The Witchcraft series has a reputation for being almost unwatchably terrible, but after 1988's Witchcraft and 1989's Witchcraft II: The Temptress, I wasn't quite feeling that. They're both awful movies, but there's a certain grungy pep to The Temptress especially, a certain goofy energy that kept them from being the absolute dregs of cinema. From what I know of the absolute dregs of cinema, I can't even say that we're there yet with 1991's Witchcraft III: The Kiss of Death, but we're definitely getting close enough that you can tell it's coming. The Kiss of Death is the film with which the Witchcraft franchise begins to adopt its final form. Begins to adopt, I say, for we are still missing a crucial ingredient: while there's certainly plenty of oily, gross sexuality in this film, including a fairly explicit sex scene, we're not really in the realm of softcore pornography yet.

We have, however, gotten to the narrative formula that will more or less hold steady for a while, and as crummy as the stories were in the first two movies, it's hard not to consider this one to be a pretty massive step down. Gone are the covens of satanic witches eagerly hoping to manipulate William Adams William Churchill into helping them bring about whatever exactly it is that they were looking to do; instead, William, who has now adopted yet a third surname, Spanner (though he's still being played by Charles Solomon, Jr. from The Temptress) is trying his very hardest to live a normal life as a defense attorney without so much as a sideways glance in the direction of his warlock powers. But wouldn't you just know his bad luck, he happens to cross paths with some kind of demonic fella by the hilariously prosaic name of Louis (Domonic Luciana), and, well, he just has to fight evil, doncha know. It's probably not immediately apparent why this shift would result in The Kiss of Death being such a markedly worse film than its predecessors, but that's only because the phrase "defense attorney" probably seems pretty innocuous when it's just laid out in the middle of a sentence like that. And even then, the idea of a movie about a demon-fighting warlock lawyer probably has some potential. But the thing about The Kiss of Death is, it spends a really inexplicable amount of time depicting William's legal career, and it's terrible at this. "Astonishingly terrible", I wrote at first, but is it astonishing? This is a direct-to-video horror sequel from 1991 that's already clearly at least thinking about making the pivot into pornography. The astonishing thing would be if I reported that The Kiss of Death depicted William as a sharp legal mind whose arguments transformed the film into a courtroom drama on par with Anatomy of a Murder. Or even, like, The Devil's Advocate.

Anyway, the plot. I sort of did the plot already, didn't I? It's the kind of movie wherein, as you're watching it, it's very easy wonder where the hell the plot even is. The first thing that happens is that Louis seduces a beautiful woman in a bar, all wordless, and it's not even entirely awful until the first dialogue exchange, in which she says "Do you like it here?" and he replies, "I like it here", and for some reason the shift in the stressed syllable is meant to come off as sexy, but I was honestly just confused. At any rate, they start making out, and her low-cut top gets pulled down just enough for her nipples to pop out, because this is that kind of movie, even if it's not that kind of movie quite yet. Louis puts us and her out of our collective miseries by shocking all of the energy all of her, in the form of a glowing blue video effect. He then breathes it back into his dying girlfriend Roxy (Leana Hall), and so far, this even feels like a movie! But then it immediately stops feeling like a movie. Honestly, it stopped feeling like a movie right at the start: the opening credits sequence cross-cuts between fuzzy blue screens and close-up shots of the kind of cheap papier-mâché masks you can buy in a crafts shop. The first one has a Día de los Muertos-style design, which is both tacky as hell in its own right, and lets us know right away to expect that the rest of the masks will be a grab-bag of random cultures, all mashed together.

But anyway, it feels like this might be a movie right up until we arrive in William's legal office, to meet his new client: Ruben Carter (Ahmad Reese), an African-American teen who has been accused of raping and murdering an older divorcée whose lawn he was mowing. Literally and figuratively; he tearfully tells William that he deeply loved the woman, and how could anybody possibly think he'd want to kill her, and this is enough for William, whose very curious legal theory, as we'll find out later, is that defense attorneys should only defend the innocent, just like prosecutors should only prosecute the guilty. As he stormily rants to his enemy, Vivian Hill (Nicole Lauren), trying to get Ruben sent away, a bit later in the film: "You know Vivian, the truly sad thing is, you're trying to rack up points convicting people whether they're innocent or guilty." And, like, yes? This is the specific, exact job of a prosecutor. Anyway, Ruben is  innocent, and it doesn't matter because this isn't even really a plot point. It's just some stuff happening to puff the movie up to 90 minutes.

The point being, when we get to William's office, that's when The Kiss of Death faceplants and never gets back up. For a couple of reasons, one of them being Ruben's mother (Shay Bennett), who gets the first of the thoroughly, inexplicably bad performances we'll see over the movie: in her case, this manifests first in a line reading that suggests that Bennett could only memorise about 8 seconds of a 12-second speech, and figured that she could handle it all if she ran through it, and then started running out of gas for the last few words. A little bit after this, the Carters are joined by their witch doctor, Reverend Jondular (William L. Baker), and here the film just collapses into a ditch from which it will never, ever get out. Baker adopts a really ghastly pan-African accent to play a character who didn't need any help in the racist caricature department, and he immediately realises that there is something Secret about William. Later on, William will need to rely on him to help give him advice - magical advice, one might say, except that The Kiss of Death isn't even well-written enough to have a Magical Negro character - when he needs to fight Louis, as inevitably happens. But not so inevitably that the filmmakers - director Rachel Feldman (under the pseudonym R.L. Tillmans) and screenwriter Jerry Daly - don't stretch a full hour out of waiting for William to figure out what the hell is going on.

That hour is mostly taken up with paddling around in sordid little backwaters. Louis and William meet when the former saves the latter from an angry boyfriend at a bar - William and his designer girlfriend Charlotte (Lisa Toothman) are going through a rough patch, so he goes out looking for someone to screw, because he is Our Hero - and what follows after this is a very empty run through clichés: Louis starts to flirt with Charlotte, who likes it, and Roxy doesn't like that, and William is so busy with his case that he doesn't really care about any of this. It's small-minded and scuzzy, and so taken up with the question of when William will stop being such a crotchety ass and embrace his calling as a warlock detective, or whatever (the answer is: he will never not be a crotchety ass, since Solomon seems constitutionally incapable of doing anything other than looking sour and petulant), that it doesn't even get the ever-so-slight boost that the first two movies had by virtue of being about treacherous, conspiratorial covens. For most of the middle, the most horrific thing in The Kiss of Death is Hall's accent, a pyrotechnic display of every Eastern European accent all at once that makes her sound like a dead ringer for Tommy Wiseau. And hopefully it needn't be said that, with its direct-to-video budget, the film can't afford to look like anything but a flatly-lit squat inside several more or less empty homes populated with whatever furniture could be rented in a hurry; Feldman compounds this by relying on medium close-ups to a really distracting, disorienting extent, though I guess that sort of makes sense as a thing to do in a direct-to-video feature.

It is, all in all, a grimly unpleasant thing to sit through, interesting only in negative ways: how bizarre for our hero to be such an unlikable character played with such snappish indifference by a man who offers nothing that I can see that would make me, the producer, declare "yep, we need to get Solomon back, or the fans will be pissed" (I presume there must have been fans? Three entries feels like a lot, if there weren't fans); the astounding overreliance on lawyering for a film which has genuinely no clear what lawyers do; how the only human moment is when Carlos threatens, in the vocal tones of a ten-year-old trying to pretend his voice has already dropped, "Hey look, you stay the fuck out of it, or I'll fuck up your face!", one of the only lines of dialogue in the entire film that feels like it has anything even sort of like rhythm. Just about the best thing about the film is that it has just the right lightly sleazy tone to feel like real trash, without being out-and-out tawdry about it; Louis is a good villain for a movie with one foot either in, or inching towards, sexploitation: seductive in a smarmy, filmy way, and unlike Solomon, he has fun chewing on some of his more tastelessly sexual dialogue. That is to say: this could be worse. And as I am a pessimist, I have no doubt that the worst is still very much to come, but let's not skip ahead before we must.

Reviews in this series
Witchcraft (Spera, 1988)
Witchcraft II: The Temptress (Woods, 1989)
Witchcraft III: The Kiss of Death ("Tillmans" [Feldman], 1991)
Witchcraft IV: The Virgin Heart (Merendino, 1992)
Witchcraft V: Dance with the Devil (Hsu, 1993)
Witchcraft 666: The Devil's Mistress (Davis, 1994)
Witchcraft 7: Judgement Hour (Girard, 1995)
Witchcraft VIII: Salem's Ghost (Barmettler, 1996)