The Witchcraft series

If you were asked what was the longest-running horror franchise, you might guess something like Hellraiser, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. You’d be wrong. Covering 16 films over almost thirty years, a contender* which surpasses all of those is an ultra-low budget series, produced by C-movie studio, Vista Street Entertainment. From the first entry in 1988, through 2016’s Witchcraft XVI: Hollywood Coven, the saga contains well over a dozen entries of occult-themed horror, the movies increasingly enlivened with soft-core couplings, and it would appear, rarely if ever troubled an actual movie theatre. With a few exceptions, they mostly tell the story of unwilling warlock Will Spanner, whose character appears in the first as a baby, and thereafter becomes a lawyer, who helps the cops out in what seems to be a steady stream of supernatural cases, typically involving satanic cults, sacrificing people for the usual reasons satanic cults do.

[* At the time the above was originally written in 2013, it was the leader. But since then The Amityville Horror franchise has surpassed Witchcraft, having managed to put out a startling 15 more-or-less entries since the start of 2015 alone]

Despite the common presence of Spanner, continuity is all but disregarded here, with eight different actors playing the hero as an adult, and no particular consistency regarding, for example, the powers bestowed on him as a result of his mystical inheritance. Each entry largely stands on its own, without any particular need to have seen previous entries: indeed, considering the way some plot elements are shamelessly recycled, you may be better off approaching each as an independent entity. There are almost no “name” actors to be found in the entire series: Julie Strain, early in her career, shows up in the fourth installment, and Eileen Daly, her kinda British equivalent, stars in the completely insane part 10; those are likely about the only people of whom you’ll have heard. Many of the other stars have IMDb filmographies that are terse in the extreme, shall we say.

But these were never about star power. They were the kind of films that you stumbled across in the bargain rental section, during a late-night run to the video store (remember those?), and were drawn in – particularly if you were staggering home from the pub – more by the lurid cover-art than anything else. If you were lucky, you thought, there might be some half-decent gore and starlet boobs. “Hell, they made 6/8/10/13/16 of these: they must have something to offer…” But do they? While we had covered a couple of the movies previously, these were haphazard and happenstance, as we stumbled across them in low-rent DVD box-sets. Given the series’s position as a genre landmark [in length and longevity, if not perhaps quality], it seemed to deserve more, so here are reviews of all 16 films. The first 13 were originally mostly written around September 2013, when the series seemed to have died. But there were three further entries made in 2016, and I’ve added reviews of them on to the end.

Witchcraft (1988)

Rating: C-

Dir: Robert Spera
Star: Anat Topol-Barzilai, Gary Sloan, Mary Shelley, Deborah Scott

You simply wouldn’t guess from this starting point, that the series would spawn another dozen entries, because it’s almost entirely forgettable. Grace Churchill (Topol-Barzilai) has just had her baby, and husband John (Sloan) insists that they stay with his mother, Elizabeth (Shelley), while Grace regains her strength. However, courtesy of an apparently endless series of vision, nightmares and flashbacks, Grace becomes increasingly convinced there are shenanigans going on. She wants to go home, but John and his Mom won’t hear of it; the priest she invites to bless the baby ends up committing suicide, his face covered in boils, and the mute butler stops her from going into certain areas of the (extremely large, it has to be said) house. Given the movie opened with a pair of witches being burned three centuries previously, it doesn’t take a genius to work out where this is going. A viewing of Rosemary’s Baby will suffice, equally well.

I may as well reprise a chunk of my review from 2004, which still seems an accurate enough summary, not to need revision. “Despite a severe lack of surprises, there’s not much you can specifically list in the way of failings – it’s simply strikingly mediocre, in the strictest sense of the word. I think the script is probably the weakest link – the baby (very clearly, not a newborn!) seems like the key, but vanishes in the final third, as does the butler. However, the latter suddenly reappears to play a key role in the climax and does supply the film’s most notable death, an impressive impaling.” There’s almost a sense this was made for TV: the exploitative elements are toned-down to PG-level, and the film’s pacing appears to pause for breath, in the form of commercial breaks. But it’s mostly a series of horror staples, to the point of clichés. Though the performances didn’t seem too bad this time round, so I upgraded the rating a tick for that.

Witchcraft II: The Temptress (1990)

Rating: C+

Dir: Mark Woods
Star: Charles Solomon Jr., Delia Sheppard, Mia Ruiz, Jay Richardson

Though only a couple of years after its predecessor, apparently almost 18 years have passed, as William (Solomon), the baby who was close to the sole survivor of the original is now almost at adulthood, having been raised by a foster family. Blissfully unaware of his origins, or the potential he holds as a coven leader, his main concern is getting his girlfriend, Michelle (Ruiz) to put out: a preacher’s daughter, she’s not having it. So, neither is he, hohoho. But, literally next door lurks Dolores (Sheppard) a peroxide blonde vixen with a pentagram who appears to have strayed in from a Poison promo video, going by her choice of attire, which comes in two kinds: tight and skimpy. Mysterious packages start turning up for Charles, and as dead bodies start to pile up, his father (Richardson) reluctantly tells William the truth about his legacy.

I actually enjoyed this one quite a lot more, largely because of the batshit insanity present, just as Michelle being raped by an invisible spirit, or the way Dolores could not be a more obvious Satanist if there was a flashing neon sign saying “I ♥ Lucifer” pointing to her. The film doesn’t try to hard to conceal what’s almost entirely obvious to the viewer – especially the viewer who has seen the preceding film – but has occasional moments that do actually work. For instance, there’s the matching Satanic symbols with which William and Michelle are branded, and the way her father bemoans the fact that he’s a Methodist, rather than a Catholic, because the latter are much better at dealing with ‘this kind of thing’. We actually get some nudity too, from both the female leads, though we’re still a long way off the copious bosomage to come. While still thoroughly bottom-drawer, especially in terms of visual effects, I was surprisingly entertained, certainly more than the previous installment.

Witchcraft III: The Kiss of Death (1991)

Rating: D

Dir: Rachel Feldman
Star: Charles Solomon Jr., Lisa Toothman, Domonic Luciana, Leana Hall

It’s only a year later, but the hero who was just about graduating high-school last time we met, is now apparently a fully-fledged lawyer, under his third different name, now known as William Spanner (Solomon); not sure what the Californian Bar Association’s position is on this. That set-up does allow me to tell you a joke: what’s the difference between a warlock and a lawyer? One is a heartless creature with no soul or moral scruples…and the other’s a warlock. Hey, didn’t say it was a good joke. Anyway, he has put sorcery behind him, and is enjoying life with his girlfriend, Charlotte (Toothman). Little does he know that Louis (Luciana) and Roxy (Hall) are approaching. They have a rather odd relationship: she seems to need life energy, and he procures the women from whom it can be drained. A chance encounter brings the good and evil duos together, and Louis sets his sights on Charlotte. Meanwhile, there’s a voodoo priest, who fills in the blanks, and convinces William he’s the only person who can stop the heartless creature with no soul or moral scruples. No… The other one.

This isn’t as entertainingly loopy as its predecessor, and works less well, largely because Solomon, convincing enough as a gawky and confused teenager, is hopelessly out of his depth as either Perry Mason or Dumbledore, which are basically the two roles he is asked to play here. I doubt Daniel Day Lewis could quite pull that dichotomy off. Unlike its predecessor, none of the characters here are remotely interesting, and you could largely fall asleep for the middle hour of the movie, and not miss anything. Now, you might regard that as literary hyperbole, but I might actually have tested that statement, by doing roughly that. On waking up, I rewound this to the point at which I fell asleep, to see if anything significant had happened. Nope. Needn’t have bothered. Indeed, if you’re doing a marathon of all the movies [Trash City accepts no responsibility for any resulting ill-effects from such a dubious enterprise], this entire movie would be a good time to schedule a nap or a bathroom break.

Witchcraft IV: Virgin Heart (1992)

Rating: C-

Dir: James Merendino
Star: Charles Solomon Jr., Julie Strain, Clive Pearson, Lisa Jay Harrington

Will Spanner (Solomon) is now less a lawyer, it seems, than a PI, working insurance claims. However, he is convinced by Lily Wild (Harrington) to take the case of her brother, accused of involvement in the disappearance of his girlfriend. The case leads him to the Coven club, where Belladonna (Strain) works as a stripper, while simultaneously moonlighting as a blues singer. Her agent, Santara (Pearson) is a real sleazy-tpye, and Spanner eventually realizes, after seeing the agent, apparently unchanged, in a book of old photographs, that there is a pact with the devil going on here. Santara’s clients’ souls are being sold in exchange for “stardom” – quotes used advisedly, since what they seem to get appears to be a particularly low-rent version of fame and fortune, in line with the particularly low-rent nature of this in general.

The main difference is that this does have someone you’ve actually heard of, in Strain – albeit extremely early in her career, and thus still, presumably, very cheap. She plays slightly less of a maneater than you’d come to expect, though still towers over the leading man, and does get undressed as often as you’d hope expect. Contrast, say, Pearson, who according to the IMDB, would not appear in anything else for seven years: hard to tell whether his British accent is badly-affected or just badly-acted The director – the fourth in four movies, so don’t look for any consistency of tone – seems to be going for a pseudo-noir feel, with lots of voiceover for Spanner, without much else to back it up. I braced myself when I saw the two-hour running time, but this is a Troma release, so it starts with Lloyd Kaufman plugging his book, Julie Strain putting on her make-up (nekkid, naturally) and ends with a lot of trailers for other films – the actual movie is the usual 90-odd minutes.

The technical aspects here, particularly on audio, are extremely bad, with the levels all over the place. However, we’re not exactly talking Noel Coward, or even Quentin Tarantino, so “not hearing the dialogue” hardly can be considered the straw that broke the camel’s back. It gets credit, as well as for Strain, for a concept that is kinda interesting, updating the old blues legend a bit, though how the original case ties in to the Faustian deals being cut is…dubious, shall we say. Probably still makes more sense than why Santara moonlights as a college radio DJ, or the explanation offered at the climax, which suddenly lobs the Spanish Inquisiton into the mix. [Safe to say, nobody expected that…] Given a more interesting villain, this could have had potential, but I think all hope was lost when he started quoting Hamlet. Why bother writing lines, when you can just recycle Shakespeare?

Witchcraft V: Dance with the Devil (1993)

Rating: C+

Dir: Talun Hsu
Star: Marklen Kennedy, David Huffman, Nicole Sassaman, Lenny Rose

Reboot! While we still have Will Spanner here, there’s a new actor (Kennedy) playing him, you can toss just about anything mentioned in the first four films out of the window, and this is where the makers decided to ramp up the sex quota, to the degree where a more accurate subtitle would be “Blondes With Big Hooters Get Them Out. Repeatedly.” Hey, tell me you wouldn’t rent that. Anyway, Spanner falls under the hypnotic spell of Cain (Huffman), a sorceror who is intent on bringing back Lucifer by collecting souls – he probably needs 666 or something – from the LA nightclub scene. Spanner becomes his enforcer, collecting from those who made Faustian deals and subsequently “forgot” from where their success came. Assisting him is Marta (Sassaman), a former hooker/con-artist who provides most of the Hooterage; but concerned by Spanner’s personality change are his girlfriend, and the Reverend Meredith (Rose), a preacher who, conveniently, was recently possessed by a spirit of his own. So, as well as Marta, we have Spanner bonking his girlfriend and even the Reverend going at it with his assistant. Gotta love that liberal theology.

I can only imagine Huffman has the most powerful jaws in Hollywood: I say that because of the massive volume of scenery-chewing he does here. Really, I can understand a bit of tension when you’re trying to resurrec Satan, but there’s no need to be quite so… overwrought the entire time. There’s a reason this was his first IMDB credit, and the sole other one is a voice in a video-game, four years later. Still, if you’re a fan of what Michael Green used to call “coarse acting,” this will be right up your street. It is, of course, a supporting role to the sex scenes, to the extent that Sassaman’s left and right breasts probably each deserve their own credit. It’s clear the producers realized the well was just about dry for the original concept, and rather than abandoning the concept, opted to revamp it and, in a smart move, head for the soft-core horror audience instead. Hard to criticize a film which is clearly more interested in breasts than creating an interesting plot or characters, when the audience are likely right there alongside them. It’s a shallow B-movie at best, yet has little or no desire to be anything else and, as such, is not unentertaining – albeit not necessarily in the ways the makers intended.

Witchcraft VI: The Devil’s Mistress (1994)

Rating: C+

Dir: Julie Davis
Star: Jerry Spicer, Kurt Alan, Bryan Nutter, John E. Holiday

Dead bodies of young women are turning up all over LA, with no apparent cause of death, but each is carrying a gold cross. Detectives Lutz (Alan) and Garner (Holiday) suspect an occult motive, so bring in divorce lawyer Will Spanner (Spicer) to help, despite his girlfriend Keli’s qualms about exposing himself. As it were. Of course, there is an occult motive: Savanti (Nutter – no, that’s really the actor’s name, not an observation on his character) is a Satanic high-priest trying to find the “right” sacrificial victim whose death will open a portal for Satan during the upcoming eclipse. Unfortunately, she has to be a virgin. Do you know how hard it is to find one of those in Los Angeles? Especially when just about every actress present here seems intent on doing some two-backed aardvarking at the first available opportunity [you might be able to use that as a clue to spot the eventual victim]. Savanti sees the threat Spanner poses, and sends a vampy vixen to distract hin. Will that work, allowing Lucifer to be unleashed on the world? Or will it just be an excuse for more soft-core canoodling? Take a wild stab. Go on.

Director Davis would later go on to become a minor indie rom-com darling, but you wouldn’t really know it from here. The artistic highlight (once the producers abandoned their neat initial idea of calling this Witchcraft 666) is probably a montage of dubious “psychics”, whom the police test by giving them a piece of clothing, which they say comes from one of the victims. It doesn’t, but that doesn’t stop the psychics: naturally, Savanti sees the deception immediately, and that’s partly what brings him to Spanner’s attention. On the “artistic” side [if you know what I mean, and I think you do], top marks go to Debra Betty as Keli, who would appear to possess mermaid DNA, going by the amount of time she spends in the bath. Otherwise, what will stick in your mind longest is likely the amazingly-bad climax, featuring optical effects which appear to have been drawn on the print with a magic-marker, and which makes little or no sense, even in the loosely-constructed world which is the Witchcraft universe. Still, I can’t say I was ever bored by this, which mostly keeps moving forward at a decent pace, and covers over any slow points with copious nudity

Witchcraft VII: Judgement Hour (1995)

Rating: C-

Dir: Michael Paul Girard
Star: David Byrnes, Alisa Christensen, Loren Schmalle, April Breneman

My original review, written February 2005, concluded “Though Byrnes and Christensen aren’t awful as actors, their flickerings here merely make the inept darkness of the rest of the movie even less bearable” – which got me an email from Christensen, who took it with good humour, I have to say [her life took a severe diversion a few years later]. This time around, I didn’t hate it as much. My original opinion, that Girard was the main problem, still stands, and there are way too many uninteresting sex scenes, but in between those, you could do worse. The focus is Martin Hassa (Schmalle), a vampire from Romania whose company is moving in with a corporate mission to take control of the nation’s blood supply. A party at his mansion ends in the death of a prostitute, and detectives Lutz (Christensen – yes, I know, the same character was male in part VI. Don’t expect any explanation) and Garner, are startled when the stiff gets up off the mortuary slab and starts roaming the streets of LA. Spanner (Byrnes: no, not the guy from Talking Heads) is also at the hospital, though his incredibly-whiny girlfriend Keli (Breneman) is unimpressed that he’s seeing another woman, even if her ‘rival’ is clinically-dead.

There’s occasionally a bizarre loopiness here that’s quite endearing. We first meet the cops, staking out a house, waiting for an escaped con to return: he does, only to have sex with his lady, using a blue police-light as a prop. What? Or when Martin seduces his first victim, he bukkakes her with milk from a straw. Who comes up with this stuff? [As an aside, the police are baffled by a security tape which shows only the victim, not the vampire. Apparently, I guess they must have missed the straw hovering in mid-air] However, this weirdness soon gives up, and the sex returns largely to vanilla-flavoured, though I did enjoy the cat-fight between Lutz and a topless dominatrix. Where things really fall down is at the end, where the film aims for the stars (Martin supposedly transforming into a bat), with a budget which might just cover a bottle-rocket and a packet of sparklers past their sell-by date. The results are embarrassing, even by the low expectations one has in the production department for this series. Shame, as the corporate satire involving vampires which is occasionally hinted at, could have been worth a look. If the series had ended here, as promised by the sleeve, it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise. But, wait! There’s more…

Witchcraft VIII: Salem’s Ghost (1996)

Rating: D-

Dir: Joseph John Barmettler
Star: Lee Grober, Kim Kopf, Tom Overmyer, David Weills

It’s only when you watch this one that you realize the acting in the others really isn’t that bad, at least by comparison. Because there are many occasions on which this doesn’t even reach the level of local amateur rep. It’s a complete reboot, with Will Spanner entirely absent: instead, it’s the story of Sonny (Grober, who could moonlight as a Chevy Chase lookalike) and Mary Ann (Kopf) Dunaway, who move from California to Salem, after Sonny was caught dallying with a student at the college where he taught, only for them to free the spirit of the warlock Renfro, burned at the stake 300 years previously, which has been walled up in their basement ever sinze. It’s released by over-zealous neighbour and local plumber, Mitch (Weills), who then becomes the warlock’s minion. Fortunately, there’s a representative of the “Protestant Church of England” – like there’s any other Church of England – on hand, in the shape of McArthur (Overmyer, in his only IMDB credited role, sporting an Irish accent which makes Dick Van Dyke sounds like Christian Bale). He provides the necessary exposition, being a descendant of those who walled Renfro up to begin with, and offers helpful tips on what Sonny needs to do.

There has been some suggestion this is an unrelated film from the same producers, plugged into the series, and the cheap copy-paste job on the opening logo, as well as the complete separation from everything which has gone before, lends credence to that theory. However, there are other elements in common, such as composer Miriam Cutler, who had done the music for the previous seven parts, and the storyline is certainly in the same area – though with at least one scene directly lifted from The Omen. Curiously, there are also echoes of the recent American Horror Story series, which also had a couple moving cross-country as a result of marital difficulties, only to find their new home containing supernatural occupants. However, if this contains 1% of the style or imagination, I must have blinked and missed it. Even the sex scenes are largely repellent, mostly because Grober and Weills should simply not be taking their clothers off: look, while I’m not exactly Adonis, neither am I appearing in video soft-porn or re-enacting scenes from 9 1/2 Weeks [the bit with the fridge, should you be wondering].

But it’s the acting where this really bites the big one, with hardly a single performance that’s even adequate. Kopf is okay, and Jack Van Landingham as Renfro at least looks the part, and chews the necessary scenery. Otherwise, dear god, these are rotten to the core, to the degree that I can’t pick any one actor out as the worst. Each time I thought I’d come to a definitive conclusion on that, the next scene would make me re-evaluate that by bringing new wretchedness to proceedings. The script isn’t much better: apparently, if you break through a wall in your cellar, and bright light streams out from the other side, that’s a cue to wander off and forget all about it until you have “settled in.” That’s the level of idiocy you can expect here, and if the preceding entries were hardly genre classics, they seem so when stood beside this one.

Witchcraft IX: Bitter Flesh (1997)

Rating: C-

Dir: Michael Paul Girard
Star: David Byrnes, Landon Hall, Stephanie Beaton, Mikul Robins

If this makes less sense even than usual, it’s because the producers chose – probably wisely – to ignore part 8 completely, instead crafting a sequel that follows on from #7, with the same actor (Byrnes) playing Will Spanner. Except, it starts in an art gallery, where Spanner was apparently killed. Don’t remember that in part seven. It turns out he’s not really dead: more like, someone has hijacked his body for nefarious purposes, leaving his soul to wander, unable to communicate with anyone. Anybody, that is, except for large-breasted hooker Sheila (Hall), who can hear his voice. The reasons for this are explained, but let’s just say, they probably shouldn’t have bothered. Together, they have to find out who is marching round town in Spanner’s body; meanwhile, in a plot thread that seems almost entirely independent, Detectives Lutz and Garner (Beaton and Robins) are investigating ritual murders, in which young women are cut open, their hearts remoived, and symbols scrawled in the vicinity, such as the good ol’ “eye in the pyramid.” Oh, look: this is not as completely unconnected to Spanner as it seemed.

And that may be a large part of the problem, with a fairly consistent feeling like you’re flicking between a soft-porn version of Ghost and a remake of Blood Feast: neither are as interesting as they sound, and you keep just missing all the good bits [and I mean good bits, not “good bits,” if you know what I mean, and I think you do…]. Concentrating on one or other story would have likely have been much better: both of them have kinda interesting elements, but neither are given enough chance to develop. Despite the supernatural elements, the horror aspects are all but forgotten entirely, with the most frightening things here being some of the unnatural breasts. I’ll be having nightmares. To be fair, the performances are not too bad, and the film does sometimes work better than you’d expect, as a result – it’s certainly a significant improvement on the nonsense which came before. However, the execution of most other aspects is as weak as ever, and you’ll probably find yourself flicking channels for real, well before the end.

Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft (1998)

Rating: B

Dir: Elisar Cabrera
Star: Wendy Cooper, Kerry Knowlton, Stephanie Beaton, Eileen Daly

When I re-watched this, I knew there was no way I could truly do this justice in a couple of hundred words. The other entries in the series are a mix of light occult shenanigans and heavy petting, set in Los Angeles. But for the tenth entry, they shifted things to London, and apparently threw everything you knew out of the window on the flight there. The results are all an Incredibly Bad film should be: it contains laughable concepts, pathetic production values and some performances that would disgrace a school Nativity play. Yet, it’s certainly more memorable and, dammit, I’d say entertaining than any of the nine preceding installments.

The core here is a British government department, Bureau 17, who have been charged with investigating any paranormal shenanigans. Their tiny staff (I blame budget cut-backs: perhaps governmental, more likely by the film’s producers) have captured Hyde (Knowlton), a mass murderer with Satanic tendencies, and are holding them pending the arrival of Detective Lutz (Beaton) from Los Angeles, who’s going to extradite him back to the States. However, the vampire Raven (Daly) and her minions, break Hyde out, because she needs his help to translate a tome that will allow her to summon the demon Morshenka, who will give her unlimited power. It’s up to white Wiccan detective Celeste Sheridan (Cooper), Lutz and the other members of Bureau 19 to stop them.

If that sounds kinda cool to you, it does to me as well, actually, and with a respectable budget and some cast changes, it probably could have been. However, here? Well, I don’t use the words “woefully inadequate” often, but this film will probably provide my entire 2013 quota. It’s apparent almost from the start, where London is reduced to some quickly shot footage from Soho, and stock footage from a packed night-club, before cutting to the sparsely-populated (it’s those cutbacks, I tell you!) location where Raven’s conveniently-bisexual minions chow down on some poor guy. We then move to Bureau 17’s headquarters, which is even more the product of poverty-row film-making, with no effort spared made to make it look like a functioning building, except for lobbing a few unrelated photos on the wall.

That’s where Hyde is being interrogated, and let’s pause to discuss the acting here, because there is truly something for everyone. At the top of the pile is Cooper, who is genuinely good, despite having to handle dialog and her powder-blue PVC costume, which are constantly battling over the title of “Most Ridiculous Thing in This Movie.” I’m calling it a tie. In contrast so sharp you could slice your wrists with it (and will probably want to, at various points) is Knowlton, Apparently a pro-wrestler, I get a more emotive reading from the text-to-speech program on my Kindle; stunningly, his acting is not the least of his contributions to the movie, as we’ll see later.

In contrast, there’s Daly, who appears to have been the recipient of all the emotion which is completely missing from Knowlton’s performance, overacting ferociously for every line, enunciating each Syll-A-Ble like it was a newly discovered Shakespeare soliloquy. Is it appropriate? Hmm. The jury is still out on that. Is it entertaining as hell? F’sure. The best scenes are when she and Knowlton play opposite each other, it’s a contrast in styles of epic proportions:
    Raven (chewing scenery like a crack-crazed Tasmanian Devil): “Have you ever heard of a ceremony of… Walpurgis?”
    Hyde (reciting share prices): “Walpurgis? The stuff of myths. Walpurgis belongs in a story book about demons. I serve Satan, the only true master.”

The rest of the cast fall somewhere between those extremes. Beaton is solid enough, but doesn’t have enough to do, except wander round with her shirt tied loosely under her voluminous cleavage, as shown on the left. Seems a bit informal for any supposed police detective on an international mission. There’s a bit where she gets scratched by one of the vampires, and initially, it seems this is going to go somewhere. My notes actually say, “somewhere interesting,” but even by this point, about 25 minutes in, I was doubtful that was going to happen. Although it does lead to her sitting in the bath, soaping her breasts with the enthusiasm and care usually found only in a vintage car-club owner, waxing the bodywork of his Jaguar.

Left to right: Beaton, Daly, Knowlton, bisexual minions

That comes as part of a triple-dose of nudity, which suddenly pops up, as if the makers realized they were falling short of the statutory quota of breasts. So we simultaneously get Raven bonking Hyde (as in their dramatic scenes, she does all the work, while he just lies there), Celeste making love to her boyfriend, and Lutz in the bath. Of course, it was during this Nipplepalooza that our son wandered upstairs, though it’s a tribute to him being so inured to my viewing of crap, he was more concerned as to whether or not I was going to eat that other Hot Pocket. This question answered, I explained that she’s a witch, that one’s a vampire and the lady in the bath is an LA detective, to which he replied “It sounds like the best version of Being Human ever.”

“Best,” is entirely relative, I think we’ll find. Instead, there is so much “wrong” here. Even when Lutz and B17 Agent Dixon (Sean Harry, looking like a concussed Hugh Grant) are driving through London, they are shown in short order going East along Piccadilly, then North towards Piccadilly Circus, West through Trafalgar Square and finally North at the Houses of Parliament.  I speak for everyone familiar with central London when I say: “What?” The audio mix is even more incomprehensible, with dialogue which is often inaudible, and sound effects which should charitably be described as occupying the same postal-code as the actions they accompany. Still, it’s nice to see the disabled getting work, and I trust the deaf guy was appropriately grateful.

Remember I said above that Knowlton’s performance wasn’t the worst thing about his work on the film? He’s also credited as a “fight director”, alongside Frank Scantori. Scantori enjoys multiple credits on this, as an actor (playing the head of B17), co-producer, first assistant director, casting director and for transportation, so at least has the excuse of spreading himself a bit thin. On the other hand, Knowlton, being a pro-wrestler, would seem well suited to stage fake violence and make it look real, or at least credible. So you’d think, anyway. Counterpoint:

The above is just one of many moments which will have you cackling maniacally. My favourite was probably Raven bringing Hyde back to her lair, where the decor consists of a table-lamp and a badly-hung sheet.  He compliments her on having “exquisite taste,” which would be pure, undiluted sarcasm, except Knowlton does nothing to suggest he can reach such dramatic heights. Other moments include: the vampire minion trying to run away in stilettos, resulting in more of a stagger away; poor editing giving the impression of someone being decapitated with a stake; Hyde wandering round a field for no reason at all; Celeste having the ability to project her image astrally, then later using a pay-phone to call in; and vampires who, for some reason, walk like zombies. Maybe that’s also due to the stilettos.

This is truly a film which keeps on giving: even though there are many aspects that are tedious, there’s easily enough which are amusing, lunatic or simply baffling to keep you watching. Just when my enthusiasm for the series was running low, this completely reinvigorated it, and I’m ready for the final stretch.

Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood (2000)

Rating: C+

Dir: Ron Ford
Star: Miranda Odell, Kathleen St. Lawrence, Lauren Ian Richards, Don Donason

As in a previous entry, this one completely ignores its predecessor, going back to California without mentioning the apocalyptic disaster of part X. This time, it’s three college students, who are playing the part of witches in Macbeth, ahem, “the Scottish play.” To get into the spirit, they carry out a midnight ritual in a graveyard, but turns out, the spirit gets into them instead, with one (Lawrence) actively engaged in a plot to provide “vessels” for the Three Sisters, witches who were stopped three hundred years ago from summoning a demon. One is quickly recruited, but the other (Odell) is more resistant. How this ties to the series is that her sister is girlfriend to Will Spanner (supposedly the same one from parts 5-9, though played by another actress, spelled differently, and apparently completely oblivious to everything that happened there), and Detectives Lutz and Garner are investigating the trail of bodies as the witches seek the Stone Key that will allow them to open a portal to hell.

There’s much that’s ludicrous here: the poverty-row production values, random musical notes which pass for a score, typos in the credits (“Dectective” appears more than once) combine to give the impression of an entirely amateur production. Most obvious with regard to the first of these, is the Halloween masks representing the witches, though just behind is the finale: if you can’t come up with anything approximating a demon rising from hell, better not write one into your script, eh? However, the film doesn’t skimp on the nudity, has an eye-gouging that’s probably the goriest moment in the entire series, and at least the three leads are all-natural, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. There’s also the bizarre presence of veteran Anita Page, who at one point was second only to Garbo in terms of fan mail, and is just about the only woman with a speaking role who keeps her top on. Since Ms. Page was approaching 90 at the time of filming, there’s something for which to be thankful.

For all its flaws – and I could go into these at some detail, for about the next two hours – I was actually entertained, albeit more at the film, than by it, if you see the difference. As noted in my original review (to which I refer you for additional gems of dialogue and facial hair), the plot has some potential, and in the right hands, could have been a small cult gem. Those hands, however, are not Ford’s, and the results here are closer to Incredibly Bad territory, though without the necessary loopy invention, which made its predecessor such an undisguised hit in that area.

Witchcraft XII: In the Lair of the Serpent (2002)

Rating: D-

Dir: Brad Sykes
Star: Chip James, Janet Tracy Keijser, Garrett Clancy, Monika Wild

After the previous couple of outings, which made up for in loony imagination what they lacked in… Well, everything else, to be honest, we’re back to much more prosaic fare here. And by “prosaic”, I mean utterly predictable, to the extent that the first 75 minutes of this could basically be the first fifteen, repeated on a loop. Bonk session. Cult sacrifice. Rinse. Repeat. In between these, we have the latest incarnation of Will Spanner (James), investigating the murders with the aid of Detective Greaves (Clancy), while fitting in the occasional bonk session of his own with Cindy (Keijser): which is a bit tasteless, since we know Cindy’s boyfriend was the first victim. Will figures out that where the bodies are being dumped is the key, forming an occult sign on the map: and there are a couple more dots to be joined, so there are clearly a couple more murders to be done, somewhere between the low-rent warehouse the cult calls home, and the really low-rent stripclub where they trawl for victims.

About the only surprise this has to offer is the discovery that Spanner can apparently shoot lightning-bolts bad visual effects from his fingers, something utterly unused or even mentioned over the previous 11 movies. Aside from the utter lack of logic – even by the low standards of the series – the micro-budget seems even more painfully evident than usual, and new director Sykes fails to bring anything of note to the table. James is also pretty bad as Spanner. According to the IMDB it was his feature debut: that shows in his performance, and it’s also telling that it’s virtually his sole career credit (save an apparent bit-part in what appears to be a Shakespeare pastiche). In a series of hugely-variable entertainment value, this one was truly a chore to sit through, and likely represents the low-water mark of the entire saga.

Witchcraft XIII: Blood of the Chosen (2008)

Rating: C

Dir: Mel House
Star: Tim Wrobel, Zoe Hunter, Jennifer Lafleur, Anjanette Clewis

There’s a scene right at the end of this, that made me go “Hmmm,” and showcased exactly how this series could have developed. It’s where Spanner (Wrobel this time) embraces his inner darkness in a quite-surprising way. The whole saga supposedly was focused on the struggle between the good and evil components in his make-up, but up until that point, it had been an almost entirely one-sided battle, with Spanner little more than a slightly tormented goody two-shoes. It’s probably one of the best moments in the entire series, and leaves you wondering “What if…?” Otherwise, it’s more or less the same as usual, even though half a decade elapsed between parts 12 and 13. with Spanner being drawn in to the usual series of ritual murders, in this case men having their hearts ripped out and gnawed on, after being lured in by an all-girl coven – probably about the closest we’ll get to female empowerment here.

“If I’d wanted to make love to a glass of water, I’d have gone to my kitchen.” I just have to document that non sequitur, spat out by one of the coven’s victims before his demise. If ever I have my heart ripped out by Satanists, I hope I can come up with something better than that. This does continue the “magical lightning” angle invented in its immediate predecessor; however, as there, just because you can write a scene featuring this talent, doesn’t mean you should do so, when your budget and effects talents are so obviously short of delivering it. I did like the portrayal of Spanner as a working stiff lawyer, and Wrobel makes a decent everyman. House does better with the material than Sykes, with a couple of well-done dream sequences that create more atmosphere than usual, and the film does make some effort to provide an all-encompassing story, covering all 13 films. On the other hand, the plot takes far too long to get to the good stuff – there’s a whole relationship between Spanner and an employee which doesn’t go anywhere – and the exposition is clunky, with one guy wheeled on for no purpose other than to explain the back-story. There’s also an almost-exact repeat of the “plotting the bodies on a map” scene from XII, which had me rolling my eyes, even if this time it formed a pentagram.

If only they had reached this point by the second or third movie, with Spanner genuinely torn between using his powers for good and evil, and struggling with the need to do bad things to stop a greater one. There could potentially have been a genuine cult series in exploring that, rather than a series which, to be honest, deserves more to be remembered for the wrong reasons. It has now been five years since this came out, and there has been no word of any upcoming 14th entry. I suspect Vista Street Entertainment may be dead, as at the time of writing their website doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2008 – and stylistically, appears to date from about a decade prior to that. If this is the last entry ever, it’s a respectable enough way for things to end, even if (as with most of the 13 movies) it’s not necessarily a film I’ll ever want to watch again.

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…