Ghosthouse/Witchery (1988)

JUNE 28, 2015


The only thing Italian horror producers did better than rip off American genre movies was shamelessly rename the movies to make them look like sequels to unrelated properties, either for their own distribution or when sending them elsewhere. Sometimes they were their own productions, such as Beyond The Door (a film that got a "sequel" in Shock) and other times they'd piggyback on American franchises. For example, the Evil Dead series was renamed La Casa* over there, and after Evil Dead 2/La Casa 2 was an even bigger draw there than in its native US, they saw fit to continue the series with at least three "sequels", including Ghosthouse (aka La Casa 3) and Witchery (aka La Casa 4, and also Witchcraft, not to be confused with the long-running DTV series). These two are making their blu-ray debut this week, and if it's successful enough maybe Scream Factory can bring us La Casa 5, better (?) known as Beyond Darkness. (UPDATE! I wrote this review all week - see last paragraph for reasons - and a day after I wrote that part Scream indeed announced that the film will be released later this year)

Interestingly, unlike all those demon-less Demons sequels (or the infamous Troll 2), these movies are at least thematically similar to the Evil Dead films - one of them even involves a tape recording! Both involve a bunch of folks meeting up at a creepy place, and in both the evil force wipes out pretty much everyone in a variety of ways. They might lack the energy and creativity of Raimi's films, but if this was 1988 or 1989 and the internet didn't exist to quickly inform me that I was watching something completely unrelated, I'd be... well, not fooled, but at least not as angry as I was when I was 14, buying a movie I was led to believe was a sequel to Dawn of the Dead and seeing some voodoo zombie stuff (that would be Fulci's Zombie - I've since come around). Compared to most of these retitled things, these movies are Saw-level tight with Evil Dead.

Not sure which one I prefer of the two; they're both pretty entertaining, and what could have been a Massachusetts bias in favor of Ghosthouse turned out to be a moot point - Witchery was set there too! They even share a police car from Scituate, which is the (real) seaside town where the films were shot, another thing that makes this fake series almost plausibly connected (they beat Marvel to the punch by like 20 years!). I guess in that regard Ghosthouse would get the edge because it has a few scenes in Boston proper (including a bit at Faneuil Hall), but either way it was a nice surprise - MA-shot films are pretty rare, so I certainly wasn't expecting to see my old neighborhood in a random Italian flick, let alone in two of them.

Ghosthouse also lacks David Hasselhoff. It's not Witchery's fault that he became such a joke, but it was nearly impossible for me to watch it without thinking of the reality show mainstay that is synonymous with "lazy stunt casting" nowadays. In 1988 he was still the handsome hero of a recently ended long-running series (Knight Rider), so it'd be the equivalent of getting someone like Jeff Donovan from Burn Notice today - hardly something to laugh at, and probably helped the movie get sold (whereas now it'd probably be a red flag). He's actually not bad as a photographer who ends up getting trapped in the seaside hotel with his wife, some prospective buyers, and a really bad child actor, but every 5 minutes I'd just get a Baywatch image in my head, or worse, the bloated dude eating a cheeseburger off the floor. Linda Blair is the movie's other big star and thankfully she doesn't have that notoriety - she may always be "the girl from Exorcist" but she never really tainted her brand the way her co-star has. She also gets possessed briefly in the 3rd act, which was a surprise - I figured she'd rather avoid the obvious comparison and skip roles that required such behavior (not counting Repossessed, of course).

The location goes a long way to making up for Hoffstraction, however. I've always been intrigued by big hotels set right on the water; we used to go to Maine in the summer and I knew from the odd trip to check on our trailer (it was one of those family campgrounds - we'd leave our big ass trailer there all year round even though the campground was only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day) that the area was pretty much a ghost town in the off season, so I'd be curious about those giant hotels that had to be completely empty for months on end (my early viewing of The Shining probably informed some of this). But such locales are rarely used in horror films; sadly, Puppet Master is the only other one that readily comes to mind. Unfortunately they don't get too much use of it, holing up in a couple of distinct rooms and limiting the exploration to a few scenes (I think we see more in the mostly horror-free early "tour" we get of the place than we do once the shit hits the fan), but it still makes for an interesting setting. There's a great bit where the witch/ghost thing traps them all inside and shuts all the lights off as a would-be rescue chopper flies overhead - allowing you to see the hotel in all its glory as their searchlight scans all of the windows.

Plus it's about a witch! Maybe I just pick wrong, but it seems the Italians were afraid of being compared to Argento and thus left most of the witching to him, while they tackled zombies and black-gloved killers, plus the odd supernatural silliness (director Fabrizio Laurenti's next film was the incredible killer tree movie Contamination .7, which, sigh, is also known as Troll 3). But not here, it's a legit witch witch carrying out witch-y type killings like crucifying someone and roasting them on an upside down cross (the devil also pops up for good measure). It doesn't make a hell of a lot of conventional sense, but it's tough to pick out the obvious survivor from their introductions, offers some decent gore and various kills, and offers one of the more abrupt attempts at an epilogue I've ever seen (seriously, it's like 12 seconds long and hilariously blunt). And the old bitchy lady gets killed early - I've gotten used to the "let's keep the asshole around so we can build up to a spectacular death!" way of thinking, so it's nice to see a movie that opts to get rid of its unlikable character early and keep only the sympathetic ones around for a while.

As for Ghosthouse, the characters aren't as diverse - buncha twenty-somethings, including two blond guys I had trouble telling apart, leading to some confusion (luckily, one of them is killed off early). But the story, involving a little ghost girl who terrorizes them in typical haunted house ways (including a pretty great bit where the floor breaks apart and a guy nearly drowns in milk), plus a deranged handyman killing people for trespassing for good measure, makes up for the bland protagonists. It also has one of my favorite "doctor explains a death" scenes in movie history, where he tells the cop that a corpse couldn't have been killed by another person due to the angle of the cut on their neck, and thus it HAD to be a piece of the fan breaking off and flying into the guy via centrifugal force (he explains this kind of casually, as if it happens often).

But the real draw is the very odd hitchhiker that our heroes pick up and get rid of on the way to the house. He's pretty delightful for a hitchhiker, probably because he doesn't know how to do it properly - he stands in the middle of the road, for one thing, and later he risks the hero's life by trying to scare him with a skeleton arm thing while he's driving. They get rid of him not long after that, but he returns later, scaring a different character with the same prop before entering the haunted house, scoffing at a bag of cookies in favor of a box of croutons (?), and then gets killed not long after that. His scenes are so disconnected that you'd swear he was added into the narrative after test screenings, but the girl he scared on his second appearance talks about him later, which seems like a detail that they'd skip if it was a late addition (her description is amazing too; her friend doubts she really saw anyone and she's like "He had a skeleton arm!" without explaining it was a toy). I could have watched a whole movie about this guy just goofing off on the fringes of a more exciting storyline.

This fella aside, one thing I liked about the movie is how it split the two groups of protagonists up, letting two of them go back to the city to take the brunt of the less exciting plot development scenes while the rest of the characters wandered around at the house, often getting killed. If everyone stayed together you'd get the long exposition dumps, plus narrative hiccups where people would be getting killed two rooms away from someone sitting there reading an old newspaper or whatever, oblivious to the screaming. I know conventional logic is that a movie is scarier if you get the sense that they are kinda stuck there (like, well, Evil Dead!), and it DOES spoil the mood a bit when the hero goes back to his riverside office in Boston at the halfway point, but again - it keeps it stopping completely cold to deliver pages of backstory at once. And that means we're never too far from hearing the creepy-ass "theme" that accompanies the evil spirit - it sounds like a simple saying being played backwards, over and over along with equally unsettling music. The jump scares and such aren't particularly great here, but that music more than makes up for it (the clown doll is also appropriately "off" - much better than the one in Fauxltergeist). It's rare to enjoy a film for being goofy AND somewhat creepy, so kudos to Umberto Lenzi for pulling it off, even if it wasn't intentional.

Lenzi's usual hatred of "things that make sense" still comes through, however. In addition to characters getting angry over nothing (and forgetting about it a few seconds later), he offers a particularly head-slapping bit where a cop talks on his squad car's CB radio. A common enough scene, but Lenzi inexplicably chose not to include the other side of the conversation, so the cop is sitting there with a two way handset, responding to an unheard voice with things like "When?" and "OK, I'll check that out!" or whatever, as if he was on a phone instead of a device where we should be able to hear the other person speaking. Lenzi has always been one of the more random of this group (which includes Fulci, Lamberto Bava, Claudio Fragrasso, etc.), and you'll be happy to know that this fits in nicely with his others in that respect.

All in all, a perfectly enjoyable double feature of a couple of movies that flew under the radar. By the late 80s, the Italian horror scene was starting to dry up, as they couldn't compete with the bigger budgeted, FX heavy movies the US was making, and there were fewer theatrical distributors for such fare as there was 4-5 years before. And it's not like they could just call Ghosthouse "Evil Dead 3" here, so the rather anonymous title probably did it no favors. Witchery fared SLIGHTLY better, in that I had heard of it a couple of times prior to seeing, but that's probably thanks to its more famous cast. I didn't recognize anyone in Ghosthouse; Witchery offered Blair, Hoff, plus the lovely Catherine Hickland, who was one of those actresses who would seemingly pop up on every TV show in the 80s (including Knight Rider!) and also had sizable roles on some soaps. She gets killed via swordfish, which is pretty great. Perhaps if the movies were more famous Scream would have put a little more effort into the presentation - the transfers are fine, but the movies don't even get their own sub-menus like they usually do for their double features. There's a main screen that offers both "Play Movie" and both trailers, with no scene selection (chapter breaks are included), and the subtitle option obnoxiously located in the center. It's basically what you'd expect from a disc that had a "Play All" option for a true double feature experience, but since it lacks that I can't help but feel it's a bit of a lazy setup.

But that's not really a dealbreaker, and more importantly it kicks off a month's worth of releases from Scream Factory of movies that I haven't seen. Next week is Robot Jox, and the week after that is another double feature: Cellar Dweller and Catacombs, followed by I, Madman, and finally Ghost Town (which also features Ms. Hickland, yay!). More often than not I've seen the movies they're putting out, which is why I usually write about them on Birth Movies Death (formerly Badass Digest) because I've already discussed them here. It's unusual to see so many new-to-me movies in a row (broken up only by Howling II), and they have some new ones too, such as Paul Solet's long awaited sophomore effort, Dark Summer (which I also haven't seen yet). So this place should be a little more lively in the weeks ahead! I apologize for the decreasing number of updates but it's all for a good reason - I've been working really hard to finish my 2nd draft of the HMAD book so I can clean it up and send it off to my editor and hopefully get it to you guys before Christmas (virtual stocking stuffer!). I've been seeing some stuff, but when it comes to time to write, I usually choose the book over writing a new review. Sorry!

What say you?

*In my room I have a giant poster for "La Casa 2" that I got relatively cheap at an auction, because the new title confused the audience that was paying triple digits for similarly oversized art for Dream Warriors and other films of that era. I'm pretty sure they thought it was a poster for House II (the big, Bates House-ish home right in the center of the image probably didn't help), so I was the only bidder and got it for 50 bucks. Score!

1 comment:

  1. Rifftrax did Ghosthouse a while ago and it's one of my favorites. It's the perfect blend of bad that makes it a really fun experience.


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