GHOSTHOUSE (1988)/WITCHERY (1988) Blu-ray
Director(s): Umberto Lenzi, Fabrizio Laurenti
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

Scream Factory brings loyal viewers a double bill of eighties Italian horror with their Blu-ray of GHOSTHOUSE and WITCHERY.

When THE EVIL DEAD and EVIL DEAD II were released in Italy, they were titled LA CASA and LA CASA II (HOUSE and HOUSE II ended up titled CHI È SEPOLTO IN QUELLA CASA? and LA CASA DI HELEN, respectively). Just as several Italian producers conceived their unrelated films as sequels to DAWN OF THE DEAD (titled ZOMBI in Italy), producer/distributor Achille Manzotti (NOTHING UNDERNEATH) and/or Filmirage's Joe D'Amato decided to cash in on the Raimi films with three entries known as LA CASA 3, LA CASA 4, and LA CASA 5 but released in other countries as the unrelated films GHOSTHOUSE, WITCHERY, and BEYOND DARKNESS (which is due out in August from Scream in a double bill with George Eastman's Filmirage sci-fi film METAMORPHOSIS). Scream Factory's double bill features the more entertaining former two.

GHOSTHOUSE might have you thinking of POLTERGEIST more than THE EVIL DEAD as it begins with creepy young girl Henrietta (Kristen Fougerousse) locked in the basement by her mortician father (Alain Smith, INTERZONE) after she kills a cat, with only her creepy clown doll for company. Soon after, the girl's parents are brutally murdered by an unseen assailant. Years later, Boston ham radio enthusiast Paul (Greg Scott, HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II) and his tour guide girlfriend Martha (Lara Wendel, TENEBRAE) pick up a sinister radio transmission that seems to be the horrible death of a young man, a woman's scream, and a strange melody with indiscernible lyrics. When the broadcast repeats itself the next night, they decide to see if it is a hoax by tracing the signal, leading them to a derelict house in Scituate where vacationers Jim (Martin Jay, ALIEN ESCAPE), his brother Mark (Ron Houck), their sister Tina (Kate Silver), and Mark's girlfriend Susan (Mary Sellers, STAGEFRIGHT) are squatting. Jim has a CB radio and, although it is his voice on the recording (and sister Tina's scream), he claims ignorance of such an "unethical" prank. After Martha experiences a supernatural attack in the basement, however, Paul and Jim decide to both tune into the same station that night to see if the broadcast happens again. The broadcast does indeed repeat itself, but this time it is of Jim's actual death by the spinning blade of a fan without a motor. The investigating officer Lieutenant Ferguson (William J. Devany) suspects creepy, town-subsidized caretaker Valkos (Donald O'Brien, ZOMBI HOLOCAUST) of the killing after his attack on Mark and Tina with a pitchfork, but Paul starts to suspect the supernatural occurrences have something to do with the twenty-year-old murder of the Baker family and the father's occupation as a mortician. While he and Martha continue to investigate, they advise Mark, Tina, and Susan to pack up and get away from the house; however, a series of supernatural occurrences contrive to keep them at the house for a final night of slaughter.

Made at a point in Italian horror where most veteran filmmakers were either calling it quits or dividing time between television projects and theatrical ones that were direct-to-video-bound in most other territories, GHOSTHOUSE is largely devoid of character, recycling effects gags and setpieces from the made-for-TV HELL'S GATE and recycling and refining others in his later TV films HOUSE OF LOST SOULS (from GHOSTHOUSE's head in the clothes dryer to an actual decapitation by dryer in the latter film) and HOUSE OF WITCHCRAFT (where GHOSTHOUSE's climactic maggoty grim reaper get-up is reused). The house, which seasoned viewers will recognize from HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (although some of the actual interiors are used here) is suitably creepy but the everything-but-the-kitchen sink haunting antics from the little ghost girl, her doll (which actually is creepy when it's expression changes to angry), blood-running taps, gusts of wind and flying objects, a fire-breathing furnace, glass bulbs and jars that inflate and explode (the transfer is clear enough to see the balloons around them), random severed heads, a ghost Doberman, and a trailer-a-rockin do not have quite the effect of the unpredictable escalation of the paranormal in POLTERGEIST. The back-story is the stuff of urban legends but is not effectively exploited. In spite of all this, GHOSTHOUSE is certainly a guilty pleasure from the last gasp days of Italian horror and the video store days when I had knew nothing of the genre and actually thought these were American films based on the box art. The photography of Franco Delli Colli (RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR) is occasionally attractive but mostly functional, never quite summoning up the same air of decay he achieved in MACABRE or ZEDER earlier in the decade. The synth score of Piero Montanari (HOUSE OF PLEASURE) – released on CD in Italy with his score for Filmirage's RETURN FROM DEATH (FRANKENSTEIN 2000) – was augmented with tracks from Simon Boswell's score for Michele Soavi's STAGEFRIGHT as well as a Montanari vocal he composed for D'Amato's softcore ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS 2 (which later appeared in one of the Stelvio Massi BLACK COBRA films).

Released directly to video courtesy of Imperial Entertainment in an edition that seemed to deliberately darken the prologue carnage, GHOSTHOUSE was long unavailable in the United States during the DVD era (although the rights owner's standard frame digital master did show up on disc in the UK and Germany). Scream's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC widescreen transfer frames the film at a comfortable 1.66:1. The image is still a little softish and faces can be waxy in close-up, but detail is nicely improved with wisps of cobwebs suddenly visible in the foregrounds, patterns evident in the wallpaper (as well as the scoring patterns in the breakway walls and floors), and there is a certain weight behind the wide angle camera moves. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track seems to be at the mercy of the original Dolby Stereo mix which gives does not do too much with the sound effects or score in terms to separation. Optional English subtitles are available.

Although LA CASA 4 is commonly known to American audiences as WITCHERY, this was the video retitling to distinguish it from the American WITCHCRAFT made the same year that spawned a thirteen-entry series. The export title was actually WITCHCRAFT: EVIL ENCOUNTERS, but it was released in the UK as GHOSTHOUSE II to distinguish it from Sean Barton's PANGA which was released in the UK as WITCHCRAFT by RCA/Columbia. Two groups of people converge on a deserted old hotel on a lonely New England island. The first is the family of greedy Rose (Annie Ross, BASKET CASE II) and lecherous Freddie Brooks (Bob Champagne, who had a small role in GHOSTHOUSE) who have bought the hotel in hopes of turning it into an exclusive club. They are accompanied by their pregnant unwed daughter Jane (Linda Blair, THE EXORCIST) and younger son Tommy (Michael Manchester), as well as lusty architect Linda (Catherine Hickland, GHOST TOWN) and estate agent Jerry (Rick Farnsworth). The second group consists of virginal, mealy-mouthed university student Leslie (Leslie Cumming, KILLER BIRDS) and her blue-balled boyfriend Gary (David Hasselhoff, TV's KNIGHT RIDER) who are there to study and photograph the phenomenon of the "witch's light" which appears without any scientific cause on the island every day at noon (which Leslie thinks is related to a German text about an island in the new world where witch burnings took place and a pregnant woman committed suicide rather than be executed as a witch). When the Brooks' hired boat takes off (unknown to them, he has been murdered is hanging in his own fishing lines), the group is stranded on the island as the waves become treacherous. No one believes little Tommy's story about meeting a Lady in Black (Hildegard Knef, FEDORA) – who might be the spirit of the Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULEVARD-esque German actress who shot a film at the hotel and never left – but soon she and her unholy minions are picking off the stranded guests one-by-one according to their sin in order to open up the gates of hell.

While GHOSTHOUSE was a cluttered series of paranormal setpieces, WITCHERY highlights a handful of death scenes that are more unpleasant in concept than in execution (with hit-and-miss make-up effects by DAWN OF THE MUMMY's Maurizio Trani) and a cluttered back-story of witch burnings and a nutty actress may be somehow possessed and looking for a new body (or something). Despite the scripted dialogue, performances are more naturalistic (although not always good) and undubbed, with Knef coming off best despite her heavy accent. While the film – written by Daniele Stroppa (THE WAX MASK) and directed by first timer Fabrizio Laurenti, who was married to actress Mary Sellers from GHOSTHOUSE and would later helm CONTAMINATION .7 for D'Amato and the underrated THE ROOM NEXT DOOR for producer Pupi Avati (ZEDER) – is not as "fun" as GHOSTHOUSE, it is certainly more vicious. The climax and freeze frame surprise ending are wonderfully laughable because of its predictability and Cumming's performance (along with the end title vocal which is heard earlier in a more vintage version during the haunted projector sequence). Carlo Maria Cordio's score (which is available in MP3 as part of an library compilation release with his cues for THE BITE and AMOK TRAIN) was reused for LA CASA 5 (along with some tracks from Cordio's KILLING BIRDS score).

Although Vidmark's tape of WITCHERY (presumably the same source that was later used for a budget double feature with an unauthorized release of Ken Russell's GOTHIC) advertised itself as unrated, it was not actually uncut. Gone was the entire opening title sequence, with the video generated credits for the title, Hasselhoff, Blair, and Anglicized director Martin Newlin appearing on the first shot after the original director's credit (this was presumably the same version that was released in Canada by Front Row Entertainment). While most of the violence was unexpurgated, it was missing part of a death scene late in the film involving arterial spray. The film first became available on DVD in the UK as WITCHCRAFT, but – like the GHOSTHOUSE 2 tape release – it suffered cuts to the Satanic rape scene (although the DVD slows down the image so as not to cut the soundtrack). When Shriek Show released the film on DVD, it was in an uncut anamorphic transfer but the 1.78:1 matting bisected the "presents" on the opening credits suggesting it was meant for more vertically spacious framing (probably dismissing American 1.85:1 theatrical projection altogether. Scream Factory has framed their 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC transfer at 1.66:1 (also the framing choice for the Japanese letterboxed VHS). The image is a leap forward from the SD transfers but still softish with little grain, highlighting the rubbery effects and the only occasionally creative but flattish photography of Gianlorenzo Battaglia (DEMONS). The optional English subtitles feature one glaring error in transcribing one of Knef's lines of dialogue with "to grieve" instead of "to greed." The sole extras for both films are the film's trailers (2:53 and 3:01, respectively), the latter of which was previously only available from a damaged tape master on the UK disc which was then ported over the Shriek Show disc with the UK's disclaimer notice. (Eric Cotenas)