In [dubious] honor of the imminent release of OUIJA, a movie which again attempts the Herculean task of making a board game scary, today we go back to the pioneer of the genre, 1988’s WITCHBOARD, the brainchild of cult horror filmmaker Kevin S. Tenney (NIGHT OF THE DEMONS). This was what I had to say back when Scream Factory released a new Blu-Ray edition of the film earlier this year. Prepare yourselves…
WITCHBOARD stars soon-to-be music-video star Tawny Kitaen [Editor’s Note to young people: In the 1980s there were people named “Tawny”] as a young woman named Linda who is caught in a love triangle between two guys with mullets. They are her current boyfriend Jim, played by Todd Allen in one of the few performances in the movie approximating actual human behavior, and her ex-boyfriend Brandon, played by Stephen Nichols, who was a major soap opera star in the 1980s, in case you needed any further evidence as to how weird the 1980s were. It’s hard to imagine how this creepy blond kook ever had a girlfriend, let alone one who starred in sexy rock videos, since he has a habit of busting out his prized Ouija board at house parties. Ever been at a party where some mope brings out a board game? Think that guy’s going home with anyone but his board?
This Ouija board, however, has the powers that Parker Brothers advertised. Through the Ouija board, Brandon summons a malevolent spirit, who goes by the name of “David” and proceeds to torment the trio for the rest of the movie, at one point possessing Tawny Kitaen and forcing her to writhe around on the hood of a car. That last part doesn’t actually happen but then again, it could have. (Please note that the lead singer of Whitesnake, the band who had Tawny convulsing all over the front of a Jaguar in her nighty, is in fact named David [Coverdale].)
Desperate to stop the pesky poltergeist, the hapless young people turn to a hip young medium named “Zarabeth,” played by Kathleen Wilhoite, arguably best known as the girl from PRIVATE SCHOOL who wasn’t Phoebe Cates or Betsy Russell. I’m sure Kathleen Wilhoite is otherwise a fine actress, but here she gives an egregiously irritating performance of the kind that makes you betray your pacifist nature and want desperately to see her axed by a cranky ghost, which of course happens. Ever get stuck standing on a line at the bank and the person standing behind you is cracking their gum loudly and you just want them dead forever? That’s Zarabeth. Anyway, she’s no match for the supernatural might of David. Is anyone?
It’s very hard – some might say impossible – to make a Ouija board scary. Maybe Ouija boards are a little creepy if you’re an eleven-year-old girl at a slumber party. I’ve never been one of those at one of those, so I couldn’t say for sure. What I do know is that watching grown adults operate a Ouija board is lacking in what finer critics than I would call ‘dramatic tension.’ There is a ton of unintentional humor here – or if it was intentional, then I’d have to declare that then-first-time writer-director Kevin Tenney is a satirical genius on the level of a Billy Wilder. Once Tawny drops out of the film for a while and her two suitors have to team up to rescue her from the forces of darkness, there is some hilarious homo-eroticism — looks of longing between these two faded friends turned bitter rivals, a priceless moment where the two of them sit together on a dock in the country joining hands over a Ouija planchette — that could easily be spoofing the hyper-macho nature of films during the Reagan years. Again, brilliant if it were intended. As a spectator, I can’t assign intent. Maybe Kevin Tenney addresses it on a commentary track on the new Scream Factory package.
There is actually some solid filmmaking on display in WITCHBOARD, to be fair, particularly in some impressive camera movements including a memorable shot of a person having been pushed out a second-story window, with the camera fixed on the actor as he falls. It’s like Spike Lee’s trademark dolly shot, before Spike Lee was doing it.
Kevin Tenney’s next movie was 1988’s NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, which has a cult following, two sequels, and a 2009 remake. My favorite of his many horror movies is probably PINOCCHIO’S REVENGE, about a malevolent wooden puppet. (Or is it?) I’m not kidding. I like the idea of a guy who’s out there making esoteric, individualistic horror flicks – it’d be hard to call these movies quote-unquote great or even particularly scary, but all the ones I’ve seen so far have been totally entertaining, none more so than WITCHBOARD.
— JON ABRAMS (@jonnyabomb).
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