Witchtrap (1989)

Welcome back to B-Movie Enema!

I’m glad to be returning to the films of Kevin S. Tenney.  He made one of my all-time favorite horror movies ever, and he does seem to have a knack for making incredibly fun and watchable movies.  Witchtrap came out a few years after his first hit, Witchboard, and a year after his second big hit on home video, Night of the Demons (the aforementioned favorite of mine).  I want you all to take note of that.

Why?

Well, that’s because, in this humble blogger’s opinion, Witchtrap is an insane step backwards in quality and value compared to those other huge hits.  I have my suspicions why this might be, and frankly I don’t have the power of research on my side, so I kind of have to just wing this theory.

First off, Tenney had made two very popular movies.  If you don’t watch Night of the Demons every October for Halloween, I think you are some sort of lesser person, or possibly a C.H.U.D., because that can be the only excuse for that incredible misstep on your part.  However, I am not here to judge you (I am totally here to judge you).  Witchboard made pretty decent money at the actual box office.  He was seemingly riding a high having only made two movies.

So why does this third movie that I’m going to be writing about this week look and feel like such a step backward?  It is true that the script was written in six days.  The film itself was shot in 17 days.  The audio had a problem that led to the need for the entire movie to be completely and totally re-recorded in post-production (commonly referred to in “the biz” as ADR).

Is it possible this film was made previously and once his first two movies hit big, he was able to release it?  That’s not an uncommon practice whatsoever in “the biz”, so is it the case here?  I’m not entirely sure.  The first time I saw this movie, saw the production value, watched the performances (oh my god will I have things to say about the performances), then realized who made the movie and when it was released, I had to believe that this was a movie made earlier in his career that just didn’t see the light of day until after he released Night of the Demons.  I mean Night of the Demons is polished as fuck.  Witchtrap looked like the home movies my brothers used to make in the early 80s.

No offense to my brothers.  Their movies were awesome, but they were not polished pieces of filmed art.

While I will always have a particular leaning toward this movie being made years before its release, it likely isn’t.  Look, I’m a big shot.  A big man on campus, if you will.  I know people who make movies.  We talk about making movies.  We are friends.  I have lots of friends.  People sometimes just like to crank something out.

Maybe they have an idea and the ability to raise just the right amount of funds to get it done.  Maybe they are bored one day and just want to make a movie.  Maybe they only need a couple sets and, thus, the movie would be relatively easy to shoot and dress the minimal sets.

It’s clear that Tenney could probably cobble together the funds just by saying he made those other really popular movies.  Obviously, he could slap his name on the cover of a VHS box and people will rent the movie.  But is that fair?  People are definitely renting this at least for his work with Witchboard (so much so that the box had to be clear this was NOT a sequel to that movie).  But what they are seeing isn’t a very well made movie.  It looks, plays, and sounds funny.

I dunno…  All that just deepens the allure and mystery of Witchtrap to me.

To get things started, I suppose I should make note that this movie is released on this fine Vinegar Syndrome disc as The Presence.  This is news to me.  I always knew this movie under the Witchtrap name, but methinks Witchtrap was the name it had to have in order for it to sell because of Witchboard.

The movie begins at a very scenic old house.  Things seem pretty serene and pleasant.  And quiet.  Too quiet.  But wait!

OH SHIT!  Evil Kenny Rogers is pissed!  Then suddenly a guy wearing a pretty rad blue sequined tux screams and tries running away from crazy camera angles, zooms, and various grunts and groans.  The dude takes a dive out of the window to his death.  I will say this is a really nice shot looking down on the man who leaped out of the window of the spookhouse.  His blood starts streaming from his body and it’s all very nicely Italian if I do say so myself.

Phone rings at the home of Dr. Agnes Goldberg who, despite the name, is nicely tits out in the tub.  The caller is Devon Lauder.  He tells her to assemble her team as soon possible to go check out the beeswax at that spook house.  So Agnes goes out, calls Mjolnir to her and assembles the paranormal avengers!

*Actual scene from the movie Witchtrap when Agnes assembles her paranormal pals.

Despite only seeing her recruit one person (because who the fuck needs to see her bringing her team together to face down the dreaded WITCHTRAP?), we get to her introducing everyone, including the audience, to her team of canon fodd… er… paranormal investigators.  We have her husband Felix, the best mental medium she’s ever known.  Sexy as fuck video technician Ginger Kowowski (Linnea Quigley).  Physical medium Whitney O’Shay is there.  Apparently, she’s some sort of Christian lady and Whitney and Agnes have beef because Agnes takes baths in the nude for movie audiences.  That and Agnes is an atheist.  They are there meeting Tony Vincente (played, interestingly, by James W. Quinn) and Levi Jackson.  The Paravengers are all going to try to make the house from the beginning of the movie safe for guests.

Now, here’s where things start to really become evident that there are issues with this movie.  Again…  Tenney did do Night of the Demons, one of my all time favorite Halloween movies.  I really want to keep pointing out that fact.  He gets the benefit of the doubt that maybe some of this is due to the ADR’d lines.  Also, he is playing Lauder here.  He’s clearly more comfortable behind the camera, but ouch.  This is like watching the first time these lines have ever been read.  The scene below happens early in the movie.  It should be building tension or excitement for the story of this old, spooky house.  Instead, this just comes off as the most mundane bullshit you ever did see or hear.

Here’s the thing about this movie.  Yes, yes, bad overdub, but, as I covered earlier, the sound got messed up.  Yes, bad acting.  That’s some seriously sleepy delivery of dialog.  However, here’s the major issue with this movie.  I can handle bad overdub.  I can handle bad acting or awkward delivery.  What I struggle with a lot is when a movie struggles with its tone.  You have spooky dialog.  You have discussion of people jumping out of windows because of a ghost.  Then you have Vicente cracking wise.  He does this for the rest of the goddamn movie.

Anyway, the Paravengers arrive to start their investigation.  Vincente is still being a jackass.  Apparently, Jackson wants to fuck Linnea Quigley because… ofcoursehedoes.  Who wouldn’t want at least take a shot at going out to a real nice ice cream date and top it off with licking chocolate syrup off each other?  Anyway, we get a little more information when groundskeeper Elwin (played by the guy who played Stooge in Night of the Demons) shows up, Agnes tells more about how Lauder faced accusations of being a murderer, and just before he was to be arrested and officially charged as a suspect in a murder, he was found dead and stabbed a bunch of times in the chest.

Vincente decides to blow off some steam and also look around.  Whitney goes with him and asks him some questions about his faith and religion and stuff.  They also find an inverted cross in the attic.  All of this really bugs Whitney but Vincente is sticking to his guns that all this shit is just some mumbo jumbo.  Whitney reveals that Lauder was more than just a psychic, but an actual powerful warlock.  He was attempting to gain immortality, but she believes the cops interrupted the ritual.

Agnes, Felix, and Whitney attempt a seance to communicate with Lauder.  He speaks through Felix, claiming he will rise like a phoenix and, I dunno…  really bug everyone?  Maybe kill them?  He says he will show his power later and they will all be scared.  He causes Felix to go into a seizure when he exits the body.  Vincente acts quickly and shoves his wallet into Felix’s mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue.  Felix learns there is something important for them to check out in the basement.

Elsewhere, Elwin peeps in on Whitney as she is changing out of her clothes.  When Jackson spots him, he calls out, “Hey, fool!”  This just happens to be Elwin’s trigger as he rages out and attacks Jackson.

In the basement, Agnes tells Vincente that they have this ghost vacuum box thing that she planned to catch Lauder in.  She had Whitney hold it and if he had only taken the bait to go to her, they would have captured him.  At that point… Agnes would have… like… I guess removed him and… dissipa…

Holy shit Linnea Quigley shower scene!

Anyway, Whitney gets attacked by Lauder or some other invisible assailant.  Downstairs where the seance was and where the mysterious ghost vacuum was left, Lauder is seen in the video monitor sneaking around.  He tries to snatch the urn next to the vacuum but apparently feels the sucky effects and runs away.  So he decides to kill Linnea Quigley instead by ramming the shower head into her throat.

Whitney rejoins everyone downstairs and when asked if she’s okay, she gives them the good ol’ Ghost Adventures line of, “I dunno…  I feel… drained.”  Jackson returns looking to fuck up Elwin, and especially after they find Linnea Quigley’s body.  Jackson assumes Elwin killed his lady friend and made off for the hills.  They learn the phone line doesn’t work and Vincente and Jackson’s boss says Jackson needs to go get police.  Jackson has other plans…  Finding Elwin!

Vincente talks sense into Jackson and sends him off.  However, in a move quite reminiscent to Night of the Demons, but in no way as creepy or magic-filled, the gate has been chained shut.  When Jackson goes to see what’s up, his car drives itself into him and kills him by smashing his head but good.  As that was going on outside, inside, Whitney is having a freak out.  Vincente finds her and she seems to not fully understand what is happening to her.  Whitney relays her origin story to Vincente by telling him of a near death experience she had where she witnessed heave and hell.  When she woke in the hospital, she had psychic abilities.  Vincente is an insensitive prick about it all and basically mansplains his atheism to her like he’s some sort of YouTube philoso-fuck.

Here’s the thing, again…  Tone.  People, tone is one of the most fundamentally important things in your goddamn movie.  Whitney spouts out all this deeply spiritual stuff about nearly dying and gaining these powers.  Granted, at any point in time, anyone is allowed to be skeptical of this stuff.  I didn’t say you shouldn’t be skeptical of anyone claiming to be psychic or something.  However, in your scary horror movie, there’s a time and place for this skepticism.  Vincente, as a character, is more than welcome to ask questions, raise an eyebrow, or even flat out oppose all this paranormal stuff.  However, his jokey nature of almost seeming like he understands her only for it to turn into this really shitty, and offensive, joke at her very personal story is kind of, maybe, reprehensible?

This isn’t a lighthearted romantic comedy in which these two polar opposites learn something from one another.  This is a horror movie.  Maybe don’t have an outright comedic character being a massive douchebag to a likable and, likely, our best chance at a real hero capable of dealing with all the bad shit happening around them.

Anyway…  Meanwhile, Felix chastises Agnes for not really seemingly caring about Linnea Quigley’s death.  Agnes seems laser focused on proving the existence of ghosts and all that will come with that.  You know, the usual – prestige, talk shows, movies made about you, money.  None of this makes Felix feel any better because he’s not some fame hungry psychopath.

The next to die is Vincente’s boss who is cleaning his gun in the event that he has to shoot him a ghost.  Suddenly, Lauder essentially throws a bullet at him through his forehead.  Vincente is poking around the basement looking for anything or anyone that seems out of place.  Lauder throws a knife at Vincente but misses.  Agnes and Felix find Whitney freaking out.  Agnes is sure they stopped it before the ghost of Lauder made Whitney do anything…?  But Whitney isn’t so sure, and, yeah, there’s a guy whose brains are painting one of the bedrooms.  In the basement, Elwin attacks Vincente and nearly shoots Vincente before he thinks fast on his feet and escapes.

Vincente, now being told that his boss is dead and everyone needs to get the fuck out of Dodge immediately, decides that motherfucker Elwin needs a .38-caliber enema.  He goes outside to get that sumbitch.  Elwin shoots their van a few times and it EXPLODES into giant balls of flames.  When Felix calls out to see if Vincente is okay, Elwin shoots him.  Now, there is no van to leave, Felix is bleeding out, Whitney is freaking out, everything’s gone to shit.

Whitney takes off and Vincente follows to try to find her while Felix and Agnes attempt another seance to see if they can find out where the urn with Lauder’s ashes has gone off to or, if all else fails, Felix will get a sense on where it’s at.  Lauder does indeed come through Felix.  Agnes tells him Felix already knows where the ashes are just like he knew that the other key part of his resurrection was in the basement earlier.  Lauder is all like, well, that shit ain’t gonna happen, so he does this…

Well.  That should learn ya a lesson about fuckin’ with ghosts.

Outside, Vincente finds Whitney and helps her get in a car and get the hell out of there.  They are attacked again by Elwin, and Vincente shoots him, multiple times, with no effect.  While Whitney escapes, Agnes and Vincente decide to dig up Lauder’s heart.  The real bummer is that Whitney never actually escaped at all.  It was an illusion and she’s been driving around the grounds the entire time.  So she’s there for Lauder to manifest.  This ends with Lauder making a statement to Agnes…

When the axe comes for Vincente, he holds it off with the ghost vacuum.  It sucks up Lauder, but Whitney says it is not strong enough to hold him.  They have to make him whole again and then kill him proper.  They go to the attic where the inverted cross is to lure him there.  Sure enough, the thing doesn’t hold Lauder and, yup, like a phoenix, he comes busting back into the real world.  He possesses Whitney and she eats his ashes from the urn (gross).  She turns into Lauder and he attacks Vincente.  Vincente tries shooting Lauder, but the bullets basically just pass through him as if he is still a ghost.  Vincente realizes he has to destroy Lauder’s heart and when he shoots it, it hurts Lauder.  He throws it out the window and when it splatters on the ground, Lauder goes up in flames and melts – which happens to be a very cool effect.

With Lauder melted away, Whitney returns, being, quite literally, INSIDE Lauder.  Something else that isn’t without some coolness in terms of an idea.  In fact, the final act is actually where the movie settles into a much better film with much better ideas.  The thought that Lauder was growing more and more powerful and tricked Whitney into believing she was escaping when she wasn’t.  Head explosion.  Axe to the motherfuckin’ face.  It also settles into the tone better.

In fact, it feels like the end of the movie was better realized than the first two acts.  Vincente having to deal with calls about paranormal investigations at his detective agency is decent.  In fact, that’s the best joke in the movie, honestly.  It kind of has that Peter Venkman Ghostbusters vibe going for it.   That’s how you can still have some humor and such but not have it be detrimental to your movie.  Either way, the very, very end has a nice, kind of dark moment of contemplation and haunted fear with Vincente.  Witchtrap does become a fun movie to watch when it does things effectively and well.  Don’t get me wrong, though, really it isn’t a very good movie.

Next week, I go back to the worlds of Brett Piper with an early entry from his filmography.  And, boy oh boy…  I’ve seen his haunted house schtick.  I’ve seen his fish monster/sorta porn parody thing.  Now, it’s time to see his actual science fiction, rogue hero saving the Earth movie, Battle for the Lost Planet!

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