Satanís Princess (1989) -**
Amazingly enough for a director primarily associated with the atomic monster mania of the 1950ís, Bert I. Gordon continued to make movies all the way through the 1980ís. Even more amazingly, Gordon never made a single film about giant anything after Empire of the Ants in 1977. Most amazing of all is how Gordon did spend the 80ís, toggling between porny exploitation comedies and ostensibly serious horror movies about witchcraft and Satanism. His swan song, Satanís Princess, sort of splits the difference between the two tendencies, functioning as a Skinemax-ish erotic thriller in which the femme fatale turns out to be a literal succubus instead of the usual figurative variety.
A few months ago, Los Angeles detective Lou Cherney (Robert Forster, from Scanner Cop II and The Black Hole) and his partner, Sal Calabrese (Al Pugliese, of Annihilator and Philadelphia Experiment II), were pursuing a pair of armed suspects through a municipal park when the collar turned into a shootout. Cherney took a slug through his right knee, effectively putting an end to his career as a policeman. Heís been a fairly useless, self-pitying drunk ever since. Maybe thatís why Calabrese passes along some information about Cherneyís usual haunts when Ed Rhodes (Cobraís Nick Angotti) comes into the station for at least the dozenth time to follow up on the disappearance of his eighteen-year-old daughter, Karen. As the two men discuss when Rhodes catches up to the ex-cop one happy hour, the LAPD has 40,000 missing-person cases come in the door each year; at that rate, finding any particular one of them is as much dumb luck as anything elseó especially when the trail is as cold as Karenís. When a girl isnít seen for ten months in this town, the chances are that either she doesnít want to be found, or itís too late for finding her to do any good. Rhodes wonít accept that, though, nor will he accept that Cherney is retired. Lou stonewalls at this initial meeting, but we all know where this is going. For one thing, Cherney is a parent himself, and the challenge of raising a retarded son in a broken home has sensitized him to the plight of another father whom circumstance has fucked extra-hard. And for another, tracking down Karen might bring some sense of purpose back into his life. Cherney drops by the old precinct the very next morning to reacquaint himself with the case and to call in a few investigative favors from Calabrese.
We see Karen (Leslie Huntly, from Demon of Paradise and The Naked Cage) long before Lou does, however. And given both where she is (at a glamorous Hollywood party) and what sheís doing (making out with a stunning brunette who is probably supposed to be a few years older than her, even though Huntlyís all-too-obvious addiction to the tanning booth has reversed their apparent ages), I canít say Iím surprised that going home to Daddy is not high on her list of priorities. Also present at the party is a second young blonde whose natural good looks have been mostly Southern Californiaed out of her, whom we will later come to know as Erica Dunn (Rena Riffel, of Showgirls and Bound Cargo). Erica isnít having nearly as good a time as Karen. In fact, no sooner does the camera notice her than she gets up out of her seat, forces her way through the crowd to the door, and tells the driver of the cab parked out front to get her away from the premises as quickly as possibleó she says she doesnít even care where he takes her. Erica never gets into that taxi, though. Rather, she is stopped by a sinister-looking counterfeit Fabio (Michael Harris, from Slumber Party Massacre III and Sleepstalker: The Sandmanís Last Rites), who drags her behind him into the back seat of a limousine. This limo then drives to an industrial park someplace, where the barren interior of one of the warehouses is the last thing that Erica lives to see.
Sal Calabrese ends up leading the investigation into Ericaís murder, and he quickly picks up on the connection between her and Karen Rhodes; among Ericaís personal effects is a photograph of her and Karen hanging out together. Calabrese forwards that information (and the photo along with it) to Cherney, who follows up by paying a visit to the offices of the modeling agency for which Erica worked. Maybe her boss or coworkers can shed some light on the relationship between the dead girl and the missing one. Lou, of course, is in no position yet to recognize this, but Nicole St. James (Lydie Denier, of Blood Relations and Red-Blooded American Girl), the head of the agency, is the brunette with whom Karen was locking lips at the party, and her bodyguard, Dorian, is the knife-wielding Fabio impersonator. It also happens that Nicole owns a 17th-century painting called The Malediction, which must be important because the first thing we saw (interspersed with the opening credits) was a plague-afflicted Catalan monk working on it in some kind of trance or delirium. Inevitably, Nicole claims ignorance of Ericaís social life, nor does she mention that Karen Rhodes is at that very moment lounging around nude in the master bedroom of Nicoleís mansion, awaiting her homecoming. Cherney thanks St. James for her time, and turns his attention to other leads. Nevertheless, he also places a call to an FBI agent named Jilly (Daryl Anderson), who apparently owes him a couple from back in the day, and asks him to look into the backgrounds of both Nicole and her company.
The first of those other leads is a pimp called Domingo (the enigmatically-named RCB, seen just as briefly in Hell Comes to Frogtown), who Cherney figures would know a thing or two about the comings and goings of teenaged girls who have dropped out of society. Domingo plainly does know something, but Cherney has a hard time deciding what to make of what little information he gets from the pimp before the latter freaks out and flees the nightclub where they meet to discuss the case. The provocation for said freakout is the seemingly innocuous photograph Lou got from Sal, which prompts Domingo to exclaim, ďObeah! Ouanga! Baron Samedi!Ē Having thus exhausted screenwriter Stephen Katzís vocabulary of Voodoo terminology, Domingo warns Cherney that no good whatsoever will come of getting mixed up in anything to do with Karen or Erica. Calabrese sort of corroborates the pimpís vague and rather incoherent statement when he calls his old partner to tell him he needs to come look at the Dunn girlís diary. Sal doesnít say what it contains, exactlyó he merely offers his assessment that either Erica was totally insane, or she was into some truly terrifying shit. Hell, maybe she was both. Thatís all Cherney will get from his old friend, however, for Calabrese is gunned down immediately thereafter by Dorian, who makes sure to retrieve the incriminating journal before splitting the scene.
Calabreseís assassination was arguably a strategic mistake on Nicoleís part, for it transforms Cherneyís handling of the Rhodes case from a paraprofessional matter into a personal one. Henceforth, Cherney will virtually eat, drink, and breathe Karen Rhodes, even when his deepening obsession drives away his second wife, Leah (Caren Kaye, of Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings). He leans hard on his old professional connections, browbeating a loan of the Erica Dunn casefile out of Detective Felson (Henry Brown, from Slaughter of the Innocents and Stepfather II) and brushing off an attempt by his former lieutenant (Trent Dolan, of Chatterbox and How Awful About Allan) to bring him to heel. The stakes climb higher still when Lou actually locates Karen, and she shoots her own head off rather than cooperate with her ďrescue.Ē Cherney goes full Cop on the Edge at that point, torturing information out of a neighbor of Karenís (The Furyís J. P. Bumstead) whom he had conveniently busted as a peeping tom some years back, and smarming his way into an affair with Nicole St. James in the hope of stealing a look at the tattoo which the pervert across the street reports seeing on Karenís girlfriendís hip. As you might have guessed, the tattoo in question is a motif from The Malediction, but Nicole sensibly magics it off of her body by the time Lou succeeds in infiltrating her pants. Obviously that means Nicole recognizes that the ex-cop is in some sense on to her, and soon she takes the offensive herself. Her particular strategy is to project her spirit into the body of Louís son, Joey (Phillip Glasser, later of Sabretooth and Voodoo Dawn), whose feeble mind can offer her no meaningful resistance. So basically, weíre talking Death Wish by way of Beyond the Door for the flavor of the final act, spiced up a bit at the very end with a monster suit that looks like an early makeup test for Nightbreed. Heyó itís only fitting that Bert I. Gordonís final movie provide us at least some faint suggestion of his roots, right?
Satanís Princess isnít merely a witchcraft movie. With its mix of black magic, bland eroticism, and thoroughly unengaging pseudo-noir police procedural elements, itís perilously close to being a Witchcraft movie! Specifically, itís rather like Witchcraft VI: The Devilís Mistress. Of course, Gordon and Stephen Katz got there first (Will Spanner was still just a horny teenager when Satanís Princess was made), and even this resolutely lackluster effort is significantly superior to anything that series (or at any rate, the eight entries in it that I can personally vouch for) ever produced. Still, thatís the kind of story weíve got here, and the mistakes Gordon and Katz make in telling it are also similar in kind if mostly not in degree. The conventional detective story carries far too much weight for the bulk of the pictureó to the extent that the nominal premise feels almost like an afterthought. So tenuous at first is the connection between Lou Cherneyís hunt for Karen Rhodes and the presence of a 500-year-old incarnated succubus in present-day Los Angeles that Satanís Princess must resort for two thirds of the running time to ill-fitting self-contained set-pieces devoted to Nicole preying on totally extraneous characters in order to keep the supernatural in view at all. The antique painting, for all the attention lavished on it, actually ends up being of scarcely any importance, and itís never clear what the prophecy in which it supposedly figures is even supposed to be. Lou and Nicole are the only characters whose behavior consistently makes any kind of sense; the rest are just pawns being moved arbitrarily around by the screenwriter. And even Cherneyís actions donít stand up well to scrutiny in two conspicuous places: first, thereís no indication of how he figures out Nicoleís weakness, and second, Robert Forster affects a limp that favors the wrong leg. In short, Satanís Princess is fairly typical of direct-to-video supernatural horror films at the turn of the 1990ís, and has little to recommend it beyond its historical significance as the final opus of a once-important director.