In methodically carving one's path through something like the Witchcraft series, it becomes important for the reviewer to keep himself amused by plucking at the tiniest little points of distinction, lest every single review turn into exactly the same series of despondent rants. So here is what I think is most interesting about Witchcraft IV: The Virgin Heart: if I am following the tendrils of who was involved with what movie at which point correctly, I think this is the point in the series at which Troma Entertainment enters the picture. And it is maybe worth wondering - probably not, but nothing about this franchise is really "worth" anything - how different the fate of Witchcraft would have been if that hadn't happened. Because Troma is, like, a name, enough for the kind of people who'd be caught dead watching a Witchcraft movie under any circumstances to take notice of what they offer their imprimatur to. Is that the little shot in the arm that gave the brand name enough recognition that it could somehow keep coasting for another ten years without even slowing down on its way to 16-and-hopefully-not-counting entries?

The question of "why are there so many goddamn Witchcrafts?" will undoubtedly plague me without an answer for a long time yet, but since we're still in the early stretch, it's probably for the best just to stick with what we have, in the form of The Virgin Heart. I have sold it short: there are actually other points of (extremely modest) interest beyond the Troma thing. We have the last Witchcraft movie in front of us that stars Charles Solomon, Jr. as William Churchill Adams Spanner, who for the first time has kept his surname from the previous entry. And in that sense, The Virgin Heart arguably counts as the last one of these that feels like part of a coherent series, though making that argument would require an absurdly generous definition of "coherent". We also have, courtesy of director James Merendino and cinematographer Kevin Morrisey, the very first Witchcraft movie that has visuals that are even a little bit worth looking at. Several of them in fact: I don't know what the hell those two were thinking, but The Virgin Heart has actual interesting compositions that try to do something graphically rewarding with the 1.33:1 frame, particularly in how they make a point of separating the foreground and background in several shots. In a couple of places, that's even worked into Tony Miller's editing pattern, with normal shot/reverse-shot conversations between close-ups and medium long shots, to  drive a little bit of extra tension into the conversations. To be clear, I am basically praising this for not failing to take advantage of compositional strategies that were a good 70 years old by the time The Virgin Heart came out. But it's praise I was unable to extend to Witchcraft III: The Kiss of Death.

Speaking of The Kiss of Death, I promised that was the point at which the series landed, at least temporarily, on a formula it would be able to keep reusing, and we see here the second consecutive entry in the series in which Will plays an extremely shitty defense attorney pressed into business as a detective, who discovers that wouldn't you just know, the case he's working on turns out to intersect with the demonic in a way that takes advantage of his secret history as a reluctant warlock. Heck, in this movie, as we'll eventually find out, it's not even totally bullshit contrivance: there is actually a given reason why it's not actually a coincidence. Not a reason that holds any water, mind you, but for Merendino and co-writer Michael Paul Girard to have put in the literal smallest possible amount of effort I can imagine is appreciated.

Will's mission this time around is to prove, on behalf of a certain Lily (Lisa Jay Harrington), that her 17-year-old brother Pete (Orien Richman) is innocent of the horrible sacrificial murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend Nora (porn star Sunset Thomas, appearing for the only time, I believe, under her birth name Diane Fowler. I like to imagine that the name change is because she was concerned that this project would be uniquely damaging to her professional reputation). We know that Pete is innocent, because we saw the opening scene, where Pete wiped out and got concussed trying to find Nora after she went missing at the local makeout point. We also know that Pete is one of the least-convincing teenagers in all the annals of grown-ass adults trying to fake it, but that's not important. Solomon's not convincing as a lawyer, either. So anyways, Will's investigation turns up some clues lying right in plain sight at the crime scene, and he follows these to Coven, a local strip club. Will the warlock takes, like, an hour of the running time to start wondering if a business named Coven has anything to do with witches. But more to the point, here he meets Belladonna (legendary softcore star Julie Strain), a stripper and singer in thrall to her abusive manager Santara (Clive Pearson), who is also known for his uncanny success as a middle-aged disc jockey at a local college station. Santara, as you can undoubtedly guess, is a demon working in the music industry for his own evil ends. The movie is happy to confirm this guess roughly 75 minutes into its 92-minute running time.

I mean, sure, easy to bag on a Witchcraft picture for having a dumb plot that tries to stretch about 20 minutes of narrative content into an hour and a half of running time, and to present as shocking twists narrative developments that were predictable just from the fact that we are well aware that, God damn us for the fools we are, we're watching a Witchcraft. In this respect, at least, The Virgin Heart is no worse than any of its predecessors, and is maybe slightly less aggravating, even, since it is starting to get very clear at this point that the series is readying itself to make the jump into actual softcore pornography. We're not there yet - there's more naked skin here than in The Kiss of Death, but less actual sex - but the presence of two separate Penthouse Pets of the Year in the cast, and the centrality of a strip club to the narrative both make it pretty clear what direction the wind is blowing. The less that the series pretends to be about a demon-hunting warlock trying to escape his evil past by solving paranormal mysteries, and the more it just embraces the seedy, sordid world that this demon-hunting inevitable takes Will to, the less it feels like it's trying to lie to us, and I have to appreciate that. Words that, I am extremely certain, will come back to bite me on the ass.

This is all as much to say: I was prepared for The Virgin Heart to be worse. To be even worse, I should probably say, because this is still an extraordinarily bad movie; it is bad in some different ways to its predecessor, but they are not less-bad ways. Still, when the strengths show up, you've got to make note of them. Hence my meek praise for the unnecessarily interesting compositional strategies, or the fact that I could imagine the story being even less endurable than it is. But there are still flaws big enough to destroy a film with much stronger fundamentals than this. The worst of it, by far, is the acting, which is the worst by some distance in all four Witchrafts to this point: of the four leads (Solomon, Strain, Pearson, Harrington), Harrington is the only one who isn't absolutely top-to-bottom horrible, and I would hardly want to nominate her for any acting awards. Solomon is, as always, playing Will as shitty and unpleasant in ways that the film clearly wasn't designed for. Pearson, in a weird kind of balance with Solomon, is screaming and "big" in all the ways that the lead is mumbling and sullen. Strain is, to be fair, holding the camera with the presence of a B-movie pro, but she's not even trying to play the sad, terrified melancholy of Belladonna as Santara's prey (in a plotline that has weirdly persistent overlap with Blue Velvet, of all fucking things), just breezing her way through with self-satisfied confidence. And as we go into the side characters, things get even worse: Pete and Nora's aborted make-out session that opens the movie is a world-class example of "reading off the cue cards" energy and naturalism, made worse by the extremely different energy levels the two actors are bringing to the table (he's a squeaky little chipmunk, she seems zonked out). The worst of it is a brief visit to the college radio station manager, played by Jeremy Kasten as a collection of messy valley boy drawls and constant indignation that doesn't seem to be a choice, so much as a nervous tic.

And of course, outside of its decent compositions and surprisingly complex lighting, this is all the usual cheap-ass early-'90s direct-to-video sludge. The sound mix is a particularly bad culprit this time around, especially during a random casino scene where the beeps of the machines are almost drowning out the dialogue, and the scene ends with a big digital chiming noise so loud that it made my cats jump. It's less ugly than the other Witchcrafts, but it's still a pretty grueling aesthetic object, and that plus the glacial stillness of the narrative makes for a pretty damn unwatchable movie, even if it's less-unwatchable than it could have been.

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)
Witchcraft IX: Bitter Flesh (Girard, 1997)