Directed by Kevin Tenney
Distributed by The Scream Factory
The conceit of any good horror film is to prey upon man’s primal fears, using them as a tool to instill terror. Usually, though not always, the best examples of this are those films that are formed on the basis of some distorted reality. Haunted houses, ghosts, spiritual encounters, possession, witchcraft, black magic – these are concepts very much rooted in the real world because many people claim to have encountered them. Movies about vampires, or werewolves, or various creatures can be very effective in their own right, but there’s a certain chill to films when you think the premise could happen to you after leaving the theater. One of the most infamous fears is that of witches and witchcraft; black magic used to conjure up evil spirits intent on harming the living. This goes back to the days of the witch trials, when many (very likely innocent) people were tortured and burned alive for fear they might be a servant of Satan. It is perhaps one of the oldest, yet still modern, fears because there is still a majority that believes in a Heaven and Hell; in God and in Satan. And that fear that Old Scratch can influence the world of the living is still palpable to some. So, first-time writer & director Kevin Tenney hit the nail on the head when he came up with a strong concept for his first major film, Witchboard (1986). Using not only the fear of evil forces, but also the seemingly innocent “game” of Ouija, Tenney auspiciously debuted his dark, character driven film to audiences nearly thirty years ago. It hasn’t lost any of its impact all these years later, still playing as a straight-up tale of possession and evil.
Linda (Tawny Kitaen) and Jim (Todd Allen) are throwing a party at their home with a big group of friends. Jim is a little ticked off because Linda invited her ex-boyfriend, Brandon (Stephen Nichols), who also happens to be Jim’s former best friend. When the party starts to fizzle, Brandon pulls out a Ouija board and claims he uses it to communicate with David, the spirit of a 10-year-old boy who died years ago. Jim, drunk and feeling like being a prick, taunts both David’s spirit and causes it to angrily pop Brandon’s car tire. He hitches a ride home, but leaves the Ouija board behind. Linda becomes fascinated with the board, deciding to use it alone to see if she can speak to David. It works, and soon she’s communicating with David night and day. But it isn’t actually David she’s speaking with; it’s Malfeitor (J.P. Luebsen), a malevolent spirit that wants to possess her mind & body. Reluctantly, Brandon & Jim must work together to discover what has overtaken Linda before they both lose her for good.
Witchboard is ostensibly a horror movie, but the film itself focuses more on characters and relationships than outright scares and gore. I think only three people die throughout the course of the film. Our leading trio of Linda, Jim, and Brandon has a complex history, but the film doesn’t need to overly explain past events for viewers to feel caught up. There’s great shorthand in their dialogue that paints the whole picture. What’s most important is that there’s a sense of investment in these characters, so we care when someone dies. It’s isn’t just a stalk-and-slash scenario, with Malfeitor popping up every ten minutes to kill another tangentially-related person. He’s only shown twice, and his essence as seen on screen is done wholly through Kitaen’s work. Tenney paints Linda as a gorgeous catch of a woman, so it makes perfect sense that a love triangle could drive a wedge between two best friends. There’s a sense that they’ve been reluctantly hating each other for years, but the machismo in both (mostly Jim, though) makes them just as reluctant to work together until Jim fully understands it’s for Linda’s benefit.
All of the leading actors turn in solid performances; their emotions feel authentic. Brandon is the most sensible of the group, understanding the power that Ouija can hold and respecting the boundaries that exist between the living and the dead. Jim doesn’t hold that kind of reverence for the board, or anything else, really. It’s established that his family are a bunch of do-nothing drunks, with Jim right in line to become “just like his old man”. He’s a dick, but he’s kind of a charming dick. He can hardly say a sentence with throwing in some off-hand, sarcastic quip, but there’s a playful way about him that makes it seem OK. Plus, he was continually cracking me up with his ability to sneak up behind everyone in the film at some point, scaring the shit out of them. Linda is less focused upon than the two male leads, but how can Tawny Kitaen NOT be memorable in a role during her heyday? She’s not only gorgeous; she’s got some acting chops to boot, too. Then there’s Zarabeth (Kathleen Wilhoite), the eclectic, eccentric psychic who has a very small, very memorable role as a medium who attempts to contact David. She is right on the edge of absolute annoyance, smacking her gum and cracking the worst “psychic humor” jokes you’ll hear outside of an episode of Long Island Medium (I’m only guessing, since I don’t watch that crap). But she’s smart, and we all know how well smart characters do in horror films.
The film’s most effective scenes are those involving the Ouija board. Now, I realize it can be hard to find something made by Parker Brothers scary, but remember that there is some ancient history to the board. Similar methods of communicating with the dead showed up in China around 1100 AD. The board that eventually wound up in Parker Brothers’ roster of “fun” games was created around the turn of the 19th century as a novelty. Even the etymology of the name has an apocryphal origin – one maker claims it was an Egyptian word he learned from using the board, another (more widely accepted) origin was that it combines the French and German words for “yes”. Whatever the case may be, the board remains a symbol of the potential to reach through unseen doorways and converse with the dead, regardless of how inane that possibility truly is. But people still attach a certain stigma to it, either to dismiss it as a child’s toy or a vessel of Beelzebub. And it’s the latter connotation that makes the conjuring scenes in this film feel sinister and tense.
Witchboard arrives on Blu-ray with a 1.85:1 1080p image that is a considerable boost over the previous DVD. There is a fine grain structure on display here – so fine you might almost think some DNR was applied to get it so smooth. But there are no traces of DNR, or any other sort of manipulation, so it’ll get chalked up to pristine source elements. This print is in great shape, with only a minor amount of white flecks seen on screen intermittently. Color saturation is very good, with many hues getting a nice pop in well-lit shots. As with most low budget productions, the real impressive visuals occur in daylight, when sharpness is at its peak and detail is finer than ever. Once we lose the light, many of the smaller details are lost to shadow. The image never gets murky or hard to follow in the darkness, though. Honestly, for a relatively cheap film made in 1986 it looks far better than anyone is likely to be expecting. Don’t expect to be thrilled and chilled by the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track, but it gets the job done. Dialogue is evenly balanced in the mix, never losing ground to sound effects or score, which was provided by Kevin Tenney’s brother, Dennis, as it was in “Night of the Demons” (1988), too. There’s a nice weight to the soundtrack, and although it’s not a multi-channel affair it can be just as easy to find yourself immersed in this mix. Fidelity is strong across the board. Chances are this sounds better on modern home theater systems, with a modern lossless audio track, than it ever did in theaters. Subtitles are included in English.
Witchboard isn’t a Scream Factory Collector’s Edition, but you wouldn’t know that from the exhaustive list of extras. The disc includes two audio commentaries, a documentary, featurettes, interviews, trailers, outtakes, and much more.
The first audio commentary is a new track featuring writer/director Kevin Tenney and actors Stephen Nichols, Kathleen Wilhoite, and James Quinn. This is a casual, loose track that is basically moderated by Tenney, who also does most of the talking. The usual set anecdotes and fond reflections make up the discussion, which is lively. Secondly, we get the old DVD audio commentary with writer/director Kevin Tenney, executive producer Walter Josten, and producer Jeff Geoffray. With such a technical team, it’s no surprise this is more a nuts-and-bolts of making a film track than anything else. Still, lots of worthy information is to be found if you’re into that kind of thing.
Progressive Entrapment – The Making of Witchboard is a documentary that runs for just over 45 minutes. Scream Factory tracked down all of the film’s major players, and the notable minors, to deliver a comprehensive look at how this film was conceived, funded, and received. The original title Kenney wanted was Ouija, which is what they shot it under. Allen and Nichols have some funny set stories. Kitaen still looks incredible, even with the obvious work she’s had done. This covers all the bases. Vintage Making of Witchboard is a featurette that is less a making-of and more like someone with a camcorder decided to film random scenes of the production. And it’s awesome because it was 1986. Cast Interviews is over 20 minutes over extended interviews with the film’s principals that were briefly glimpsed in the vintage making-of segment. On Set with Todd Allen and Stephen Nichols features even more interview footage with both actors. On Set with the Makers of Witchboard is a group interview with Tenney and Geoffray. Both are interviewed on the film’s set, with each projecting a different level of excitement. A Tenney shoot looks like it was a fun madhouse back in those days based on his personality. Life on Set, just as the title might imply, is more footage someone shot using a handheld camcorder featuring a typical day on the set. Constructing the World of Witchboard sounds like it might be more exciting than literally watching set construction workers assemble pieces of wood and scaffolding and stuff. It is not, but I do think it’s cool Scream Factory included every odd-and-end they could find for this picture. Rounding out the disc is a reel of outtakes, behind-the-scenes and promo art still galleries, and the theatrical trailer. There’s no fun reversible cover art or slipcover, but the inner artwork does feature a sweet shot of Malfeitor swinging his trusty ax.
Witches and witchcraft are creepy, unsettling subjects, so Kevin Tenney chose right when looking for a concept to kick off his feature film career. Witchboard is a moderately thrilling trip with demonic entities, but the real heart of the story comes from the relationship of our leading triumvirate. Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release not only has the best video & audio presentation the film has enjoyed, but it’s stuffed with plenty of goodies. Just give them your money.
3 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5