Color, 1988, 96m. / Directed by Fabrizio Laurenti / Starring Linda Blair, David Hasselhoff, Catherine Hickland, Annie Ross, Hildegard Knef / Media Blasters (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

During the waning days of Italian horror in the late 1980s, multitasker Joe D'Amato tried to kick things back into gear by increasing the output of his own company, Filmirage, which churned out a number of horror and softcore titles over a period of about four years. Only one bona fide cult classic emerged from this batch (Michele Soavi's Stagefright), while the rest of the output includes stuff like Killing Birds, Top Model, and of course, the immortal Troll 2. Though it found few fans upon its release, Witchery now looks like one of the more entertaining outings from this batch, offering a surprisingly twisted and gory take on '60s AIP Lovecraft adaptations like The Dunwich Horror and Curse of the Crimson Altar (right down to the psychedelic effects, multi-dimensional witches and warlocks, and even the same twist ending!).

A quick and atmospheric prologue depicts a terrified pregnant woman pursued through an abandoned New England house by pitchfork-wielding tormenters, all of which turns out to be a nightmare suffered by Jane (Blair), the daughter of a real estate magnate who's due to take his entire family out to an isolated island house currently being investigated by a husband-and-wife team, Gary (Hasselhoff) and Linda (Hickland). The pregnant Jane is tormented by accidents and visions involving a mysterious, witchy woman in black (Knef) with a sparkly magic ring, whose power seems to emanate from the same cursed house. Once all of the various travelers and guests have assembled, a storm strikes to prevent them from leaving as violent supernatural shenanigans pick them off one by one.

Though it eventually degenerates into some goofy Exorcist-style nonsense with a frizzy-haired Blair running up and down the hallways, Witchery features a handful of setpieces that should send Italo-gore fans into a state of bliss. The most memorable involves Basket Case series star Annie Ross' lips, a big-ass sewing needle, and an inconvenient fireplace, while other enjoyable bits include a throat impalement by swordfish(!), a satanic sex scene with a goopy-mouthed demon, a bathtub filled with blood that sucks Blair into another dimension, and most amusing of all, Hasselhoff getting a bloody facial during some nasty voodoo doll mayhem (censored on most previous releases, including the "uncut" Vidmark videotape). Sure, the acting, pacing and camerawork are far from perfect, but if you're in the right frame of mind, Witchery is a hell of a lot more fun than you've probably heard. The Massachusetts house is a surprisingly eerie location, and director Laurenti does a solid job of evoking the sense of a separate, evil universe lurking behind its walls in all of the dark, secret nooks and crannies.

Shot as part of the video-targeted La Casa series (also including the not-bad Ghosthouse and the really-terrible Beyond Darkness), Witchery has been presented open matte in most countries, though a letterboxed (1.85:1) version did pop up in Japan. The aspect ratio has been the cause of some debate; it was screened in theaters at 1.85:1, so that technically is the correct theatrical presentation; however, many medium shots are framed with characters' heads scraping near the top of the frame, so in the matted version, the top half of their face often gets lopped off. The Media Blasters DVD is presented at 1.85:1 as well and, relatively speaking, is the best-looking of the bunch; the film was obviously shot on the cheap with some rough edits and damage inherent in the original elements, while the occasionally gritty visual texture pegs this as most likely shot in 16mm. It's all quite watchable, though, and miles better than the videotape edition, if you aren't concerned with the framing (which only affects maybe five or six shots). The film was shot in English and is presented that way here; it sounds fine, and Claudio Maria Cordio's pounding synth score comes through clearly enough. The only extras are the usual lengthy Joe D'Amato trailer reel (including the wisely sanitised version of Porno Holocaust), plus promos for other Shriek Show horror releases.

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