Announcing a new series! In the hope that if I punish myself severely enough in public, 2021 might accept my sacrifice and end up being less apocalyptic than 2020, I am finally subjecting myself to one of the most infamous of all horror franchises. On the night of every full moon this year, I'll be practicing some... WITCHCRAFT.

According to the proverb, "Might oaks from little acorns grow", and there's no more knobbly, malformed tree to have painfully scratched its way up from an uglier seed than the Witchcraft franchise, which despite being liked by essentially no-one in the world has racked up enough entries - thirteen when the first run of production ended in 2008, sixteen following a trilogy that was produced and released in one clump in 2016 - to count as the most prolific English-language horror franchise in cinema history. Why this happened is anybody's guess; certainly not because the original Witchcraft made a huge splash when it slunk out into the world in 1988, going direct to video. Certainly not because it's a very good, although by the standards of direct-to-video horror in the late 1980s, it does almost nothing to embarrass itself; the worst things about it are par for the course more than conspicuous failures.

The film is a rip-off of Rosemary's Baby, which doesn't feel like nearly a big enough word for it. This is a goddamned clone of Rosemary's Baby, to a degree where I found myself mentally inserting plot points from that 1968 masterpiece to patch together the bits where Witchcraft author Jody Savin hasn't quite finished assembling a screenplay. Just about the only thing that isn't stolen directly from that movie is the backstory, presented as a prologue and then further seeded in throughout the film's 86 lumpy minutes. That backstory is a good old-fashioned 17th Century Massachusetts witch-burning, and in the film's opening minutes, that event is cross-cut with a very loud, exaggerated birth scene in 1988, as Grace Churchill (Anat Topol-Barzilai, daughter of the mononymous stage and screen icon Topol, star of Fiddler on the Roof) gives birth to the Antichrist. Oops, we're not supposed to know that yet. But what other reason could there be for cutting between the scenes of Grace's labor and the death of two witches, if not that the baby is going to be somehow involved in channeling their evil witchy energy into the modern world?

In the immediate aftermath of the birth, Grace and her husband, the fantastically wealthy John Stocton (Gary Sloan, hiding under the name Edward Ross), are in a bit of a crisis, since he's too busy to take care of a newborn, and she's too worn out and in need of rest. So John has the idea that they should all move in with his mother, Elizabeth (Mary Shelley), and she can raise the baby to dedicate to the glory of the Evil One while Grace recuperates. Honestly, this wouldn't have immediately tipped me off that John and his mother are satanic cultists except that Sloan's performance, dripping vampiric innuendo, makes it pretty hard to imagine any possible alternative interpretation of his actions.

Sure enough, once entrenched at the Stocton family manor, which we are assured in flagrant violation of the actual look of the place is 300 years old (why, that would date it right about to the time of those witch burnings!), Grace starts having more visions, and Elizabeth and John immediately become even more controlling and openly menacing than they had been before. Grace's only ally in all of this is her friend Linda (Deborah Scott), an independent freethinking woman who senses something terribly "off" is happening, but to no avail. Whatever Elizabeth and John have planned for Grace and her baby William, they're willing to kill anyone from a priest to a nosy best friend, and Grace is helpless to do anything but boil in her own panic. Ostensibly. Topol-Barzilai isn't giving the worst performance in the film (that's Sloan, comfortably), but she's certainly not up to any good whatsoever, particularly as she has to dig through a thick Israeli accent that the script randomly declares to be Polish, in the hope that we won't notice, or something. Even without that, though, she's trapped in a role that is entirely passive, even outsourcing the growing sense of suspicion to Linda. And that makes it more or less impossible for the actor to make Grace come across as anything but a slow-reacting dullard.

Between the onslaught of "I bore Satan's baby" clichés and the complete failure of the characters to emerge as anything other than stick figures, it would take some wonderfully atmospheric filmmaking to make Witchcraft function as anything remotely appealing. And it certainly does not have that. Director Rob Spera isn't doing anything here that you can point to and say "that specific thing is extraordinarily bad and wrong", but he's not doing anything right, either, and he's stuck with a DTV budget and DTV resources that amplify the irritating badness of what otherwise might just seem like dreary mediocrity. The biggest problems with the film, and this really even includes the acting, are all the result of having bottom-of-the-barrel production value. Hence things like the terrible synthesizer soundtrack, which artlessly tries to create some kind of menacing mood but does so in such a tinny register, and at such arbitrary moments in the story, that it doesn't even feel trite. And things like the shockingly bad special effects, including spectral faces floating out of mirrors, and flames "encircling" little baby William's crib which itself has suddenly become tinted green. The latter is, in a bleak way, the film's signature moment, since it reveals the full depths of its lack of creativity, it's corny ideas of what makes for good horror, and the dreadful first-generation video-making tech that allows it to be slapped together with an almost admirably gross lack of artistry or visuals that don't feel caked in noise and grey grime.

There is, to be as clear as possible, nothing within Witchcraft that is at all pleasurable to watch. But it's mostly just unmemorable and cheap, crudely but proficiently made to tell a boilerplate story crisply and cleanly in 86 relatively quick minutes. And I say this not just because I am well of how much I will long for proficient boilerplate by the time we get through more than a couple of this film's sequels, but because it gets back to that insoluble question: why are there so many Witchcrafts? This film is just a big fat damn nothing, not in any way interesting, certainly not because it has created a memorable world or engaging characters or a distinctive mythology. But it's also not bad enough to feel like it earns any notoriety or the splendid ghastliness of a real disaster. It's just kind of a movie, bad and drab, but mostly forgettable and anonymous. Maybe it's just that title feels stately enough that one wants it to have some kind of name recognition. Whatever the hell did it, something about Witchcraft convinced some producers that audiences wanted, and would pay for more of it, and so we ended up with the most inexplicable perpetual motion machine that bargain-basement genre filmmaking has ever seen.

Reviews in this series
Witchcraft (Spera, 1988)
Witchcraft II: The Temptress (Woods, 1989)
Witchcraft III: The Kiss of Death ("Tillmans" [Feldman], 1991)