Monday, November 20, 2023

"Looking for a Needle in a Stack of Needles" - Spellcaster (1988)

We have done very little exploration of the prolific output of Charles Band's Empire Pictures here at Senseless Cinema, so it is time now to correct that oversight with 1988's Spellcaster, directed by Rafal Zielinski, the famous director of Screwballs (1983), Screwballs II (1985), and Screwball Hotel (1988). 

Some of your universe's critics fail to appreciate Spellcaster, and indeed Empire Pictures as a whole. For example, reviewer SlasherReviewer writes, "This movie was just plain junk, the only thing it had going for it is that it was shot in a castle over in another country." (The country is Italy.) Reviewer Sergiodave writes,"Avoid unless you are really bored." And reviewer BZinkeys writes, "The only true horror I see here is a nail in the coffin of the '80s being dead." (I confess I only half understand what BZinkeys is saying here.)

Please read on for the truth about Spellcaster...

The film begins in a pop music video set in a castle as announcer Richard Blade introduces a contest in which contestants win a trip to a European castle to meet the singer Cassandra Castle, and possibly to find a million-dollar prize within the castle. Two young adults, Tom and Jackie, watch Mr. Blade on RockTV as he immediately announces the winners of the contest. Of course, brother and sister Tom and Jackie are two of the contest winners—they are simultaneously fired and quit their job as restaurant dishwashers.

The film cuts to Rome, where a series of cars pulls up to a castle. For some reason, Tom and Jackie ride in the back of a small pickup (it is unclear whether RockTV paid for this transportation or the siblings simply hitchhiked from the airport to the castle). As they disembark, they run across Richard Blade on camera introducing each of the winners: Myrna, Harlan, Teri, Tony, and of course Cassandra Castle. Cassandra is clearly uninterested in the castle. She says in her charming British accent, “Stuff me in this tiny limo with four miserable Clearasil cases, and now I’ve got to spend the godawful weekend in some stink-hole castle.”

Surprisingly, two motorcycle cops drive up. Richard Blade quips, “It’s the police, and I don’t see Sting.” They have come to impound Tony’s sports car, which turns out to be stolen.

Eventually, Jackie and Tom arrive on foot because their flight was light and they missed the scheduled limousine. As they walk up to Richard Blade, Jackie says, “We’re the winners from Cleveland.”

Mr. Blade’s camerawoman quips, cruelly, “No such thing, kid.” (Later, the camerawoman, named Jesse, will ask her crew to pick up an HD video camera because it will, she assures them, allow them to see in the dark.)

As the contest winners carry their luggage up the stone steps of the castle, Myrna fumbles with her bags and complains she is not accustomed to carrying her own luggage. Tom asks what is in the largest bag and Myrna replies, “Guns. I thought I’d get in a little shooting. Rabbits, birds, maybe a boar.”

“Yeah,” Tom replies, “well, I’ll try my best to be interesting, okay?” (The astute reader will note this is a variation on a boor/bore joke in the 1982 film Crosstalk.)

Later, at night, the two crew members tasked with finding an HD camera drive back toward the castle. Suddenly, their car breaks down. “We are lost in the middle of nowhere, we can’t find the castle, and the car won’t start. What else could possibly go wrong?”

Immediately, the car explodes. Back at the castle, a silhouette in a high tower laughs evilly.

The contest winners share dinner in a gigantic dining hall. They are disappointed when the butler announces that their host, Signor Diaboli, will not be joining them. As they dine, Richard Blade announces the rules for the treasure hunt, which is to start at dawn, are basically that a million-dollar check is hidden somewhere in the castle that does not necessitate digging or destroying anything. Also, if anyone leaves the castle, they are disqualified.

Later, Tom starts investigating before dawn, against the rules, and Richard Blade and the pop singer Cassandra Castle come up with a somewhat confusing plan about hiding the million-dollar check on her person, possibly in her brassiere, so she can reveal it at the end of the weekend.

Various shenanigans occur as some of the contest winners sneak around the castle at night, searching for the check. Also, various sculptures and statues reveal themselves to be ambulatory. The French contestant, Yvette, is attacked by a chair with a lion design, which appears to eat her.

Meanwhile, Cassandra Castle stumbles upon a basement filled with the blind dead. She screams and they attack her, but she escapes easily. (The zombies, and the basement, are never seen again.)

Richard Blade finds Cassandra, who tells him about the zombies in the basement. He dismisses her story as an alcohol-fueled delusion. “You’re right, no more juice,” she says to him. “Pills. I need pills.” He abandons her in her room.

In the morning, most of the contestants arrive for breakfast. (Though it is past dawn, nobody is looking for the check, for unexplained reasons.) After a few minutes, Mr. Blade instructs Jamie to start taping, but the beginning of the treasure hunt is interrupted by the absence of Yvette, who apparently left a handwritten note excusing herself due to a family emergency (one that presumably did not involve a lion chair eating her). The contestants run through the castle, searching the various rooms. (None of this is being filmed by Jamie, however.)

In an unexpected turn, Tony the Italian contestant stumbles into Cassandra’s room, where she is taking a bubble bath. He immediately finds the million-dollar check in her clothes, but he is more interested in forcing himself on her sexually, which results in the butler arriving and uttering the classic line, “You screamed, madam?”

The butler forces Tony out of the room and into the hall. In impotent retaliation, Tony uses his switchblade to rip holes in a tapestry hanging on the wall, an act of vandalism that is observed via crystal ball in another part of the castle.

In the library, one of the contestants finds Jackie searching through books. “Looking for a check in a library is sort of like looking for a needle in a…stack of needles.” Jackie explains that all of the books in the library are bibles (though the close viewer might notice they have other titles on their spines). After Jackie leaves, Tony threatens the other young woman at knifepoint, believing she has found the check when in fact she has found her contact lens. (There is no explanation why Tony, who in fact saw the check in Cassandra Castle’s clothing, is continuing to look through the castle.)

In another shocking twist, the unseen spellcaster of the film’s title, who observes everything through his crystal ball, is able to manipulate the check through the castle. Several of the contestants see the check, but the spellcaster magically makes it fly through the air, leading tragically to Tony falling from a high turret.

Meanwhile, the spellcaster turns the gluttonous Harlan into a sort of were-pig and traps Teri in the dining room with him. 

Teri runs to her room, but she is attacked by a monster that appears from out of a tapestry. At the same time, Jamie is attacked by a snake made out of electricity that emerges from the electric outlet. And Richard Blade (who appears somewhat uncomfortable during action scenes) is attacked by an ambulatory suit of armor. 

In the end, only Jackie, Tom, and Cassandra remain. Jackie finds a door that leads into a stone hallway, and finally into the sanctum of the spellcaster, played by Adam Ant. When he reveals himself, she asks, “Is this a video or something?”

“No, no. It’s real life,” he replies. “And real death.”

“You killed all of them?”

“Yes, but from what I can see, which is everything, they deserved it.”


“Oh, an oldie but a goodie. Black magic.”

He shows her the screaming spirits of the contestants who have died. He also tells Jackie that it’s Tom’s turn to die next. She watches the crystal ball as it shows what is happening in Cassandra’s bedroom: Tom, perhaps implausibly, is sleeping with Cassandra when he finds the million-dollar check. “You know what this means?” he says excitedly. “I am totally free of school. I don’t have to work the rest of my life!” (Even in 1988, this seems like it might be an unreasonable expectation for a young man receiving a million dollars.)

“Don’t do it,” Cassandra warns him.

“Don’t do what? Don’t win? Why?”

She tells him she has 18 million dollars. The money will own him, and it always will. She drops the check in the fireplace and it burns to nothing.

Suddenly, the fire in the fireplace bursts out, burning her, but Adam Ant teleports her to his sanctum because she wasn’t supposed to remove the temptation from Tom. As a woman who has already sold her soul to the devil (i.e., Adam Ant), she was supposed to lure Tom into selling his own soul for money.

Jackie offers a deal: Tom can leave with the million dollars, plus Cassandra gets her soul back, in exchange for Jackie’s soul. Mr. Ant agrees. 

For some reason, Cassandra fires a gun at the crystal ball. This reboots everything: All the contestants stumble into the sanctum, having woken from their strange dreams. Even Cassandra is alive.

In an amusing twist ending, Adam Ant himself becomes a veejay with RockTV. On a TV, he announces the contest that began the film.

The End

Among the many notable qualities of Spellcaster is its pedigree. In addition to the esteemed director Mr. Zielinski, famous for many movies with the word "screwball" in the title, Spellcaster benefits from the contributions of writers Ed Naha, Dennis Paoli, and Charles Bogel (who has no other credits, so I choose to believe his name is a pseudonym for Charles Band). Of course, Ed Naha's finest screenwriting credit is for Stuart Gordon's Dolls (1986), a film that might be considered a blueprint for Spellcaster as it involves a group of people trapped in a large dwelling and meeting untimely ends (and it also features Bunty Bailey, who plays Cassandra in Spellcaster). Dennis Paoli is also renowned for his work with Stuart Gordon, along with other Charles Band films. With a pedigree like this, it is not hard to imagine what a masterpiece Spellcaster is. Of course, we don't have to imagine such a thing, as we can see it for ourselves.

The existential ending of Spellcaster must also be noted. One can only ponder the eternal question: Why does shooting a crystal ball with a pistol turn the devil into a veejay? This is a question only the truly wise are able to ponder, much less answer. Perhaps the only way to resolve it would be to ask Mr. Rafal Zielinski himself, but he is no doubt too busy working on a new film about screwballs. Therefore, it is assured we will unfortunately never know the answer.