’s leader, and intends to activate all the latent witches in the Los Angeles area, and use them to build a witch army, with which she can rule Hollywood. However, the chief warlock of Orange County initially has other plans, with the help of Sharon and Rose, though it all ends in an entente cordiale between them.

This has a nice core idea, and the concept of an occult underbelly to the film industry is one with potential. That occasionally peeks through, in lines like, “One good thing about Hollywood: minions are an endlessly renewable resource.” Unfortunately, the film lacks the resources to deliver the magical duels on which it relies for action, and nor does the script have enough smarts to be the satirical meta-horror for which it could have aimed. Even the nudity is almost entirely recycled, and it’s a drab note on which to end the series. For now, anyway: I wouldn’t bet against the franchise rising from the grave again, further down the road. You can’t keep a good witch down; or even a bad one…