More Italian title trickery! Upon release in Italy, this morning’s film was titled La Casa 4 – Witchcraft, a sequel in name only to La Casa 3 – Ghosthouse. It’s an unfortunately common thing overseas, not just in Italy, for movies to be marketed as a sequel to an unrelated film. Most of the time, we don’t have to deal with that shit here in the States, so we were given the simple title Witchery, although the print I saw used the title for the film’s release in Australia, Witchcraft (Evil Encounters). How silly the business of movies can be.
The good news is, Witchery stars Linda Blair and David Hasselhoff. I’ll repeat that. Linda Blair, adorable teen star of The Exorcist turned prolific b-movie actress, and The Hoff.
1988, when Witchery was released, was an interregnum for Hasselhoff. Knight Rider was in the rearview, and the Baywatch pilot had yet to be picked up. Hasselhoff was a star, but there were odors of Shatner-ism. Had Baywatch never happened, the ’90s would have been very different for The Hoff. He could have ended up working in many more Italian productions, or continued his career as a constant presence in TV movies or guesting in popular shows. You know, he actually did all those things, and more, while knocking out over 250 episodes of Baywatch and Baywatch Nights. This is the man who performed atop the Berlin Wall as it was being pulled to the ground by an exuberant crowd yearning for the end of communism. That might have been the peak moment for all mediocre pop singers and network television stars. But, that was all still in the future in 1988. First, there was Witchery.
Witchery was directed by Fabrizio Laurenti from a screenplay by Harry Spalding and Daniele Stroppa. Filmed at a gloriously decrepit seaside hotel in Massachusetts (that still stands as a private residence, it seems), Witchery follows Hasselhoff and Leslie Cumming as Gary and Leslie, a couple who are also a professional photographer and writer. They have come to the empty hotel to investigate reports of ‘witch lights’ for Leslie’s book on witchcraft. The hotel is situated on an island that was the site of witch trials and executions in colonial days.
Meanwhile, older married couple Freddie and Rose Brooks (Robert Champagne and Annie Ross) have come to town to inspect the property before purchasing it, hoping to renovate the hotel to its former glory. They have brought along their preposterously young son, Tommy (Michael Manchester), and older, pregnant daughter, Jane (Blair). Along with a real estate agent, Jerry (Rick Farnsworth), and architect, Linda (Catherine Hickland), all the players gather at the hotel for some good old cabin in the woods shenanigans.
The threat in this movie is the Lady in Black (Hildegard Knef). She was the last resident of the hotel before it was abandoned. A star of old Hollywood, she purchased the hotel in the waning days of her stardom and lived out the remainder of her life away from the public eye. Now, long after she supposedly died, the Lady in Black still calls the hotel home, and doesn’t want any visitors. Or, does she…
Anyway, through some typical film conceit, the ensemble ends up trapped on the island overnight, and must survive until rescue. If they all did, there wouldn’t be much of a movie.
It takes a bit for this film to get going, but when it does, the Lady does gory work. Spinning red portals suck unsuspecting characters into her torture chamber should they behave in certain, immoral fashion, and then they suffer grievous injury. It’s all very occult and somewhat biblical.
By the final act, Jane’s character is elevated in significance, making all the fussing around her finally justified, and we learn just what the Lady in Black is after. Along the way, viewers get a nice amount of gore, including some unsettling death scenes, and lots of bad acting. But, not from Hasselhoff. He was the most enthusiastic member of the cast, and although his performance maybe wasn’t the best fit for the character, it’s Hasselhoff. His style of acting is never unwelcome in a shitty movie.
No, the wet paper bag award in this flick goes to Cumming, who was so mumbly delivering her lines that she was doing an uncanny imitation of Patricia Arquette coming out of anesthesia. In truth, the child actor was worse, but I can’t ever blame a little kid for being a bad actor. These are creatures that can barely walk in straight lines, after all. Cumming was just awful, and this was justifiably her last credit in film.
Blair spends most of the film moaning and looking distressed, and it wasn’t until denouement that she was let off the leash. Blair, despite being relegated to a career of garbage work, was a talented actress, and a character with more to do would have been to the audience’s benefit, I believe.
Then there is Knef as the Lady in Black. Witchery was near the tail end of a long and successful international career. Her performance is pure aged Hollywood, drawing from Sunset Boulevard and every other movie with the character of a forgotten starlet. We’ve seen it before, sure, but has anyone of us seen it with witchcraft and ritual torture?
The true stars of this film, though, are the hotel and the gore. They do the heavy lifting. A great location and competent effects can help lift a b-movie out of the gutter and keep things watchable. They do so, here, stopping Witchery’s fall through the Watchability Index at #241, displacing Cyborg X.