Monday, October 23, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Witchtrap

On its original release, posters and promotional material for Kevin S Tenney’s ‘Witchtrap’ carried the weird caveat that it was not a sequel to his earlier film ‘Witchboard’. There was probably a very good legal reason for this, but it seems utterly disingenuous. Granted, the word “witch” features in the title, and there’s a late-in-the-game plot development whereby a female character becomes a conduit to a malevolent male spirit, but in no other respect does it even resemble ‘Witchboard’. Apart from, y’know, the bad acting and the over-egged direction.

What it does resemble – I’m not saying plagiarism, dig, just resemblance – is Fabrizio Laurenti’s ‘Witchcraft’ (a.k.a. ‘Witchery’, a.k.a. ‘La Casa 4’), made the previous year. Let’s run a quick check and see how many hits we get on the resemble-o-meter:

Prologue featuring terrified character sprinting down long corridors prior to plummeting out of a second story window? Check.

A prime piece of real estate afflicted by a supernatural presence? Check.

Owner of said real estate financially burdened to the point where they have to make a go of it as a residential concern or face massive losses? Check.

Female protagonist who is well-respected within her profession introduced via gratuitous nude scene? Check.

Two sets of characters – one camp believing in the supernatural, the other not – compelled to work together? Check.

Aforementioned supernatural presence arranging things so that said characters are essential trapped in said piece of prime real estate? Check.

A foiled escape attempt (by helicopter in ‘Witchcraft’, by car here)? Check.

Really really bad actor with a stupid name (Robert Champagne in ‘Witchcraft’, Rob Zapple here)? Check. Okay, that last one was a bit tenuous. But you get the point.

For what it’s worth, let’s romp through a ‘Witchtrap’ synopsis. Devon Lauder (Kevin S Tenney, stepping in at the last minute after the originally cast actor dropped out) inherits a big old house that happens to be haunted by his uncle Avery (J.P. Luebsen)’s ghost. The terms of Avery’s will disallow Devon from selling the property, and he needs to make a go of the place as guest house or face financial ruination. A publicity stunt with Vegas magician The Amazing Azimov (Richard Fraga) – Devon thinks he can generate interest in promoting the venue as an authentic haunted house – backfires when said conjuror is supernaturally tormentor and defenestrates from the second storey. At his wits’ end, Devon calls in husband-and-wife parapsychologist team Agnes (Judy Tatum) and Felix Goldberg (Rob Zapple). Agnes quickly assembles her team: hubby Felix is a “mental medium”, Whitney O’Shay (Kathleen Bailey) is a “physical medium”, and Ginger Kowowski (Linnea Quigley) is there to handle the recording equipment and look hot in a crop top.

Accompanying Agnes and co – at Devon’s explicit instruction given what happened to The Amazing Azimov – is private security consultant Murphy (Jack W Thompson) and his top operatives Tony Vicente (James W Quinn) and Leon Jackson (Clyde Talley II). Vincente is Asian (yup: fine Asian fine is Vicente) and Jackson is black and the supposedly matey bantz between them is as casually racist as it gets without being a Walt Disney film circa ‘Dumbo’ or ‘Song of the South’. It’s probably worth mentioning that Vincente is some sort of super-cop whom Murphy only tolerates because Vicente’s reputation pulls in a fuckton of business. In actuality, Murphy and Vicente hate each other and never miss an opportunity to trade barbed insults. It’s worth mentioning that not because it has any fucking impact on the plot, but because the script bludgeons the viewer over the head with it at roughly five minute intervals for at least 70% of the entire fucking running time.

Quite why the Murphy/Vincente antagony is so painstakingly established only not to result in any kind of payoff, I have no idea. But then I have no idea why a Jackson/Ginger romance is hinted at only for one of the participants to be almost offhandedly despatched. Nor why Vincente and Agnes seem to be developing an under-Felix’s-nose flirtation only for Vincente’s protectorship to switch to Whitney. Nor why the film’s called ‘Witchtrap’ when the antagonist is so obviously a warlock.

In its defence, though, ‘Witchtrap’ isn’t as egregiously bad as ‘Witchboard’ or ‘Witchcraft’: it’s pacier and more eventful than the former, and nowhere near as powerfully stupid or riddled by inconsistencies as the latter. It is, however, the least well-acted of the three, with only Quinn bothering to create a character and deliver his lines with a bit of bite. Tatum and Bailey are almost inseparable in their woodenness; eventually the only way I could tell them apart was that Tatum had the scratchy voice and the stilted delivery while Bailey had the squeaky voice and the stilted delivery.

Still, every character in a film like this is essentially expendable: even those singled out from the start as Male Lead and Final Girl remain mere ciphers. The big bad is what counts in this type of flick, whether it’s a psycho-killer, a ghost, a demon, a warlock or an undead tax inspector. And Luebsen as Avery Lauder – while never likely to give Jason or Freddy or Pennywise a run for their money – does at least invest his characterisation with enough flamboyant malevolence to make the proceedings worthwile. In particular, Avery’s manipulation of a character who makes a final reel escape attempt gives the film its most effective sequence.

There’s also a sub-plot involving voyeuristic groundsman Elwin (Hal Havins) – a former associate of Avery’s – who comes across as well fucking dodgy from the outset and loses no time in going into complete meltdown. Whether a deliberate aesthetic decision or because Tenney’s script couldn’t be bothered to establish motivation, it’s never entirely certain whether the second-fiddle antagonist he becomes is due to Avery’s supernatural influence or his own mental health issues. I strongly suspect the ambiguity was accidental, but it’s definitely welcome and kicks against the boilerplate narrative beats elsewhere, so I’m not complaining.

Kevin S Tenney notched up his B-movie meisterwerk second time out with ‘Night of the Demon’, a quantum leap from the hack work of his feature debut ‘Witchboard’. ‘Witchtrap’ was his third role of the genre dice and he got enough things right to suggest a career path as a dependable purveyor of the cheap and nasty. How dependable? Well, the Winter of Discontent is just round the corner. Maybe it’s time to sample more of his wares …

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