We are back for a brand new Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where we’re going to Massachusetts by way of Italy with Fabrizio Laurenti’s 1988 Witchery. Our selection this month comes from director/screenwriter Michael Varrati, whose work includes some amazing short films, a segment in the horror holiday anthology Deathcember, and multiple episodes of The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula. Varrati brings a sharp, darkly comical perspective to his work and his love of horror shines through in his work.
Varrati’s pick this month was actually released in In Italy as La Casa 4 and is part of a disjointed series that actually starts with the first two The Evil Dead movies, renamed La Casa and La Casa 2 for Italian audiences. Witchery forgoes the Evil Dead cabin for a big, old house on an island that can only be accessed by boat and is said to be haunted by a witch. Young couple Leslie (Leslie Cumming) and Gary (David Hasselhoff) are visiting the house to do research for a book, but are later joined by a family looking to purchase the property, including the greedy, domineering Rose (Annie Ross), her lecherous husband Freddie (Bob Champagne), and their kids Jane (Linda Blair) and Tommy (Michael Manchester). The group starts to see mysterious visions on the island, particularly a Woman in Black (Hildegard Knef), a former movie star who’s taken on the mantle of the island’s resident witch. As her machinations begin coming together in sinister, deadly fashion, the group must look to find a way off the island before they’re all sacrificed to her ritual.
As always, please consider this your blanket warning that we will be diving into spoiler territory during this discussion. But before we get into that, Michael, do you remember where/when you first watched Witchery? How did you even find this movie? What were your initial reactions?
I think I initially saw Witchery in the late ‘00s. I had been doing some writing and traveling with the team from Ultra Violent magazine, and I really remember that as being the impetus to seek out some “off the beaten path” titles. Ultra Violent always was (and is) primarily focused on deep dives into exploitation, underground, and international horror…and my friend Ally Melling (now Ultra Violent’s Managing Editor) and I used to love finding deep cuts we could obsess over and share with others. I know for a fact that I initially heard of Witchery in relation to The Evil Dead and how it had been marketed in Europe as a sequel to that film. I was aware that there were other movies that also held this distinction - Ghosthouse and Beyond Darkness, for example - but this one stood out to me simply because of the inclusion of David Hasselhoff and Linda Blair.
Now, obviously, Witchery has nothing to do with The Evil Dead, but even imagining a shared universe where The Hoff and Bruce Campbell could stand side-by-side in battle with the supernatural tickled me. So, if I’m being honest, it was a sense of perceived kitsch that first drew me to the movie. And while I do think the film delivers on being absolutely bonkers, it became near and dear to me because it’s also really well-crafted and knowingly wild. All that to say, my initial reaction was “oh, this is bananas…and I think I love it.”
Speaking of The Hoff, this movie has a pretty quirky cast, between him and Linda Blair. But I understand there were hopes for an even more interesting inclusion?
Indeed! In Roberto Curti’s book Italian Gothic Horror Films 1980-1989, it’s alleged that the producers were originally urged to bring in Bette Davis to play the witch. They eventually hired German actress Hildegard Knef instead (whose own resume is quite impressive), but you can’t dangle the idea of a gore film starring Bette Davis in front of cinephiles without causing us to wonder about what might have been. By that point in her career, Davis was no stranger to horror, but she had never done anything quite as unhinged or bloody as Witchery. There’s a part of me that would have loved to see her go toe-to-toe with Linda Blair and David Hasselhoff, crucifixions, viscera, and all. That being said, Knef’s performance is delicious and wicked. She owns every scene she’s in and the movie excels because of her villainy, so I ultimately have no complaints.
This is the first film I’ve seen from director Fabrizio Laurenti, and in fact I’ve never even heard of his other work. But he certainly hits all the notes you’d expect from Italian horror, including melodrama, vague mysteries, stilted acting. Where would you put Laurenti among the Dario Argentos, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bavas of the film world?
That’s such a tricky question, because in my mind, even the trio of filmmakers you mentioned are all wildly different in their approaches…even if their commonality is that they all helped shape modern Italian horror. I’m a huge fan of Argento and I think at his peak, his craftsmanship was absolutely unparalleled. Bava is a genius (I could watch Blood and Black Lace or Danger: Diabolik any day of the week) and Fulci’s ability to construct visceral nightmares is staggering. In each case, they all have considerable bodies of work that speak to their talent and their legacy. More so, they all have a lot more global crossover.
Laurenti worked (he also made The Crawlers, which horror fans may recognize) but most of his filmography has been in his native Italy. So to me, it’s like ranking a very specific band alongside an act that does mega-arenas. That is not to say that one is better than the other…just the reach is very different. But ultimately a good song is a good song…and a good movie is a good movie. So, I don’t really think of him as akin to those other guys, but that’s not a bad thing - because sometimes you want to listen to The Beatles and sometimes you want to listen to They Might Be Giants, you know?
This movie has all the subtlety you might expect from a series primarily built on rebranding U.S. releases. They might as well have just named the characters Greedy, Slutty, Virgin, etc. But do you think there’s a bit of investigating these kinds of stock characters in the script? Or is it just bad writing?
I think there’s a tendency for modern audiences to look back on these Euro horror releases with a bemusement that can occasionally come dangerously close to condescension. I’ve heard people complain that the dubbing takes them out (which is a discussion of its own) or that the simplicity of the characters borders on a surrealness that they find challenging. But sometimes I think the simplicity and the surrealness are the key. You have to remember that often these movies were written in the English language with the hopes of breaking into the American market…by folks who were neither American or spoke much English, if at all. So what happens is the characters maybe lack specific nuance, but are constructed in a way that they wear their attributes on their sleeves - much like fairy tales.
Movies like Witchery or Suspiria are fever dreams and dark fairy tales…and what we need to know about the people navigating the story is presented in that fashion. Furthermore, and the part people rarely like to hear, is that in Witchery and many others are American characters as interpreted by Italian filmmakers. The ridiculous behavior, the all-consuming greed, the puritanical zeal…that may well just be what they see when they look at us. All that to say, is it bad writing? No, I don’t think so, but it’s definitely very specific writing. And if you don’t meet it as it’s presented, it’s going to feel very off.
That’s a very interesting point. Based on the film, how do you think Laurenti views America? Were the character choices incidental or is he trying to bring his perspective on American ideals to the forefront?
That’s an interesting question that probably gets a little complicated by the behind-the-scenes of the film. I know that Witchery was pushed into production relatively quickly after the success of Ghosthouse and initially was to be directed by Claudio Lattanzi (Killing Birds). However, Lattanzi left during pre-production and then for a time Luigi Cozzi was set to direct. For one reason or another, Cozzi also bounced relatively close to the shoot and was ultimately replaced by Laurenti. Based on what I’ve seen of Laurenti’s other work, I still think he was able to bring a lot of himself to the project…but I can’t with certainty say it was specifically his views on American ideals we were seeing.
It seems more likely that the perspective comes from the screenwriter, Daniele Stroppa (who also was a co-writer of The Wax Mask and Lamberto Bava’s Delirium). Regardless, though, it’s interesting to note that the whole crux of the movie centers around the witch seeking out people with defining attributes like greed, lust, and defilement. What’s more, the people who represent those things have all gathered in this place because they are motivated to flip the location for profit with zero regard to its history. In a lot of ways, it seems like a commentary on Americans’ penchant for gentrification, no?
I was very impressed by the makeup effects from Maurizio Trani, who also worked on Zombie, The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery. There were very few seams showing in his work, particularly the lip sewing sequence on poor Rose (sure, she was obnoxious as hell, but her demise was still pretty mean). Were there any standouts for you?
Oh, let’s be real - the lips being sewn shut is the absolute delicious cringe sequence of the film. It’s so gruesome and the effects still hold up today. So yeah, that’s the moment. Beyond that, I do think the crucifixion of Linda and Jerry is kind of wild. Sure, torture inspired by Roman-Catholic damage in an Italian horror movie might seem a little rote, but it’s still effective. And also, let’s not forget that this isn’t a mere witch doing the murders, but a “former movie star” witch. Like, the DRAMA.
For all of the exploitation-y goodness in the movie, Leslie “The Virgin’s” plot thread was uncomfortable to say the least. From the vague depiction of her being a virgin as some kind of emotional disorder to a demonic sexual assault, her entire plotline had poorly thought out “shock value” written all over it. Do you think this is a product of the film’s place and time, or do you think it probably drew some disgusted looks even then?
I definitely think it’s a product of the time. If you look at the landscape of horror during that particular era, both stateside and abroad, there was a real push in the indie sphere for shock value. And sexual exploitation, for better or worse, was very in vogue. If you consider the Laura Gemser Emmanuelle movies or the Italian response to Last House on the Left, there seemed to be an impetus to push the envelope, because I think they thought that’s what people wanted. Also, to cycle back to an earlier point, I think they thought it’s what Americans wanted. I think there was a belief, and perhaps well-founded, that stateside audiences wanted a heaping helping of excess, no matter what form it took. For what it’s worth, the Leslie storyline is my least favorite in the movie, but I definitely do see it as a very exploitation response to the run of possession-centric films the decade(s) prior: “Oh, the Devil is in you? But what if that was more literal?”
What’s your take on that final little stinger in the hospital where Leslie finds out she’s pregnant? Of course all roads seemed to be leading there, but there was something so abrupt where there’s this grand finale just to smash cut to the hospital where within literally a matter of seconds Leslie finds out she’s pregnant and almost breaks the fourth wall when she reacts to the news. This seems very deliberate, almost like a punchline that somehow works better the more I think about it. What are your thoughts?
I love that you refer to it as a “punchline,” because in many ways that’s exactly the case. For me, the moment calls to mind Tales from the Crypt (or let’s face it, The Evil Dead) because a key factor of the horror here is an element of cruel humor. Part of the dark comedy of The Evil Dead is the ultimate futility of the situation. We know in the macro sense, the Deadites will just keep coming because what they represent is so much bigger than the foibles and failings of humanity, so there’s something of an absurdity to watching Ash’s escalating fight back. In a similar sense, I feel that’s what this stinger represents. Leslie has survived an inexplicable, otherworldly ordeal wherein a Golden Era movie star-turned-witch used crazy, demonic practices to decimate the people surrounding her…and she thought that she was going to come out of that unscathed? It’s with her now, always.
As always, I like to ask my guests if their film choice is ripe for a sequel, reimagining, reboot, etc. Do you think this is something you’d like someone to take a swing at today? If so, who do you think would be right for the job?
I absolutely think there’s a world where this could be updated for a modern audience. The general conceit of the story - a remote coastal island hotel haunted by a witch - is pretty much a timeless logline. What I think would be fun is to do it as a legacy sequel disguised as a remake. Allow the events of the original to have happened and now all these years later bring folks back to the island. And since we’re shooting for the stars here, do the thing the original was never able and somehow finally tie it into the larger Evil Dead universe! Let’s make the pretend sequels part of the family…the world of wild demons is big enough for everyone! I’d also love to see Blair and Hasselhoff back, but for obvious reasons that might be tricky.
As for who I think would be right for the job…of course, as a filmmaker myself, I would love to be like, “I could do it!” But, that’s a cheat of an answer, so I’d like to see a filmmaker who could take what’s present in the original and push it farther. Someone like Ana Lily Amirpour could take the film’s surrealistic elements and elevate them into absolute nightmare territory. Similarly, I think Danishka Esterhazy’s brilliant melding of horror and strong character portrayals could course correct some of the more one dimensional presentations. Or hell, maybe bring it back to an Italian filmmaker of the new generation like Ivan Zuccon. I would watch all three of those movies!