If you hear the phrase, “witch trap”, and assume it’s a style of music melding the witch-house and trap subgenres, you might be right. The “data alchemist” that brews Spotify’s internal genre analysis reported in 2016 that there were more than 1,300 genres of music, which seemed really high until they calculated more than 2,400 genres only two years later. This number more than doubled to just over 5,600 by late 2021. At this rate, the overall number of defined musical genres is likely to grow so large that one day it will destroy us all.
Until that day comes, we can enjoy WITCHTRAP (1989), a movie by director Kevin Tenney, who previously directed NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988) and WITCHBOARD (1986). The former is a fun and scary party flick with great special makeup effects, and the latter often feels like a clever marketing device to drive Ouija board sales. Like many horror films of the decade, it features long periods of characters talking, punctuated by violent deaths and occasionally unsettling choices in home décor. As a cinematic experience, WITCHTRAP lands somewhere in between these prior efforts.
Devon Lauder (played by Tenney himself) is the sole heir to a mansion in Solano County, California, left behind by his uncle, Avery (J.P. Luebsen). It borders a cemetery and the conditions of his will dictate that the mansion can’t be torn down. Lauder has lovingly restored the old dwelling sufficient to rent it out as a bed-and-breakfast to interested visitors. There’s just one minor issue: the mansion’s guests keep fleeing in terror or dying onsite. As we find out, uncle Avery was a warlock but also an illusionist who was believed to be a serial killer. In a blatant example of resume-padding, now he’s a ghost.
Like any lodging proprietor obsessed with self-preservation, he wants to root out the problem in order to keep the income stream flowing, recoup his investment on the restoration and protect himself from legal liability. He enlists a crack team of paranormal scientists to investigate the potential causes for the haunting and gives them strict instructions to photograph and exorcise the house, but only under the close protection of a private security team. On this last point, Devon won’t debate! (“THEY GO WITH YOU OR YOU DON’T GO!”)
Married couple Agnes (Judy Tatum) and Felix Goldberg (Rob Zapple) won’t argue there, because this is a big opportunity for the legitimacy of their field. The latter is a psychic medium and the former recently invented an electromagnetic “vacuum” for spirits – some might call it a “trap,” others the “Spectral Suck” – that she hopes will prove to be “the most important accomplishment in the history of parapsychology.” Their team is rounded out by physical medium and Christian jogging enthusiast, Whitney (Kathleen Bailey), and video technician, Ginger (Linnea Quigley). The security team charged with protecting them is a rag-tag group of former cops, comprised of Tony Vincente (James W. Quinn) and Levi Jackson (Clyde Talley II), with expert “supervision” by Murphy (Jack W. Thompson).
From the start, the tension is not just between the teams, but also within them. The trio of security operatives is a mess of an outfit and morale is low. Tony is an egotistical smart-ass who runs down his boss at every turn, Murphy is a sleazy boozer lacking competence or any team management skills, and Jackson is a skeptic whose main character flaw is being horny on the job. The one thing that unites them is that none of them really want to be there. The paranormal investigators are comprised of religious believers and scientists who don’t always agree about methods and question each other’s motives. Somehow, it’s up to this motley crew to supernaturally clean the home so that future guests won’t get tossed of out a third-story window like a screaming Las Vegas lounge magician.
After the opening credits, WITCHTRAP doesn’t hit the ground running, it splats after falling. The film doesn’t end so much as it melts into a foamy, bubbling goo. (These aren’t harsh critiques, they’re events that happen onscreen). In between these two points, characters say things like “no one else is going to get killed,” and “we’re all perfectly safe” – thankfully, neither of these statements proves to be true, because that would not make a good horror movie. Within 15 minutes of arriving at the Avery estate, the team conducts a séance. They don’t even wait to unpack their belongings before stirring shit up. There must be some sort of inherent bad luck to that practice, because Avery spends the rest of the film flinging bad warlock vibes in all directions and everyone gets hit.
The tensions between the characters simmer at a near-constant rate, which gave the film some entertainment value beyond the usual 1980s scary movie beats. Have you ever wanted to tell your unlikable boss that you “resent [their] mother for taking drugs when she was pregnant” and somehow get away with it? You can spend 90 minutes of this film living vicariously through Tony, who finds new and creative ways to verbally shit on his boss in every interaction. There’s also a creepy groundskeeper named Elwin (Hal Havins), who helps to fill any gaps in the overall group dynamic with his voyeuristic and increasingly antisocial behaviors. This crowd would need an outside mediator just to decide on food delivery.
Some of this compelling weirdness is credit to Tenney for his writing, but it’s also evidence of a cast of actors stepping up to play different roles. James W. Quinn was in WITCHBOARD as a friend and work colleague of the protagonist; it was a relatively small part. As Tony, he’s the lead actor and delivers much of the film’s best dialogue. Judy Tatum played a doctor in WITCHBOARD for one brief scene but in WITCHTRAP she’s one of the main characters and the axis around which much of the story revolves. Like Tatum, Rob Zapple and Clyde Talley II appeared in Tenney’s 1984 short, BOOK OF JOE, but each has an expanded role here too.
The main drag on this film for many viewers is likely to be the sound – all of it was done in post-production due to a problem with the sound mix that was discovered too late. For me, this only adds to the low-budget charm and enhances the off-kilter and otherworldly feeling. The other technical aspects of the film, from the camerawork and stunts to the squibs and makeup effects, range from solid to pretty exceptional. There’s a head explosion, a levitating “magic” bullet head-shot, a death-by-showerhead, and a character eating handfuls of cremains while under possession. The excellent “melt” effect in the film’s climax was executed by Judy Yanemoto, who has worked across a wide variety of genres and within different budgets for three decades while moving effortlessly between cinematic and television projects.
WITCHTRAP feels like the sort of underappreciated horror movie one would find nestled in a stack of DVDs at an eerie, rural chalet you booked through Airbnb. For my money, it’s good enough to take home with you along with the stolen silverware.