Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Witching Wednesdays - Witchcraft XVI: Hollywood Coven

Cody dives into the final chapter in the new Witchcraft trilogy.

Horror franchises tend to have multiple "final chapter" entries that don't stick, and we'll see if the same will hold true for the Witching Wednesdays article series here on Life Between Frames. The first stretch of Witching Wednesdays write-ups, which cover the films in the Witchcraft franchise, were posted back in 2011, and when I reached the film that was then the last in the series, 2008's Witchcraft 13: Blood of Chosen, I thought that was going to be the end of it. But then, nearly a decade after the release of Witchcraft 13, the series was revived with the making of a new trilogy of sequels that were directed by David Palmieri, filmed back-to-back-to-back over the course of a week and a half, and done on a total budget less than $10,000.

Over the last couple months I have written about Witchcraft XIV: Angel of Death and its direct sequel Witchcraft XV: Blood Rose, and now it's time to take an in-depth look at the last film in the trilogy, Witchcraft XVI: Hollywood Coven. Once again, I feel like this might be the end of the Witchcraft series and thus the end of Witching Wednesdays... But will this really stick, or will Witching Wednesdays be like the Friday the 13th franchise, where Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday both just turned out to be another story in an ongoing saga?

Witchcraft XVI begins by joining a sex scene already in progress to pick up right where the fifteenth film left off, with the character Danielle, possessed by the spirit of the evil witch Sharon, having sex with her boyfriend in a motel room. The sex scene ends with Sharon using magic to kill Danielle's boyfriend... but as soon as the guy chokes up blood and dies, the film hits us with an unexpected twist. We're not really picking up from the end of Witchcraft XV, as Hollywood Coven goes meta and reveals that this sex scene was being filmed for a movie called Crystal Force 15: Blood Angel.

That title wasn't just pulled out of a hat; the producers of Witchcraft also produced a couple Crystal Force films in the 1990s.

Crystal Force 15 is the latest dirt cheap sequel, being shot with a crew of two, in what is said to be one of the most successful horror franchises in history. Danielle/Sharon is actually an actress named Shelly, and with filming wrapped the director, Jamal, is able to reveal how the franchise has achieved its success: its makers practic black magic and perform human sacrifices. At the end of each film, they choose their favorite cast member, cut out their heart, and deliver it to their master / executive producer. Shelly's scene partner was really killed with magic, and using more magic and the huge hunting knife that was serving as the cheese knife on the craft services table, Jamal and the boom operator kill Shelly. She won't be coming back for Crystal Force 16.

Cut to the title sequence, and Witchcraft XVI does something even more shocking than the meta twist in the opening scene - it doesn't show its title against the backdrop of the classic pentagram logo. Instead, it appears against shots of a forest and falling rose petals.

After three and half minutes of credits, the story continues a year later at the yoga studio from the previous two films, which is now serving as the venue for a table read of the Crystal Force 16: Freshman Year script. Part 16 is the concluding chapter in a trilogy, and cast members from the previous two Witchcraft films are now playing cast members from the previous two Crystal Force films - which are basically the same as the Witchcraft movies we've seen, there are just different character names. For example, the actor who played Detective Garner in Witchcraft 14 and 15 was playing Detective Gilmore in Crystal Force 14 and 15, the actor who played heroic warlock Will Spanner was playing heroic warlock Greg Andrews, etc. To make this more convoluted, the actors they're playing here have the same names as their characters from 14 and 15, so we have, for example, Ryan Cleary playing Will Spanner playing Greg Andrews.

Witchcraft movies have been made without franchise hero Will Spanner in them, but this is the first we've had a character named Will Spanner who wasn't the guy we've followed through previous films.

The assembled actors banter and catch up with each other, making comments about working on low budget movies that reflect the making of the Witchcraft films - like pointing out the fact that people who appear in Crystal Force movies don't have much of a career afterward. Nobody there has heard from Shelly since Crystal Force 15 wrapped, but for most of them it doesn't seem that weird. Actors move on, or give up on this movie stuff and go home.

Cast member Greta starts to dig into her conspiracy theory about cast members from Crystal Force movies disappearing, the "Crystal Force curse", which Lutz dismisses as a crazy idea. It makes sense for her to think the theory is nonsense because she has been in multiple Crystal Force movies. Not just 14 and 15, but also older sequels like Crystal Force 10: Headmistress of Magic and Crystal Force School: The New Class. The conspiracy talk is interrupted when Jamal, writer/director/producer of this new sequel/reboot, walks in.

Jamal greets everyone and says that Crystal Force 14 and 15 were a big success on VOD, leading the executive producer to greenlight the new film. Before the table read can begin, Greta gets a text letting her know she has gotten a callback for a role in a series. She has to leave early.

While the others read the script and continue their banter, Greta goes out to her car and starts changing into a "naughty nurse" outfit for her audition. Before she can get changed, she gets zapped with some kind of magic light and painfully disappears in a puff of smoke.

When the table read ends, Jamal tells the actors he wants them to brush up on their Crystal Force knowledge and hands out DVD copies of the previous films. Actress Sharon and Samuel, who played Linda and Henry together in earlier movies, make a date to watch their DVDs together, and mention that Samuel's character Henry had been killed off in a previous movie but is being brought back due to popular demand. We're then shown Henry's dead scene, which is stock footage of Samuel's death scene from Witchcraft XIV.

That night, Samuel shows up at Sharon's place with a bottle of $10 wine. He wonders how she can afford her home and she breaks it down for him - it was already pretty much paid off when she inherited it from her grandmother (she uses odd wording here, saying "my grandmother left it to me right after she passed", making it sound like her grandma wrote up her will after she died), and she made a lot of money from starring in a commercial when she was a little kid back in the 1980s. Never mind that the actress who plays Sharon was born in the '90s.

Cheap wine at hand, Sharon and Samuel settle in to watch a Crystal Force movie, which happens to be Witchcraft XI. And we see quite a bit of stock footage from Witchcraft XI while the characters watch it and ponder where the actors are today. Maybe they're working in commercials and TV. Soon (not soon enough) we see that someone is lurking outside Sharon's window, and their presence coincides with the television screen flashing odd colors - but only Sharon sees this flash. She's hit with some kind of magical force and starts to get very turned on by the sex scene on the TV. She asks Samuel if he thinks the scene is hot and he replies, "Well, yeah, if you like watching naked people have sex, it's incredibly hot." Sharon says, "That's the funny thing, though. I love watching naked people have sex."

It's a different experience to watch a Witchcraft movie where the ridiculous dialogue is actually funny on purpose.

Sharon seduces Samuel, who makes sure she's not drunk or secretly drugs and out of her mind before going along with the seduction. While they have sex, the moaning sounds are way overdone on the soundtrack. Mid-coitus, things take a bad turn. Samuel is hit with pain, blood starts spewing from his mouth. Sharon asks him, "What's the matter, baby? Never been with a witch before?" She continues riding him and moaning as he dies.

Once she has gotten hers, Sharon comes to her senses and is horrified to see that Samuel is dead. Parked outside her house, Jamal senses what's happening and goes inside to comfort her. She remembers what happened, she remembers that something took her over and made her want to kill Samuel, made her happy that he was dying. Jamal assures her that this isn't something terrible. The Crystal Force movies are hexed, as part of very powerful coven of witches and warlocks he helped hex them. The coven uses the movies to find others of their kind, people born with dark magic powers. The hex brings those powers to light. Sharon is a born witch, and now she's part of the growing coven, soon to be one of the most powerful covens on the east coast. Jamal will take Sharon over to his place while other coven members clean her house and dispose of Samuel's body. Afraid of going to jail, Sharon goes along with this plan.

Garner and Lutz are hanging out by the craft services table at a Crystal Force shooting location, Garner scarfing some donuts, when a man named Patrick comes in, saying he's replacing Samuel as Henry. Garner and Lutz both have to agree that Patrick is "one good looking man" - Garner accompanies his agreement with a disclaimer that he's not gay, and Lutz is surprised to learn he's not gay.

While Jamal's sole crew member, Brian, who's played by YouTube personality and B-movie regular Shawn C. "Coolduder" Phillips, gets the equipment ready, Patrick introduces himself to his actress Rose (who will be playing the role of Iris) and they start going over the scene they'll be sharing. Rose is clearly instantly smitten with Patrick. As the actors bounce lines off each other, Rose falls into a trance. Some kind of power courses through her...

And then Rose finds herself standing at the craft services table, holding a cup of cold coffee. Lutz finds it odd that she has just been standing there for ten minutes. Rose thinks she has to get back on set, but Lutz informs her that Jamal wrapped them fifteen minutes ago. She already shot her scene. Rose has no memory of this. Lutz asks if she's using, but Rose hates drugs. She's tired; she blames her memory lapse on exhaustion from her day job.

Garner confides in Lutz that he thinks things are officially weird around here. He's been calling and texting Samuel and can't get in contact with. Lutz suggests that he might be on a plane, heading for a location gig. But there's more - Greta is being replaced on the film, too. Lutz figures she got cast in the TV show. With two cast members having disappeared right before the shoot date, Garner is thinking Greta was right about the Crystal Force curse and he wants Lutz to help him investigate. Lutz tells him to stop doing unnecessary character work. He's not really a cop.

Patrick meets Jamal in his office while Garner eavesdrops on him. Patrick is a member of the coven and tells Jamal that a lot of faith has been put in him. They need to see positive results. Jamal assures him that he won't disappoint. Patrick wonders how they're going to handle Greta's role, and Jamal says he'll just do a rewrite to remove her minor character. Jamal then displays an ability any writer would love to have. He picks up a copy of the script, does some hand magic over it that involves a bright light and bolts of electricity, and within seconds the rewrite is done. The words on the pages have changed, and Jamal says this script is much tighter now and he cleaned up some extraneous action in the third act. Before leaving for an actor's showcase (not a secret coven meeting), Patrick reminds Jamal that the time of the coven's ascension is upon them and he has eight more days to cull the most powerful member of the production. Jamal says they're right on schedule.

That evening, Jamal sends a telepathic message out to Sharon, who is sleeping on her couch in mismatched socks, while burning candles in an extremely smoky room at the yoga studio. Jamal asks if she's ready and she confirms that she's been studying her lines. That's not what he means, he's asking if she's ready to do The Master's bidding. Tomorrow she will choose the next member of the coven. The strongest among her co-stars. She's ready to do that, too.

The next day, Garner has Lutz meet him in a random parking lot so they can discuss the Crystal Force curse. Lutz isn't interested in anything Garner is talking about, but he still lays out the info he has gathered: He has discovered that 90% of the actors who have been in previous Crystal Force movies have "quit the business", but none of those people have a Facebook page! That indicates that they've disappeared off the face of the earth. Garner might quit the new movie himself, but Lutz thinks that would be a dumb move.

Lutz receives a text from Jamal telling her there will be another Crystal Force sequel screening at Sharon's house that night. Garner doesn't want her to go. She's annoyed, but she tells Jamal she and Garner will be busy working on their scenes. To make up for this, Garner is going to have to take her out, his treat.

As happens from time to time throughout the film, random shots of Hollywood streets fill the space between one scene and the next.

The next scene takes place at Sharon's house, on her couch once again. When you're making movies as quickly as these three Witchcraft movies were made, you can't take the time to set up too many rooms for filming. This time the people on Sharon's couch are Sharon and a wired Rose, who is talking about the feeling that her role in the new Crystal Force was written just for her. It feels like it's part of her. She's afraid that sounds pretentious, but Sharon doesn't think it does. They're part of something bigger now. They're taking charge, and this city is now their bitch. Sharon has it on good authority that Crystal Force is going to be huge for them, even more life changing than theatrical distribution or a Sundance premiere.

"Will Tanner, a.k.a. Spanner" (not sure why they gave the character two different last names, unless it was differentiate him from the usual Will Spanner) shows up to watch a Crystal Force movie with the girls. Wrapped up in production, Jamal won't be able to join them for the screening, so Will suggests they have a threeway instead. The girls are not into that idea. They put on the Crystal Force movie, with Sharon stepping out because she has seen this one before, while Jamal magically eavesdrops and we see some more shots of Hollywood.

While Will and Rose watch stock footage from Witchcraft 13 (the makers of this new trilogy really seemed to like that film's Roxy Vandiver sex scene), Garner and an annoyed Lutz are sneaking around in the production office - which Lutz, as associate producer, had a key to - so Garner can look for evidence confirming the curse. The best he can find is a book full of the names of past Crystal Force actors. Lutz figures it's just a prop with references to past films. The names are written in red, and Garner thinks it's blood.

Will and Rose are feeling awkward about watching a sex scene together when electricity comes flying out of the television, zapping them. Sharon returns to tell them to fight against the power of the electricity, fight for their right to serve the coven and the Master. The electricity goes away and Will stands up, feeling strong, feeling like he can do anything, feeling like the executive producer. Realizing she now has magical powers, Rose decides to fight Will to figure out which will earn a place in the coven. They have a magic fight... and despite receiving a magic blast to the nuts, it looks like Will is going to win this one. Sharon encourages him to finish Rose off, and says they'll go get some cold pressed juice in a delivery that can't be described with words.

Will gets too cocky and chatty, though, giving Rose the chance to start blasting him with some purple magic lightning. Seeing that Will is toast, Sharon joins in and helps Rose zap him out of existence. Jamal sends a telepathic message to let them know the Master will be pleased with them.

More footage of Hollywood leads us into a scene of Garner telling Lutz he doesn't want to quit the movie - if Jamal is an evil warlock mastermind, he wants to see the proof for himself, and just in case he's not he wants to honor his professional commitment. Their conversation is interrupted when actress Tara shows up, ready to film her big scene. It's a death scene, but Tara still has hope she'll be back for another sequel. After all, she was decapitated in a movie called Heads Will Roll and still came back as a living severed head in a jar in Heads Will Roll 2: Giving Head. Garner thinks it's a shame Greta isn't there for the day of filming, but Tara doesn't even remember Greta being at the table read.

While Brian films with what looks to be an old VHS camera, scene rehearsal commences on sets that were saved over from the making of Crystal Force 14, a "total Roger Corman move". Tara gets on a sacrificial table and Garner wields that huge knife that serves as a cheese knife at the craft services table. Lutz watches as Jamal talks Garner and Tara through the scene, which involves Garner becoming possessed by the evil Master. While Garner handles the knife, there's a magical glint off the blade and he actually does seem to become possessed by an evil force. The lights go off in the room while Garner's eyes glow and he gets increasingly menacing. He starts plunging the knife repeatedly into Tara's torso...

Next thing Garner knows he's sitting in a chair, holding a bag of snacks, and he has no memory of how the filming of the scene went or where Tara is. Lutz compliments him on the scene and says Tara went home a couple hours ago. Lutz is supposed to lock up the location, but she has a class to get to and Garner says he needs to "pull some stuff together", something about wrapping his wardrobe, so Lutz allows him to lock up and goes on her way.

Garner isn't really doing anything wardrobe related, he's snooping around some more. Just when he has found that book full of actor names again, he's interrupted by Patrick. Garner says he was looking for tomorrow's call sheet, since the call sheets always get sent to the Spam folder when Jamal emails them to him. Patrick says he's there because he's an associate producer on Crystal Force 16. He has certain skills that are useful on a production like this. The guys bluff their way through their interaction, then Garner excuses himself. And steals that book.

Garner calls Lutz, who is very annoyed to hear that Patrick is an associate producer on the film like she is. Her agent got her that credit because she's still not getting paid well for these Crystal Force movies, and she assumes that Patrick's "certain skills" involve giving Jamal blowjobs. Garner then mentions that he stole the book full of actor names and Lutz tells him he needs to take that book back to the set.

The theft of that book leads right into the climactic scenes, where it's revealed that the book is actually a demon and the yoga studio is a gateway to Hell. The studio was a shooting location for every Crystal Force film, but before that it was the scene of a ritual murder committed by students of the black arts. The book was born in the building, its cover the flesh of a day player from the first Crystal Force, it was written in the blood of every Crystal Force actor, and the souls of the missing are embedded in the earth beneath the building, between the walls, and in the book. As the end credits draw near, we also learn the true identity of the Master and exactly what the coven's plans are.

There is, of course, also a magic fight between the story's witches and warlocks. Then the film sputters out with a conversation in Hollywood insider speak, and the end credits begin to roll. These aren't the usual extended end credits, either, because Witchcraft XVI managed to reach the 81 minute point even without the end credits. The credits only last 1 minute this time.

Witchcraft XVI: Hollywood Coven is one odd sequel, it just seems like a really strange move to shoot a trilogy of films at the same time but go totally off the rails into meta territory with the third film. That feels like something that should be done with a completely different cast. However, the comedic meta twist of this one really worked out for the cast of this trilogy, because the actors come off better here while purposely going for laughs than they did while going through the Witchcraft motions in the previous two movies.

I feel like I should be bothered that Hollywood Coven ditched the story of XIV and XV to go off in its own direction, and that I should be more critical about the fact that the meta approach was handled in such a weird, sloppy way, especially the choice to have the returning actors keep the same character names. But it's tough to be too bothered about it all when I found XVI to be the most fun to watch of the three.

For me, this trilogy got progressively more enjoyable as it went along, which is pretty surprising. None of these movies are something I'm going to be enthusiastically returning to on a regular basis, but that just means they're on the same level as the thirteen movies that came before them. After writing about the other movies in 2011, I went seven years without watching any of them again. It was this new trilogy that got me to go back to the earlier movies. Now it might take the release of a Witchcraft XVII somewhere down the line to watch them again... We'll see.

I guess I'm glad these three new movies were made, mainly because it is awesome absurd that there are sixteen movies in the Witchcraft series. They might as well keep on making them. Let's get this number even higher.

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