Monday, November 14, 2016

The House of Witchcraft (1989)

AKA Ghosthouse 4: Haus der Hexen (House of Witches)

Unlike Mario Bava, Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci who all excelled when dealing with supernatural themes, Umberto Lenzi is one Italian genre specialist that didn’t dive into the mystic nearly as much. Much like Ruggero Deodato, Lenzi preferred his horror and thriller films to be rooted in reality somewhat, focusing on the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on each other as witnessed in his early erotic jet set thrillers starring Carroll Baker such as Paranoia (1969), So Sweet… So Perverse (1969) and A Quiet Place to Kill (1970). Lenzi also showed a knack for psychological puzzle films with the bizarre giallo Spasmo (1974) and Euro crime classics like Almost Human (1974) and The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist (1977) display the gritty nihilism that Lenzi brought to a good number of his films. Still, Lenzi did on occasion delve into some otherworldly territory and even if his more esoteric efforts aren’t held in the same regard as some of his more renowned titles, they are nonetheless interesting films when viewed in the greater context of Lenzi’s entire body of work. In 1989, both Lenzi and Lucio Fulci signed on to direct two made for TV films under the banner of “The House of Doom”. The House of Witchcraft, Lenzi’s second film for the series is somewhat of a hidden gem and perhaps Lenzi’s most successful attempt at mythical and magical material.

Every night, Luke Palmer is plagued by a reoccurring nightmare. The dream is always the same, with Luke running through the woods into a mysterious house, into the kitchen where he meets a witch who promptly disposes of his head in a boiling cauldron. Following a nervous breakdown, Luke’s wife Martha suggests some time away at an estate Martha rented will do Luke good. Much to Luke’s surprise, the estate happens to be the exact same house from his dreams and sure enough Luke beings seeing the witch around the estate. Feeling uneasy and untrusting of Martha, Luke invites his sister in law Elsa and her daughter to visit and it isn’t long until they too, along with Sharon, the niece of the estates owner, find themselves trapped in a waking nightmare.

For a relatively low-key made for television production, The House of Witchcraft (La casa del sortilegio) is a fairly ambitious and mature endeavor, one which puts a fresh spin on various horror tropes. Even by 1989 the blurring of dreams and reality probably seemed a bit old hat but with the witchcraft angle Lenzi effectively avoids cliché in creating a sort of ambiguous world which may resemble reality yet may also be suspended between the waking and dream world. The film is basically split into three stages with the first two acting as a slow set-up, exploring Luke’s dreams as well as his for all intensive purposes defunct marriage to Martha, a fascinating character who plays a major psychological role in relation to Luke’s constant unease. Lenzi also makes creative use of another well-worn horror device, that being the house with a dark secret which again thanks to the element of witchcraft is given new life. When more characters eventually enter the fray the film essentially becomes a body count movie while all the while retaining its slightly surreal essence. The film is one of Lenzi’s most visually accomplished with the house and its surroundings shrouded in atmosphere with Lenzi wasting none of its potential giving way to such striking imagery like bleeding flowers and a decrepit, dungeon-esque basement suddenly being filled with snow. The witch herself has an interesting look. Perhaps a bit goofy looking at first she gradually becomes more and more grotesque and even a bit unsettling with each appearance.

Italian horror fans should get a kick out of Lenzi’s homage’s to his fellow countrymen during the course of the film, the most obvious being the character of Andrew Mason, the owner of the house the film takes place in, a blind man with a companion German Sheppard, a clear reference to Cinzia Monreale’s character of Emily in Fulci’s The Beyond (1981). Mason was played by the legendary Jess Franco's favorite Paul Muller who would go on to appear later the same year in Lenzi’s Hell Gate (1989). One of the most interesting, and potentially confusing things regarding The House of Witchcraft is its German re-branding as Ghosthouse 4. Although its common knowledge amongst Italian horror fanatics, Lenzi’s film Ghosthouse (1988) is technically part of a series of unrelated films re-titled for their Italian release, the “La casa” (The House) series. The first in that particular series being The Evil Dead (1981) which was released in Italy as La casa. Lenzi’s film was released as the third La casa film with the fourth film to get the La casa tag in Italy being Witchery (1988) staring Linda Blair and David Hasselhoff, also known as Witchcraft, not to be confused with Lenzi’s film! The House of Witchcraft is a proper horror film, one that should be a treat for genre fans looking for something somewhat different, from both Lenzi and films dealing with witchcraft.

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