Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Witchboard (1986)

Ouija boards have always freaked me out and to this day I refuse to mess around with one. If they do work, who knows what might be lurking on the other side, biding its time for someone stupid enough to let it through. Witchboard, a lesser-known ’80s gem, utilizes this fear to create an entertaining and exciting movie that still manages to feel fresh after 20 years.

Jim and Linda are hosting a party in their apartment. Among the guests there is Brandon, Jim’s ex-best friend and Linda’s ex-boyfriend. Things are tense between Jim and Brandon, and things further escalate when Brandon whips out his Ouija board and enlists Linda’s help to contact a spirit of the young boy named David. Jim scoffs and mocks the Ouija board and the spirit that Brandon contacts, agitating the spirit and causing Brandon to storm off in a huff, leaving the Ouija behind.

The next day, Linda is drawn to the Ouija and attempts to contact David herself. It works, and soon the spirit is being quite friendly towards her and even helping her find a lost ring. Things take a sharp turn into “uh oh” territory when Linda gets overly agitated at Jim, starts cussing heavily and, oh ya, people start dying. The spirit of David becomes more and more violent and Linda becomes more and more obsessed with the Ouija board. Brandon and Jim must band together to stop the spirit before Linda falls under complete possession.

Witchboard is a rare film out of the ME! decade that doesn’t rely on the overdone boobs ‘n’ blood formula. It actually takes the time to craft some believable characters, gives us a love triangle that doesn’t feel forced and even has some atmospheric dream sequences, not to mention stylish camera work, that are both reminiscent of Italian horror films. With these strong elements, it creates one heck of an entertaining flick.

The character development alone, even with characters who die, is worth noting. Unlike most horror movies, we actually get to know the characters and they aren’t treated like bland cardboard cutouts. The characters explore various themes like love, friendship, motherhood, hate and so on, and thanks to writer (and director) Kevin Tenney the themes fit naturally and realistically in the film.

The acting is great, especially from Todd Allen playing Jim. Allen plays Jim as goofy but with a chip on his shoulder, and through the film his many layers are revealed. Tawny Kitaen not only has the best name ever, but is also pretty adorable as Linda, even though she does have a few fits of overacting. Brandon is played by Stephen Nichols, whose background in soap operas definitely shows. Still, his performance shouldn’t be dismissed by a few instances of silly overacting. The chemistry between the three leads is what really sells the film, as well as the development of each character.

Along with a well-written script, director Kevin Tenney (most famous for Night of the Demons) excels at creating a visually enticing film. Along with cinematographer Roy H. Wagner, Tenney crafts some impressively stylish scenes. I enjoyed the eerie dream sequences, the first of which gave me a real jolt! The sharp camera work keeps the plentiful jump scares feeling fresh while lending a whole other level of creepiness to the proceedings.

To lighten up the film, Kathleen Wilhoite appears as the flamboyant and wise-cracking psychic Zarabeth, who appears shortly only to quickly be impaled on an especially sharp sundial. We also get some silly jokes from Jim. For the most part, though, the tone of the film is serious and suspenseful.

Due to budgetary constraints, there isn’t that much gore save for some blood, a slashed neck and a hatchet to the head. I was glad that actual  story was interesting enough to hold its own and didn’t need to rely on gore for cheap thrills.

My only real complaint was the addition of a subplot that involved a detective (played by Burke Byrnes) following Jim around. It didn’t feel like it fit into the story and really hampered some scenes.

Despite that minor quibble, I felt Witchboard was a hidden delight. In the era of excess, it managed to be restrained, subtle and still knock my socks off with its well-developed story and characters. If you want to see an ’80s movie that is original, suspenseful and different from all the boobs ‘n’ blood slashers, check out Witchboard.

Oh, ya, and if you still want boobs ‘n’ blood, it’s got an unforgettable shower scene!

Available from Amazon!

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