Vinegar Syndrome restores Kevin S. Tenney's 1980s supernatural slasher WITCHTRAP to uncut form in their new Blu-ray/DVD combo edition.
Uninhabitable due to paranormal phenomena since the ritual slaying of its owner illusionist/occultist/suspected serial killer Avery Lauter (J.P. Luebsen, WITCHBOARD), the cemetery-adjacent Lauterhouse lives up to its nickname "Slauterhouse" when Vegas magician The Great Asimov (Richard Fraga) inexplicably plunges to his death from a second story window. Having sunk a small fortune into the house's restoration to turn it into a "haunted" bed and breakfast, Lauter's nephew Devon (writer/director Kevin S. Tenney) accepts the proposal from parapsychologist Dr. Agnes Goldberg (Judy Tatum) to document and exorcize Lauter's spirit with her experimental electromagnetic energy vacuum. She assembles a team including her mental medium husband Felix (Rob Zapple, PEACEMAKER), reluctant physical medium Whitney (Kathleen Bailey, THE NIGHT VISITOR), and comely video tech Ginger (Linnea Quigley, MURDER WEAPON). For liability reasons, Devon insists they be accompanied by a security experts Murphy (Jack W. Thompson), Jackson (Clyde Talley II), and hard-boiled caricature Vicente (James W. Quinn, voice of demonized Angela in NIGHT OF THE DEMONS). The team has no problem making contact with Lauter but Agnes is certain that his threats against them are impotent until members of the crew start dying in grisly manners. Skeptic Vicente suspects that Lauter's groundskeeper Elwin (Hal Havins, SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA) is the culprit but Whitney believes that Lauter needs her as a physical medium to finish the ritual that will bring him immortality.
Although relatively entertaining, Kevin S. Tenney's WITCHTRAP is kind of a letdown after WITCHBOARD and NIGHT OF THE DEMONS. Written in six days by Tenney as soon as funding was available, the story is pretty much a retread of THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE while the film's make-up effects and special effects have the DIY feel of those in WITCHBOARD (including a couple recycled bits like a reverse photography knife throw, an axe to the head, etc). Since the production audio was unusable and the entire film had to be ADR'd, it is difficult to assess the actual performances of the cast who – apart Quinn and Quigley – seem particularly stilted and flat at least partially due to their inexperience with looping dialogue (including performances in their entirety). Although quite ambitious for its $400,000 budget in terms of physical and make-up effects, WITCHTRAP exhibits less imagination and stylistic panache than the somewhat higher-budgeted, better-acted, and generally more entertaining retread WITCHBOARD 2. Originally titled THE PRESENCE (as the title appears on this new interpostiive-sourced transfer), the film was advertised as a follow-up to WITCHBOARD with a similar video artwork (and the tagline "This time it's not a game") while also featuring the disclaimer that it was not a sequel to the film; although it may just be best enjoyed as part of a triple feature with the earlier Tenney films.
Released on tape by Magnum Entertainment (who bought it from Imperial Entertainment to whom the production was presold) and laserdisc by Image Entertainment, WITCHTRAP remained unexploited in the digital realm (unlike Tenney's WITCHBOARD and NIGHT OF THE DEMONS and their sequels) until 2015 when the film was issued on Blu-ray in Germany by 84 Entertainment and then more recently by Vinegar Syndrome. The latter 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen encode comes from a new 2K scan of the original 35mm interpositive that bears the original title "The Presence" and four instances of additional gore that were cut for an R-rating on the earlier editions. Like WITCHBOARD, WITCHTRAP looked a little flatter and less moody on videotape, but the new transfer restores a sense of mood to the lighting with less murk in the night exteriors and attic/basement interiors. The original mono track is given a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 encode that conveys the ADR'd dialogue, music, and effects with equal clarity. The optional English SDH subtitles do contain at least one glaring error, transcribing "Conan" as "Conehead."
Extras start with an audio commentary with director Kevin Tenney, producer Dan Duncan (Tenney's USC film school classmate who edited WITCHBOARD and NIGHT OF THE DEMONS), cinematographer Tom Jewett and actor Hal Havins in which Kenney and Duncan discuss forming their own production company, how Kenney came up with the story in one day and wrote the script in six days to take advantage of a funds that were immediately available, his decision to cast unknowns (apart from Havins and Quigley) who had appeared in his college shorts (Quinn had appeared in his earlier Super 8 films) and earlier films, and the cooperation from Fairfield's film commission and the local crew. They recall scouting the house which was owned by an antiques dealer who let them furnish the house with some of her product, the important contributions of production designer Ken Aichele (PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD), effects artist Judy Yonemoto – the former hairdresser of Duncan's wife who moved up from direct-to-video to make-up department head on TV shows like WEEDS and CODE BLACK – and physical effects supervisor Tassilo Baur (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET). In addition to pointing out the restoration of five cuts demanded by the MPAA and the issue with the production sound (the upside of which was that the M&E track was complete including footsteps and other sounds that would have been part of the dialogue track, requiring nothing more than the dubbing of the dialogue for foreign territories), Kenney also reveals that the film came up ten minutes short of the ninety minute running time specified in the contract so Tenney wrote two five-minute dialogue scenes.
The video interview with Tenney (23:37) covers much of the same ground more concisely with illustrative clips - which are particularly helpful when he discusses how he saved film by composing in noir-ishly lit, framed, and staged long takes - and makes a nice supplement or alternative to the commentary track rather than being a redundant featurette. In her interview (13:40), Quigley recalls not wanting to audition for NIGHT OF THE DEMONS because she thought she was too old, being thankful that her death scene make-up consisted of a single appliance due to her dislike of prosthetic make-up, pranking Tenney, and her enjoyment of the film after having seen it more recently (for some reason the clips here are windowboxed while the featurette itself is matted to 1.85:1 like the feature). In his interview (15:10), cinematographer Tom Jewett (MIKEY) reveals that he met Tenney when the director replaced the original one slated for THE CELLAR, his cinematographic inspirations, the opportunity that low budget horror films gave to new DPs (less money but more creative input), and the fun he had collaborating with Tenney and Baur to realize some of the "absurd" effects. In his interview (17:11), effects supervisor Baur reveals that some of the effects sequences in WITCTRAP were ones that Tenney cut from the WITCHBOARD script when their resources and inexperience on that earlier film did not allow for them to fully realize (including the hands that were supposed to reach out of the board and strange the heroine which here reach through a door and would be better realized in WITCHBOARD 2). He distinguishes his contributions to the effects scenes from that of Yonemoto and also discusses his advocacy for safety in special effects (using a mishap with a plastic bullet casing in this film as a teaching example).
Effects makeup artist Yonemoto appears in a telephone interview (16:35) in which she discusses the degree of Tenney's input into the effects scenes and her bravado in tackling specific effects that she had never tried before (in her current work, she often applies prosthetic make-up but does not fabricate it due to allergies she has developed working with the material). Recording quality is poor but the content is sufficiently interesting to make the effort to listen to it. Composer Dennis Michael Tenney (LEPRECHAUN 3) also provides an audio interview (26:25) in which he recalls that his own career ambitions diverged from those of his brother initially. When he realized he was not going to become a rock star, he got into film sound working for Coley Sound on post-production for exploitation films including those of his brother and several Roger Corman New Horizon productions, as well as his scoring assignments on his brother's film. Also included from a videotape source is Tenney's short film "Book of Joe" (23:23) which featured some of the WITCHTRAP cast members, as well as an alternate ending (3:44), a production/promotional still gallery the feature, and Magnum video trailer (2:55) highlighting Quigley's appearance. The cover is reversible with the original artwork on the inside. (Eric Cotenas)
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