APRIL 25, 2016
Like all good Americans, I have a friend's HBO Go password so I can watch Game of Thrones on his dime, but I feel guilty about it, so I don't usually use it for much else (Silicon Valley is about the only exception). But it's not just guilt, I don't have time to add any more shows on my plate, and their movie selection is usually pretty much just stuff I already saw in theaters (or avoided for a reason, like Divergent 2). But some mild insomnia the other night (yes, after Thrones) made me decide to look through their horror section just out of curiosity, and I wasn't surprised to see a rather unexciting group of options - until I happened to notice Superstition tossed in there between Spaceballs (?) and Thirteen Ghosts. HBO's own writeup noted the film's obscurity, and I myself only vaguely recalled the title from somewhere, so I naturally hit play to see what I'd been missing.
As it turns out, what I was missing was a film that almost 100% HAD to be an influence on Witchery and Ghosthouse, the Italian "Evil Dead" sequels that I just saw last year for the first time. It's got an almost identical witch-driven backstory to the former and a present day plot that unfolds much like the latter, complete with the red herring handyman who probably knows the secrets the house holds. Now, neither of these are particularly rare plots, but the film even FEELS like an Italian production more often than not - even the score takes on a Goblin-y flair in the more exciting moments near the end. I mean, it's not like Italian producers were shy about copying American horror films, so the odds are at least pretty good that someone involved with those productions (which shared a number of producers and even a minor character) saw the film and found it ripe for "re-imagining". Indeed, per the IMDb it was actually released in Italy long before it bowed in its native US, for reasons I couldn't discover.
And like those movies, it's an enjoyable flick that you probably will have good memories of *overall* but find it difficult to remember too many specifics down the road. The structure is kind of the culprit for that - the movie falls into that Shocker/It's A Wonderful Life thing where it's easiest to describe something that's really just the third act. In this case it's the family that moves into the house - we don't even really meet them until like the 40 minute mark or something, and for a while we're still spending time with the film's hero (a priest who lives elsewhere) and the cop who is working with him to solve the murders that occurred in the film's (far too drawn out) opening sequence. So when the angry witch starts offing them, it's hard to get really worked up about it as we don't identify with them as our main characters, since the script kind of treated them as afterthoughts.
Then again, if this was some sort of Amityville/Poltergeist kinda deal where you were with the hero family from the start and really got to know them, the movie would be a lot less fun, because (spoiler) they all die! Mom, dad, the older teen sisters, and even the younger son, played by Billy Jayne from Bloody Birthday (my boy Curtis!). Even with their half-assed introduction into the narrative, I was still pretty shocked to see them all go - I figured maybe one sister would get offed and the others would be scared away, but nope! Even the one who seemingly does get away turns up dead later, and pretty much everyone else in the movie dies too. It's even got an inverse Hammer ending; whereas those films ended the second the bad guy was vanquished, this one fades to black after the hero is dragged to his death. It never really feels too grim or anything, but it's still rather surprising to see how bloodthirsty the screenwriter was. Also surprising, in a funnier kind of way, was that more than once I had flashbacks to the 1978 movie The Evil with Andrew Prine, only to discover that both films were written by the same guy (Galen Thompson). Alas, his career of writing horror movies about people going into dilapidated houses and getting killed was short-lived - after taking the rest of the '80s off he came back as what seems like Chuck Norris' go-to writer, penning Sidekicks, The Hitman, and some of the Walker, Texas Ranger stuff. I THINK Scream Factory technically has the rights to The Evil as it was a Shout! Factory release back in 2010 (before Scream Factory existed) and it's still in print, so maybe they can upgrade it to Blu and pair it with this.
It was during this look at the film's Wiki to find out more about its release that I discovered the reason I knew the title in the back of my mind somewhere: it's on the infamous Video Nasty list, though it wasn't one of the more notorious 72 "Section 2" films. No, it belonged to a longer list comprised of 80 films that were deemed "less obscene" and thus subsequent to lesser charges. It's in good company; due to the British censors' rather insane selection process it's considered on the same level as Dawn of the Dead and Mark of the Devil, films also deemed "less obscene" than the likes of The Burning and The Funhouse. Insane, right? Anyway, at least it earns some of its notoriety in terms of its gore FX - there's a pretty gnarly bandsaw kill early on, and one of the daughters gets her head spiked to the floor. Not every kill is gory (and some are off-screen), but they make it count on those and a few others, so while I don't see why it was singled out when other movies like Halloween II and Slumber Party Massacre were ignored, it's not as insane of an inclusion as say, Final Exam, which was often criticized for its LACK of blood and the like (nudity-free, too). Oh you wacky Brits!
Another odd thing is that the movie gives us a lengthy flashback to the witch (and her persecutor, who looked kind of like Willem Dafoe) at a rather late stage in the film, time when we should be getting fully invested in the present day action instead of what happened 300 years ago. I mean, it's not like they withheld the information to hide a twist or anything, and the backstory had already been more or less explained away, so why we need to see it all go down just feels like padding more than anything else - it could/should have been the prologue instead of the random, slasher-esque sequence where the two random guys get killed. Someone else dies not long after the family moves in, so if that stuff happened earlier there would still be a reason to get the police involved from the start - it's like the screenwriter wasn't sure what kind of movie he was writing at first and once he figured it out, never went back and made everything flush. Granted, it makes the movie a little harder to pin down (the slasher-y feel was certainly a perk to me), but also harder to really invest yourself in the way you do with Amityville or even a regular slasher.
The movie is also known as The Witch, a title that now belongs to another, even if it's more fitting (there's not a lot of superstition going on here - that should be the name of a movie with a lot of black cats, broken mirrors, and spilled salt). I don't know if it ever really got a theatrical release in the US (IMDB just says "January" - not any specific date, and unsurprisingly BoxOfficeMojo had no listing for it), but I assume it just didn't really "fit" anywhere (too supernatural to play with the slashers that were popular when it was made, and not showy enough to compete with the likes of Nightmare on Elm Street when it was finally released here) and died quickly after a regional release. Luckily, some of the film's producers bounced back - among them are Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, who'd go on to form Carolco and produce things like T2 and a lot of Stallone's movies. I can only assume that their involvement is the reason the film is now out of print, as it was released by Anchor Bay a while back but the rest of the Carolco library seems to be at Lionsgate now - it might be in some weird limbo with no one really caring. And the Gate barely seems interested in their big horror properties these days (that Saw boxed set - ugh!) so even if they got it in the package I can't see them bothering to dig it out of their virtual mothballs to give it a nice release. Then again, HBO certainly didn't beg to have it, so there's gotta be someone out there making sure it's being seen by modern audiences, so perhaps a new disc isn't a total pipe dream. Not that I'd rush out and buy it, but it's such an odd little movie to come out of that time period that I think more folks should give it a look, if only out of curiosity. Here's hoping!
What say you?