1996's Witchcraft VIII: Salem's Ghost is what you might call the Halloween III: Season of the Witch of the Witchcraft series. By this I do not mean that it was initially regarded as a terrible misstep that was later rediscovered by a later generation of series fans who considered it to be something of a lost classic. God forbid I should spend any amount of time trying to get into the headspace of the most enthusiastic members of the Witchcraft fanbase. No, all I mean is that this is the one that has exactly fuck-all to do with the rest of the movies in the series: for a sufficiently generous sense of "continuous": at least the other twelve movies out of first thirteen Witchcraft entries tell the single, continuous story of William Churchill Adams Spanner, warlock lawyer (that is, he's a lawyer who is a warlock in his down time, not that he practices warlock law. He's been at least a public defender and a divorce attorney). But as of 1995's Witchcraft 7: Judg[e]ment Hour, the "final chapter" as it was sold at the time, Will had been killed off, rather unceremoniously. Salem's Ghost starts an entirely new narrative with absolutely nothing to with poor dead Will, an experiment that ended up lasting for precisely one entry before the producers scrambled to figure out how to bring their marquee character back from the grave. So, again, Halloween III: Season of the Witch. And also like Season of the Witch, Salem's Ghost has a character with the most brutally fucking awful Irish accent you could ever encounter in your darkest nightmares. So that's two things.

It is, in fact, probably the case that Salem's Ghost wasn't even supposed to be a Witchcraft picture: it was apparently shot before Judg[e]ment Hour, in 1994, only to be rebranded after it failed to do any business. So we have, just to be clear, a movie that was not good enough for the standards of mid-1990s softcore direct-to-video horror. This is probably at least in part because, as far as that goes, Salem's Ghost isn't so smutty as all that; coming on the heels of two outright porn films, this has barely any sex and nudity, enough that if one popped it in hoping for those things, I imagine it would feel like an outrageous disappointment. Not least because the sex and nudity we actually get are just awful: two of the five sex scenes here are so excessively unappealing that I can't imagine even the most indiscriminate teenage consumer of softcore finding them satisfactory.

Also, yes, I am aware that I just said "five sex scenes" and "this one has barely any sex" about the same 90-minute movie. This just tells you where we're at with the Witchcraft movies.

Having spent so much time talking around Salem's Ghost, probably we should actually stare the thing square in its face and see what we've got. The action starts in the 17th Century, a time period we haven't visited since the first Witchcraft ; the year is 1692 and the place is "Salem Colony". Which will, amazingly, not count as the most egregious "you don't know anything, do you?" fuckup the film makes. Anyway, a group of white warlocks have all gathered to set fire to a dark warlock, Simon Renfro (Jack van Landingham), who offers the usual defiant screams of wicked, prideful evil before going up in flames. Then they bury his remains in a crypt sealed with a cross-shaped, jeweled sword, and bury the crypt beneath the foundations of a new building. And then we skip ahead 300 years, making it two years before the film was shot and four before it was released, so things are going extremely well.

Here in 1992, a married couple has just arrived in Salem: Sonny Dunaway (Lee Grober) is a history professor who has left his last job in some disgrace - a dalliance with a student, no less - and he and his wife Mary Ann (Kim Kopf) have agreed that they're going to try to patch things up by relocating and starting their lives over from scratch. This includes setting up in a massive home that was found by a local religious society in a part of town awfully near to where the old witch burnings happened all those centuries ago, and when Sonny's dubious new boss (William Knight) learns this, he responds with the kind of panicked, head-shaking dismay that would have you or I immediately begging to know what dark history is attached to our new home. But Sonny seems to have forgotten all about it by the time he gets back to find Mary Ann fretting that it doesn't feel quite right for the two of them. He comforts her doubts by pointing out that it is, in fact, a great place to do some fucking, and she enthusiastically agrees, leading to one of the very worst sex scenes I have ever seen in a motion picture. It's a food sex scene, you see - Salem's Ghost generally looks a bit further back in its choices of what to rip-off than the proper Witchcraft pictures, in this case 1986's 9½ Weeks - and a more revoltingly unsanitary food sex scene you could hardly hope to scrounge up. And this just one movie later than the horrifying "sweet boozy milk" sex scene that opened Judg[e]ment Hour. A rather extravagant, even wasteful quantity of honey is involved.

After cleaning sticky film from God knows what crevices, Sonny and Mary Ann get to meet their neighbors, the Bakers, and if Salem's Ghost was still teetering on the edge between "bad" and "excruciating", this would do it. Mitch (David Weills) is a plumber and Gayle (Anthoni Stewart) is, I don't know, the world's worst Jayne Mansfield impersonator, or something. In all the annals of indescribably bad comic relief in horror cinema, I really don't know if I can immediately think of anybody who made my skin crawl right off my body more than Gayle - she speaks in a childish sing-song that feels so mawkishly insincere that I assumed it had to be hiding some nefarious secret, but nope. She's just that squeaky and insipid, and between themselves, writer-director Joseph John Barmettler and Stewart felt that this Carol-Kane-on-helium-as-a-10-year-old routine was going to be comic gold. Especially later on, when she and Mitch get their sex scene - the comic relief gets a sex scene - with her as a bubble-brained sexy nurse. She's bad enough that it's almost easy to overlook how disastrously bad Mitch is: he looks like Randy Quaid as a gone-to-seed amateur pornographer, and Weills plays everything as a series of bug-eyed over-the-top reaction shots that are amplified into the stratosphere by composer Miriam Cutler's ruinous decision to go for bouncy kids' TV-style comic beats everywhere they aren't strictly forbidden by the script. Such as in the food sex scene, where she instead uses a solo female vocalist doing "do be do ba da"-style quasi-scatting that makes it sound like things might break into the theme song for a '90s sitcom at any instant.

Fortunately, right about this point, the film settles into lazily riffing on The Amityville Horror, and as long as we're stuck in neither a hateful sex scene, or an even more hateful visit to the dipshits next door (or most hateful of all, watching them engage in the marital act), Salem's Ghost basically cruises on in. The execution is pretty terrible, but at least it manages to hit so-bad-it's-good territory often enough to be more fun in its abject stupidity than enervating, particularly since the very straightforward plot means that it doesn't do the Witchcraft thing of spending 20 minutes forgetting to advance the narrative. Basically, Mitch gets over-eager to fix the Dunaways' pipes, and accidentally frees Renfro, who skulks around as a smear of red dust that feels like some intern's very first digital compositing job. This leads to run-of-the-mill haunted house shenanigans, at which point the couple realises that the Protestant Church of England might have been up to no good in selling them the house, since that turns out to be the name of the religious order that, presumably, sealed Renfro in the first place. And yes, the Church of England is Protestant, but I don't think they're quite that desperate to make sure you know it. Given that the Protestant Church of England, when we first encounter them, are chanting in Latin, I would be tempted to say that Barmettler just doesn't get who Protestants even are, but it becomes clear soon enough that he basically just doesn't get anything. For the PCoE has sent a witch-hunter to clean up their paranornmal oopsie, in the form of McArthur (Tom Overmyer), easily the most appealing screen presence in the movie, not least because of his comfortingly asinine fait' and begorrah Hoirish haccent. I do not know where Overmyer comes from, but I suspect his dialogue work consisted of watching a bunch of Lucky Charms commercials. Or maybe just eating a couple of boxes of Lucky Charms in one go, right before the shoot. This is adorable for multiple reasons, the cartoony excess being one of them, but also because the filmmakers have put so much effort into making an Irish stereotype the sole onscreen representative of the Protestant Church of England. The name of that institution tells me precisely two things about it, and they are the two exact things I specifically don't associate with the Irish.

Anyway, this all devolves into a warlock battle, with van Landingham showing up to play the resurrected Renfro as a kind of scuzzy middle-aged metalhead with sharpied-on tattoos, and I love his presence very much. Not as much as I love Overmyer's strenuously Irish manchild priest, but quite a lot. And I think Salem's Ghost would benefit from more of him. Certainly anything would be good if it reduced our time with the heinous Bakers, or the subplot about a student, Cathy (Mai-Lis Holmes), who is so desperate for Sonny's receding hairline and toneless muscles that she keeps flinging herself at his front door in a series of increasingly insubstantial cocktail dresses. It does at least mean we get to see the single worst digital morphing effect I have ever encountered, when Renfro reveals himself after having pretended to be Sonny in order to have sex with Cathy:

To be fair, not every choice is the wrong one. Barmettler has tried to get a bit ambitious with his visuals, using a lot of striking low angles to make everything in the film loom up at us with imposing weight. This often means that the film emphasises things that needn't be emphasised, but at least Salem's Ghost isn't boring to look at. And, again, this is a Witchcraft film, or the next-best thing to one, that has a clear story with easy-to-identify narrative stakes, a prologue that leads directly into the main conflict in a smooth and artful way, and the rules of its paranormal activity make intuitive sense. These are all astonishing novelties for this franchise. The point is, the hope of any of these films being good died a long while back. The best case scenario is that they are gaudy in a zesty enough way that they become spectacularly off-putting rather than merely grubby and spiritually impoverished in a boring way. Salem's Ghost is an incredibly dumb and misguided movie, but that's just it - I'll take incredibly dumb over predictably and tediously dumb every time, if those are the only options you're giving me. And, well, this is Witchcraft we're talking about, so those are indeed the only options.

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)