Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch—we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
Although the most famous of witch hunts is behind us, that doesn’t mean they still don’t happen today. It’s just that the targets are considerably far more innocent than someone like Elondra Sharack in 1982’s Superstition.
“Although the most famous of witch hunts is behind us, that doesn’t mean they still don’t happen today.”
It all begins with an amorous couple doing what comes natural in a horror movie — they make out in front of a supposedly haunted house, of course. After the parked pair is scared away by two mischievous young men, the tricksters get a taste of their own medicine and then some when they are brutally murdered by a concealed threat within the same house. Soon, Inspector Sturgess (Albert Salmi) approaches the local church that owns the Sharack lot and butts heads with the parish’s latest reverend, David Thompson (James Houghton). He reports the recent murders to the bewildered clergyman who had no idea the property belonged to the church in the first place.
Inspector Sturgess presses Reverend Thompson to do something with the derelict house or else the county will have to step in. That might have been the best decision for everyone, because more deaths occur on the grounds. Mind you, this is before another man of the cloth, Reverend George Leahy (Larry Pennell), moves in with his family, and after Stacy Keach Sr’s Reverend Maier is killed in a freak accident involving a flying table saw blade. Regardless of these worrisome facts, the new residents stay in place. And soon they’re introduced to the house’s oldest resident in the worst way imaginable.
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Screenwriters Michael O. Sajbel and Brad White created a ten-minute demo that eventually became the groundwork for Superstition. The teaser garnered so much interest at the Milan Film Festival that year that the screenwriting duo and the now-defunct Carolco Pictures (The Changeling) acquired an entire shooting budget from European presales alone. The studio then tapped James Roberson, the DP on Charles B. Pierce’s The Town that Dreaded Sundown, to be the director. Donald G. Thompson, much to Sajbel and White’s chagrin, was tasked with rewriting the movie’s script before production began in Los Angeles. Principal filming took place largely in the famous Garbutt House, a sprawling twenty-room mansion located in the Silver Lake area. Curiously, production at the house on Hathaway Hill was saddled with supposed on-set paranormal activity; a security guard apparently quit after claiming he saw a ghost on the premises.
In spite of the fact this American movie was filmed in 1981, it never saw domestic distribution until 1985. Superstition, under the alternative title of The Witch, did well overseas; it was a record-breaking hit in Mexico, according to Sajbel. In what can only be described as a moment of irony, the film also narrowly escaped the United Kingdom’s infamous “video nasty” purge of the eighties. Back in the States, the movie had an unsuccessful limited run in theaters despite Almi Pictures’ Frank Moreno’s efforts to attract a secondary audience with misleading promotion. A lack of substantial coverage from genre outlets certainly didn’t inspire good word of mouth, either.
What truly sets this film apart from its contemporaries is an effective marrying of hot trends. It wasn’t that long ago that The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist creeped out audiences with phantasmal disturbia; Stuart Rosenberg and Tobe Hooper’s seminal haunted house movies paved the way for Superstition. Roberson’s keen eye for gory, spectral horror smells of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, as well.
The slasher genre was well into its heyday by 1982; we had already seen enough movies where masked maniacs go to town on luckless campers and teenagers. James Roberson’s film, however, tweaks the formula by making the killer both dead and supernatural, and not to mention, essentially invisible. Long before an unseen reaper of sorts crept up on unsuspecting near-death survivors in the Final Destination franchise, a party of hapless innocents was slaughtered with glee by a witch named Elondra. Her physicality is masked by cloak and darkness; an almost-bodiless black hand with sinewy fingers adorned by razor sharp talons is all audiences really ever see of her until the film’s climax. Even then, her limited appearances muster up a great deal of atmosphere and suspense.
In between all the maiming and churchly creepiness, we get a passing history lesson on the war on witches; the villainous Elondra Sharack (Carole Goldman) was executed in 1692 during an inquisition by Father Andrew Pike (Robert Symonds). A good number of innocent people were killed in reality, but here it’s safe to say Sharack is at least guilty of being a daughter of the Devil. Even so, she died at the hands of the church — Elondra was drowned in the nearby lake — after swearing vengeance on future generations. While the obvious route would have been having audiences sympathize with a wrongly accused witch and in turn somehow excuse her wanton slaughtering, the writers made a bold decision to just let evil be evil.
All in all, Superstition feels more singular than it’s given credit for while still boasting the satisfying trappings of better-known and similar films. James Roberson knows his way around a haunted house seeing as his terror tour is abundant with outlandish kills, brainless witch fodder, and an Italianate aesthetic. This merciless and often kitsch picture never quite triggered a franchise like Sajbel had hoped, yet he and his colleagues put their stamp on the slasher subgenre well ahead of the supernatural curve.
“[This] terror tour is abundant with outlandish kills, brainless witch fodder, and an Italianate aesthetic.”