Following the one-two punch of 1986’s Witchboard and 1988’s Night of the Demons — both of which yielded sizable profits in the video store market — filmmaker Kevin Tenney was eager to return to his independent roots and make a movie without interference. He and his team managed to raise $400,000 with the caveat that it had to be used within a short time frame. As a result, Tenney wrote the script in a mere six days.
The result is 1989’s Witchtrap, so named in a thinly-veiled effort to capitalize on his previous success. (The feature was preceded on VHS with a forthright notice to viewers: “This motion picture is not a sequel to Witchboard.”) The rushed script turned out to be only the first of several issues that would haunt the production.
Tenney populated the cast with amateur actors who had appeared in his early student films as a show of gratitude. The already-melodramatic performances became further stilted when every line of dialogue had to be re-recorded as ADR in post-production due to the production sound being unusable. Furthermore, 10 minutes of filler had to be added to the film to hit 90 minutes in order to satisfy a distribution agreement.
A scheduling conflict with another actor forced Tenney to reluctantly step in front of the camera to play Devon Lauder, the nephew of mysterious psychic, serial killer suspect, and rumored warlock Avery Lauder (J.P. Luebsen, Witchboard). As his exposition dump details, Devon was left his late uncle’s Gothic mansion with the stipulation that it can’t be sold or torn down. After renters are scared off by Avery’s ghost, Devon decides to turn it into a bed and breakfast.
He employs a team of paranormal experts — parapsychologist Dr. Agnes Goldberg (Judy Tatum, Witchboard), mental medium Felix Goldberg (Rob Zapple), physical medium Whitney O’Shay (Kathleen Bailey), and video technician Ginger Kowowski (Linnea Quigley, Night of the Demons) — to exorcise the ghost. They’re accompanied by greddy security head Frank Murphy (Jack W. Thompson) and his two best operatives, brazen skeptic Tony Vincente (James W. Quinn, Night of the Demons) and sidekick Levi Jackson (Clyde Talley II), for protection.
Neither security nor cutting-edge paranormal equipment proves effective in safety, as various team members are subjected to haunting, possession, and death at the hands of the demonic force.
Tenney and cinematographer Tom Jewett (Mikey) drew inspiration from film noir with dramatic lighting and staging to not only save time on the tight schedule but also boost production value. Although it lacks the spectacle of Night of the Demons, Witchtrap features solid special effects by supervisor Tassilo Baur (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Killer Klowns from Outer Space) and artist Judy Yonemoto (Malcolm in the Middle, Weeds), including a Scanners-esque head explosion and a face-melting finale that rivals Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Witchtrap made its Blu-ray debut in 2016 via Vinegar Syndrome, marking the first time the film was available unrated in any format. If you already own that edition, there’s little incentive to buy MVD’s new release. Both carry the same transfer — a 2K restoration from the 35mm interpositive, approved by Tenney and Jewett — and MVD’s disc lacks some of the extra from the earlier edition. It does, however, have a nostalgic supplement: a VHS rip of the film, presented in grainy 4:3 from a vintage tape complete with a Witchboard trailer. It also comes with a VHS-inspired slipcover, reversible artwork, and a mini-poster.
Tenney, Jewett, producer Dan Duncan, and actor Hal Havins (Night of the Demons), who plays a creepy groundskeeper, reunited for a lively audio commentary from the previous releases. It’s slightly out of sync, with their comments arriving about 10 seconds before the on-screen action, which wouldn’t be as distracting if not for the faint movie sound audible in the background. Interviews with Tenney (whose thorough chat doubles as a low-budget film school lesson), Quigley, Jewett, and Baur from 2016 are also included, along with the trailer and a photo gallery.
While it pales in comparison to Tenney’s earlier successes, Witchtrap is an admirable effort that manages to overcome most of its production complications. From practical effects to gratuitous nudity to campy performances, its low budget trappings make this slice of ’80s cheese even more charming through a modern eye.
Witchtrap is available now on Blu-ray and DVD via MVD.