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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Witchboard (1986)

A friend brings a Ouija board to a party. You find yourself attracted to it and continue to mess with it on your own. At first it's fun. But then…weird things start to happen. This is the beginning of many stories that are told by actual people who have used Ouija or "spirit" boards. Writer and director Kevin Tenney [Night of the Demons] takes full advantage of these stories, adds a few legends of his own, and presents us with a worst-case scenario.

Witchboard is Tenney's first feature film and he does a great job with scene composition and pacing of the film. The "spirit cam" is especially effective as we see some scenes through the eyes of the spectre. This is a nod to earlier movies such as Friday the 13th (1980) and Black Christmas (1974), where we visually walk in the shoes of the serial killer. Where the film falters is the character of the detective who interrogates his suspects at graveside. Who does that?

Another thing that didn't work for me is the Zarabeth, the Valley Girl Medium. She is obviously there to inject a little humor into the film but her performance is so over the top that I found it distracting. Give me Tangina from Poltergeist over her any day!

Finally there's a slow-motion fall out a window that pays tribute to a similar scene in Psycho (1960) where someone falls down a flight of stairs and we travel with them. It works much better in Psycho than it does here.

The two things that really "work" for me in Witchboard are the complex love triangle and the spirit of "David," the dead 10 year old whom they contact. The love triangle is between the friend who brought the board and the couple who hosted the party. They all have a long history with each other and Tenney plays around with their feelings for each other in interesting ways. "David" also works and reminds us that sometimes simple is best. The Ouija board does most of the talking in the beginning of the film and it drew me into the story. If these a weakness with "David," it's that the audience figures out what David is trying to say long before the characters in the film do. Perhaps this is intentional because I found myself screaming at people who were absolutely clueless more than a few times.

Speaking of love triangles…the acting of the three main character is a bit uneven. Stephen Nichols [Days of Our Lives, General Hospital], who plays the friend, channels his inner James Spader in Pretty in Pink toward the beginning of the film. It's a bit too much for me an a more nuanced performance would have been better. Thankfully, he redeems himself later in the film and gives us more than a one-dimensional character. The girlfriend is none other than Tawny Kitaen who is best known for shaking her stuff in Whitesnake videos. Here, she shows us she has some skill as an actress and her character has a nice vulnerability about her, especially when communicating with "David." Finally, her boyfriend is played by Todd Allen [Silverado, The Apostle] who is the strongest of the three and has a more natural acting style that works well.

With a few small tweaks, I think Witchboard could have been a great film. A remake has been in the works for a while so it will be interesting to see what they do with it. My hope is that they'll follow Tenney's lead and go for suspense and intrigue rather than excessive gore. Definitely give this one a try. It may very well be one of the most underrated horror films of the 1980's.

RATING: Very Good.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

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