Witchboard (1986)


Honestly, the only reason most people are probably familiar with this low-budget '80s horror film is because Tawny Kitaen is in it.  The movie benefited from that bit of serendipity, as it came out the same time she was rolling around on a car in the video for Whitesnake's "Is This Love?"  She was already getting a bit of fame as a model and an actress, but the video became her claim to fame and it undoubtedly helped give a boost to this movie.

It kind of needed it as this was well into that first bunch of slasher films that rode the coattails on Friday the 13th.  It is also getting into the point of the 1980s where horror films started moving beyond masked killers and got a bit stranger, thanks to A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Evil DeadWitchboard has a bit of that later influence, but writer/director Kevin S. Tenney didn't have the same budget of Wes Craven had or the ingenuity of Sam Raimi  With his brother Dennis doing an electronic score and the pacing of the film it feels more like he decided to try his hand at being the next John Carpenter.  Even then it feels like Witchboard owes quite a bit to many of the pre-slasher horror films of the '70s. 

Jim (Todd Allen) and his girlfriend Linda (Kitaen) are hosting a party.  Linda's ex-boyfriend (and Jim's ex-best friend) Brandon (Stephen Nichols) shows up with a Ouija board and demonstrates its use by contacting a young boy named David.  However, when Jim starts mocking the proceedings, David gets upset and leaves, blowing out Brandon's tires for good measure.  Brandon departs but accidentally leaves the board behind.

Curious, Linda starts using it, thinking she is talking with David.  It is clear David doesn't like Jim, and though initially nice to Linda David starts to become hostile.  Brandon realizes what is happening - that a spirit of some sort is trying to possess Linda - and hires a medium (Katherine Wilhoite) to exorcise it.  The spirit turns out not to be David, but to be someone else that came when Linda called.  To make matters worse, local police detective Lt. Dewhurst (Burke Byrnes) begins to suspect that Jim is responsible for the deaths. 

Witchboard works on a number of levels, which makes it unfortunate that it was advertised as a slasher.  It has some similarities, but the body count is low, and it has more in common with haunted house and possession films of the 1970s.  It updates it to a haunted object, and what happens in the movie requires a lot of explaining.  I can imagine what teenagers thought when they went expecting to see a constant exposition of blood and breasts and got Tenney doing his best to make a thoughtful, somewhat artistic horror film.  It is well-shot, and when effects are used they are used efficiently.  As for the nudity, it's somewhat gratuitous, but at least it happens as the true spirit begins to make itself known to Linda. 

Tawny Kitaen obviously was never going to make it on her acting.  That said, she isn't expected to do anything here that requires a lot of range, and she's really no worse than Todd Allen and Stephen Nichols.  If anything that is where the movie is lacking.  It didn't need to have more well-known actors, but this movie needed to have a cast that didn't sound like they were reading from cue-cards off camera.  Still, Phantasm had some of the same problems and, though not as strange, in some places Witchboard has a similar feel of amateurishness and ambition.

It seems Tenney put in some research when writing the film (although the Ouija in its current form has only been around since about 1890).  It is a scary concept; even though I have left most of my occult interests behind, I would be the first to admit that, if they work, it's the spiritual equivalent of the flash-in-the-pan chat site Omegle.  Sure, there may be someone worth talking to occasionally, but most are the equivalent of a guy walking around a public square in a raincoat and clown shoes.  

What keeps it interesting is that sense of anything can happen, from the psychic Zarabeth with her Valley Girl accent and punk-rock style to the board coming to life and trying to protect itself.  There is some explanation of the spirit that is trying to possess Linda, but it is kept to what is needed so that when the final showdown comes it is interesting enough.  It is better than a lot of the slasher hanger-ons, and really shouldn't have been grouped with them, especially since we're dealing with an adult cast rather than just running through a bunch of random teenagers.  It is one of those little films that is ripe for rediscovery. 

Witchboard (1986)
Time: 98 minutes
Starring: Todd Allen, Stephen Nichols, Tawny Kitaen
Director: Kevin S. Tenney

 

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