With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.
At 13 movies and counting, the occult horror series Witchcraft is, technically, the longest-running franchise in horror history. “Technically” not because every installment in the series, including the original, went direct to video. There’s nothing inherently wrong with going direct to video (it could be a business decision), and a lot can be done with a small budget and a little ingenuity. The problem is more a lack of that ingenuity: Instead of building on the mythology or inventing novel plots to keep the series fresh, Witchcraft continually relies on the same stock storylines, most often involving a good warlock struggling against trashy temptresses sent by evil warlocks to seduce him to the dark side. From a relatively early point in the series, the “horror” part of a Witchcraft movie becomes a mere framing device. You don’t watch these movies for the plot, or the special effects. You watch them for the frequent nudity and Cinemax-style sex scenes—which, as the series progresses, also become increasingly uninspired. (Although, good for these characters, who all seem to have very active, fulfilling sex lives.)
The only truly bad movie is one that fails to entertain, and one way to make that happen is to drag all of the scenes out too long. The Witchcraft movies often suffer from this problem, not seeming to realize that it’s unnecessary to show someone walking into a room, shutting the door behind them, crossing the room, sitting down, adjusting their tie, and then beginning to speak. You can just start with the conversation. Removing the obvious prurient pleasure of looking at naked ladies, the same can be said for the softcore aspect of Witchcraft; without fornication, there would be no Friday The 13th series, either. But where those movies focus on the bloody aftermath of the deed, Witchcraft shows not only the slashing, but also the entirety of the act—well, some thong-clad approximation of it—leading up to it. (In other words, brace yourself for a lot of goofy fake blowjob faces.) The nudity begins escalating in the mid-’90s and continues through the microbudget ’00s, an impressive feat considering that the people taking their clothes off in some of the later films probably didn’t even get paid.
Someone must be invested in the series’ mythology, though. Except for Witchcraft VIII—the Halloween III of the series—the movies all contain a through-line, and all of them, including the upcoming Witchcraft XV and XVI, come from the same production company, Vista Street Entertainment. (If softcore porn has been rendered irrelevant by the internet, no one told the proprietors of Vista Street, whose website reflects quaint attitudes toward both e-commerce and adult entertainment.) The hero of the Witchcraft series is attorney/private investigator/reluctant warlock Will Spanner, whose destiny is revealed to him as a teenager in Witchcraft II and whose powers are the envy of all his wicked, balding brethren. Spanner also moonlights as an occult expert for law enforcement; in Witchcraft VI, we’re introduced to crass chemistry-laden detectives Lutz and Garner, whose professionalism is questionable at best.
So is Witchcraft a passion project gone NC-17 in a desperate attempt to stay alive? Or is it a cynical cash grab that maintains the trappings of a horror franchise to lure in a handful of obsessive-compulsive weirdos? It’s difficult to tell. Either way, the execution doesn’t live up to whatever good intentions might exist. Although the characters of Spanner, Lutz, and Garner remain relatively consistent, the writers and directors don’t seem to care about much else. The creators play very fast and loose with history, assembling hasty, cheap-looking sets and special effects, and frequently, irritatingly over-using “it was all a dream” fake-outs and hallucinations. Terrible dialogue is also something of a hallmark of this series:
- “It’s your childhood, isn’t it?!” (Witchcraft III)
- “Do you know where the bathroom is?” “Come in. Sit down.” (Witchcraft IV)
- “That woman you had in the interrogation room? She’s dead.” “Shit happens.” (Witchcraft VII)
- “This is crazy. A witch doctor shows up and tells me my house is haunted, and now I’m helping him catch a ghost!” (Witchcraft VIII)
- “She’s a pretty nice girl. I’d bang her.” (Witchcraft XII)
Predictably, much of the talent in front of the camera is drawn from the nudie-magazine well. Several of the directors were, too, and while a couple of them went on to bigger things—Amy’s Orgasm and SLC Punk were both directed by Witchcraft alumni—most stayed on the same DTV level for the remainder of their careers. As in pornography, there’s a certain, undefinable line where something can no longer really be referred to as a professional film production. Witchcraft crosses this line somewhere around its ninth installment, and yet the series soldiers on, each release degrading in quality. The franchise also contains, to put it kindly, shades of the mockbuster: It frequently rips off plot elements from other, better movies, including Ghost, The Evil Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Ghostbusters, and, believe it or not, Blue Velvet. It even has its own John Constantine and Mulder and Scully in its leads, albeit C-list versions of same.
None of this can be predicted just by watching Witchcraft (1988), an entertaining enough low-budget supernatural horror movie. Predictably for its time, the aesthetic of the film recalls Meatloaf’s “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” video: all billowing curtains, big hair, flowing nightgowns, purple skies, and pink shadows. The movie opens with a scene of witches being burned at the stake by robe-clad monks in what turns out to be colonial Massachusetts; never mind that the Puritans preferred hanging to immolation, and hated Catholics nearly as much as witches. This footage will be reused over and over throughout the franchise, as will snippets of the score when sweet guitar licks and sexy bass lines prove inadequate.
The plot revolves around a young woman, Grace Churchill (Anat Topol-Barzilai, whose accent is explained as “Polish” in the film, though she is actually the daughter of a famous Israeli stage actor), who recently gave birth to her first child. At the insistence of her husband John Stocton (one-movie wonder Gary Sloan), the couple goes to John’s ancestral home to “rest” and “recuperate,” a euphemism for “my mother and I are going to use our baby in black magic blood rituals.” Like the house in Fright Night, the Stocton family estate looks a lot bigger and more haunted on the inside, with an entire abandoned wing of the house covered in spiderwebs and a butler whose style owes a debt to The Shining’s Delbert Grady. As always, the low budget really shows in the special effects: Flames superimposed over a crib in the film’s most obvious Rosemary’s Baby ripoff provide one memorable example, and this sacrificial teddy bear another:
With her husband and mother-in-law conspiring to steal her baby and drive her insane, the only trustworthy person in Grace’s life is her gal pal Linda, who we know is a modern woman of the ’80s by her preference for black leather miniskirts and short gloves, as well as her offhand referral to husbands as a “minor detail” in child rearing. Linda senses something is amiss with the Stoctons and tries to warn her friend, so naturally, she must die. That leaves Grace completely alone and vulnerable in time for the climactic ritual, which involves a bowl of doll limbs and red Karo syrup and an “altar” that looks like it’s decorated for an elementary-school Halloween pageant. Moral of the story: Always listen to Linda.
Witchcraft II: The Temptress (1989) makes a major jump forward in time, although you wouldn’t know it by the look of the film, released shortly after the first Witchcraft. This first sequel establishes the mythology of the series, and also has a bit of A Nightmare On Elm Street 2 thing going on, as it overtly sexualizes a teenage boy. In the opening scene, we see high schooler Will (Charles Solomon Jr., who looks much older) air-guitaring out of sexual frustration because his girlfriend won’t go all the way with him. No, really:
This interlude is interrupted by the arrival of his sexy femme-fatale neighbor Dolores (Delia Sheppard), a buxom, black-clad master of the spooky-eye flare, who wants Will to impregnate her with the “child of Hell.” One might think that, given his problems with his girlfriend—and the fact that he’s a teenage boy—Will would be more than receptive to this idea. But that’s not accounting for his backstory, which his dad gives to him in a “birds and the bees”-style talk. Turns out that Will is the baby from the first film, and was spirited away from his biological father and grandmother by his adoptive parents, who were members of the same coven. They’ve been hiding out all these years, but now the evil has found them. And unless Will wants to unleash Hell on Earth, he absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, have sex with the neighbor lady.
It’s a good thing our dopey pseudo-Keanu hero’s directive is so simple, considering the last time he went to the library was to ogle boobs in National Geographic back in elementary school. (Honestly, the most amusing thing about the entire movie is the expression on Solomon’s face as people try to explain things to him.) He is charming, though, savvy enough to talk a geeky girl classmate into deciphering the esoteric carvings on a talisman given to him by his sexy neighbor. Anyhow, he’s doing better than his metalhead best friend, who agrees to take said geeky classmate on a date in exchange for Ozzy tickets and, like poor Linda, doesn’t make it to the final reel.
Witchcraft III: The Kiss Of Death (1991) doesn’t have much to distinguish it, except that it establishes a common plot in these movies: Some smooth Satanic Casanova trying to steal Will’s woman. At the opening of Witchcraft III, Will (Charles Solomon Jr. again) has managed to get his act together and graduate from law school, and is now working as what appears to be the world’s best-paid public defender. In practical terms, this means a good portion of the film is taken up by painful, pseudo-procedural legalese as Will takes on the case of a black teenager who has been falsely accused of murder. This first appearance by people of color in a Witchcraft movie is as stereotypical as you might expect/fear, with the boy’s father, Reverend Jondular (William Lewis Baker), playing the Magical Black Man when things start to get supernatural. Equally troubling is a subplot where Will stalks and sort-of kidnaps a female colleague in the name of exonerating his client. (But she’s a ball-busting bitch who’s only concerned with her career, so that makes it… okay?)
Meanwhile, Will’s girlfriend Charlotte (Lisa Toothman) is being seduced by evil, lizard-eyed club owner Louis (Domonic Luciana). (“Why not? I’m over 21,” she says when he asks to walk her home.) Louis already has a loyal girlfriend/minion in Roxy (Leana Hall), who wears way too much white face powder and gets dumped—i.e., has her soul sucked out of her body in a sad little yellow fart cloud—when Louis decides to make innocent flower Charlotte into one of his unholy sex slaves. Here’s where the softcore starts to creep in: In one scene, Will is upset when he sees that Charlotte is wearing a pentagram necklace, but it takes a couple of minutes of topless groping for him to notice it.
Speaking of softcore, Witchcraft IV: The Virgin Heart (1992) comes with the Troma seal of approval due to the participation of prolific B-movie actress/Penthouse model Julie Strain. The dialogue in this one is particularly painful, based around a noir schtick and lots of hard-boiled voiceover from Will (Solomon, appearing for the third and last time), now blurring the line between attorney and private investigator. He’s kind of like a low-rent Daredevil, but with black magic instead of superpowers. Again, that doesn’t mean he’s that great at it: A self-proclaimed warlock whose parents were members of a coven, he finds a book of matches for a club called “Coven” and says, hesitantly, “I’ve heard of this before.”
In this one, Will Spanner is charged with clearing the name of a guy who has been charged with his girlfriend’s murder. (The audience already knows he’s innocent, as we saw a crazed killer knock him out and rip out her heart as a human sacrifice in the opening scene.) In the course of his investigations, Will ends up going to a strip club, where he sees Belladonna (Strain) working the stage and is instantly obsessed. The movie then takes a very strange turn as Will enlists his client’s (blond) sister to help him track (brunette) Belladonna, who is being held captive by her “manager.” A shock jock at a local college radio station, of all things, the Frank Booth of this Blue Velvet ripoff has Belladonna trapped in an unholy pact that has something to do with the old Robert Johnson “sell your soul to the devil at the crossroads” myth. And sure, those could just be surface similarities to Lynch’s film. But then there’s this scene:
Come on, he hides in the closet.
Released just one year later in 1993, Witchcraft V: Dance With The Devil opens with footage of the witches burning from the first movie, the first of several “back to basics” attempts we’ll see throughout the franchise. Instead of a club owner or a shock jock, here Spanner’s Satanic adversary is a stage magician, Cain (David Huffman), perpetually Ren Faire-ready with his long hair, turtleneck, chain-mail necklace, and jeweled Viking sword. Cain uses his magic act to collect souls for Satan; he gets the gig by approaching a bartender and choking the poor bastard until he agrees to book Cain’s show every night of the week. Here’s where Will (now played by Marklen Kennedy) comes in, unwittingly attending Cain’s magic show with his girlfriend, Keli (Carolyn Taye-Loren):
This launches the plot into the same old shit, as Cain decides he must possess Keli’s soul and sends his assistant/minion—who looks confusingly like Keli, only with curly blond hair instead of straight—to clear the way by seducing Will in his sleep. Will then starts experiencing terrible nightmares and violent outbursts, but is hesitant to use his magic powers until it’s (almost) too late. There’s also a poorly developed subplot involving a televangelist, but whatever. It’s all very 1993 and very over-the-top, and Huffman’s campy performance makes this one a hoot.
Witchcraft VI: The Devil’s Mistress (1994) on the other hand, isn’t much fun at all, despite (?) both the Troma and Mr. Skin seal of approval. We’re deep into the ’90s by now, with the accompanying change in video quality. The dialogue isn’t any better, though, laden with cheesy pickup lines and comic misogynist banter between detectives Lutz and Garner, here both male. Director Julie Davis tries to elevate the schlocky material, with touches like cutting to a shot of tomato juice (an odd visual motif that will come up again) spilling on the floor to a shot of a cup of coffee spilling on a desk. But there’s only so much she can do, given that the budget only allows for the evil warlock (duh, of course there’s an evil warlock) to perform his ritual sacrifice (duh, of course there’s a ritual sacrifice) on what appears to be a suburban patio (albeit a nicely appointed one, with a trellis and everything).
Mostly, though, Witchcraft VI is another boring cop movie with a lot of fake boobs in it. As an occult expert, Spanner (Jerry Spicer) is recruited by detectives Lutz (Kurt Alan) and Garner (John E. Holiday) to help track down a serial killer who has a thing for women wearing cross necklaces and some sort of connection to black magic. He’s reluctant, as usual, until Lutz and Garner are taken off the case, at which point he suddenly develops a passion for justice. Speaking of, Spanner also has a sideline as a divorce attorney; halfway through the film a seductive woman who likes to cross and uncross her legs à la Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct hires Spanner to spy on her cheating bartender husband, whose boss Mr. Savanti—whose name is close enough to “Satan” that his true identity should be obvious—ties the whole thing together.
Witchcraft VII: Judgement Hour (1995) also has a nice mid-’90s feel to it, beginning with the spiral wipes and tie-dyed lettering of the opening credits. This installment blends the black-magic angle with vampires, which makes sense from a “sexy stuff” standpoint, at least. Speaking of sexy stuff, the movie opens with a cocktail party, where a young woman drinking a glass of milk is approached by an intense-looking guy with a blond ponytail. Some light banter about strong bones follows, and the next thing you know she’s completely naked and squirming with delight as her lactose-intolerant lover dribbles milk all over her body before chowing down on her neck.
This one is perhaps the most gratuitously sexist of all the Witchcraft movies, which is no small accomplishment. The woman from the opening scene flashes her tits as she lays dying in the ER, and once she’s dead, a cop can’t help but ogle her corpse as well. But that’s later. In the meantime, we cut from her demise to a full-frontal shower scene, which is being observed by our pal Garner (John Cragen), ostensibly staking out the woman’s apartment through a telescope. His partner Lutz (Alisa Christensen)—now in her beta, redhead, chain-smoking form—chides him for his piggishness, although she doesn’t hesitate to take a peek as well. (The logic of the Witchcraft movies is puzzling; at one point in Witchcraft VII, Spanner’s girlfriend is furious with him when he stays out all night, but is relieved and supportive when he admits that he didn’t cheat, just killed someone.) Believe it or not, despite all the titillation, this is the first Witchcraft movie to include a dominatrix scene, which ends with a sort of reverse Indiana Jones as the woman uses a whip to knock a gun from a cop’s hand.
The ponytail guy turns out to be this movie’s Big Bad, Hasa (Loren Schmalle), a vampiric businessman whose hobbies include practicing with his katana and bad puns. (Does he make a “severance” joke just before decapitating someone? You bet!) Hasa and his employees frankly do a terrible job hiding their evil intentions simply by virtue of the occult symbols, heavy drapery, and spooky candelabras scattered throughout their office. Nevertheless, they’re about to sign a big business deal when Spanner (David Byrnes), Lutz, and Garner—who are more than happy to just wait outside while Spanner fights vampires—arrive to foil their fiendish scheme:
Despite all its ickiness and bad special effects, Witchcraft VII (1996) is still a fun watch, as is the next film in the series, Witchcraft VIII: Salem’s Ghost. Witchcraft VIII, as was previously mentioned, is the Halloween III of the franchise, completely divorced from the overall continuity. After a new—and equally historically unsound—flashback sequence depicting the execution of a notorious warlock in “Salem Colony 1692,” we open on married couple Sonny (Lee Grober) and Mary Ann Dunaway (Kim Kopf), who have relocated to Massachusetts after an affair that nearly drove them apart. They’ve purchased a big, spooky, and obviously haunted house from the “Protestant Church of England,” and celebrate their big move with a pretty gross take on the 9 1/2 Weeks food-sex scene that ends with the couple smeared in what one can only hope is chocolate.
They’re interrupted by their neighbors Mitch (David Wells) and Gayle (Anthoni Stewart), best described as poor man’s versions of Jeff Bridges and Victoria Jackson. Gregarious to the point of pushy, Mitch is a plumber, and insists on investigating the source of a leak in the basement, exposing a long-sealed warlock’s tomb in the process. A beam of red light shoots out from the tomb and turns Mitch evil, and soon Sonny and Mary Ann are being terrorized by the undead wizard as well. First he appears at their bedside, sporting occult Sharpie tattoos and wearing a pair of athletic lounge pants that say, “I may be an undead warlock, but I also dig karate.” Then he starts giving Sonny bad dreams, first of waking up in a bathtub full of milk wearing black lipstick, and then a much more graphic—yup, this one’s softcore too—dream of being cuckolded by the ghost hunk as he watches, helpless and immobilized. Not content to humiliate the man of the house, the ghost jiggles the furniture, too (keep an eye out for the hand moving the sofa):
The arrival of a priest prompts an investigation, and after finding a bunch of stuffed cats dipped in fake blood in the attic, a seance is held in an attempt to trap the soul of the warlock in a little pyramid, à la Hellraiser. This prompts a cocky “Where’s your God now?!” speech from the ghost, and the house itself seems to come alive in anticipation of the final confrontation between Jeffrey Combs-esque good and Jason Momoa-ish evil.
Witchcraft IX: Bitter Flesh (1997) is where things really start to go downhill. A takeoff on Ghost with a streetwalker in the Whoopi Goldberg role, Witchcraft IX picks up with Spanner’s death at the end of Witchcraft VII. From there, his disembodied spirit goes searching for anyone who can communicate with him; that person turns out to be Sheila (Landon Hall), whose workaday encounters with johns take up most of the first 25 minutes of the 90-minute movie. After the ghost of Will (David Byrnes) ruins one of her “dates,” he follows Sheila home, where she suddenly recalls that she gained psychic powers in a car accident and the two take turns bitching about men and being dead. (They both suck.) Meanwhile, Lutz (Stephanie Beaton) and Garner (Mikul Robins) are investigating a series of murders with an Egyptian theme and Spanner is trying to reach his girlfriend Keli (Kourtine Ballentine), who is now living (and having lots of sex) with a bathrobe-clad impostor. There’s really very little occult action in this one, mostly just a lot of drawn-out sex scenes, giving the viewer time to contemplate why everyone looks so dirty. Are they wearing too much hair product? Was it really hot on the set? Or are we just projecting, after watching nine of these scummy things?
Witchcraft X: Mistress Of The Craft (1998) is even worse than Witchcraft IX, and quite possibly the worst in the series overall. This one moves the action to London, where Lutz (Beaton again) ups her X-Files credentials when she’s called in by Interpol’s “Bureau 17” to escort avowed Satanist/murderer Hyde (Kerry Knowlton) back to the U.S. Before she can arrive, however, he escapes with the assistance of a trio of scantily clad bisexual female vampires who need his help performing a “Walpurgis ritual”—after they all have sex in various configurations, of course. Lutz’s help ultimately proves unnecessary, however, as one of the Interpol agents, Celeste (Wendy Cooper), turns out to be an invincible “Mistress Of The Craft,” although she dresses more like an off-brand Supergirl.
Witchcraft XI: Sisters In Blood (2000), Witchcraft XII: In The Lair Of The Serpent (2002), and Witchcraft XIII: Blood Of The Chosen (2008) are so amateurish in acting and production value they barely warrant mention (although, to the creative teams’ credit, they do try to incorporate elements from the earlier films into the plot, which indicates a certain earnestness). Witchcraft XI revolves around an acting class that conjures up a demon to “get into character” for a production of Macbeth, Witchcraft XII a series of Satanic murders tied to (where else?) a strip club, and Witchcraft XIII yet another series of Satanic murders, this time involving sexy young ladies picking up guys at bars and literally ripping their hearts out. Out of the three, Witchcraft XII is probably the most amusing, with a cop who resembles Louis CK and a masked killer who looks like this underneath:
Earlier this year, a Facebook page calling itself “Witchcraft—The Longest Running Series In Horror” announced that, after a seven-year hiatus, Witchcrafts XIV, XV, and XVI would be filmed simultaneously in 2015. This behind-the-scenes YouTube video confirms that they were indeed shot—at the ridiculous pace of three feature films in nine days—back in June. The promised release dates of late August or early September 2015 have long since passed, however, and it’s unclear at this point whether the rest of the series will be released at all. If so, it will be quietly. The A.V. Club’s requests for further information and screener copies went unanswered, which, looking back, is a relief.
2. Witchcraft II: The Temptress
3. Witchcraft V: Dance With The Devil
4. Witchcraft VIII: Salem’s Ghost
5. Witchcraft VII: Judgement Hour
6. Witchcraft IV: The Virgin Heart
7. Witchcraft III: The Kiss Of Death
8. Witchcraft VI: The Devil’s Mistress
9. Witchcraft XI: Sisters In Blood
10. Witchcraft IX: Bitter Flesh
11. Witchcraft XII: Lair Of The Serpent
12. Witchcraft XIII: Blood Of The Chosen
13. Witchcraft X: Mistress Of The Craft