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Death Magic (1992)

Directed by Paul Clinco
Domino Theatre VHS

Major Aaron Parker is facing the firing squad. He is also facing the gallows. Because when you want someone dead, you want to make sure that someone is really dead. And while people say that the only sure things in life are death and taxes, I can tell you that the only sure thing is taxes. The death thing is really, really complicated.

It’s the Civil War era, but there’s a corporate office park in the distance. Just ignore that. It’s the Civil War era. Union soldiers wearing Union jackets and Union hats and Union acid-wash jeans aim their rifles. Major Parker has done something wrong—not sure what, just ignore that—and he is facing execution.

Meanwhile, in present times that is not the Civil War era, a shirtless nerd named Powell caresses a sword in the dark. His computer runs a visualization of a “Stellar Confluence Comparison—Grimoire of Fra Thaddeus.” I don’t know what that is, but I’m impressed by the MS-DOS graphics. There are long, slow pans and dissolves of the dude’s bookshelf: the oeuvre of occultist/writer/magician/poet/mountaineer Aleister Crowley, The Necronomicon, The Black Arts, The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, and Arcane Evocations by Donald Graham, which is four volumes long. Four! It is several long minutes of magic/occult book porn, all set to plaintive oboes, which is the most bewitching of woodwinds. It is obvious that someone is very, very proud of their collection of occult books.

Soon Powell summons a spirit. “By Azrael of the House of Spirits, I conjure and command thee . . . the scourge of Zanzara. I demand that you appear!”

There’s a pillar of flame, and the scourge of Zanzara appears. She is a naked lady. Then another spirit is conjured, this time the ghost of Major Parker. He seeks revenge on the ancestors of those who executed him. Most of these ancestors happen to be topless ladies, including one who likes to read naked in bed.

Now a group of occultists must stop the vengeful spirit before everyone is dead. They don their ceremonial robes decorated with Led Zeppelin IV runes and enlist the help of Donald Graham, the author of those four volumes that grace Powell’s bookshelves. He looks like slightly confused version of Christopher Lee. There’s some conjuring, some runes, some spells, some séances, and more than a few topless make-out sessions. Meanwhile the town’s sheriff, a brassy silver-haired broad, doesn’t care for all this magical mumbo jumbo—she just wants the murders to stop and restore peace.

The premise of Death Magic seems simple—a wronged spirit returns to seek murderous revenge—but the plot is inscrutable and needlessly complicated. The plot moves back and forth in time between the Union soldiers and the occultists. And in the end, you don’t really care about what happened in the 1860s because, let’s face it, it was a long time ago. The plot is further deadened by the dark photography, uneven mixing, and the many, many scenes that don’t push the movie forward. There’s far too much talking and not enough killing in this movie. What you want is ritualistic magic and ghastly spirits and ritual daggers flying around the screen. You want puffs of smoke and plumes of fire and head-spinning possessions and victims covered in gore. But we get none of that. What we do get is a lot of topless women. I’m shocked that writer/director Paul Clinco convinced these ladies to take off their tops in the name of the black arts. It seems that every actress is game to let the girls loose. But the novelty of boobs wears thin, especially when there’s nothing else to grab on to, literally and figuratively speaking. Death Magic is occasionally entertaining, but overall it is static and taxing. It feels like a movie created by sex-starved magic nerds who care more about showcasing their deep knowledge of the occult than about creating a piece of entertainment.

The good news is that Paul Clinco and the caterer are related.