Color, 1992, 93 mins.
Directed by Paul Clinco
Starring Anne Caffrey, Keith De Green, Jack Dunlap, Danielle Frons, Norman Stone
Culture Shock Releasing (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)
Though Tucson, Arizona may not be known as a great hotbed of horror filmmaking, it does have a few fascinating shot-on-video productions staggered in its history among the occasional high-profile animal attack title like Kingdom of the Spiders, Night of the Lepus, and Eight Legged Freaks. One of these is Death Magic, an ambitious early '90s direct-to-VHS supernatural epic coincidentally issued on Blu-ray from Culture Shock Releasing at the same time as another Tucson SOV title from the previous year, The Black Crystal. This one ups the gore and equal opportunity nudity quotient considerably, but perhaps more surprisingly, it's also downright epic in its approach with an eye for historical detail in its considerable Civil War flashbacks. The end result feels a bit like a reenactor event hijacked by a Satanic cult-- which is just as fun as it sounds. This was the first of only two films by director and sci-fi writer Paul Clinco (followed by 2008's very obscure Sweet Love and Deadly), who proudly made this a vehicle for his local Domino Theatre troupe of thespians and sadly passed away in 2022 months before he could see this release.
The storyline is essentially a very American riff on the old executed witch coming back for revenge on executors or their descendants, but here the homicidal threat from beyond is Major Aaron Parker (Dunlap), who's seen being framed by his fellow soldiers and swiftly executed by hanging in 1875. Flash forward to the present (with an occasional jump back to the past) as fledgling warlock Powell Davidson (De Green) enjoys holding nocturnal summoning rituals in the buff so he can attract fellow practitioner Marisa (Coffrey). He decides the next step is to band together fellow occultists for a road trip to summon Major Parker from the dead at an old fort, but what they don't count on is (a) the ritual working, and (b) the soldier embarking on a relentless quest to wipe out the bloodline of those who did him wrong. With a bright red spotlight announcing each murderous chapter, he proceeds to plunge a sword into his victims while the hapless black magic practitioners deal with their domineering mentor, Donald (Stone), who might have the key to stopping this unearthly body count but also happens to be Marisa's ex.
Endearingly committed to its vision, this film rides almost entirely on the fire and brimstone performance by Dunlap who gets to emote like crazy while brandishing his sword in the reddest light you've ever seen. Clinco is clearly tipping his hat to '80s horror throughout here, not just using The Fog as a template for its spectral avenger but also tossing in an outrageously graphic, protracted reenactment of the sex shish-kebab slaying from Friday the 13th Part 2 (or A Bay of Blood if you prefer). The film also doesn't follow the usual narrative path either, with its high body count paying off in a very bloody punchline you can't help but admire.
Barely released as a self-distributed VHS, Death Magic was out of commission for a very long time until the Blu-ray release. The process of giving it the best a/v presentation possible was a lengthy challenge, as detailed in one of the video extras: a comparison of available video sources (5m8s) between the retail VHS, D2 master, and S-VHS rough cut, with the last option ultimately serving as the base but color graded for the best highlight and shadow levels possible. It still has that shot on video look, but the improvements in saturation and contrast are welcome and very significant. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with English SDH subtitles) sounds fine for what it is. Clinco provides an audio commentary for the film answering pretty much any questions you could have, from the location scouting to the weapons wrangling and the creation of the charming lo-fi special effects. A rough cut ending (9m48s) sourced from S-VHS has only the raw camera audio but is fun to see for a bonus flashback and a lot of extra (albeit hilariously unconvincing) gore effects. Also included are an excerpt from the Genre Grinder podcast chatting about the film (17m9s), a behind the scenes still gallery (3m51s), and a gallery of reviews and synopses (7m13s).
Reviewed on December 19, 2022.