(R, Cinema Group, 98 mins., theatrical release date: December 31, 1986)
Kevin S. Tenney has quite the propensity for possession, what with his two initial cult hits, both franchise fodder, focused on disturbances in the spiritual realm casting dire palls on the material world. Maybe he must have felt tired of the slasher conventions from his collegiate beginning, although his most famous film, the sophomore effort Night of the Demons from 1988, has definite influences from its early 1980s body count brethren. Tenney's debut Witchboard, however, doesn't wait too long to get to the conjuring even as its dials down on the carnage, certainly an intriguing comparison point given the E.C. Comics-friendly madness of his next project.
Like Sam Raimi before him, Tenney had a fairly kitchen sink drama sensibility which gradually was renovated into a blood fountain. Witchboard is distinctly character-oriented for undemanding shock cinema, its male leads being estranged best friends who harbor an ever-festering resentment based on their love for one woman. It's a soap opera for gorehounds, where confrontations and consolations coexist with bodies thrashing against walls, demonic POV tracking shots and the occasional ax murder. But mostly it's driven by a string of séances dependent on that reliable of slumber party excursions into the supernatural, the Ouija board.
Yuppie vineyard heir Brandon Sinclair (Stephen Nichols) has been using it routinely to speak to the ghost of ten-year-old David Simpson. At a party hosted by former flame Linda Brewster (Tawny Kitaen), Brandon invites her to make contact with David as her newest beau, working class prodigy Jim Morar (Todd Allen), stews in drunken jealousy. Snarky Jim agitates David so much, the specter deflates the new tires on Brandon's Cobra convertible. Linda takes it upon herself to communicate with David solo for a peaceful resolution, but she develops a fixation with the Ouija which puts her at risk when her naivety allows the apparition to wreak violent, vengeful havoc on Linda, Jim, Brandon, and their friends.
The result is strictly run-of-the-mill as far as possession stories go, with "accidental" deaths, pregnancy scares, nightie nightmares (shrouded in mist, of course), and the mercenary services of a medium, in this case a wisecracking, rainbow-haired space case named Zarabeth (Kathleen Wilhoite) who uses adjectives like "gnarly" and quotes Tigger for that extra shot of forced whimsy. Also as insufferably eccentric is the town's single detective, Lt. Dewhurst (Burke Byrnes), who suspects Jim as the suspect based on solely his missing hatchet from his construction job. Every one of Dewhurst's shakedowns involves his manchild preoccupation with magic tricks, so much so that he's juggling oranges at one point apropos of nothing. That he doesn't arrive for the demonic showdown dressed like Bozo the Clown and wielding an oversized mallet is as baffling as it is merciful.
Tenney employs these touches to lighten the mood, undoubtedly, but they don't gel at all with the embittered melodramatics between Jim and Brandon. The movie hinges on repairing the camaraderie between these absentee ex-friends, who come across as catty right from the start only to eventually reconcile in a motel room, where they learn to laugh again. Oddly enough, atheistic Brandon is the movie's expository mouthpiece while loutish but loving Jim bears the so-called redemption arc which works about as well as you'd expect. Some viewers may actually be cheering for him to pull the trigger on himself in the climax.
But what about 1980s vixen/human hood ornament Tawny Kitaen? Between the poles of Tom Hanks and David Coverdale, the B-actress is touted in the vintage on-set interviews included with this special edition release as playing more than just a reactive piece of eye candy. In a word: HA!!! Linda Brewster is far from Final Girl material, as she needs to be rescued by not one but TWO love interests, bears the brunt of the film's many otherworldly torments and is even rendered vulnerable in that old standby, The Shower Scene. At no point does she ever come across as in control of her own destiny, nor does she effectively will out her inner demon at the end like even Mark Patton's Jesse Walsh did in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2. There isn't even an attempt to de-glamorize Tawny as she is invaded by the movie's ethereal bogey, the final stages only serving to make her look like a model on a photo shoot than anywhere else in the film.
To be fair, Tenney proves himself a workable horror craftsman at times even at this early stage in the game, and puts a lot of thought and effort into not only the framing, camera shots and cinematography, here handled by Roy Wagner, but his screenplay. Tenney's wit can be generous, as is his attention to character development, and the film does unfold as an engrossing enough mystery, at least until a ridiculous anti-climax/coda evokes an unwelcome "WTF?" reaction. Even though he leans too heavily on jump scares (a particularly annoying habit for Jim) and telegraphed close-ups of dangerous objects (Chekhov's sundial!), Tenney does hit some nerve-tingling strides involving one victim's sudden demise (think Final Destination) or a typically Raimi-esque chase sequence.
His touch with the actors, however, is particularly amateurish, especially compared to his deployment of the surprisingly large ensemble in Night of the Demons. If Tawny Kitaen fails to come across as convincingly possessed, then watch daytime soap star Stephen "Patch" Nichols and comic relief Kathleen Wilhoite try (and fail) their best to channel the spirits of James Spader and Annie Potts, respectively. The only performer with the decency to underact, the top-listed Todd Allen, could be seen as a grungy Andrew McCarthy, in that he is a pleasant enough non-presence, although Tawny is no Molly and, thankfully, there's not a Duckie in the gallery.
Because Witchboard is often released on home video in tandem with Night of the Demons, an audience has grown to such a degree that some have championed Tenney's debut film as superior. I don't buy that at all. Witchboard can only come across as a nervous cackle compared to Demons' disemboweling belly laugh. The dirtier system proved the better conduit for Tenney to let loose his puckish spirits, whereas if you used the disc of Witchboard as a planchette, you might end up as lucky as Morrissey did in his own song about Ouija boards: "P-U-S-H-O-F-F." Indeed.
Scream Factory, though, get a "P-A-S-S" for the deluxe high-def treatment they afford Witchboard. The movie looks like it's been preserved in that unmistakably 1985 amber and while the audio is of rougher quality, it's miles better than VHS. But it's the extras, of course, where the company outdo themselves. The Anchor Bay commentary track with Tenney and the film's producers remains enlightening and lively, about as perfect a rundown of the production as one could hope for, but is complemented by an equally cheerful new session with Tenney and a trio of the film's stars. Of course, you will want to see the video retrospective Progressive Entrapment to catch the still-adorable Tawny Kitaen giggly crushing on her male leads, but stay for more anecdotes involving O.J. Simpson and Parker Brothers. A B-roll bouillabaisse collects nearly two solid hours worth of candid on-set footage including more interviews, outtakes, effects tests, and a treasure chest of goofiness. All these plus he theatrical trailer, TV spots and a pair of still galleries to ensure you won't be able to spell right for a week. T-R-U-F-E.