Witchtrap (1989)

“Witchtrap” achieved its brief notoriety by being from the same writer-director as the first two “Witchboard” instalments, and being forced to include a disclaimer at the beginning saying “this is not a sequel to Witchboard” – perhaps due to some, er, “creative” marketing by its producers? But anyway, they really shouldn’t have bothered as it’s a surprise that the same guy made all three movies – it’s vastly superior to either, with a solid plot, some great acting, a nice thread of humour running throughout and plenty of inventive camerawork and effects. What makes all this more surprising is it was written in six days and filmed in just seventeen – the hallmarks of a hastily assembled mess, most of the time. But no!

The first thing we see is a picture of the villain, one Avery Lauder (J. P. Leubsen, whose entire acting career consists of this and “Witchboard”) hanging over the mantel. My first thought was “imagine thinking that’s the best picture of yourself, and imagine hanging it in your own house” but it’s a slight hint that everyone involved is dialling things up to 11 deliberately. Anyway, an unseen presence makes stage magician The Amazing Azimov so frightened he jumps out of a window to his death, and that’s how we get keyed into the plot, one which (to be fair) isn’t that original.

The new owner of the house, Lauder’s nephew Devon Lauder (writer-director Kevin Tenney, who stepped in when the original actor pulled out because he knew the lines) has hired a bunch of psychics to clean the house of his Uncle’s spirit, as he wants to turn into a B&B – “haunted” B&Bs being popular, just not actually haunted ones where the ghost living there is a super-powerful former warlock who wants to kill you.

He’s also hired a security team to look out for the psychics, although it’s a curious company, with a middle-aged paunchy boss and a wisecracking pair of…security operatives? No idea. They’re also the most obviously comic part of the movie, with dialogue like this.

Leon Jackson: I love it when Murray talks like a detective novel.

Tony Vincenti: Yeah, Sam Spade lives.

Leon Jackson: Never say “spade” to a brother.

Tony Vincenti: Sorry, all that ghost talk has me “spooked”.

Leon Jackson: Ha, very funny.

They can’t all be winners. Vincenti, the white half of the central duo, is James Quinn, who’s a regular in director Tenney’s work and is still working today; Clyde Talley, the black half, is…er…not quite as good and a couple of Tenney movies represent his life’s work on the silver screen.

Anyway, the matter-of-fact way the psychics talk provides a lot of the humour, like the movie treats it as completely real but makes it so dumb-sounding you can’t do anything but laugh at it. One of them is Felix, a mental medium, allowing the dead to speak through him; the other is Whitney, a physical one, allowing the dead to take control of her body – although why that wouldn’t just include the vocal cords is a problem the movie never ponders, or even particularly respects. Agnes is the boss of the team, and Ginger is their video tech – Ginger is the name some B-movie fans will recognise, being “scream queen” Linnea Quigley – “Silent Night, Deadly Night”, “Sorority Babes In The Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama”, “Return Of The Living Dead”, etc.

About halfway through, they get bored of letting themselves get away with talking about psi-phenomena as if it’s real, and allow Vincenti a speech where he completely destroys their arguments…and then just move on from it as if it never happened. I think you have to read between the lines to get the good stuff from “Witchtrap” (which a lot of its reviewers never bothered with, apparently).

The story, even though it’s not original, is interesting! The dead guy trying to complete the ritual that would have made him immortal, and the people trying to stop him, well, some of the people trying to stop him and some other people still treating it as a harmless psychic event (even after their friends have started dying in grotesque and inventive ways) – yes, the excellent Tenney death scenes are in full effect here. It’s the sort of thing that would be an episode of “Supernatural” today, but it has an intensity to it and a quirky sense of humour that I really like.

Add in an ending so bleak and hopeless that I had to check the DVD hadn’t broken and missed a final scene, and you’ve got a heck of a decent movie. Great effects, love for the genre, a handful of decent performances (among some really bad ones, to be fair) – this is by far the strongest of Tenney’s movies we’ve covered so far.

Rating: thumbs up

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