Saturday, December 28, 2019

Spirits (1990)

... aka: A Maldição Dos Espíritos (The Curse of the Spirits)
... aka: Gyilkos démonok (Killing Demons)
... aka: Haunting of Heron House

Directed by:
Fred Olen Ray

Built in 1901 by French ex-pat, black magician and madman Henri Picard, the "Heron House" has been making headlines for decades for its long, blood-spattered history, starting with Picard's own rumored Satanic rituals and virgin sacrifices before his untimely disappearance. Since then, many more horrific things have occurred in the home, including several of its inhabitants being driven insane, many murders and, most notoriously, one Barbara Heron slaughtering her entire family ten years earlier. As a result, this otherwise prime piece of California real estate has been deemed uninhabitable. Since it's about to demolished in a few days, paranormal investigator Dr. Richard Wicks (Robert Quarry) decides to conduct one last experiment there over the course of a weekend in an effort to finally prove the existence of "post life energy forms." That's a fancy way to say "ghosts." He quickly forms a small investigative team, including Harry Mathias (Oliver Darrow) from the Historical Preservation Society, eccentric psychic Amy Goldwyn (Brinke Stevens) and, hoping for a more objective opinion, uptight and skeptical psychologist Beth Armstead (Kathrin Lautner), whom he ropes in with a promise of a grant to her college's psych department.

Immediately upon entering the home, Amy picks up all kinds of bad vibes, hears moaning and children's laughter and starts seeing visions of things that occurred there she has no way of knowing because the details weren't released to the public. Meanwhile, at a local church, priest Anthony Vicci (Erik Estrada) is having a serious crisis of faith. Years earlier, he had an affair with married Mrs. Heron and has been haunted by that, and her eventual suicide, ever since. Compassionate nun Sister Jillian (Carol Lynley) tries to offer guidance but it's to no avail. Father Vicci continues to be plagued by nightmares and his connection to the cursed home. His bible catches on fire, a demon speaks to him and he's visited by the seductive Sister Mary (Michelle Bauer), a demon impersonating a wayward holy woman, who reminds him, "You knew your way around a pussy pretty good for a priest!" after stripping out of her nun's habit.

Back at the Heron House, all of the investigators start receiving ample proof of the existence of ghosts. Amy continues to hear voices and witnesses a kettle getting thrown across the room. Beth sees Picard in her bedroom mirror. Richard's important research papers are blown into the fireplace. Harry has a sex dream with the redheaded Mrs. Heron (Kaitlin Hopkins, daughter of two-time Oscar nominee Shirley Knight) which ends in her transforming into a clawed succubus. The next day, Richard sends Beth and Harry down into the basement to look for evidence while he records himself putting Amy into a meditative trance in hopes she'll be able to connect with the evil spirits in the home. That ends up working better than expected and soon there are multiple possessions. Amy starts speaking in Picard's voice and drives a nail through her hand, Harry is sucked into Picard's basement grave and then runs around trying to jab people with a pitchfork and Beth also becomes possessed after being knocked unconscious. Eventually, a skeletal monster is resurrected and Father Vicci shows up to face his demons head on.

Even though he's been (unfairly) written off as a hack, I generally enjoy Fred Olen Ray's low budget B movies from the 80s and early 90s. I like his self-aware sense of humor, his casting, the good-natured "We aren't taking this all that seriously so why should you?" breeziness of his better efforts and his clear affection for drive-in / exploitation movies that almost always manages to shine through. This, however, I didn't much care for.

For starters, Spirits is poorly scripted by "R.U. King" (producer T.L. Lankford) and another chap named "Jeff Falls" whom I suspect is either Ray or Grant Austin Waldman, as "Jeff Falls" also co-wrote The Channeler (1990), which was directed by Waldman and featured Ray as an "executive consultant." However, it's not impossible that "Jeff Falls" is someone else. Hell, "Jeff Falls" may just be someone named Jeff Falls for all I know. Either way, the dialogue is frequently terrible, which wouldn't be such a problem had this film not been incredibly talky, and the plot is far too straight-forward and derivative of a dozen other popular (and much better produced, written, acted and directed) movies like The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House, The Exorcist and The Evil Dead. For the record, this also swipes its fair share from The Amityville Horror, though I couldn't really include that on the "much better" list because it's awful. Combine that with highly uneven acting, cheap-looking and unimaginative art direction (which seriously cripples any attempt at atmosphere), a slow pace and a predictable open ending and this emerges as one of Ray's more bland and lifeless efforts.

Fortunately, there are a few decent things in here to make it go down a little easier than it otherwise would have. Always nice to see Quarry in a sizable latter-day role, the other actors seem to be having fun during their possession scenes, cinematographer Gary Graver tries to dress up the boring sets using shadow and color at times and there's a catchy synthesizer score and some fun make-up effects courtesy of Everett Burrell and John Vulich. Though the entire subplot with top-billed Estrada could have easily been eliminated and not changed the film all that much, the five minute scene between him and Bauer is easily the best bit in the entire film and the most pleasingly FOR-esque as well. For some strange reason Bauer's name and image are plastered all over the various DVD and VHS boxes though she receives no on-screen credit. Fx artist Earl Ellis, future porno actress Sandra Margot (aka Tiffany Million) and Fred's son Christopher Ray (a future director himself) also appear briefly, though unrecognizable under make-up.

Filmed in just nine days on a budget of 130,000 dollars, this was filmed at the same white Los Angeles mansion with the columns on the porch that was used in a number of other horror / exploitation films from the same time, like Jim Wynorski's Sorority House Massacre II (1990), Ray's erotic thriller Inner Sanctum (1991) and Waldman's Teenage Exorcist (1991), a vehicle for Stevens that she scripted herself from a story by Ray.

Spirits was issued on VHS in the U.S. in 1992 on the Vidmark label but that's been its only official home video release her. A VHS-quality print is also on rotation on Amazon Prime. In Germany this was issued on DVD under the new title Haunting of Heron House in 2015.

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