To the public, Avery Lauder was known as a psychic and illusionist. In his private life, he was in fact an intensely evil man, a powerful warlock and Satan worshipper who sought immortality. To the police, he was the prime suspect in the case of the serial killer known as the Vineyard Slasher. When the police showed up at Lauder’s cemetery-side gothic mansion, they found that their suspect was already dead, lying on the Satanic altar in the mansion’s attic with his heart cut out and missing.
Lauder willed his mansion to his nephew Devon, who had no interest in living in it due to its proximity to the cemetery. However, due to stipulations in his uncle’s will, Devon was unable to sell the mansion or tear it down, so he attempted to rent it out… Unfortunately, the place is haunted by the ghost of Avery Lauder, so no one has ever been able to tolerate staying in it for more than three nights. The ghost always drives them away with its ungodly shrieks and moans. Devon was beginning to feel like the place was a total loss, until he heard of a hotel that was doing good business precisely because it was, or claimed to be, haunted. He realized he could profit off of Lauder House by turning it into a bed and breakfast, people would pay for the opportunity to get scared by his uncle’s ghost.
Devon had the mansion renovated at great expense, and hired Las Vegas magician The Amazing Azimov to be its first guest, pre-grand opening. During his stay, Azimov was so scared by the evil spirit that inhabits the mansion that he leaped to his death from a second story window to escape it. This event delays the opening of the bed and breakfast, but Devon has invested too much money into it to just let go of the idea. He has to make this business work. But to do so, he’s going to have to have his uncle’s spirit exorcised from the mansion.
A team is assembled: Paranormal researcher Agnes Goldberg. Her husband Felix, a mental medium. Whitney O’Shea, physical medium. Ginger Kowolski, video tech. At Devon’s insistence, the group of experts in the supernatural are accompanied to the mansion by a trio of professional security operatives; Leon Jackson, Tony Vincenti, and their boss Murphy.
Vincenti is extremely reluctant to take the job, as he doesn’t believe any of this ghost business and thinks the paranormal research team is made up of a bunch of chuckleheads, but Murphy talks him into doing it by threatening to fire him if he doesn’t.
Vincenti is said to have been a wunderkind of sorts back when he was a rookie on the LAPD, but by the time he’s working security he seems to have lost a step, because he doesn’t remember that Avery Lauder was suspected of being the Vineyard Slasher until everyone is already getting settled in at the mansion.
Also at the mansion is property caretaker Elvin, who used to be Lauder’s assistant in his stage show. Now, some may question whether or not Elvin knew of his boss’s murderous activities and assisted him in those as well, but the group is quick to just let that possibility slide straight through their minds and move on, leaving Elvin to creepily lurk around the place, spy on people… and before very long, attack them.
Elvin isn’t the only thing attacking people around this place. Previous guests might have simply been scared off in three nights or less, but the powerful, evil spirit of Avery Lauder seems to be building up toward some sort of terrible goal, as he has moved on from simply making noise to actually manipulating objects to kill people. The research team and their bodyguards haven’t even been in the mansion for one day before they start getting picked off one-by-one. Impaled through the throat with a shower head. Crushed by a car with no driver. The ghost’s most impressive feat? Hurling a bullet through a character’s head.
Throughout the day, the highly agitated and afraid Whitney tries to talk Vincenti into accepting that there’s something more going on here than the group being stalked by a flesh and blood madman, but it takes a lot to convince the atheistic, smart-aleck former cop. He comes around eventually, though. Soon there’s no denying that the spirit of Avery Lauder is on a rampage. And he wants to be reincarnated.
Written and directed by Kevin S. Tenney, director of Night of the Demons (1988) and writer/director of Witchboard (1986), Witchtrap was apparently a project that came together quite quickly. The distributor offered Tenney financing to make another horror movie, so he wrote the screenplay in one week and rushed into production. The quickness with which it was made, and the low budget the distributor was offering, is quite obvious in the finished film. Witchtrap is a mess that shows little of the style, care, or promise Tenney had displayed with his previous two movies. The cinematography is for the most part bland and lifeless, the sound is horrible, and a lot of the acting is laughably bad, as is the dialogue the actors had to deliver.
Tenney knows Witchtrap didn’t turn out very well and I’ve never seen him talk about it much. What he has addressed is how the film was marketed.
Tenney’s titles for the film were either The Haunted or The Presence. Witchtrap was the distributor’s choice, part of taking the popularity of Tenney’s Witchboard and running with it. “From the writer & director of Witchboard” was proudly displayed on publicity materials, the center of which was the face of actor J.P. Luebsen, who plays Avery Lauder but also played the villain of Witchboard. They were so blatantly seeking to cash in on the production’s links to Witchboard that, so they wouldn’t get in trouble with Witchboard’s distributor, they put a disclaimer at the head of film notifying viewers “This motion picture is not a sequel to Witchboard.” Of course, by the time viewers were seeing that, they had already rented the VHS.
I was one of those video store visitors who rented Witchtrap back in the day, and at the time when I first saw it, probably around the age of five or six but already a big fan of horror, I have to admit… I thought it was awesome. A ghost throwing knives and axes at people and getting a bullet through someone’s head was cool stuff in my book, I enjoyed the presence of scream queen Linnea Quigley (as Ginger), and I was highly entertained by James W. Quinn as Tony Vincenti.
I only saw Witchtrap that one time nearly twenty-five years ago, but I always remembered it fondly. I was excited to revisit it now, but was let down by its quality issues. Still, James W. Quinn came out of it looking quite well. He had roles in both of Tenney’s other movies; in Witchboard he played one of the lead character’s best friends and is so likeable in his brief moments that the audience still feels the loss of him when he meets his demise at just the 21 minute mark, and in Night of the Demons he had a cameo as a convenience store worker, but his biggest contribution was doing voices for the demonically possessed characters. With Witchtrap, he finally got the lead for himself, and his Tony Vincenti is a great wisecracking hero.
Despite finding the movie to be quite bad and poorly made, I do get some enjoyment out of it, and a lot of that is due to Quinn/Vincenti. Because of the whole Witchboard cash-in aspect, it is a notable curiosity in the Tenney filmography.