Studio: Synapse Films
Release date: June 14th, 2016
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Every niche needs (if not deserves) its fair share of reliable hands, even if that niche is z-grade, direct-to-video 90s smut. Having spent a good chunk of that decade skimming through late-night premium cable programming, I can assure you that this was one hell of a niche, at least in terms of its size. One of the many, many filmmakers to fill this void was Jim Wynorski, a cult director who may have actually been over-qualified for this sort of stuff at some point in his career. I can hear your giggling from here, but, at worst, Wynorski emerged as a solid low-budget talent with films like Chopping Mall, Sorority House Massacre II, and even personal favorite 976-Evil II.
Apparently, however, it’s not much of a leap from that to the likes of Sorceress, a titillating softcore effort he produced alongside fellow B-movie maestro Fred Olen Ray. With these two overseeing a production that features Julie Strain, Toni Naples, Rochelle Swanson, and even Linda Blair, Sorceress is something of an all-star effort in the realm of low-grade, cable-TV junk. I’d call it “erotica,” but that might be overstating its classiness.
Still, that doesn’t stop it from opening with a scantily-clad Erica Barnes (Strain) performing some nonsense voodoo ritual. She babbles incantations and spells, not that Wynorski’s camera is interested in honing in on that; instead, his lens practically undresses Erica as she lathers herself with ointment and blood in an effort to sabotage a man’s (Edward Albert) drive home from work. It turns out that this guy is her husband Larry’s (Larry Poindexter) rival at a law firm, and he’s just secured a promotion. Having none of that, Erica’s hex causes him to wreck, much to the horror of Larry, who is understandably bewildered when he barges in on this ritual. In the ensuing fight—which also involves Maria (Naples), the couple’s mutual friend with benefits—Erica takes an accidental plunge from the balcony, killing her instantly.
Larry, however, will never be free of Erica—mostly because her spirit keeps insisting “you’ll never be rid of me—ever!” She has perhaps returned from the beyond, thanks in part to Larry himself, who finds himself wistfully recalling how they once boned on the couch. And on the bed. And with Maria in a threesome. It’s the tender moments that count, you know. If it hasn’t become obvious yet, the main motivating question of the script here is “how can we stage some softcore scenes every twenty minutes or so?” Surprisingly, this is wrapped up in an increasingly complex, lurid little yarn involving Blair and Albert, particularly the former’s own hidden desires to manipulate via witchcraft. There’s also an entirely gratuitous aside involving their groundskeeper (Michael Parks, clearly too good for this shit) being framed for a murder that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot—it’s so gratuitous that it doesn’t even function to lead towards another sex scene. This is padding at is finest, even if this diversion provides an appearance by William Marshall and some of the film’s sparse violence.
You see, I’m not even sure you’d classify Sorceress as a horror movie—it’s more like it’s wearing horror elements and accessories (like pentagrams, candles, and daggers) like a loose negligee to be shed as quickly as possible. This is stating the obvious, but the film treats its sex scenes like a slasher would its death sequences: Wynorski knows this is what his audience craves, so everything is in the service of stripping down its (largely female) cast for extended erotic sequences.
Somehow, the motivations for each sequence get wackier than even Larry’s aforementioned menage à trois recollection: at one point, Blair compels Larry’s old flame (Rochelle)—who almost immediately shacks up with him as consolation—to dream about a threesome of her own. An entire fantasy unfolds as Rochelle writhes in ecstasy, and Wynorski finds the halfway point between Dior commercial and lecherous porn when shooting the encounter. It’s very much straight out of the 90s after dark cable programming mold, so it’s half- tantalizing, half-hilarious, and completely outrageous.
Believe it or not, the outrageousness extends the plot. Sorceress might not be a straight-up horror movie, but it’s certainly riffing on one in The Sorcerers, a 1967 Boris Karloff vehicle from which it eventually lifts its main plot—or whatever semblance of a plot there is. There’s also a little bit of Hitchcock in there as Larry slowly watches Rochelle transform herself into his dead ex-wife in a turn of events that faintly (and I do mean faintly) echo Vertigo. It seems very possible that Sorceress is the only movie that could allow Karloff and Hitchcock’s names to share the same breath with Jim Wynorski and Julie Strain, which is kind of a feat no matter how you go about it.
When it eventually does borrow these elements, it does so clumsily, as it largely relies on stilted exposition and dialogue exchanges to eventually usher in some climactic bloodshed—it’s all completely ludicrous anyway, of course, and the wooden turns only heighten the effect. Far be it from me to dwell on the acting in softcore porn, but this is a truly astounding collection of performances, especially Blair’s; there are times when she can barely gaze off into the distance convincingly, let alone deliver an impassioned climactic explanation for her sorcery (you’ll never believe it, but it also involves fucking).
All of this is to say Sorceress is thoroughly enjoyable in a way only this stuff is—certainly, it can’t be taken seriously, yet it’s a sincere (and sincerely amusing) attempt to conjure up a reason to watch people screw around for 90 minutes. Its cast of eye-catching, often naked women is meant to appeal to that inner twelve-year-old who used to eagerly wait until sundown to see this sort of forbidden material: watching it now, it’s more of a hoot, and not an altogether worthless one. While watching Sorceress, it occurred to me that its fever dream aesthetic, dalliances with witchcraft, and insistence on smut perhaps give us a glimpse of what it might have looked like if Jean Rollin ever found himself on the 90s Skinemax circuit.
Growing older means one doesn’t have to look out of their corner of their eye for their snooping parents as they watch Sorceress, but it also means one can witness it in the most splendid manner possible with Synapse’s upcoming Blu-ray release. The high-definition restoration is miles away from the film’s direct-to-VHS roots and has been struck from a completely uncensored, director-approved, never-before-seen print to boot. This is Sorceress in all its nude, hyper-sexed glory, as God and Jim Wynorski intended it.
Speaking of Wynorski, he’s on board for two audio commentaries, one where he flies solo and another where he’s joined by special guest Tom Savini. Even though there’s nothing else in the way of supplements, this is still an impressive enough release considering the film at hand. The only question it leaves you with is “are we also getting Sorceress 2?” Inquiring minds curious about Julie Strain’s further exploits in this series need to know. IMDb assures me it involves "a brood of women practicing black magic," so it seems to uphold the sanctity of the Sorceress franchise well enough. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: