Theatre of the Absurd: Death Magic (1992)

Dave’s back on his tour of ’90s regional horror movies, where an overnight stay in Tucson yields a prize discovery.

In the introduction to his seminal tome Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990, A State-by-State Guide, author Brian Albright suggests that the appeal of grassroots genre fare rests upon the films’ theatrical sensibilities:

“Regional horror films (at least the interesting ones) radiate with a kind of unique energy that you just can’t find in most other films. There is something inherently and almost uniquely American about these films and the stories behind them; a sort of “let’s put on a show” enthusiasm that shines through all the chainsaw maulings and decapitations.”

As we’ve seen with the raucous, Delaware-shot Zombie Army (1991), the cast were recruited from a high school drama class; and in The Ghosting (1992), it was local thesps who were hired to fill acting roles. DEATH MAGIC takes this to the next level. Since 1963 – and since the tender age of fifteen, no less – its writer/director, Paul Clinco, had overseen the Domino Theatre, a troupe from Tucson, Arizona. So what better means by which to make his cinematic debut?

As far as the niche of sword-wielding confederate soldiers on a modern-day rampage goes, Clinco certainly seems to have cornered the market. The decorated trooper in question is the disgraced Major Aaron Parker (Jack Dunlap), who during the civil war was shot at dawn after a sneaky set up by his fellow officers. A couple of hundred years later, a wayward group of black magic enthusiasts decide to embark on a ritual to bring him back from the dead, unaware that Parker is hungry for vengeance and planning to hunt down the descendants of the people who facilitated his execution. 

After reading that synopsis, I’m pleased to confirm that Death Magic is everything you’d hope it would be. Stagey, costume-heavy, and an absolute flesh-fest, it’s what you’d expect from your local amateur dramatic society if they smoked excessive quantities of weed and lived in a commune. It might have arrived a decade too late for the slasher boom, but Clinco makes no apology for such tardiness and just shrugs and presses on, integrating the hallmark tropes that were all too scarce in a pre-Scream (1996) ’90s.

For a maiden feature his technique is pretty savvy, and there are plenty of neat flourishes like the slightly camp way Parker appears each time, accompanied by a red spotlight and a puff of dry ice. Clinco’s decision to flit back and forth with wanton abandon between the nineteenth century and the modern day is a little distracting, especially when it could have all been wrapped up in a tidy prologue, but it’s a trivial criticism.

Donald Graham stands out as Norman Stone, a bearded professor-type prone to moments of histrionic pomposity (“You’re safe for now my dear. Well, as safe as you can be in this strange world”), while there’s the occasional wink at the camera like when Lt. Alvarez (Lynne Baehr) muses how “that symbol looks like something from a low budget horror movie.”

The badly defined night shots in Death Magic need a degree of restoration as time hasn’t been too kind to their appearance. That would no doubt elevate this funky flight of fancy – but with the recent news that the film is in the hands of Culture Shock Releasing, who will do just that, a new and appreciative audience surely beckons.

USA ● 1992 ● Horror ● 93mins

Anne Coffrey, Keith De Green, Norman Stone, Jack Dunlap ● Dir. Paul Clinco ● Wri. Paul Clinco, Mark A.W. Smith

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