Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Witching Wednesdays - Witchcraft IV: Virgin Heart

Witching Wednesdays continues as Cody writes about the fourth film in the Witchcraft series, featuring the legendary Julie Strain.


Originally released on VHS by Academy Entertainment, the DVD of this one comes from our friends at Troma. The promotional materials/case art for Witchcraft IV have always included the subtitle "Virgin Heart", but that isn't the film's on-screen title. In the movie itself, it's simply "Witchcraft IV".

The film begins at sundown with a young couple in a convertible, rock playing loud on the soundtrack as they speed along a winding gravel road, heading for a secluded wooded location. The car's journey into the gradually darkening boonies is helped along by noisy flashes to white. There are nine flashes to white in a span of forty-five seconds, and the sound that accompanies them is horrible, so this gets very annoying.

The car passes a lonely country phone booth. The music gets lower and dialogue comes through. The couple are discussing her parents, but I can't hear it very well. When the car parks and those damnable flashes stop, the first clearly audible bit of dialogue is the girl reminding her beau that his parents are dead. "You have it worse, with your parents being gone and all." She apologizes, but he assures her that he's over it.

The girl is named Nora, and she's played by Diane Fowler, a.k.a. porn star Sunset Thomas. She started in porn the same year this movie was released. Her niece followed her into the business about ten years later, taking the name Sunrise Adams. Sunrise sent me a friend request on MySpace back in the good ol' days.

Nora's boyfriend Pete suggests that they get out of the car, take a walk and find some place more comfortable. His walk lasts for about thirteen steps before he's spreading a blanket on the ground. They take a seat and Pete admires the full moon in the sky. He then pulls Nora's jacket open more to point out how the moonlight shines off her necklace. He's a sly devil. He starts getting fresh and kissing her chest, but she's resistant. He notes that it's Valentine's Day, implying that she should let him continue. She says that she's not ready yet, gets up and walks off into the night. William had troubles like this back in part 2.

With Nora out of sight in the dark and not answering him, Pete gets up to look for her. He eventually climbs a tree to get a bird's eye view. He calls out to Nora some more, then warns her that he's coming after her. He jumps out of the tree, but something goes wrong and he does not stick the landing, falling and hitting his head. He's able to curse and let out some groans before he konks out.

Nora walks up and tries to shake him awake, but he's out for the count. Finding that there's blood on the back of Pete's head, Nora panics. She runs back to the car and speeds away. The car passes another car parked on the side of the road. A man is sitting inside, reading and smoking. This is Hal.

Nora goes back to the phone booth we saw earlier and tries to call for an ambulance. Somehow Nora does not know how to contact emergency services and ends up calling some random old lady. The old lady is played by Barbara Dow, who cult horror fans may know as Muther Video.

Confused as to why Nora has called her, the old lady eventually informs her that she's got the wrong number and hangs up. Nora exits the phone booth and Hal drives up. He gets out of his car and Nora immediately begins telling him her story: "There's blood and everything everywhere, I didn't even see what happened and stuff." Hal tells her that he'll help and goes to his trunk. He opens the trunk and Nora asks him why. "There's some things we might need in here." "Like what?" "Like you." He hits her over the head and stuffs her in the trunk.

Back in the woods, Pete wakes up, resumes his search for Nora and notices that his car is gone. Meanwhile, Nora's attacker's beeper goes off and he goes into the phone booth to make a call, vandalizing the phone to get the required change. Hal has some words with someone who is apparently his boss. "Do I not do everything you ask me to? Do I not do a clean job?"

We're shown Pete stumbling through the woods for a while, then it cuts to some dark sacrificial chamber, where surgical tools line a table. Nora's corpse is on a nearby altar, her chest cut open. Her heart has been removed and set on another table. So at least the "Virgin Heart" marketing subtitle did make some sense.

Pete finds his car, then goes into the phone booth to make a call. The phone is covered with blood. Pete steps out of the booth just as a police car drives up... And this kind of awkward opening sequence has taken up 13 minutes.

We catch up with franchise hero William Spanner, once again played by Charles Solomon, as he's on his way to work, listening to "KSTN, the college radio" while stuck in gridlock traffic. Arriving at his law office, he gives us some voiceover narration while some noirish private detective movie music plays on the soundtrack. "It's been three years since I was last forced to use my powers." Things are good for him now, he's given up looking for the perfect life, it doesn't come natural when you're a warlock.

An attractive blonde walks into his office and asks for his help. She's Lily Wild, Pete's sister. She tells William that her brother, who's "only seventeen" (by his looks, I would've guessed closer to twenty-seven), is in big trouble. He's been arrested for Nora's murder. Lily isn't happy with Pete's public defender, and the secretary at City Hall recommended William. William gave up public defending years ago, he's got a private practice and only handles insurance cases... But Lily's story gets to him, and he agrees to look into Pete's case.

William has a meeting with the officer in charge of the case, Lieutenant Hovis, who tells him all they know and the evidence they have. Pete has a bruise on his head, he must've had an argument with Nora, she hit him, he killed her. They haven't found Nora's body, but her blood and Pete's fingerprints were all over the phone booth. William calls Hovis's story ridiculous, they don't have a case, it's all just circumstantial evidence. Hovis says they're linking Pete to a series of serial killings. They've been finding bodies in the desert for years, six in all. Gruesome stuff. Nora disappeared in the same area as the others. Pete must be the killer. But there are details that can't be leaked to the press, just in case Pete is innocent. If the killer's signature style is revealed in the press, there could be a string of copycat killings. Tiring of this nonsense, William throws Hovis out, warning him that if he tries to take this case to court, he will get his ass nailed to the wall.

William and Lily go out to the country phone booth, the sounds of nature and their footsteps in the dead weeds louder than their dialogue. William says that he visited Pete, who was reluctant to talk, and catches Lily up on what he learned from Hovis. Hovis won't tell William what he needs to know, the D.A. won't release the files, so William will have to find the real killer himself. They look around the phone booth and Lily immediately finds a matchbook with the word COVEN on the cover. William disregards it as a clue, the police would've found it already if it was. Lily isn't sure about that. Written on the inside of the matchbook is "BD 2:00". William has heard of Coven before, it's a club downtown.

William goes to Coven that night. Upon entering, he removes his leather trenchcoat and is confused when the coat check girl gives him a black jacket to wear into the place. This coat check girl is also a producer on Witchcraft III and IV, the awesomely named Holly MacConkey.

As William walks through Coven, he passes Hal beating the hell out of someone. William then overhears him talking with his simple-minded sidekick Albe about "the girl with the long black hair". There's a brief awkward exchange between the two men and William before he asks them if they know what BD stands for. They are not helpful, but then an announcer takes the stage and introduces "the lovely Belladonna". William walks off to check out the show, leaving the two men to continue bickering.

The lovely Belladonna, the girl with the long black hair, walks out on stage and performs a three minute striptease. A waitress comes to William's table and ogles Belladonna along with him. When she comments that Belladonna is "like a real star", William for some reason exclaims, "Star?!"

Belladonna is played by Julie Strain, who was Penthouse Pet of the Month for June 1991 and Pet of the Year 1993. That was around the time that I was first raiding my father's magazine stash, so Julie Strain was in some of the first nudie books I ever saw. I was quite impressed.

After Belladonna leaves the stage, William wanders backstage. He ends up walking into her dressing room, playing it off like he was looking for the bathroom. She invites him to come in and sit down. Once he's seated, she lights a cigarette. He notes, "That looks dangerous." William then moves on to saying that he needs to ask her a few questions, and reveals that he's a lawyer. She's not impressed. "Wow. Let me tell you what I think. I think lawyers are the lowest scum of the earth. At least that's what I've heard." William is sure there are worse professions. "Sure. You could be a bouncer." A bouncer enters and throws William out. As he's being dragged out, William asks Belladonna if she knows Nora, a sixteen year old girl who has disappeared. William is already gone when Belladonna replies, "Don't worry. I used to disappear a lot too when I was sixteen."

The bouncer shoves William out onto the sidewalk, removing the club jacket and throwing his trenchcoat at him.

The next day, William stops by Lily's place and gives her the "BD means Belladonna" update and showing a flashback to what happened after he was thrown out - he sat in his car and waited until Belladonna left the club, escorted by Hal. Hal drove her to an apartment building and saw her inside, but as soon as he left, Belladonna sneakily came back out and left on a motorcycle. William tried to follow, but lost her. Lily asks, "Was she pretty?" William for some reason exclaims, "Who?!" It's like William has lost some brain cells and developed a very strange hair-trigger temper since part 3. Lily says, "The stripper, stupid." William admits that she was "alright". The plan is to continue following Belladonna. Lily says she'll do the same and take pictures.

William follows Belladonna that night as she drives her motorcycle to another club, a lounge where she's introduced to the stage as a singer. William's voiceover informs us, "The inside of the matchbook said, 'BD, two o'clock'. That's Belladonna at the Two O'Clock Club." William sits in the front row as Belladonna sings and mid-song he spots a suspicious exchange of money between two men in the shadows of the club. The man receiving money is Hovis. William gets up to follow Hovis, but he's gone.

When Belladonna has left the stage, William compliments her voice and asks her to talk. He says she needs a new manager if she has to strip instead of making her money singing. He shows Belladonna the matchbook, but she's not interested. Her number makes the rounds. He tells her that he's trying to help a boy accused of murder and that the matchbook is his only lead. She apologizes, but there's nothing she can do. He tries to find out why she has to sneak off to the Two O'Clock Club, but she doesn't want to answer. She says that if he can stop being detective, he can come back to her place. They can talk there and see what happens. William accepts the invitation.

In Belladonna's apartment, William takes off his jacket and puts it on a chair. Belladonna puts on some music and as soon as she sits down, William is back in detective mode. She still doesn't want to answer questions. "Can't you think about it tomorrow?" She gets him to sit down beside her and implores him, "Just for one night, Will, please give in." They start kissing. They're soon interrupted by a knock on the door. Belladonna panics and gets William to hide in the closet.

A man named Santara enters the apartment, sits down and gives Belladonna an intense interrogation about her general well-being and whether or not she's happy stripping. He gets angrier as he asks her whether she's been doing anything he doesn't want her to, including seeing any men. She denies that she has. He gets up and gets violent with her, grabbing her by the head and shoving her to the floor, telling her, "You screw all the time and you lie to me!" Santara gets on the floor with her and holds her down, pulling her shirt open and underwear off... William watches from the closet as Santara rapes Belladonna, flashing back to the couple being burned at the stake in the 1687 prologue of part 1.

Santara leaves after telling Belladonna, "I gave you everything, I can take it all back in a minute." William comes out of hiding. He seems dazed at first, then he rushes to Belladonna's side. She doesn't want his help. "Don't baby me, I'm not a child." William asks her who Santara is. He's her manager. Belladonna then goes off on William for not helping her, suggesting that he liked watching and wanted to do the same as Santara. "Now's your chance!" She shoves him back and climbs on his lap, thrusting on him a couple times before dismounting. She tells William to forget it, there's nothing he can do. He says he wants to help but needs to know what's going on. Belladonna says she can't do anything, Santara gave her everything, "My voice! I don't know!" She tells William to leave. He grabs his jacket, which Santara was sitting on during most of his visit, and exits.

The next day, Hal informs Santara that he's been following Belladonna to the Two O'Clock Club himself, four times in the past three weeks. "The lying little tart!" Hal also wants to shoot that lawyer who's been snooping around, but Santara says that he's being taken care of. Hal should just handle Belladonna, she's the one stepping out of line.

William stares out his office window at the sunset. Narration: "No matter what I do to get away, eventually the dreams come back. But is it a dream? Or have they found me again?"

William and Lily have dinner together. William tells a joke with a punchline about a guy coming out of a barn with a watermelon. Lily tells him about her own Coven stakeout, where she took pictures as Belladonna exited the club with Hal and Albe. Belladonna and Hal argued about something, leading to him hitting her. Lily gives William her pictures, then he tells her a little about his night - Belladonna singing, the Hovis sighting. He thinks Hovis is involved with it all. He then moves on to asking Lily about her own life. Is she seeing anyone? She was recently left for someone else. What happened to her parents, why is she raising Pete herself? Their parents were murdered.

William walks Lily to the front door of her home. She thanks him for dinner and they kiss, but then she seems uncomfortable. William asks if he's being a jerk, she says she'd just rather go inside. Alone. William accepts this and she hurries inside, leaving her purse in William's hands and turning the porch light off as he rings the doorbell. He walks around to the side of the house and looks through a window at her as she stresses and undresses.

A young girl walks through an overgrown yard to find Nora's corpse in a tomato garden.

William goes to Hovis's house, finds Hovis sitting on his porch reading the newspaper, and demands to know why Pete won't talk to him. Hovis doesn't want to talk about this, it's his day off, William can't intrude on his life every time he has a question. Apparently Pete is disappointed with William as his lawyer. Hovis tells William that if he wants to talk about it, come to his office tomorrow. William rips the paper out of Hovis's hands, he wants to know what's going on now. Hovis tells him that Pete isn't happy about William spending so much time with Lily, paying more attention to her than to him. William asks Hovis if someone is making him pin these murders on Pete, Hovis just comments on the gruesome condition of Nora's body and orders William off his property. William's not going to let Hovis get away with this. Hovis tells him this thing goes beyond the law, back off, they have it under control.

While staring out his office window again, William gets a call from Belladonna. She wants to meet with him. Cut to them in an elevator, "sinning most vigorously" as Micah from Children of the Corn II would say. They have a relaxing post-coital cigarette sit down in the elevator and chat. William finds out that Santara is that controversial disc jockey from KSTN. Santara has been Belladonna's manager for three years and the contract never expires. Belladonna figures that this meeting was a bad idea and tells William to stay away from her and Santara, never come near her again.

William makes some phone calls, trying to do a background check on Santara, but doesn't turn up much. Santara must be an alias... He calls KSTN and talks to an annoying college student sitting in the studio. Santara doesn't come in to do his show, he broadcasts from somewhere else.

William goes down to the Two O'Clock High and finds one of Belladonna's band members, Art, sitting at the bar, strumming his guitar and singing about the "Mojo Swing". William questions him about Belladonna and Santara. Art holds his hands up a lot and shakes his head constantly. He advises William to stay away from Santara, "You ever heard of the legend of the blues?" He doesn't know much about him, but he's definitely dangerous. William grabs Art by the wrist and pumps some warlock light power into him. "You know a lot more than what you're telling me." The musician doesn't want anything to do with this. "You've got the power, man. ... Do what you do."

William stops by a magic shop. When the shop owner comes out of the back room to help him, William says, "You look really familiar, do I know you from somewhere?" An in-joke to the fact that the shop owner is played by Shaz Bennett, the same actress who played Mrs. Carter in part 3. The shop owner is not Mrs. Carter. William needs to know more about the legend of the blues. The shop owner says it's in a book, and picks one off the shelf while a green light flashes in her eye. It's the right book, and she proceeds to tell William the story of a man who was able to play anything he wanted on the guitar after meeting the devil at a crossroads. William leafs through the book, looking at pictures of old blues musicians, and finds a picture of a man who looks like Santara. A successful manager from the 1920s. The shop owner tells William that the book costs $50, something else which makes him exclaim.

William drives around the city while his narration comments that Santara's been around for a long time if he's the same manager from the '20s. How many souls has he robbed? "The question is, am I after him, or is he after me?"

Art is still strumming guitar at the Two O'Clock bar when Santara walks in. Santara represents Art, but Art dropped out of contact with him a while ago. Santara questions him about what he told that lawyer guy. Art is not helpful, holding his hands up and shaking his head some more. "He said something and that was it, he came and he went, that was it." Santara asks Art why he seems scared. "Maybe you might kill me or something." Santara assures him that he's not going to kill him and walks out. Hal pops up from behind the bar and garrotes Art while Albe holds him down.

William walks into Belladonna's Coven dressing room to find her lounging in nothing but panties and high heels. She tells him to leave, but he demands to know the truth about "who Santara is and who and what you are". He doesn't get his answers. Hal and the bouncer rush in and grab him, carrying him out to the parking lot and, with the help of Albe, throwing him into the trunk of Hal's car.

The three men drive William out to what appears to be the same area from the beginning of the film, where Hal injects William with something that knocks him out. The bouncer suggests that they bash William's head in until his eyes pop out, but Santara's disembodied voice stops them, "Don't kill him, you leave him for me!"

William is left lying on the ground. The camera pulls back from him, stops a few yards away, then speeds back to his side as he awakens and sits up. A blinding light shines on him and Santara's disembodied voice speaks to him, the hard-to-understand echoing voice telling him that he's denied part of himself for too many years and forgotten who he is. Santara says that he and William are brothers, born as twins before the Inquisition. They've been born, died, and been reincarnated through the years, and with every death they forget what they've known and have to learn everything all over again. Santara's goal is immortality, and he wants William to join him. He invites him to "Dinner. Tonight. My place."

Hal, Albe, and the bouncer conveniently left a crowbar behind with William, so he takes that to the Coven club and uses it to beat the bouncer into unconsciousness. He then goes into the basement, where he sees Santara's KSTN show broadcasting from a reel-to-reel machine. He shuts it off, then kicks open a door and enters the sacrificial chamber where Nora lost her heart at the beginning.

Santara welcomes William into the sacrificial chamber. Hal, Albe, Belladonna, and a couple other cult members are in the room, and Lily has been strapped down to the altar. Hal grabs William in a headlock so Santara can monologue to him for a while about their connection and powers, life, death, eternity - "Death is pure. Life is abstract and muddled, filthy dirty." - he even quotes some Hamlet. William seems to be interested, so Hal lets go of him. Santara wants William to kill Lily, remove her heart. If he loves her, she will be part of him forever. William goes to the table covered with surgical tools, but Santara tells him that he doesn't need those. With his power, he can just reach into Lily's chest and pull her heart out. William considers this...

And the climax ensues. Does William turn to the dark side or remain the hero? I'm sure you can figure that out. Fights are fought, characters die, secrets are revealed.

William's narration wraps up the story and he sits down at his office desk to have a drink, make some calls, and do some thinking. The credits begin to roll, and Charles Solomon's three film run as the character comes to an end. After watching these movies and seeing his pictures on IMDb, I've concluded that this man is pimp. Hopefully he doesn't take offense to that like Evel Knievel, because I need to cast him in something someday.

This was a rather innocuous entry in the Witchcraft series. That the simple opening sequence took up 13 minutes is indicative of how the rest of the film goes - hardly anything happens, yet it takes up time and goes by fast. There also seemed to be more attention to detail in this one than in some of the previous films, and it was more well made than some... Except for those flashes at the beginning.

Director/co-writer James Merendino went on to direct SLC Punk, which I haven't seen but I understand has a cult following. He also co-wrote part 5, which features a recast William and an appearance by JJ Abrams pal Greg Grunberg. In one week, I'll be writing about that one for Witching Wednesdays.

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