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Superstition
cast: James Houghton, Lynn Carlin, Larry Pennall, Jacqueline Hyde, and Robert Symonds

director: James W. Roberson

82 minutes (18) 1982 Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
James W. Roberson's Superstition (aka: The Witch) first found its way to the UK on videocassette in early 1982 with not undue note on the Video Tape Centre label, tempting artwork in the label's uniform gold frame on the video sleeve depicting a dead hand dripping blood across a crucifix. A stirring trailer on other VTC titles had heralded the film, the important score delivering a montage of victims snatched by a gnarly hand and creatively dispatched. The film had latched on to the popularity of the bizarre death film in which horror kids like myself could not get enough of. Superstition also had no qualms in incorporating that other 1970s' staple in which nobody was safe, the hero; the child, indeed anyone might and probably would die before the closing credits. None of this doesn't mean that the film isn't resolutely stupid, because it is, but neither does it know how to be dull, so, good on them.

Superstition, though bloody at the time, and grim in its arc, was not sadistic enough to warrant the wrath of the censors and would reappear several years later on Stablecane under the new title The Witch, at the same time that it was earning itself a theatrical run. I, too, was able to see it on the cinema screen top lining a double-bill with Orchard End Murder in 1985. Momentum Pictures bring the UK history of the film up to date with its first appearance on here on DVD.

The story is not up to much, but is quickly into action, a courting couple spooked in a prank, the merry japers shortly to become the first victims of the supernatural force on an angry bent against intruders. Arty ends up a decapitated head in a microwave and Charlie is chopped in two by a sash window; clearly American ones aren't as blunt as the UK sash windows, I only ever got a flat thumb out of mine. The accursed Sharrock House on Mill Road, in which these deaths occur, is owned by the church who insist on periodically occupying it with a failing priest and his family. The Reverend Leahy (Larry Pennall) has hit the bottle and lost all self-respect. He brings with him several extra bodies, that is to say family members, a wife, two teenage daughters and a young son. If that was not enough corpses in the prep stage, then there is the local police force, the odd maintenance man and whatever priests there may be in the vicinity to rack up the bodycount.

Yards from the main house there is the caretaker's lodge, housing Vera and her son Harlan, the last of the Sharrocks, the family promised a place on the grounds by the church. The new family excite about having their own 'swimming pool' but a caveat please girls when it is called Black Pond. But no, the blonde daughter, Ann (Heidi Boday) takes an immediate swim and surfaces with a missing detective's dismembered forearm clutching her ankle. Harlan is blamed for the murders and he scarpers. At least there is one death they can't pin on him, the bouncing buzz-saw blade that cut through the chest of the old Reverend Maier (Stacey Keach Sr)... clearly a freak accident and clearly impossible.

Handsome, young hero priest, David (James Houghton) is determined to bring an end to the killings and is clued into the dark origins of the house's ills by Vera, a touch of the witch hunting back in 1692. David visits the archive at St Luke's and the oldest book in the vault, and by heck, if it isn't a copy of the Malleus Malificarum, and if it doesn't just happen to have been updated to include the episode in the town, in detail, when a Reverend Pike led the locals against a witch with a face full of bladder effects. They dunk her in the pond attached to a large caber, so it is no surprise that she sinks, but not before cursing the lot of them.

There is no time for a housewarming party, it seems the family are not going to make it through the night, and as the child, Justin (Billy Jacoby) is the first to die, we can pretty much give up on the chances of anyone else in the family surviving.

The characters are thinly drawn, only Albert Salmi's Detective Inspector Sturges sneaking a little bit of extra life into his role, bantering with the young priest as he watches the teenage lovelies waddle out of the house in hot-pants. So he's interested? "Those are the Reverend Leahy's daughters." ... "No doubt born without bottoms!" virtually winks back the detective. The girls come blonde and brunette, and look like neither parents nor brother. No consideration has been given to familial resemblance by the casting department. The dialogue is proxy. The script is credited to Donald G. Thompson, this adventurous story concept originating from three more quite unremarkable minds, Michael O. Sijbel, Bret Thompson Plate and Brad White. Other key production credits are worthier of mention. The cinematography of Leon Black is clean and clear. For the first time in a home entertainment package the scope ratio is revealed in full, though it is only most noticeable and appreciable in the opening ten minutes. Al Rabinowitz is to be given his due on the editing, and director Roberson is to be noted for certain touches, more intuitive and effective than artistic. When the brunette daughter, Cheryl (Maylo McCaslin) is pegged to the attic floor, a cut away from and then back to her prone body in a death flinch is a well-considered jolt.

The real star on this film is the music. Leon Blank's score in total is probably no more than ten minutes of work, occasionally rerun, but always effective. It jumps into life accompanying any threat with a bumping tempo, a dies irae worked in and out of beat invoking a creepier level of wariness, music that is extra familiar from the trailer. The few other pieces of the score are subtle, sad little piano and strings, wavering on beautiful tragedy, and yet more strings that gnaw and implore the occupants to get out of the house. As the witch attacks James Houghton the piano keys are jabbed again and the violins skid and screech. It is the soundtrack that makes the film memorable, that makes it exciting.

The credits remind us that this was an early lowly production from later big guns, Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar, operating here under the name the Penaria Corporation. The production team is naturally smaller than what would come with a production today and whereas the enormous team of effects personnel and inordinate number of specialist departments today are left anonymous, back in 1982 many had minor celebrity, chiefly through the horror film magazines. William Munns (Swamp Thing, The Boogens) and David B. Miller (Night Of The Comet) are on the small makeup effects team, and both subject of Fangoria articles. The gore is not a convincing red though, and the head in the microwave does resemble the actor but does not resemble anything real. The exploding head was likely demanded because it was the money shot in Scanners. The mechanical effects team included Roger George who came up through New World and Dick Albain, a veteran of more noteworthy productions than this.

The son of the household is played by Billy Jacoby who had a couple of other roles as a child in horror films and continued to turn up in schlock horror throughout the 1980s culminating in Colourbox crap like Dr Alien. Jacoby is too old for the role and his performance stinks. The impression is that the makers chickened out of casting a younger boy in the role given the cold killing. Jacoby is left to embarrass himself looking stupid as the boy thinking beneath his years, so innocent that he has not yet identified his father's alcoholism when he finds him knocking back something high percentage in the cellar. "Are you ill? Is that medicine?" The killing of the child was still unusual in a horror film at the time, but was likely excused given that Jacoby had been a murderous little bastard in the previous year's Bloody Birthday, directed by Ed Hunt. Albert Salmi was better known for his appearances in westerns but appeared in the occasional horror. In 1990 he would pop down to the breakfast table, shoot his wife dead and then turn another gun on himself. A little bit of research on the other cast members turns up a few surprises as many of them including Jacqueline Hyde, Robert Symonds, Carole Goldman, Larry Pennall, Lynn Carlin and Heidi Bohay had or continue to have healthy careers and a place in the Hollywood scene, Superstition the end for several and the beginning for others. Director Roberson has a bit of other era interest and daffy scripts, and he writes more than he directs, are clearly his niche. He was responsible for the script for another supernatural one-by-one strange deaths in a house flick of equally daft and fond recall, made only a few years before, Gus Trikonis' The Evil. Of greater surprise is that he was involved in a number of unusual westerns, directing The Legend Of Alfred Packer and scripting on The Shadow Of Chikara. Disappointingly, the disc release does nothing to engage the making of the film in support material.

Coming out of 1982 the film has not dated particularly. Films from a few years before would scream the age as would those only a couple of years on. Someone unfamiliar with the film might well assume it a new release and the picture quality is pristine enough to support that impression. The sound on this disc is another thing, dulled in the decibels, particularly destructive when it comes to the terrific score. It will probably appeal most to those who grew up with it, watching it at 16, readily impressed with the steady and bold bodycount. The director delivers the cadavers fast, in his inexperience failing to film enough for the sequences that build up to the deaths, but adversely and tersely making those more impressive in their casual inadvertently casual approach to those violent ends. Without the Leon Blank score this film might be struggling to pass muster, but I have seen it on all labels, on the large screen and now DVD and it is ideal for that shut-off, no brain, perhaps even drunken moment when you really want to do no more than sit back and be entertained.
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