Twelve entries is quite a good run, but I think at long last, with Witchcraft XII: In the Lair of the Serpent, the Witchcraft series finally found its bottom. This is recklessly optimistic, I know, but every other time one of the releases in the franchise was much, much worse than its precedecessors, it felt like a plunge. Here, the follow-up to the surprisingly agreeable, zany bullshit of Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood takes us back down to sheer unwatchable garbage; but we've been here before. In the Lair of the Serpent is a horrible experience in every possible way, but I really don't think it turns out to actually be worse than Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft. So we've hit the bottom, and now we're bouncing along it.

When this happened is a matter of some confusion. Look at some online sources, and they'll tell you In the Lair of the Serpent is a 2002 release, meaning it came out just two years after the last entry; look at others, and they give 2004, which means a four year break and, as such, the first real gap in contiguity since things got rolling with Witchcraft. I assumed this meant the video was shot in 2002 and held back until 2004, but among other things, it turns out that we've arrived at a level of professionalism such that the people making the end credits didn't bother to include a copyright date. So the only evidence I can find for a date before 2004 is one mangled sentence from the IMDb trivia page: "First the movie was only released in Japan." God, those eight sentences are a miracle. It's like an actual thought, almost, that just snaps, like the tension was wound too tight. I am certainly not going to permit that little dream fragment stand against all the evidence I have that the film first saw the light of day as a DVD in the United States in April, 2004. So that's the year I'm going with, officially.

If this sounds like a stalling tactic to put off talking about the movie, it actually isn't, this time. This is because I am uncertain there's a movie to talk about. The Witchcraft series had begun its sure and steady pivot into softcore pornography many, many years before In the Lair of the Serpent ever came out, many years before it won its solitary point of historical interest as The Horror Movie Series With The Most Entries Ever. Back when it was indeed still a horror movie series, which I guess we still have to call it that. There's a woman who kills people for her snake god, and the hero fights her with his witch powers. But never has any Witchcraft's veneer of horror elements felt like such a flimsy cover for the fact that basically, this is just plain porn. The story comes nowhere near filling even just the 88 minutes that writer-director Brad Sykes has stretched this out to; in between the meager scenes of narrative are long, unhurried stretches of time spent watching naked women tricking horny men into bed. Here they are zapped with red laser beams from the eyes of a masked figure all in black.

The first person to be so seduced and murdered, at least within the film, is Jeff Lawton (Bruce Blauer), who meets his end when he hooks up at a nightclub with a woman named Tisa (Monika Wild - and I do think we can fairly judge where In the Lair of the Serpent has arrived by the fact that there is a cast member with the highly likely name of "Monika Wild"). To do so, he had to abandon his sister, Cindy (Janet Keijser), who takes his insulting, loutish behavior in stride, but still manages to notice when he goes missing. Luckily, Cindy and Jeff have an old family friend, a certain Will Spanner (Chip James), and she thinks that he'll be just the right man to investigate. And so he joins up with police detective Tom Greaves (Garrett Clancy) to investigate, which mostly just involves always being slightly behind when Tisa or one of her fellow snake cultists do a little striptease followed by a little grinding followed by getting zapped by the masked man. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until eventually Will finally meets up with the women and the masked man, discovering that the latter is none other than the snake demon Malleus (Joe Myles), and they have a little wizard's duel.

That last bit was a spoiler, I guess, but honestly, I think the only thing I could conceivably recommend about In the Lair of the Serpent is the surprisingly good snake-god prosthetic that feels like it must have represented a fairly substantial percentage of the entire budget. It is certainly the only thing in 88 minutes that feels like an actual movie is going on. Everything else is basically just Will and Greaves talking rather generically about the business of investigating a crime, with stunningly repetitive sex scenes breaking these apart. There's, like, no artistic creativity here - and yes, I'm trying to apply film criticism to a porno, the more fool me. But even at their most sleazy and sordid, the previous Witchcrafts  at least had different kinds of sex scenes. This one involves food; that one involves a blue light. Here they're in a tub; now they're in a basement, standing in a shower of what must be ice-cold greywater. But in this film, it's all, just, like, sex.

Sykes isn't trying very hard, but I guess that's fair; what would possibly be his motivation to do otherwise? Not only is In the Lair of the Serpent the most perfunctory of the Witchcrafts, it's also, against all reason, the most aggressively shitty-looking. This has been a direct-to-video franchise since its inception, so high-end aesthetics have never been on the table, especially after they shifted to shooting on videotape in the mid-90s. And the thing about video technology is that it has been improving steadily for four decades now. A film shot in video in 2002 just plain ought to look better than one shot in 1996 or 1998. But the cameras they were using here were clearly not the state of the art, shall we say. Hell, I was a film student when In the Lair of the Serpent was in production, and we had better cameras available in our videography production class than seems to have been made available to Sykes and company. And the video is even pretty good compared to the sound, which is easily the worst in the franchise thus far.

Still, there have been worse-directed Witchcraft movies; In the Lair of the Serpent hasn't a single interesting looking image, but it also doesn't have any that e.g. slice everybody's face off at the chin, or trap them in imbalanced medium-wide shots that end at the exact worst part of the thigh, or any of the many hideous crimes against cinematography perpetrated in the name of this series. It looks cheap as shit, but not totally incompetent.

And, insofar as this has the rudiments of a story, it's kind of interesting that Will is an actual white witch in this one, in only his ninth appearance as an adult. Indeed, there has not been a Witchcraft since the first that actually feels so much like witchcraft is a meaningful part of its narrative. The pity is that this comes in the form of a film that eschews all of the rest of the series' points of continuity: no Detectives Lutz & Garner, and Greaves is hardly the like of their miserable, sarcastic, shitty selves. And when Will starts to have the same ugly sex with Cindy that everyone else has in this movie, it's clear that his surprisingly durable fiancée Keli has been unceremoniously ditched from the series, after having provided such a nice thread of reliable, concrete continuity for so long oh my God I'm complaining about how this violates the ongoing continuity of the Witchcraft movies, what is actually fucking wrong with me?

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)
Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft (Cabrera, 1998)
Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood (Ford, 2000)
Witchcraft XII: In the Lair of the Serpent (Sykes, 2004)