Written and Directed by: Kevin S. Tenney
Starring: Todd Allen, Stephen Nichols, and Tawny Kitaen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Hang loose, stay cool, and don't forget your psychic humor."
1986 introduced the world to Kevin S. Tenney, a now semi-forgotten horror auteur whose early work was especially preoccupied with characters fucking with things that should not be fucked with. Debut effort Witchboard is a prime example of folks conjuring up some dark magic and paying the price, and it’s the same sort of material that Tenney would mine for goofball purposes in Night of the Demons and Witchtrap; here, however, it’s wrapped up in a relatively straight-laced, mature affair, at least in the sense that it doesn’t revolve around a bunch of dopey teenagers at a Halloween party or dopes investigating a haunted house.
Instead, it’s about some dopey twentysomethings caught up in the stuff of soap operas (so let’s not get too carried away with how mature the film is after all): after high school, Jim (Todd Allen) fancied himself a badass and looked to conquer med school, only to return with his tail tucked between his legs, a prodigal son left to work a menial construction job. He did get the girl, Linda (Tawny Kitaen), much to the chagrin of boyhood pal Brandon (Stephen Nichols). Despite their estranged relationship, the two former friends find themselves at a party, where Brandon presents a Ouija board and begins to communicate with the spirit of a ten year old boy. When he leaves the board at Linda’s house, she decides to contact the spirits and unwittingly unleashes a malevolent force.
Having not seen Witchboard for several years, I had forgotten that it’s more deliberate than Tenney’s other late 80s splatter-romps. Not only are the blood and guts scattered about and confined to a handful of sequences (some of which play like Final Destination-esque “accidents” in hindsight), but they’re also secondary to the creeping terror that builds throughout. Unfolding as a fairly intriguing mystery, it hinges on an obvious bait-and-switch: Linda is mistaken when she believes herself to be in contact with the dead boy, as something else is looking to return to earth by using her body as a vessel, leaving Brandon and Jim to work through their issues in order to save her.
The mystery isn’t only effective due to Tenney’s intriguing mythos (more on that in a bit) but also because the characters are impossibly endearing in a very Tenney sort of way. I wouldn’t say that he ever writes particularly deep characters, but he outfits them with just enough quirk and personality, then casts them rather well. His set here is especially fun and don't adhere too strictly to stereotypes (which can’t be said for some of his later films): Nichols definitely looks the part of a stock 80s jerkass villain, all coiffed up and ridiculously blonde, and he certainly acts like a douche at times—but he sort of has good reason to, what with his old buddy always acting like a flippant, callous asshole. This is not to say the two aren’t likeable—it’s just that their relationship and personalities feel natural in spite of the ridiculous dialogue, overcooked performances, and all the other silly stuff that makes the film seem corny. Sometimes, you’ve got to shove your issues aside when a demon forces itself onto your girlfriend.
I’ll take the earnest sort of corniness on display here—even if Witchboard is naturally silly, it’s legitimately charming and features characters that are both fun and a bit substantial. Like other Tenney efforts, it’s tinged with an eccentric flavor, whether it’s in the form of a Valley Girl medium (Kathleen Wilhoite as a Cyndi Lauper wannabe), an oddball detective (Burke Byrnes), or one of Jim’s ill-fated construction buddies (James Quinn). It’s tough for a goofy movie centered on a Ouija board to also conjure up memorably endearing characters, but it’s one of Tenney’s strengths along with deftly juggling tone: Witchboard straddles a tenuous line between serious and goofy. It’s the type of movie that jams in blood, hacky jokes, crocodile tears, a wedding, and an awesome power ballad before it’s done.
The horror operating in the background is familiar but cool: as Brandon and Jim work to uncover the mystery surrounding Linda’s strange behavior, they discover the true culprit—a long dead psychopath by the name of Malfeitor (J.P. Luebsen). His fleeting but memorable appearance reveals a weirdly dapper maniac that looks to have stepped out of an old, sepia stained photograph—with big fuckin’ axe, of course. Given his brief screen-time, it’s easy to understand how he was overshadowed by other 80s slashers, but Malfeitor is a spooky wraith who vaguely recalls The Tall Man. He also (literally) pops up in one of the better jump scares from the era and coaxes a gonzo performance from Kitaen when he possesses Linda during the climax. Kitaen would later become more famous for hopping onto the hood of a Jaguar in a Whitesnake video, but she’ll always be the whacked-out psycho hell-bent on murdering her boyfriend in Witchboard to me.
That’s not really an exaggeration—Tenney’s first two films became reliable comfort food during my weekly video store binges, and their distinct flavor (let's call it "Diet Raimi") still appeals to that pre-adolescent corner of the brain that knows a wickedly fun horror movie when it sees one. Night of the Demons once overshadowed Witchboard for obvious reasons, but time has actually been kinder to the latter since it’s a little less one note and boasts a stronger story. The duo seems destined to be joined at the hip, and Scream Factory has continued that tradition by releasing Collectors Editions for each film. Witchboard isn’t treated as a mere afterthought, either, as both discs are among the studio’s most impressive offerings yet.
Not only does Tenney’s debut benefit from a solid high-definition upgrade, but it’s also stacked with new and vintage special features. The director appears in two newly-recorded commentaries; one pairs him with Nichols, Wilhoite, and Quinn, while the other pairs him up with producers Walter Josten and Jeff Geoffray. Scream has also produced “Progressive Entrapment,” another signature retrospective documentary featuring new interviews from the cast and crew (including Kitaen!). Over 90 minutes of vintage material also makes the cut, and the various features present an interesting pastiche of on-set footage and some interesting peeks behind the special effects curtains. Outtakes, a trailer, and two separate photo galleries round out a spectacular special edition that should remind folks that Tenney wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. To recap: Night of the Demons is the movie you loved as a kid, while Witchboard is the one that’s aged better. Meanwhile, Witchtrap is sitting in a corner, ogling you with its crazy eyes, and waiting for someone to recognize it as Tenney’s true masterpiece (I think it’s actually looking your way, Scream Factory). Buy it!
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