Hex Appeal: Sorceress (1995)

Matty gets jiggy-jiggy with Jim Wynorski’s sexy shocker.

Though both men would continue belting out softcore romps for video and late night cable, in 1994, at the time of SORCERESS’ making, producer Fred Olen Ray and director Jim Wynorski knew change was coming. Having already crafted Inner Sanctum (1991), Mind Twister (1993), Sins of Desire (1993), and Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry III (1994) between them, Ray and Wynorski were convinced that the bottom was going to fall out of the straight-to-tape erotic thriller market, and that audiences were getting tired of skin-flicks with tricksy, noir-indebted plots and were instead clamouring for more stringent erotica that replaced storytelling with wall-to-wall (simulated) bonking. Retrospectively they were absolutely right: as the millennium approached, narratives were flung by the wayside and, broadly speaking, the erotic thriller morphed from Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992) imitators to no-frills bump n’ grind compendiums with greater emphasis on heavily choreographed bedroom gymnastics. What linked the wham-bam-banging was quickly deemed irrelevant; thrusting and grunting alone was the USP. 

However, for a year or so in the middle of this shift, there was a small window of experimentation. Despite helping to launch the cycle with the phenomenal success of Inner Sanctum (a $650,000 cheapie that, amazingly, out-rented Backdraft (1992) and became such a cause celebre that it was featured on the cover of the Wall Street Journal), Ray was never a fan of the erotic thriller and welcomed any opportunity to do something different within the form, particularly if he could reconcile the demands of the money-men with material closer to his own tastes. Witness: the maestro’s Possessed by the Night (1994) and Inner Sanctum II (1995), a marvellous double whammy that are as much horror movies as they are primo pieces of titillation. Possessed by the Night is especially interesting. Reasoning that no one in real life could get as lucky as the heroes of erotic thrillerdom do, Ray and screenwriter Mark Thomas McGee elected to introduce a supernatural element — a weird creature in a jar that corrupts those who come into contact with it, freeing them of their inhibitions — in order to explain its characters promiscuity. It’s a device that was echoed in Sorceress: a picture that was also written by McGee and that can be seen as a spiritual follow-up of sorts to Possessed by the Night, building, as it does, upon Possessed by the Night’s themes of control and coercion, and pinning itself to the same ‘affluent yuppie types affected by strange forces’ framework.

A wonderfully offbeat blend of ultra-steamy shagging and shuddery drama, Sorceress began when Wynorski asked Ray if he had an H.P. Lovecraft-based script to hand for a potential deal with another producer. Ray did not — but he and McGee (who’d previously penned Sorority House Massacre II (1990), Hard to Die (1990), and Sins of Desire for Wynorski) did have a script called The Gynska that met the Chopping Mall (1986) titan’s next brief of ‘anything supernatural and sexy’. Wynorski took The Gynska — named after the script’s necklace MacGuffin — read it and loved it, his sole adjustment being to rechristen it ‘Haunter of the Dark’ in order to fit his initial Lovecraft remit (but, in classic exploitation fashion, Sorceress couldn’t be further from the iconic author’s 1935 serial if it tried). Alas, the Lovecraft deal crumbled, leading the film to be privately financed and assembled independently by Wynorski and co-star/Wynorski regular Toni Naples as Wyn-Tone Productions. Nevertheless, the ‘Haunter of the Dark’ moniker stuck — until Wynorski and Naples noticed that horror movies weren’t flying off the shelves like they used to and opted to reduce the explicit genre implications by renaming it ‘Temptress’ and then, ultimately, Sorceress as it edged towards release and horror sales perked up again. But don’t be fooled by Wynorski and Naples’ marketing ruse: Sorceress is a true-blue frightener and certainly among the most genuinely creepy films on Wynorski’s robust and generally rather knockabout resume — albeit in conjunction with its monumental spread of the helmer’s beloved T&A. 

On a purely superficial level, there are two reasons to watch Wynorski’s salacious potboiler. Two big, round reasons slathered in baby oil at its start, as Sorceress’ striking star, the incomparable Julie Strain, fondles her heaving bosom in the throes of black magik ecstasy. Surrounded by candles and satanic paraphernalia, and gyrating amidst a pink and purple-tinged whirlpool of dream-soaked lighting, Sorceress’ opening stretch is magnificent; the essence of this smouldering tale of women, wrongdoing and witchcraft quite literally laid bare. Because let’s face it: if you aren’t watching Sorceress to savour B-goddess Strain’s stunning physique, mesmeric presence, and perfectly pitched performance, I don’t know what else to say to you. It’s easily her finest hour; the centrepiece of a golden mid-’90s run that saw similarly saucy and sublime turns in David DeCoteau’s Blonde Heaven (1995) and a slew of nifty Andy Sidaris programmers.

And yet… She’s hardly in it! Strain is bumped off in a freak accident early doors, in a tumble from the balcony of the plush home she shares with her hexed hubby, Larry Poindexter. But it’s to the former Penthouse Pet’s credit that her beguiling aura emanates from every frame of Sorceress; a fact accentuated by Wynorski’s tight-as-a-drum direction. An artiste who truly understands the power of strong female characters (cf: Chopping Mall, Hard to Die, The Assault (1996)) as well as their obvious aesthetic allure (few this side of Russ Meyer shoot a pair of melons as reverentially), Wynorski tackles Sorceress with a master’s touch and carefully laces the film with Strain’s looming spectral essence: a ghostly glimpse of the scantily clad Amazonian here, a prolonged close-up of her wet-slicked portrait there, and — the standout — a potent all-girl threesome as her spirit infiltrates the thirsty dreams of the equally delectable Rochelle Swanson. 

Joining Strain and Swanson in this jaw-dropping lesbonic tangle is the aforementioned Naples, and Wynorki’s bodacious bevy of babes — a smorgasbord of vixens second only to his preceding pair-up with Ray, Dinosaur Island (1994) — is completed by Linda Blair. While The Exorcist (1973) moppet-cum-Chained Heat (1983) siren sadly remains clothed (to the chagrin of my fellow raincoat brigaders), she oozes a seductively sinister menace as Sorceress’ primary antagonist. The spell-casting rival of Strain’s shapely witchy-poo, Blair and Strain’s seemingly eternal feud intensifies once Strain’s hocus-pocus results in the paralysis of Blair’s husband (the perpetually excellent Edward Albert). Naturally, Blair swears revenge and even Strain’s inadvertent death when the browbeaten Poindexter escapes her thrall won’t stop her. And what better vengeance than driving Larry-boy insane as his new old beau, his recently reacquainted ex-girlfriend Swanson, slowly transforms into the mirror image of his diabolical dead wife, thanks to her wearing of Blair’s Gynska?     

McGee’s script is a smidge convoluted, admittedly.  Hell, Wynorski himself agrees and says so in the typically entertaining commentary track found on Synapse’s gorgeous 2016 Blu-ray. But it doesn’t matter. Sorceress engages and delights, and Wynorski delivers the plot developments with an authority that bulldozes over the less cohesive moments. The supporting cast (which includes a suitably intense Michael Parks, Blacula’s (1972) William Marshall, and Wynorski stalwart Lenny Juliano) are fabulous, but Sorceress’ strongest suit is Wynorski’s firm grasp on atmospherics.

Indeed, if Sorceress’ humping is hot, its scares are ice cold. Having probed kindred terrain in his brilliant Corman/Poe homage, The Haunting of Morella (1990), in Sorceress, Wynorski eschews cheap jolts and jumps in favour of bone-freezing chills and oneiric flourishes. His subtle use of colour is the film’s aesthetic key. Lensed in two weeks, primarily in a house owned by a cabal of real lesbian witches (!), it’s the wine-drenched hues of Sorceress’ luxurious Gary Graver photography that Wynorski uses to clue us in on Poindexter and Swanson’s warping reality, as the rug is pulled from beneath them and they slip into a world of uncanny fantasy. It’s a swirling, mesmeric, and wholly intoxicating viewing experience — visual and tonal simpatico that’s in absolute keeping with Sorceress’ eerie central conceit of your existence spiralling into oblivion, as it’s twisted and puppeted by the malevolence of other people. And like Strain and Blair’s storyline powers, that feeling is impossible to resist.

All you can do is surrender to it.

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