Color, 1989, 96 mins. 52 secs.
Directed by Alessandro Capone
Starring Michele Peacock, Gary Kerr, Amy Adams, Pierre Agostino, Jeff Bankert, Ian Bannen, Nancie Sanderson, Charon Butler, Bob Bouchard, Deanna Lund, Jason M. Lefkowitz
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0/RA 4K/HD), X-Cess Entertainment (DVD) (Germany R0 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), X-Rated Kult (Blu-ray) (Germany R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)


By the end of the '80s, Italy Witch Storywas gunning heavily for the international (especially American) home video market Witch Storyby shooting partially on U.S. turf with any local actors they could find, which resulted in a slew of titles like Welcome to Spring Break, Hitcher in the Dark, and of course, Troll 2. Mostly shot in Florida with some spooky interiors back in Italy, Witch Story seemed to have all the necessary ingredients: a reliable witch revenge story, plenty of gore, and a lunatic story that piles on one incident after another including a show-stopping swimming pool chainsaw attack. The film marked the directorial debut for Alessandro Capone, the screenwriter for films like Body Count and Trhauma, which he mostly followed with a ton of Italian TV work; for some reason it failed to secure U.S. distribution at the time, while in German it was released as Tanz Der Hexen 2 (making it a fake sequel to Larry Cohen's jinxed Wicked Stepmother!) and also got shopped around briefly as a sequel to Superstition. It took a long time, but eventually Witch Story made it stateside in 2024 as a 4K UHD(!) and Blu-ray two-disc set from Vinegar Syndrome, finally giving a shot to this overlooked supernatural splatter fest.

In "Micanopy Florida, 1932," scheming witch Helena (Land of the Giants' Lund) sits in front of her fireplace preparing her young daughter Rachel to inherit the family's witchy powers indebted to the dark master. However, their time together is cut short by - surprise! - irate, torch and pitchfork-bearing townspeople who pray to Imhotep(?) and show up to burn the witch alive. Little Rachel survives the vigilante mob and bears witness to the whole execution, but she's summoned to throw herself and her big white Witch Storyball through a window to an uncertain fate. Flash forward to September, 1989, as a chartered bus makes its way through the same area carrying a lot of energetic, party-happy teenagers from New York City. Among them are good girl Carol (Peacock, credited as "Michelle Vannucchi") and her brother Witch StoryEd (Kerr) who are getting over the deaths of their parents, party girl Susan (Amy Adams -- not that Amy Adams), sassy Gloria (Butler), and obligatory chubby comic relief Paul (Lefkowitz). They're all heading to a mysterious house whose mortgage documents were uncovered in the dead parents' possessions, and it's supposedly been abandoned for 50 years. The weirdness starts on the bus when a priest sees a photo of the house and yells "You wicked girls!" while bleeding from his eyes, only to disappear without a trace. Upon arrival they meet up with Carol and Ed's sorta-cousin, Simona (Sanderson), and do what all American kids do: guzzle Coke, chomp down on Kentucky Fried Chicken, and strip for cash on top of the dinner table. However, their vacation soon turns into a nightmare as Carol starts having horrific nightmares, Gloria and Susan become murderously possessed, and Helena and her spawn seem to be responsible. Only two priests, Father Gabriel (Agostino) and the elderly, excommunicated Father Matthew (Bannen) seem to hold the key to stopping the witch's rampage before everyone winds up dead.

Essentially a supernatural body count movie with a little Italian Gothic window dressing thrown in (especially that Bava-esque little girl), Witch Story is rife with dialogue like "Her evil is more powerful than your simple mind can imagine," blaring electronic music from the reliable Carlo Witch StoryMaria Cordio, splashy death scenes, and those adorable touches you can only find in '80s Italian horror -- especially an epilogue that takes place in "Bronxville, October 31th." It's almost weird that this doesn't have a Filmirage logo at the beginning as it very much feels akin to Ghosthouse, Killing Birds, and Witchery, so if you love those, you'll eat this one up, too. Unfortunately it hasn't been the easiest film to see over the years, at first just showing up in a handful of dire VHS editions in Italy, Germany, and Australia. A German DVD turned up as Witch Story: Tanz Der Hexen 2 with English and German audio options with optional German subtitles, alternate Italian credits, a slideshow, Witch Storyand bonus trailers. Framed at 2.35:1, it wasn't very impressive and was obviously blown up to 16:9 from a non-anamorphic source with a lot of shimmering and other issues all over the place. The film itself was shot in Super 35, a la Opera and Beyond the Door III, which allowed for more compositional latitude with framing but also tended to cause a lot of confusion about the intended aspect ratio. That really became obvious with the 2019 German Blu-ray from X-Rated Kult, which was framed at 1.66:1 with a significant amount missing on the sides but much more on top and especially the bottom. The image quality was a huge step up from the DVD, though the disc only featured Italian and German audio with German subtitle options plus a German-language commentary by Dr. Kai Naumann. Extras on that disc include "An Italian Witch in Florida" (44m11s) with Capone, cinematographer Roberto Girometti, and Cordio interviewed about their work on the film, a 20-page booklet with liner notes by Martin Beihne, and a 45m39s reel of VHS-sourced audition footage for cast members used and unused that's actually pretty fascinating to watch despite the rough quality. Some of the guys and girls have to pop their tops for some reason, too. Also included is a bonus disc for the film Hagazussa for a witchy double feature.

That brings us to the Vinegar Syndrome release, a fresh 4K scan from the 35mm original camera negative which adjusts the framing back to 2.35:1. The compositions look a lot better here than the DVD (which looks zoomed in heavily all around), with the most horizontal info of any version to date and losing the extraneous space at the bottom. See below for comparisons, but it's definitely the strongest representation of the film in any format and likely to be the final word. The UHD in particular looks excellent with the addition of HDR giving the many dark scenes a rich, atmospheric sense of gradation with lots of burnished golds and oranges. Equally Witch Storysignificant here is the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, which finally presents the original Dolby Stereo mix (touted in the Witch Storyend credits) instead of the flat mono track we've had for decades. It sounds great with lots of effective channel separation throughout, especially the climax. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided, and there's also an untranslated Italian mono track if you feel like comparing to the far superior English one (which was recorded with live production sound). An audio commentary with Eugenio Ercolani, Troy Howarth, and yours truly obviously can't be assessed here. On the video side, "An Italian Witch in Florida" and the audition reel are ported over here, but you get many new goodies as well. "Directing a Witch Story" (32m2s) features Capone (and his adorable, scene-stealing cat) covering his early involvement with Goblin, the writing of Trhauma and his disappointment with the final result, and the convoluted process of getting Witch Story financed that led to him directing and location scouting for himself (with Savannah, Georgia originally planned as the primary location). "Producing the Witch" (33m40s) catches up with producer Giuseppe Pedersoli, son of the legendary Bud Spencer, about his entry into the business working on Once Upon a Time in America, his jobs with Enzo G. Castellari around the world, and his move to producing on this film through the director despite his lack of interest in the horror genre. In "The Light of Witches" (11m37s), Girometti discusses the tight Italian crew on this film in Mount Dora, Florida, the challenges of explaining how to set up a dolly shoot, and the local protests they had to overcome to get the production going. And he isn't a horror fan either. "The It-Brit Connection: British Actors in Italian Horror" (16m51s) is a video essay by Mike Foster using Bannen's presence here as a springboard for a quick survey of the tradition of English thespians popping up in Italian productions all over the place such as Donald Pleasence, Christopher Lee, Catriona MacColl, Ian McCulloch, John Steiner, Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Richard Johnson, Francis Matthews, David Hemmings, Patrick Magee, and even Elizabeth Taylor. A 2m7s image gallery is also included.

Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray)

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X-Rated Kult (Blu-ray)

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X-Cess Entertainment (DVD)

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Reviewed on June 17, 2024