It is the longest-running direct sequel horror franchise in history, and still going for all intents and purposes. This iconic film series began in 1989 and the latest entry premiered in 2016. Unlike its contemporaries, like the eighteen-film Amityville series or the combined twenty films of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th shared universes, these are sixteen films that are direct sequels to one another. Not even the Godzilla or James Bond films are direct sequels, giving this series the honor of being, as stated at the top, the longest-running direct sequel horror franchise in history. The kicker is: most people aren’t even aware they exist. Ladies and gentlemen, it is quite an honor to be able to put into its proper historical context the Witchcraft series of films.
Any pseudo-academic appraisal, even in the world of schlock filmmaking, needs the proper process. For this investigation, the series has been divided into four phases: Phase One – Genesis and Solomon, Phase Two – Will Power, Phase Three – S.O.V Magic, and Phase Four – Triple Crown. These eras in the Witchcraft series function as distinct tonal and contextual shifts. Keeping these phases in mind, our exploration of these films, naturally, has to begin at the beginning. Without further ado, we present Phase One: Genesis and Solomon.
Genesis is self-explanatory, of course; Witchcraft is the first film in the series. Solomon refers to Charles Solomon, the actor behind the character of Will Spanner. His involvement lasted through Witchcraft IV: The Virgin Heart before he went on to greener pastures (which weren’t nearly as green, but they were different). Let’s begin.
Witchcraft (1989). Directed by Rob Spera and written by Jody Savin, the film was one of the first for executive producer Jerry Feifer (a name that will appear again and again in this franchise). The film stars Gary Sloan and Mary Shelley as a witch and warlock burned alive during the Inquisition. Their dark arts allow them to manifest in the late 1980s where Shelley poses as Sloan’s mother and the pair seduce a beautiful woman, Anat Topal, into marriage and eventually childbirth. The result of that union is William, played by a very young Ross Newton, and he is the character that binds the Witchcraft universe together. Of course, he was conceived to bring Satan to Earth, end the world, resurrect witches… any of the above, really. The film itself isn’t as awful as many people give it credit for. Even if the writing and performances are a bit off, the yeoman craftsmanship is apparent (it was shot on film, for Pete’s sake) and a moody performance by Mary Shelley really cemented the film’s cult status. And, for better or worse, it spawned fifteen sequels.
Witchcraft II: The Temptress (1990). Directed by Mark Woods and written by Jim Hanson and Sal Manna, the sequel takes up at the end of part one, complete with smoldering witches. The young boy, Willliam, is adopted by a white witch couple (John Henry Richardson and Cheryl Janecky) and raised to be a good lad. The adult-ish William is played for the first time by Charles Solomon, introducing the world to the laid back, sleepy-eyed warlock hero with a vague and mysterious southern accent. William slowly learns that he is a powerful warlock, stalked and menaced by Mary Shelley, returning from the first film. What the franchise would become is hinted at here with the distinct shift in tone to a sexy erotic supernatural thriller… or the attempt at one. Shelley recruits a buxom bombshell in Delia Shepard, the Witch of Lust, to destroy William before he realizes his true potential. That doesn’t work, of course, and William learns the truth. Again, the film work is basic, but the difficulty of shooting on film itself can’t be overstated. There is a level of craftsmanship that must be present to just get an image to appear on celluloid, a craftsmanship that isn’t necessary when the series turns to consumer-grade video technology in a decade or so.
Witchcraft III: The Kiss of Death (1991). Directed by Rachel Feldman and written by Jerry Daly, part three marks the return of Charles Solomon to the role of William Spanner. A bit older, but still underacting like a champ, our warlock has chosen to live a normal, non-magical life. As a lawyer, Will Spanner sucks, but he tries. Unfortunately for him, he runs into another warlock, Domonic Luciana, that doesn’t mind using his powers for evil and that includes enslaving Will’s girlfriend, Lisa Toothman. William is way out of his league and is forced to turn to the uncle of a client accused of murder, William Lewis Baker, who is, conveniently, a voodoo practitioner. William saves the day, but only after embracing his sorcerous heritage. The third film in the series really doesn’t do much to improve on the quality, but it appears as if Vista Street, the production company, is finding their feet. The sexy horror formula is in full effect here and works to a certain extent. Remember this, the series has officially peaked.
Witchcraft IV: The Virgin Heart (1992). Directed by James Merendino and written by Merendino with Michael Paul Girard, the fourth entry sees the final performance of Charles Solomon as William Spanner. It is truly the end of an era and Solomon leaves the franchise with a whimper as a distinctly different approach to the film fails on most levels. This time around, the lawyer Spanner just wants to live a normal life but is recruited into a game of Satanic cat and mouse as a woman, Lisa Jay Harrington, recruits him to help her brother accused of murder. The police think the young man is a serial killer, but he is being framed by an entity collecting the souls of musicians for Satan in trade for success. Julie Strain, scream queen, is featured here as a young singer in one of her early roles. Will Spanner must use his magical powers to save those souls… in between stripteases and simulated sex. The big problem here is that the quality, in terms of both performance and tech, is very poor. Sound issues and lighting foibles plague the picture and the structure is just… weird. It is presented as a hardboiled detective story, complete with a Solomon narration that lulls one to sleep. Spanner saves the day, again, and Charles Solomon exits the role and we close a chapter on the Witchcraft franchise.
Closing that chapter opens a new one, though. Thus, we begin, Phase Two – Will Power.
Witchcraft V: Dance with the Devil (1993). The film was directed by Talun Hsu and was written by James Merendino and James Tymon. Merendino, the director of part four, co-scripted and that means that we are going to be dealing with the same level of plot work. The performances, at least from the side characters, is vastly improved this time around but it is largely wasted on the material. An emissary from Hell, David Huffman (in a wonderfully over-the-top community theater performance) is on Earth collecting souls. He does this by performing a night club act and using a horribly rendered example of early computer graphics. Our hero, Will Spanner (this time played by the equally wooden Marklen Kennedy), is taken under control by Satan’s assistant and helps him to collect souls until, yet again, Will wakes up and uses his magical heritage to fight the evil within and without. Just like always, Will’s current sex partner needs to be in danger for that to happen. As that plays out in cheesy, early 90s goofiness, there are copious amounts of breasts, simulated sex, a horrible sword fight, and lots of horrible music. Sadly, this would be Kennedy’s one and only turn as Spanner, effectively becoming the George Lazenby of the franchise. This shift in the narrative is really a shift in the presentation of rampant nudity and bizarre, porn-esque sexual set ups with Spanner as a backdrop to the proceedings. The multiple actors to eventually fill the Will Spanner role will find themselves in this predicament time and time again and, to be honest, as we approach the end of the series, Will Spanner with less screen time is a good thing.
Witchcraft 666: The Devil’s Mistress (1994). Directed by Julie Davis and written by Davis and Peter Fleming, the franchise fully embraces its softcore porn roots here. In this entry, there is a serial killer targeting women with gold crosses. What the sixth film does for the franchise is to introduce two more recurring characters: the detectives Lutz and Garner (Kurt Alan and John E. Holiday, respectively). Stumped, the cops call in Will Spanner! Will is now played by Jerry Spicer (who is pretty charismatic) and, apparently, Will is now a divorce lawyer (not criminal), well known for helping the police in occult cases (what?) and everyone knows about his magical stuff. So, yeah. The character of Kelli returns (this time played by Debra Beatty and her breasts). The cops and Will Spanner find that, lo and behold, the devil is back in town! Bryan Nutter stars as the villain, out for souls, which is a lot like the first five films. Nutter, like Huffman in number five, really eats the scenery in this one. Virgin sacrifices, new psychic powers for Will and the requisite sexy temptress trying to get Will on the side of evil round out the film. Lots and lots of boobs fill out the sequel and we are finally able to see exactly where the series is heading. Don’t worry, Will, Lutz, and Garner will return!
Witchcraft VII: Judgement Hour (1995). Directed by Michael Paul Girard and written by Peter E. Fleming from a story by Jerry Feifer. If the last film was embracing the softcore roots, this entry sold them into sex slavery. From the onset, the viewer is besieged by sex scene after sex scene with a modicum of gore-type stuff to cut the steamy eroticism from time to time. We are back with Will Spanner, one more time. This time Will is played by David Byrnes. New to the role, David takes the approach to the role back to the sleepy-eyed Solomon, sans the accent. Oddly, Spanner is more of a side character in his own film here. You see, there are these vampires (of course) and Will finds out they exist. He enlists the help of Lutz and Garner! Oddly, there are some monumental shifts in character. Lutz is now female and played by Alisa Christensen with John Cragen picking up the Garner duties. The duo is charismatic together and really take control of the narrative. There is a sub-plot with the vampires (led by Loren Schmalle) in a corporate deal, but it is glossed over. Spanner doesn’t really perform any witchcraft-ery and the lead vampire seduces and is then officially dispatched by Spanner’s girlfriend Keli (this time played by April Brenemen). Granted, Will did ‘die’ in his offense against the lead vampire, but who believes that? Poor Dead Will wasn’t even in the final scene of the film. Sadly, this is a prophecy for the next installment.
Witchcraft VIII: Salem’s Ghost (1996). Written and directed by Joseph John Barmettler and produced by the Feifer brothers once again. Technically, this is where the timeline is broken a bit. This eighth installment of the franchise functions a bit like the Halloween III: Season of the Witch entry in that series. That film’s distinct lack of Michael Myers and placement in the Halloween mythos (aside from the original film playing on a television screen) is akin to Witchcraft VIII’s lack of Will Spanner, Lutz, and Garner and even Keli. The tie that binds here is in the casting choices. Much like Dick Warlock (no pun intended) played The Shape and the killer automaton in Halloween, Mar-Lis Holmes (Cathy) and Jack van Landingham (playing the evil warlock Simon Renfro) both had different parts in Witchcraft VII. The link is tenuous, but so is the plot. Moving the festivities to Salem, MA, a young professor buys a house and that house was where a warlock (van Landingham) was tried and executed and said warlock comes back to yada, yada, yada. Interestingly, the rampant nudity and sexuality was very toned down here. The romp-a-minute previous film gave way to not much at all. There may be a reason for this. The feeling one gets from Salem’s Ghost is that the film was made with a (lowercase) witchcraft theme and only then, after completion, was it inserted into the Witchcraft franchise becoming the anomaly known as number eight. No Spanner, no Lutz and Garner, no sex-starved demons, and no rampant nudity.
Witchcraft IX: Bitter Flesh (1997). Once again, Michael Paul Girard is back at the helm with a screenplay by Stephen Dowling. David Byrnes returns as Will Spanner for this entry, as does the rampant sexual activity, and we are back in Hollywood. People in the 90s really had a lot of sex. Everywhere. Lutz, Garner, and Keli all return as played by a new bevy of performers. Stephanie Beaton takes her first turn at Lutz in Bitter Flesh. This time the hardened detective sports very short skirts and is a bit squeamish. Mikul Robins is the grizzled Garner and Keli takes a turn for the vapid as portrayed by Kourtine Ballentine. Thankfully, Keli and the rest of the characters aren’t really affected by the events of part seven, even though an astral projection Will recapped us for five minutes in a flashback. Will’s astral form is concerning. After the end of episode seven, Will was mortally wounded. This allowed an ancient Egyptian priest to ‘transmorgify’ and take Will’s body with the intention of upgrading, eventually, and possessing Keli’s body. Will manages to connect with Sheila (Landon Hill doing her best here), a prostitute with coma-induced supernatural powers, allowing Will to use her body to save Keli. As per usual, Lutz and Garner show up just a moment too late and Kofu, the Egyptian priest, is burned alive. Maybe. The now-standard Witchcraft Surreal Editing Process made all of this a bit difficult to follow. We’ve seen a steady degradation in technical expertise, performance and production value (even to the point of Lutz and Garner commenting diegetically about it) as the series has progressed. We end with a triumphant kiss between Spanner and Keli, Sheila’s arc be damned. There are still depths to be plumbed though.
So ends Will Spanner’s major arc, opening the door for our next era: Phase Three – S.O.V. Magic or, for those not in on the parlance, Shot on Video Magic.
Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft (1998). There is a new player on the court as this entry was written and directed by Elisar Cabrera. This new phase lives up to its name as the Witchcraft legacy is flown across the pond to merry old England. The British police have a Californian serial killer Satanist in custody and are ready to extradite the man to the United States. What they need is an American law enforcement official: enter Detective Lutz featuring Stephanie Beaton reprising the role. Wasting nothing, Beaton arriving in Heathrow takes up a bit of time and her English counterpart fills her in on the case. Lutz does us a solid, though, and name drops Spanner in her tale of California vampires. The Brits aren’t impressed. Monsters and all. A vampire queen breaks Hyde the Satanist out of the hoosegow and now Lutz must team with the best and brightest in the Queen’s ranks to take down the vampires and the Satanist before they can unleash a demon horde during Walpurgis. Little do they know that a fellow agent is a good witch and joins the fight just in time! In direct contrast to the earlier films in the series, the sex was really toned down. The raving vampire women have a flash of wanton nudity, but the moments that would normally be Witchcraft Sex Fest were cut. Opportunities for arbitrary shower scenes and even some character-building coitus hit the cutting room floor even as the scenarios themselves were introduced. There was a disturbing tighty whitey moment that is seared in my brain, though. Beaton is our connective glue here and, even despite her performance issues, she’s charismatic. We are still faced with the budgetary and technical issues, which is a series mainstay. The elite Bureau 17 offices are, quite obviously, the hotel in London where the cast is staying, for starters. Performances from the British cast are overall solid, but those Americans need a lot of work. Cabrera doesn’t do well with what he has, brain-shredding dialogue and inept blocking notwithstanding, and is still hampered by very uneven sound and camera work. God save the Queen, there are six more.
Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood (2000). Another new player takes the reins, Sisters in Blood was written and directed by genre-veteran Ron Ford. Even though Ford is new, the gang is back together! Mikul Robins and Stephanie Beaton reprise their roles as Garner and Lutz, respectively. Will Spanner and his fiancée are back in the form of James Servais and Wendy Blair. Servais is an older Spanner, still a lawyer, and brings a lantern-jawed hero quality that was missing in previous incarnations. Ford picks us up and pays some respect to the original material, conveniently allowing the character of Kelly (new spelling) to forget all about Will’s powers, her vampiric death fight from Judgment Hour, and her co-habiting with the fake Will in Bitter Flesh. Alas. Regardless, Ford is a better writer and the conceit of this film takes place in a college production of Macbeth. Our three stage witches inadvertently get possessed by three ancient witches (who are in a graveyard outside of the college, conveniently). In a nice little twist, the stage director, Don Donason, drives the rituals and the magical Armageddon. Kelly’s sister is one of the endangered theatre students but, luckily, her future brother-in-law (they have been dating for like 20 years at this point) is a powerful warlock. Spanner, Lutz, and Garner are on the case and those Macbeth-ian witches don’t stand a chance, even when calling Satan from the abyss. Much like the previous entry, Ford intentionally limited the rampant sexuality and nudity, opting for a better plotline than most of the Witchcraft films. The consumer-level technology and mini-DV opened a lot of doors. This was done quickly, but the stage-based story offered a location that could be manipulated easier and the shortcomings are somewhat limited. The apparent speed of this production didn’t lend itself to finely crafted performances, overall, and that is where the real issue lies, even with a wonderful appearance by silent film star Anita Page in a small role. The script wasn’t as padded for time as others in the series and really leaned on the theatrical aspect and ramped up the gore. This is a bright spot in the franchise, however dim.
Witchcraft XII: In the Lair of the Serpent (2002). And yet another new player enters the fray with this entry being written and directed by Brad Sykes (of Camp Blood infamy). Thrust back into the world of magic, Will Spanner is on the case again. Chip James portrays our friendly neighborhood warlock this time around and it feels as if we are going backwards in terms of charisma. James just doesn’t have it here and this time the character of Will needs to be emotionally intense. You see, his best friend’s brother has been ritually killed. He flies into Long Beach (from Los Angeles, nope, Seattle for some bizarre reason) and gets involved in the case. Will’s friend, Cindy (Janet Keisjer), begs him not to get involved, but we know Will Spanner. In Keisjer, we have a co-lead that is present and has presence. Unfortunately, she can’t pull the rest of the cast up to her level. The mythology is blurred a bit, too. Will doesn’t seem to have any attachment, so the time spent with Kelli (or Kelly) in the previous films is washed away for a romantic reunion with Cindy. The common theme of Satanists/witches as archfiends remains, though, and Sykes, like Ford before him, has dialed down the overt nudity (but has reinstated the Witchcraft Random Sexual Situation). Spanner is the key to ending the ritual murders, but he isn’t the key to a very coherent narrative. Sykes’ direction is reminiscent of his earlier work and we jump back and forth between different areas of the story and are introduced to characters at a breakneck pace as well as re-used footage over and over again (especially the same footage from a strip club). What we do find out is that, much like earlier efforts, ancient gods and goddesses are in the mix and this time, as the sub-title suggests, it is a serpent deity complete with an overacting representative on Earth (but excellent make-up, kudos). In that sense, Lair of the Serpent harks back to the Solomon years, but that is where the similarities end. Another breakneck production produced by David Sterling (like the last film). The Feifer Brothers still executively produce the franchise, but the on-site production has moved to Sterling and this is indicative of the shot-on-video schlock factory his company is known for, making Ford’s effort in Sisters in Blood a distinct anomaly.
Witchcraft XIII: Blood of the Chosen (2008). This entry, six years removed from the Sterling years, was written by Michael and Jeffrey Wolinski and directed by Mel House. What the screenwriters and director try and do here, akin to the latter Highlander films, is retrofit the bizarre, non-mythos sequels into our original narrative stemming all the way back to the original Witchcraft. We, of course, cannot turn back the wheels of time so the current phase of the series stands, this is definitely shot on video with very little in terms of craftsmanship, but the original vibe really comes through. Will Spanner, this time played by Tim Wrobel, really channels (I doubt on purpose) the Charles Solomon performance. Our everyman with darkness in his veins just wants to lead a normal lawyerly life, but magic comes a’ calling. Notably, Will has found others of his ilk and runs in, at least peripherally, a magical community, like a thrift store Harry Potter. The Wolinkskis are well-versed in the mythos. They tie up Will’s infidelity from the last film with a Kelli (or Kelly) split up due to the warlockism. A new detective invokes Lutz as a past girlfriend and conveniently gives Will the opportunity to trust him and, at the same time, give the police the impetus to use Will in a ‘bizarre’ investigation. They even bring the original Stockton witch coven back, invoking Will’s birth parents. This Will Spanner actively uses magic and fights against those demons out to pull him to the dark side and use him as they will. Wrobel’s delivery is a sincere as Solomon and fans of the series will see the connective tissue between this outing and the originals, but it may be far too little and far too late. The sexual situations are toned down, again, and that provides more room for plot which doesn’t always deliver. That feels as normal as anything else in the series, including the cringey dialogue, but coupled with the video hokeyness, poor CGI, and soap opera aura, the nostalgia doesn’t quite cut it.
Pulling the curtain on this phase of the series, Blood of the Chosen at least gives a glimmer of the original films that started viewers on the Will Spanner journey. That glimmer is ground under the boot heel of our next phase. Ladies and gentlemen, we end with: Phase Four – Triple Crown. This will be handled a little differently. After an eight-year hiatus, the final three films were shot back to back to back and released at the same time (and it shows). All three were directed by David Palmieri.
Maybe it is the material, maybe it is the lack of direction, maybe it is because three feature films were shot in eight days… but the wooden acting, horrible delivery, and atrocious emoting are rampant.
Witchcraft XIV: Angel of Death (2016) was written by Keith Parker and Witchcraft XV: Blood Rose (2016) was written by Sean Abley. As you, the astute reader, will notice, we are discussing these two entries at the same time. The reason is simple: much like the final two Harry Potter films (another wizard and witch-based franchise), these are just one long, 2.5-hour tale. In the mythos, the characters of Will Spanner, Detective Lutz, and Detective Garner return. They are played by Ryan Cleary, Bernadette Perez, and Leroy Castanon, respectively. Much like the earlier entries, Lutz and Garner drive the decision-making in the film while Will Spanner is more of a back-up character, helping with exposition and the supernatural aspects. Unfortunately, we have hit a new low point in filmmaking for the series. Perez and Castanon are charismatic and have a good chemistry. They are the high point here and whenever they appear on screen the viewer relief is palpable. Back in Hollywood, the theory that solid, unknown performers are a dime a dozen is really put to the test. Maybe it is the material, maybe it is the lack of direction, maybe it is because three feature films were shot in eight days… but the wooden acting, horrible delivery, and atrocious emoting are rampant. Take, for example, our new Will Spanner. Ryan Cleary’s presence just whimpers through the movie; there is no sense of urgency and none of the pathos that our previous Spanners have come with. In addition, he is hampered with the thickest, weirdest, goth-kid eyeliner. Every time he comes on screen I hear the sound check for a Cure concert.
The “story” doesn’t save us. Molly Daugherty plays Rose, a young witch, who doesn’t know how powerful she is. A demon uses her to kill people as he runs a coven of witches based out of a strip mall yoga studio. Lutz and Garner are on the case and Will Spanner shows up. Will’s friend, Greta, an ‘old woman’ witch shows up to help (she is obviously about 38 years old… hmmm), is slain, and we then have the greatest under/over acting moment in cinema history as Will Spanner (d)emotes over the phone. One can single out a scene as being representative of an entire film, but, in this case, it is representative of two films.
What Palmieri and Sterling (back to produce) manage to accomplish here is drag the series to its lowest depths yet… almost. Soft light, erratic camera work, maudlin story, horrible CGI effects, director-less acting, and probably a very spare craft service table. Scratch the probably, the craft service table shows up in a few scenes. At some point, when Charles Solomon dies, he will immediately begin spinning in his grave for what was done to the character of Will Spanner.
You may notice that these two films only almost dragged the franchise to the bottom. That honor is reserved for:
Witchcraft XVI: Hollywood Coven (2016) is written by Keith Parker. This one is going to be a little hard to explain and a little disappointing to boot. The conceit of this entry is great! In any other hands and given any more amount of time, this could have been really fun. What Hollywood Coven attempts to do is take us into real life. Much like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare brought the film to reality, the Witchcraft series attempts to explain the rotating performers, producers, and plotlines through the previous fifteen films as a meta-film. You see, the entire series was just a ruse for the executive producers to fill their covens with the needy and desperate actors and film professionals who would do anything to have success. See? That could have been wonderful! It wasn’t, though. Shot at the same time as entries 14 and 15, the fun, genre-bending and mythos-tying idea was squandered by more poor performances, camera work, and a lack of vision. We are STILL in the tiny strip mall yoga studio and still only shooting close ups and medium shots and still using whatever free plug-ins come with After Effects in post-production. The biggest issue is that Hollywood Coven doesn’t commit. It doesn’t claim to make sense of Witchcraft films, the movie deals with the “Crystal Force” series of films… even as our current cast watch the previous films in the series and use those as the caulk barely holding the sinking ship afloat. Lutz, Garner, and Spanner are all ‘real-life’ actors playing characters in the Crystal Force series. This entry is filled with Hollywood and b-movie making in-jokes, trying for camp in what can only be described as some sort of plausible deniability for just how bad the execution is. It doesn’t work and what could have been a very cool cap to the longest-running-direct-sequel-horror-film-franchise-in-history just hexes its own audience.