With Witchcraft IX: Bitter Flesh, we hit an exceptionally exciting milestone: the back half of the franchise. At the time of writing, anyway; the series came back after one nine-year hiatus, I am not in any way optimistic enough to assume it will not do so again. But for now, we celebrate.

It's a milestone in another, smaller sense: it's the series back-to-our-roots gesture after the most dramatic attempt to do something entirely different with the brand must have apparently gone wrong. I assume whatever stable audience the Witchcraft pictures have accrued - with a dawning sense of self-loathing, I suppose at this point that I technically qualify as a member of it - must have turned against 1996's Witchcraft-in-name-only rebranding exercise, Witchcraft VIII: Salem's Ghost, enough for the indefatigable folks at Vista Street Entertainment to race back to the series' narrative spine, and even its creative personnel: with Bitter Flesh, Michael Paul Girard became the first person to direct a second Witchcraft production, after 1995's Witchcraft 7: Judg[e]ment Hour.

Speaking of which, you perhaps remember... no, of course you don't. Surely you haven't watched any of these, you're undoubtedly much less masochistic and prone to making healthier choices than I am. Nevertheless, Witchcraft IX: Bitter Flesh has decided that it's going to go hard on continuity, except where it doesn't, so I must regretfully remind you, at the end of Judg[e]ment Hour, Will Spanner (David Byrnes) was killed by a vampire. Will being the child of dark witches, raised by white witches, who is now a lawyer in Los Angeles and reluctant warlock when the cops need him to help hunt demos. Or he was, before he died. Bitter Flesh opens mere moments after his death, which has now taken place at an art gallery during an exhibition, rather than... I think it was the vampire's living room? See, this is why it was unfair of me to expect you to remember anything. At any rate, Will's ghost rises out of his curiously translucent body, in an effect should not have been nearly so tough to get right even for a direct-to-video production in 1997, and wanders into the alley. Here, he has a flashback montage to the events of the last film, while staring indifferently at the brick wall, and a couple of things immediately appear: the actual last scene of Judg[e]ment Hour, placing Will's dead body in what is definitely not an art galley, and several shots of Byrnes from two years ago, when he had blond hair and a cleanshaven face, rather than the black hair and goatee his ghost has now. If not for my assumption that "David Byrnes" surely can't be that common of a name, I genuinely don't think you could convince me it was the same man.

After this bizarre opening - simultaneously effortful and laborious in its attempts to tug on series continuity, while lazily indifferent to actually respecting that continuity to the point it's practically snoring, Bitter Flesh pivots to the place that the Witchcraft movies were always going to eventually pivot, in retrospect: to the busy working night of a sex worker. Or, to let Sheila (Landon Hall) offer her own description of the world's oldest profession: "Okay, I'm a goddamned streetwalker, a hooker, a prostitute, woman of the night, a real ho of a bitch, okay?" Okay, Sheila. Incidentally, I think I have perhaps started to give you just a little flavor of the dialogue on display in the script that Stephen Downing has pooped out for us.

The Witchcraft series were always edging in the direction of softcore pornography with a flimsy horror overlay, almost right from the start, and I had assumed a couple of films back that we'd gotten to the bottom of it, but I had forgotten one last possibility: that they'd forget to include the overlay. You can probably make the argument that Bitter Flesh is still, in a technical sense, horror; the villain is a cultist trying to raise the spirit of the ancient Egyptian god Kofu by cutting the hearts out of beautiful young virginal women, and Will is a ghost, and all. But it's not structurally horror. Almost entirely the first third of the 91-minute film just consists of the ins and outs (as it were) of Sheila's life as a hooker, presented with the charmless efficiency of a filmmaking team that was given the note "please include this many minutes of Hall's naked breasts", and reasoned that they could save some effort if they bunched them all up together right at the start. Which means, to top things off (as it were), Bitter Flesh has pretty much used up all of its slimy, smutty trashiness well before it hits the halfway point. I have in some of these Witchcraft reviews observed that simply repulsive, horrible filmmaking that's routinely interrupted by crass, tacky sex scenes is at least more watchable than repulsive, horrible filmmaking where everybody keeps their clothes on; I am very sorry to report that for a very long stretch in the middle, Bitter Flesh proves me entirely right.

Anyway, Will's disembodied sad-sack self wanders through Los Angeles waving his arms around and getting very pissy that nobody can see him nor hear him, including his girlfriend Keli (Kourtne Ballentine), and the smarmy, foul-minded LAPD detectives Lutz (Stephanie Beaton) and Garner (Mikul Robins), none of whom have yet clocked that he's dead. This is in part because some malevolent force appears to have taken over his body, and is putting the moves on Keli using it (he does this in a room with Vincent Van Gogh-themed walls, no less). But that barely gives us any screentime at all. Instead, Lutz and Garner - particularly off-putting this time around, both at the level of acting and in the oozing, sneering quality of their writing. Also, Lutz has been slutted up something fierce this time, spending part of the running time with no top except for a skintight blazer fastened with a single button that appears like it might pop and send her boobs flopping out if she blinks too  hard - wander around investigating the increasing number of heartless dead bodies. At a certain point, they pay a visit to Professor Shannon (Kathryn Hudson), who enters the film giving a 45-second lecture on Egyptology - seriously, we see both the beginning and end, practically in the same shot - and for this I am grateful, since at least Hudson's squeaky voice and over-the-top "I am serious academic lady" facial expressions are funny, whereas time spent with Beaton and Robins is sort of like sitting in a wading pool full of spend motor oil and dead snails. Also, it occurs to me that this is all basically a remake of the infamously terribly Blood Feast; even more horribly, in a world where Mardi Gras Massacre exists, I can't even say it's the worst remake of Blood Feast.

It's also a remake of Ghost, since it will turn out that Sheila (who recently had a near-death experience that has left her with premonitory visions) is the only person who can hear Will's whiny, disembodied voice. This puts a stop to her racing about having sex, and allows the two characters to have several heart-to-heart chats, where we are introduced to some of the absolute worst dialogue this fearless fucking atrocious screenplay has to offer, delivered over a maddeningly short repeating loop of what sounds like a Baroque minuet played on an electronic keyboard (Girard also composed the score, a proper hyphenated talent): "I don't know what to do. I've lost my job, I've lost my girlfriend. Everything," says Will in a more-concerned-than-unhappy tone, who is remaining remarkably small-minded for the ghost of a dead man. Later, he will attempt to assuage Sheila's misanthropy by sagely noting, "Not all men are pigs. I guess you have a jaundiced view of things, being a hooker."

If there's an upshot to this - "if" is doing more than its fair share of work here - it's that Hall is a relatively affable protagonist through all of this, delivering even the worst lines in a chummy shrug, and playing everything with a casual, unhurried vibe. In a movie with as little actual story as Bitter Flesh "unhurried" is no strength, but at least she leaves Sheila feeling like a person, something that happens to no other character in the movie. And she gets the most screentime, so by Witchcraft standards, this is remarkably close to psychologically grounded.

But it's also petrifyingly dull, even by Witchcraft standards. All that robust, ludicrous dialogue feels like it should be funny, but the cast and crew underplay things so hard  that never achieves the kitschy quality that would let it take off. There are other flashes of funny-bad brilliance: Sheila's pimp, Jack (Julius Antonio) comes equipped with a splendidly garish accent that occasionally comes close enough to Cajun to make it clear that's what they were looking for. At one point, the priest of Kofu - kept pointedly anonymous, though there's only like two characters he could possibly be - recites a litany to his dark god in a digitally amplified voice that has exactly the cadence, volume, and echoing bombast of an announcer reminding us of the big truck show this Sunday Sunday Sunday!

None of this is enough to salvage the film, though, not even as an exercise in giddy ineptitude. It's just too unenthusiastic for that. There needs to be a sparkle of mad commitment to make a bad movie fun, or at least there needs to be something deliriously crude in its trashiness. I guess you could argue that Bitter Flesh is crude - even with its sexless, talky middle, it is softcore pornography - and trashy, as such things go, but it doesn't have the gutter-level filthiness of Judg[e]ment Day, the only film in the series that can challenge it for sheer incompetence. So it ends up being just unpleasant - not even appalling, just a sort of tepid bad time. Can't go much worse than that - he said, blithely forgetting that there are still seven more of these things.

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)