Director : Kevin S. Tenney
Screenplay : Kevin S. Tenney
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1985
Stars : Todd Allen (Jim Morar), Stephen Nichols (Brandon Sinclair), Tawny Kitaen (Linda Brewster), Burke Byrnes (Lt. Dewhurst), Kathleen Wilhoite (Zarabeth), James W. Quinn (Lloyd)
Witchboard is a better-than-average low-budget occult thriller that was largely written off as yet another Exorcist wannabe when it first came out in the mid-1980s. Its lineage from William Friedkin’s 1973 horror masterpiece is certainly obvious, particularly its dual narrative about a woman who is possessed and the man in emotional crisis who is trying to help her. However, first-time writer/director Kevin S. Tenney didn’t just churn out a quickie hack job, and he made Witchboard much better than it probably ought to be by taking time to develop characters about whom we care, which gives the possession narrative an emotional as well as visceral impact.
The center of the story is a love triangle between a pretty young law student named Linda (Tawny Kitaen—yes, the girl from the Whitesnake videos) and her former boyfriend, Brandon (Stephen Nichols), and her current boyfriend, Jim (Todd Allen). Brandon and Jim couldn’t be any different although they were best friends many years ago. Jim is a fundamentally decent guy, but he has definite problems. The child of alcoholics, he is a hard drinker himself who left medical school because of his inability to “feel” and is now working construction. Brandon, on the other hand, is a suave sophisticate (just check out his feathered mullet—high style for 1985). Like Linda, he’s a law student, and he dresses in nice suits and sneers in James Spader-like disdain at people he feels are beneath him.
Brandon also dabbles in the occult, which involves using an Ouija board to communicate with spirits. One night at a party, he and Linda contact the spirit of a 10-year-old boy named David who died in an accident 30 years ago. Linda then becomes obsessed with using the Ouija board by herself, which is apparently a bad idea because using it alone makes her susceptible to being used by spirits (particularly evil ones) as a portal into this world. She falls into what Brandon calls “progressive entrapment,” which essentially means her body is being used as a door between worlds.
Kevin S. Tenney has clearly ingested not only hoards of Exorcist imitators, but also plenty of Brian De Palma and Sam Raimi, as he is clearly in love with elaborate crane shots and fish-eye-lens spirit POV shots, all of which give Witchboard a slightly more sophisticated visual shrewdness than most movies of its ilk, although said shrewdness is often undermined by cheap fake scares. Unfortunately, Tenney’s screenplay tends to slip into silly caricature outside of the three main characters. He clearly wants to inject moments of humor and quirkiness into the movie, but they are mostly distracting, rather than merely diverting. Chief among these are a police investigator (Burke Byrnes) who keeps talking about magic and a punk-rock medium (Kathleen Wilhoite) with multi-colored hair, a weird sense of humor, and a grating voice. The idea of making a medium more contemporary in her oddness is an interesting idea, but Wilhoite overplays the role so profoundly that she is more annoying than intriguing. Tenney’s screenplay is also a bit sloppy at times, such as the sequence where Jim and Brandon try to find David’s parents. They can’t find them in the phone book, but soon learn that they died only two weeks ago and are buried right there in the local cemetery. Wouldn’t the parents still be in the phone book, then, or did they live in a community that publishes a new directory every time someone dies?
In its defense, Witchboard is one of those rare ’80s horror movies that starts off slowly and builds, rather than trying to jolt you with a shocker scene at the very beginning. It’s a risky ploy, but one that pays off because it draws you into the characters before immersing you in the supernatural. Todd Allen in particular makes Jim into an intriguing character—a typically sarcastic, blue-collar-type cynic who is secretly hiding a deep emotional wounding that has left him unable to feel. It gives the movie some gravity that it takes the possession of Linda and the death of several of his friends as a result to jar him back into the world of feeling, to make him human again. Tawny Kitaen, who hadn’t yet achieved her brief flash of international stardom by cavorting atop the hoods of twin Jaguars in Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” music video, is passable as Linda, although she is certainly the weakest link in the performance chain. Nevertheless, she should win some kind of award not only for biggest ’80s hair in a horror movie, but for the longest, scariest nails not on a monster.
|Audio||English 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 24, 2004|
|Witchboard is presented in a clean new anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image has some grain, but maintains good detail with solid color reproduction and strong contrast. The back of the DVD box claims that it is presented “uncut and uncensored,” although there isn’t anything particularly graphic in it to suggest the inclusion of previously deleted footage (not to mention the movie still carries an R-rating).|
|The original monaural soundtrack sounds clean.|
|In their lively audio commentary, director Kevin S. Tenney, executive producer Walter Josten, and producer Jeff Geoffray largely ignore the details of what’s on screen in favor of telling amusing anecdotes about the production. As a first-time production for all them, they clearly have an affinity for Witchboard and the various difficulties involving in making it. The 23-minute featurette “The Making of Witchboard” appears to be from the original electronic press kit. It features interviews with the three main stars, as well as several members of the production who are never identified. It includes some behind-the-scenes footage and lots of clips from the movie that are in rough cut form without any music or sound effects. A few of these clips are from scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie, including the explosion that killed David, and it’s too bad none of this deleted footage was included on the disc (the commentary also mentions entire subplots that were jettisoned, and the fact that the original rough cut of the film was 180 minutes long suggests that there is a lot of footage that was left on the cutting room floor). Lastly, the disc contains an original theatrical trailer and two TV spots.|
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright © Anchor Bay Home Entertainment