Color, 1988, 83 mins. 25 secs.
Directed by Rafal Zielinski
Starring Richard Blade, Gail O'Grady, Harold "P" Pruett, Bunty Bailey, Kim Ulrich, Traci Lind, Michael Zorek, Marcello Modungo, Adam Ant
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), MGM (DVD-R) (US R1 NTSC)
Made in the glory days of Charles Band's Empire Pictures in 1986 but consigned to the shelf before being belatedly appearing on cable TV in 1988 and getting dumped onto VHS in late 1991, this stylish supernatural horror oddity is a real treat for those with a soft spot for the company's genre-mashing insanity. Sort of an MTV-era spin on The Devil's Nightmare, it's also one of the most flamboyant showcases for that familiar Italian castle Band purchased during his Empire days and continued to utilize in several Full Moon titles. Most of the film's promotion centered around the presence of flashy rock singer (and Adam and the Ants front man) Adam Ant, who had been a regular music video fixture in the '80s but wasn't much of a selling point by the time this finally came out. Ant's presence is really a glorified cameo, though he's clearly having fun and does well enough here. The real selling point here is the nutty late '80s aesthetic captured with a surprising amount of visual verve by regular Lucio Fulci cinematographer Sergio Salvati, with some sparing but effective creature effects designed by John Carl Buechler in his post-Ghoulies heyday. Adding to the Empire family feeling is the story and script by Stuart Gordon collaborators Dennis Paoli and Ed Naha, which provides plenty of opportunities for a wide range of "death" scenes and quirky characters.
When manufactured pop star Cassandra Castle (Dolls and music video star Bailey) becomes the subject of an international contest held by music channel Rock TV and high-profile VJ Rex (radio host Blade), winners are chosen at random to spend a weekend at an Italian castle with her in a treasure hunt for a million dollar prize. Among the winners are Tom (Embrace of the Vampire's Pruett) and Jackie (NYPD Blue's O'Grady), a pair of siblings who immediately quit their grueling diner job and backpacking in Europe to their destination. Among the other new arrivals are the beautiful French ingénue Yvette (Fright Night II's Lind), goofball clown Harlan (Zorek), and local Tony (Modungo), who shows up in a stolen Ferrari with the law on his trail. The castle's absent host, Diablo, repeatedly fails to show up in person, while the blazingly alcoholic Cassandra prefers to drink herself into a stupor in her room away from the contestants. Meanwhile someone's using a mystic crystal ball somewhere in the castle to use the guests' foibles against themselves and lure each of them to their doom, sometimes with the aid of grotesque monsters.
An enjoyable and surprisingly upbeat little body count film, Spellcaster is a far cry from the bland fantasy you might expect from its original video sleeve. The performances are actually quite entertaining with Grady and Pruett (who met a sad end in real life a few years later) anchoring the proceedings nicely as our two heroes, and the moral of the film makes for a climax that diverges from the expected in quite a few ways including a perfect, adorably ridiculous punchline for the MTV crowd. The formula of a group of random flawed people running around a castle getting picked off is one that never fails, and this one manages to find plenty of new wrinkles including a lion chair gag that still works beautifully today.
Initially released by RCA/Columbia on VHS, Spellcaster ended up moving over to MGM along with most of the other Empire library and appeared on DVD-R in 2016 as an MOD release from a very dated master. Fortunately you can ignore that release in favor of the 2020 Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome as part of its VSA line, which means the limited edition (4,000 units) comes with a double-sided poster and a sturdy box. The new 2K scan from the 35mm interpositive looks gorgeous and really brings out the beauty in Salvati's photography far better than we've ever been able to see before; the fine film grain has been left intact, and the vibrant color schemes fare much better here as well. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 track (with optional English SDH subtitles) also sounds wonderful with excellent stereo channel separation (which decodes well to surround) thanks to the strong original Ultra Stereo mix. The packaging notes an interview with director Rafal Zielinski (Screwballs), but instead you get two featurettes with other participants. In "Slime Jockeys" (19m10s), special effects artists and actors William Butler and Michael Deak cheerfully riff on their fate in the film, the bizarre discoveries they made during the shoot (including dailies from Barbarella), the attempt to get Lucio Fulci to direct second unit (with Buechler getting the gig instead), and their continued friendships with many of the cast members including Bailey and Zorek. In "Casting a Spell" (13m34s), Blade sketches out his career up to that point on the music hosting scene and happily notes his pleasure shooting at that castle, indulging in the surrounding environment during production, and continuing his friendship with Ant, with Zielinski allowed the cast to indulge in ad libbing as long as they stayed in character. An image gallery (1m4s) is also included, featuring a variety of promotional artwork and stills.
Reviewed on October 9, 2020