Witchcraft VIII: Salem’s Ghost/Witchcraft: Salem’s Ghost (1996) -½
Witchcraft VII: Judgement Hour should have been the end. That movie killed off Will Spanner, the character who had been, if not always the putative hero of the series, then at least the figure around whom the supposed plots had always supposedly revolved. Similarly dead by 1995 was Academy Entertainment, the video distribution label that had been the franchise’s home since the very beginning, although it’s unclear to me whether Academy was gobbled up entire by A-Pix, or whether the latter company merely cherry-picked among the projects (like Witchcraft VII) that were under development with the various production houses whose output Academy generally handled at the time. Also, let us not forget that Witchcraft VII was promoted with the tag line “The Final Chapter” during its initial release. Incredibly, though, the people in charge at A-Pix somehow decided that Witchcraft was too valuable a property to let go. Like Moustapha Akkad determining to continue the Halloween series without Laurie Strode, Michael Myers, Dr. Loomis, or indeed any recognizable element of the original premise beyond a climax that takes place on Halloween night, A-Pix wasted no time in reviving the just-terminated series without even the slender pretenses to inter-episode continuity that had characterized it thus far.
There’s a bit of mystery to what happened next, which I’ll go into now on the grounds that it’s much more interesting than the resulting film. When people describe Witchcraft VIII: Salem’s Ghost as an unrelated sequel, it may be that the phrase is best taken strictly literally. I’ve uncovered nothing certain one way or the other, but consider the following clues. First, although most external sources are in agreement that this movie was issued in 1996 (falling into line with the annual release schedule that had obtained since Witchcraft III: The Kiss of Death), the copyright date printed onto the tape housing is 1995, and the copyright notice in the closing credits reads, “MCMXCIV.” In other words, if you believe the credits, Witchcraft VIII was made a year earlier than its predecessor. Of course, accidentally flipping the last two characters of a lengthy Roman numeral is hardly something I’d put past the Witchcraft producers— after all, the original Witchcraft left out an “M” in its copyright notice, mistakenly claiming a registration date of 1188! But there’s also the main title display to account for. The frames displaying the Salem’s Ghost subtitle are of a piece, graphically speaking, with the opening credits, but the preceding segment showing the main Witchcraft logo is merely a still close-up on the relevant section of the first movie’s advertising poster, with “VIII” superimposed below the title via a crude optical effect. Taken together, the copyright confusion and the lame title display leave me wondering if maybe Salem’s Ghost wasn’t originally a free-standing film in which Vista City had been unable to interest Academy Entertainment in 1994. Horrifying though it is to contemplate a movie that wasn’t good enough for Academy, it isn’t totally beyond the bounds of reason that Salem’s Ghost could have been it. Certainly it sucks more intensely than any but the very worst of the earlier Witchcraft installments.
Yeah, I’m going to have to start talking about the movie for real now, aren’t I? Very well. The one positive thing I’ll say about Witchcraft VIII is that it comes by its “Salem’s ghost” by a method markedly different from what I was anticipating. Sure, it’s Salem, Massachusetts; sure, it’s 1692; and sure, a warlock is being anachronistically burned at the stake by members of a religious sect; but to all appearances, the men doing the burning are not the expected bunch of dourly zealous Puritans, but rather a coven of white witches who are pissed off about Simon Renfro (Digital Man’s Jack Van Landigan, returning from Witchcraft VII as a different and altogether more significant character) giving their kind a bad name. Puritans didn’t normally wear monkish robes, nor did they adorn all their stuff with astrological symbols or employ counterproductively complicated ceremonial swords in their criminal proceedings. And while subsequent references to “the Protestant Church of England” will muddy the issue somewhat, I think we can treat it as dispositive that the coffin and mausoleum in which Renfro’s executioners seal his charred corpse are both decorated with the very same esoteric glyphs that were tattooed all over the warlock’s torso.
Three centuries later, Sonny Dunaway (Lee Grober) accepts an adjunct professorship in American History at Salem College, and he and his wife, Mary Ann (Kim Kopf, of Stormswept and Midnight Tease II), move into a beautiful but slightly run-down mansion in one of the oldest sections of the city. Sonny will later be very excited to learn that this house “and others like it” were built by the Puritans, but that’s one of the more obvious crocks of shit served up by a movie that is greatly enamored of obvious crocks of shit. To begin with, that Greco-Wannabe architectural style post-dates the witch-trial era by about a hundred years, but more importantly, no Puritan worth his giant, buckle-banded hat would ever have built so huge and overweening an edifice to be his home— it would have been prideful and immodest. In any event, Mary Ann does not share her husband’s enthusiasm for the place, which he apparently bought without consulting her in any way. All she sees when she looks at it is its age, its disrepair, and the fact that it encloses about five times as much space as their stuff could plausibly fill. Fortunately, Sonny knows just how to forestall the impending argument; all he has to do is to mention what a great place for making babies the old house would be, and the next thing we know, the Dunaways are mired in an even less sexy version of the repellant food-fuck scene from 9½ Weeks.
While our protagonists are rolling around in a pool of honey and cocoa powder, let us take a moment to observe that the move to Salem was not merely a matter of professional opportunity. Sonny was fired from his previous job for having an affair with one of his students, and the Dunaways’ marriage nearly collapsed along with his teaching career. Dean Simpson (William Knight, from Sweet Evil and Zarkorr! The Invader) may say that he considers that episode ancient history, but the tone in which he says it unmistakably translates to, “I’m going to be watching you very closely.” Furthermore, Sonny will be even more closely watched by Cathy (Mai-Lis Holmes, also returning from Witchcraft VII for a bigger and better part), a pretty redhead from one of his classes whose designs on him couldn’t be any more obvious if she started dropping in on his office hours naked. Sonny is either deep in denial or impossibly dense, but Mary Ann has no illusions about where the girl hopes to steer her relationship with her professor.
Truth be told, Cathy serves little real function but to lower the average age of Witchcraft VIII’s T&A squad, but we sadly can’t be so dismissive of the Dunaways’ new neighbors, Mitch (David Weills) and Gale (Anthoni Stewart, from Desire: An Erotic Fantasy Play) Baker. Back in the early 80’s, there was an engagingly cockeyed but too-rarely-funny comedy called Neighbors, in which Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty move in next door to John Belushi and Kathryn Walker, and proceed to ruin their lives with toxic concentrations of wackiness. Every scene involving the Bakers plays like a rip-off of Neighbors directed by Jim Wynorski. Mitch is a plumber by trade, and the rotten condition of the pipes in the Dunaways’ basement serves as the wedge whereby he inserts himself unshakably into both the neighbors’ lives and the movie. It will surprise no one, I’m sure, to discover that the coven’s crypt from the prologue lies hidden in the cellar like the ever-mutating portal to Hell in the Amityville series, and I doubt it will surprise more than one or two of you that Mitch busts his way into it while notionally working on the re-pipe.
Similarly Amityville-like is what becomes of Mitch once he enters the old mausoleum. The clunky, cruciform short sword with which Simon Renfro was stabbed before being set on fire is still set into the wall above his coffin’s cell, and the warlock’s residual evil power induces Mitch to pry it loose and sneak it back to his place. While Mitch becomes increasingly obsessed with the sword (in much the same way that the men who move into 112 Ocean Avenue tend to become obsessed with their axes, except with a thick overlay of avarice), Renfro’s spirit begins roaming the Dunaway house in the form of a sad, red, post-production glow effect. The wizard’s ghost sends nightmares to Sonny (oh— did I mention that Sonny suffers from crippling claustrophobia?), inspires outbreaks of horniness in Mary Ann (we need some excuse for a lame softcore masturbation scene, right?), and eventually makes its presence felt in no uncertain terms with a poltergeist attack that involves the camera zipping around a lot more strenuously than the supposedly motile furniture. That’s when a man named McArthur (Tom Overmyer) shows up uninvited, but by no means unwanted. McArthur represents the “Protestant Church of England,” which may or may not be affiliated with the Church of England that, although certainly Protestant, doesn’t feel the need to announce the fact in its name. (In any case, we know McArthur can’t be Catholic, nevermind his heavy Irish accent, because instead of a black suit with a starchy white collar, he wears a white suit with a starchy black collar.) This is the same church, by the way, from which Sonny bought the house, and whose leadership evidently knew when they sold it to him that there was a Satanic sorcerer buried in the basement. McArthur knows all about Simon Renfro. In fact, he’s descended from a member of the cult who did away with him the first time. Citing both that pedigree and that expertise, McArthur takes it upon himself to exorcise the evil from the Dunaway house, but to do so will require the use of Salem’s Cross— which you and I know as that sword-thing Mitch absconded with earlier. Apparently it’s the only weapon that can kill a warlock of Renfro’s power, and its placement over the magician’s grave is the only force that can keep his spirit confined to Hell where it belongs. Okay. But I have to ask— wouldn’t that just mean restoring the status quo from the start of the present-day section of the film? And considering how well that worked out, don’t you think something just a little more permanent is in order?
You know what? I think I’ll have to say two positive things about Witchcraft VIII: Salem’s Ghost. In addition to the aforementioned peculiar villain origin story, I did rather appreciate the degree to which writer/director Joseph John Barmettler kept the focus clearly on the supernatural horror story throughout. There are lapses— horrible, horrible lapses— but they’re all lapses of a fairly conventional sort. There’s gratuitous sex, odious comic relief, and even one scene that manages to be both at the same time, but what we don’t get from Witchcraft VIII is a sense it was cobbled together out of discarded pages from two or three totally unconnected scripts, in two or three totally unrelated genres. This isn’t to say that that relatively focused story is any good, or that there’s a single thing in it apart from the witch-vs.-witch intro that we haven’t seen three hundred times before. It is, however, more or less internally coherent, and that’s a rare and wondrous thing to find in a Witchcraft movie. Also, assuming you’re willing to use an extremely generous definition of the term, just about everything the script sets up does eventually pay off in some small way, even that half-hearted business about Sonny’s claustrophobia. That too is more than we usually got from this series back in the Academy Entertainment days.
“Yes,” you say, “but if that’s true, then how can Witchcraft VIII be as bad as you said it was at the end of the second paragraph?” It’s an excellent question, and to answer it, we’ll have to deal a lot more closely with Mitch and Gale Baker than I was hoping to. They, as you’ve surely surmised by now, are the primary agents of comic relief in this movie, and I honestly don’t believe that I can adequately describe how very far from funny they are. The things they can do to a punchline make my teeth hurt, and their “funny” sex scene is almost enough to put me temporarily off the very concepts of both humor and sex. But beyond that, David Weills and Anthoni Stewart, the performers playing the Bakers, are, without any exaggeration at all, two of the worst actors I have ever seen in my life. Again, I despair of conveying in mere words the effect that these two generate, except perhaps to note that nobody in the casts of Zombie Bloodbath or Skull & Bones even approaches the depths that their acting— Stewart’s especially— plumbs. And my god, but they get a lot of screen time! Salem’s Ghost has plenty of other very serious problems, to be sure— dispirited and unerotic sexual content, boring and lifeless action scenes, weedy special effects (including one so tragic that it would be unconscionable of me to spoil the impact by describing it to you)— but this movie never subjects the audience to such desperate suffering as when it’s trying to get a laugh.