• Gabe Powers

Ghosthouse/Witchery Double Feature Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)


Ghosthouse

A group of visitors to a seemingly-deserted home find themselves tormented by demonic spirits – including one particularly freaky little girl and her creepy clown companion. Soon, our hapless heroes find themselves powerless to conquer the evil of the Ghosthouse – where death holds the mortgage and, if you move in… there'll be Hell to pay! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)


Since its inception, the Italian genre industry was dependent on ripping-off popular movies from other countries. As it dwindled into the 1980s, fads had shorter shelf lives and the categories began to overlap. Cannibal movies overlapped with zombie movies, zombie movies overlapped with ghost stories, gialli (violent thrillers) overlapped with poliziottescho (Eurocrime), and rip-offs of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) overlapped with rip-offs of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981). This odd, seemingly random pairing was most clearly represented with Umberto Lenzi’s Ghosthouse (1988). In Italy, it was titled La Casa 3 to imply it was an official second sequel to Evil Dead, which was released as La Casa (The House) and included nods Poltergeist, like a clown doll and audio recordings of supernatural activities. References to the Amityville Horror sequels and gore sequences very precisely inspired by Lucio Fulci movies – specifically House by the Cemetery (Italian: Quella villa accanto al cimitero; aka Zombie Hell House and Freudstein, 1981), which was shot in the same spooky house location – were thrown in for good measure.


Lenzi (working under his American pseudonym, Humphrey Humbert) was not a hack – he was just most well-known for his hackiest work. His career spanned several decades and genres, from comedy and adventure, to peplum (sword & sandal), post-Dirty Dozen team-up war films (sometimes referred to as macaroni combat movies), pre-Argento gialli, and poliziottescho (Eurocrime), but his name will always be tied his particularly offensive cannibal movies – a genre that he personally instigated when he made The Man From Deep River (Italian: Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio; aka: Deep River Savages, 1972) and helped bring to an end nearly a decade later with the ultra-rancid Cannibal Ferox (aka: Make Them Die Slowly, 1981) – and a handful of half-cocked, super trashy ‘80s horror movies. Of these, most fans prefer his actiony take on Fulci’s zombie model, Nightmare City (Italian: Incubo sulla città contaminata; aka: City of the Walking Dead, 1980). Personally, I will always prefer his more playfully entertaining work on Ghosthouse. In fact, regardless of its lack of originality, stiff performances, and unabashed silliness, Ghosthouse might be Lenzi’s best horror movie. At worst, it’s charmingly bad, minus the nastiness of those similarly bad cannibal movies. And lack of cruelty doesn’t mean a lack of on-screen gore. In addition, given it was released in the late ‘80s, when Italian horror had its cash flow slashed below the already minuscule budgets, Ghosthouse’s special effects are surprisingly inventive.


Possibly due to rights issues, Ghosthouse never had an official DVD release in the US (though it was included as part of a RiffTrax download) and foreign DVDs were full-frame affairs, making this Blu-ray double-feature kind of a big deal to the few of us that enjoy the film. The image quality is slightly better than Scream Factory’s flimsy Exterminators of the Year 3000 (1983) release, but has similarly mushy grain levels, flattened colors, and disappointing overall texture. I would have suspected that this was a decent SD upconversion, except that there are no available SD widescreen versions to work from. The more likely culprit is yet another weak telecine scan effort from an Italian studio. In Ghosthouse’s favor, there are fewer compression effects and the palette isn’t stained yellow. Element separation is decent, revealing more overall detail than the cropped German DVD release, especially during the darker scenes. Black levels occasionally appear brownish, but are generally pretty deep. Lenzi and cinematographer Franco Delli Colli keep the palette relatively sedate throughout, only punching up the lighting for a few of the more surrealistic sequences, so the lack of vivid colors isn’t really a problem.


Scream Factory has included only the original English dub in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono, but it is important to note that, like almost every Italian genre movie in the era, Ghosthouse was mostly shot without sound and dubbed for international release. A surprising amount of this film seems to have included quite a bit of location recording of English-speaking actors. The soundtrack is very well-preserved, including a whole lot of aural depth and nice effects separation (imdb.com says that the film was mixed for Dolby, but it seems unlikely that there was a stereo mix). This is good considering the important role eerie sound design plays in the film – both stylistically and in terms of the narrative. There are minor issues with reverb/echo and these pertain mostly to the audio that seems to have been recorded on-set/location. Anytime ADR and spooky sound effects take precedence, the quality improves. Piero Montanari’s score (some of which rather blatantly rips off Claudio Simonetti’s Phenomenon music) also sounds sharp.


Do note that this is an uncut version, including all the gore that was originally cut stateside for an R-rating. The only extra is a trailer.







Witchery

When a terrible storm leaves a motley assortment of people stranded on an island resort, they soon find they have more to worry about than not packing rain gear! A horrible witch unleashes her wrath on the unwanted visitors – and no one is safe from her unquenchable thirst for death! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)


Fabrizio Laurenti’s Witchery (released in Italy as La Casa 4 and followed closely by Claudio Fragasso’s Beyond Darkness as La Casa 5) belongs at the bottom of this double-bill. Its only claims to fame are a couple of performances from American B-stars-turned-cult-icons Linda Blair (who is completely wasted in a thankless role) and David Hasselhoff (who is actually pretty good!). Otherwise, it is endemic of the most problematic Italian horror movies of the latter ‘80s - it’s slow moving, light on actual horror, and, above all, mostly boring. It’s not a complete wash, though – there are outstanding moments of anarchic, gory weirdness crammed between languid, endless scenes of boring characters arguing about sexual hang-ups, foolish real estate purchases, and how to escape the supposedly cursed island. The highlights exclusively revolve around the haunted house attacking the new residents, especially sequences in which it sucks them through a swirling red dimensional rift (?) where they witness nightmarish cult rituals. The best of these culminate in a scene where the bitter and greedy wife has her mouth graphically sewn shut and is hanged, head first over the fireplace, followed by her family unknowingly burning her to death. It’s so outlandish and gruesome that it was featured proudly on the original poster art. One must also grudgingly respect that Witchery, though inspired by a number of other haunted house movies, as well as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), puts an original spin on familiar tropes. The screenplay is credited to Hollywood/Disney veteran, Harry Spalding (Don Sharp’s Curse of the Fly [1965] and John Hough’s Watcher in the Woods [1980]) and spaghetti schlock veteran Daniele Stroppa (Joe D’Amato’s Killing Birds [aka: Zombie 5: Killing Birds and Killing Birds: Raptors, 1988] and Lucio Fulci’s House of Clocks [Italian: La casa nel tempo, 1989), likely explaining the story’s schizophrenic qualities.


Laurenti (working under the pseudonym Martin Newlin) spent most of his career in television and it certainly shows in the Made-for-TV dramatics. One does have to admit that he gets better performances out of the mostly English-speaking cast, which leads me to a theory – Laurenti co-directed the film with producer Joe D’Amato (real name Aristide Massaccesi). D’Amato’s mark is all over the special effects-driven sequences, as well as the stylishly photographed establishing shots. On the other hand, even D’Amato’s best movies (a relative term, I assure you) tend to feature stiff performances, so it’s probable that Laurenti’s television experience put him in a better situation to deal with the English-speaking cast. This theory is fortified by the fact that D’Amato is credited as co-director of Laurenti’s next feature effort, Crawlers (aka: Contamination .7, 1993), which is, for reference, literally one of the worst movies ever made and highly recommended.


Witchery was released on uncut, anamorphic DVD via Media Blasters’ sorta defunct horror label, Shriek Show, but this 1080p, 1.66:1 double-feature does represent its Blu-ray debut in any territory. This is another suspiciously flat and slightly muddy transfer, but it has a number of advantages over the Ghosthouse transfer. The colors are more vivid and eclectic, including natural neutral tones and a number of punchy highlights (usually reds). Grain is more natural, though the transfer also exhibits signs of telecine noise in a handful of shots where the grain doesn’t move. Textures are inconsistent, but most of the brighter images – especially the daylight exteriors – have pretty good front-to-back detail. Credit for the more effective visuals should probably extend beyond D’Amato to cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia, who is best known for his neon-caked work in Lamberto Bava’s two Demons movies. His dynamic, smoke-laden photography looks great during the nightmarish inserts. Print damage artifacts are minimal, including some warped frames and jagged cuts, but compression artefacts are more prevalent, like annoying edge haloes.


Like Ghosthouse, a surprising amount of Witchery was recorded on location with incidental sound and actors speaking in English (there are some obviously dubbed actors tossed in for good measure). The more naturalistic mix is lively with only occasional drops in sound quality when Laurenti cuts to a different vantage point within the same conversation. Unlike Ghosthouse, Witchery isn’t too concerned with outrageous sound design. Most of the spookiness is represented by Carlo Maria Cordio and Randy Miller’s electronic score, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Charles Bernstein’s Nightmare on Elm Street cues (though not the main theme), as well as Simonetti’s work on Argento’s movies in the ‘80s.


Once again, the only extra is a trailer.






The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.




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