Kevin S. Tenney
Todd Allen - Jim Morar
Tawny Kitaen - Linda Brewster Stephen Nichols - Brandon Sinclair
Kathleen Wilhoite - Sarah "Zarabeth" Crawford
Burke Byrnes - Lt. Dewhurst
Year - 1987
Score - 3 Howls Outta 4
I remember when I was in High School, I was at a party around Halloween time where a group of us would mess around with a Ouija board. Now I’ve always had this fascination with death, reincarnation, and the afterlife. Something about the mystery of it all really has me intrigued. So you know I had to mess around with the Ouija. Supposedly, we contacted the ghost of some woman who died in a car accident back in 1964. I couldn’t really tell you what the board was telling us. We were more focused on the flickering candles, the weird sounds of wind gusts hitting the windows, and things dropping inside the kitchen. That was the last time I ever messed with one of those boards. I always tease about buying one and doing a seance one night under a full moon, but friends and family are too spooked to do it with me. I’m just glad I didn’t perform it alone because if I did, I would have ended up like Tawny Kitaen in the underrated 1980s supernatural flick, WITCHBOARD. If I’m gonna get possessed by any ghost, it better be Wilt fuckin’ Chamberlain’s so I can get laid!
At some party, rich dude Brandon Sinclair (Stephen Nichols) brings a Ouija board over to demonstrate how it works in front of everyone, including his ex-girlfriend Linda Brewster (Tawny Kitaen) and her boyfriend and his former best friend Jim Morar (Todd Allen). Brandon and Linda use the Ouija and begin speaking to the spirit of a ten-year-old child named David, who was killed thirty years prior. Jim, drunk and not believing in spirits and ghosts, interrupts the seance and leaves Brandon and Linda upset that they didn’t make any progress with David.
Brandon leaves the Ouija at Linda and Jim’s house. Linda, being curious, decides to use the board alone to contact David again and apologize for the interruption at the party. She makes great communication with the spirit, befriending him and wishing that David could be reincarnated into the baby that she’s carrying. Linda begins to use the board more and more, becoming addicted to contacting David. David lets Linda know that he doesn’t like Jim, which starts weird things for Jim when he almost dies at his job. Linda tries to stop her usage, but David becomes very possessive and angry when Jim and Brandon want Linda to stop talking to him. Brandon is convinced that Linda is being trapped by this spirit and that he’s preparing to use her as a portal to return back to the world of the living through Linda’s body. Brandon convinces Jim to help him stop this transfer, bringing the two former friends together to save the woman they both love.
I hadn’t seen WITCHBOARD since the late 1980s and it really spooked me as a young boy. It doesn’t have the same effect on me now at all, but WITCHBOARD surprisingly holds up extremely well for a low-budget film that was released 21 years ago. It’s not an original film and you get your share of cliches that we’ve seen in many films dealing with ghosts, possession, and the supernatural. But WITCHBOARD is very slick and does what it needs to do very nicely - offer us this idea of believing one can build a relationship between a Ouija board and the spirits that can be conjured up by it that will soon lead to themes of possession and exorcism - both done out of love.
For a horror film, the story is very tightly written and the characterizations are displayed quite realistically in context to the film. The script sets up this obsession between Linda and the Ouija board very well, as it builds and builds until you realize that she’s getting in way over her head. Then when ideas are brought up about the Ouija board and what it can do to people, the script explains to the viewer why that is and doesn’t short-change us. When the two male characters begin doing research on David and realizing what the truth really is, we’re in along for the ride and we react in the same way that these characters do. You’re not surprised by anything. Everything is written and shown in a logical fashion that I’m surprised more horror films aren’t written this way.
And the characters - how refreshing to have horror characters that actually behave and think like normal, rational people instead of cookie-cutter stereotypes who are destined to die. For a 98 minute film, we know who Brandon, Linda, and Jim are really quickly as they’re given a lot of depth and substance that makes one relate to them easily. I thought the whole love triangle subplot was really well done and well paced, as it didn’t feel like those soap opera triangles where the storyline seems forced on the viewer. The three actors have great chemistry with each other and that results in their characters having the same great chemistry. We know enough to realize that Brandon and Jim’s friendship ended when Jim hooked up with Linda after Brandon and Linda didn’t work out. We also understand that while Linda is still friend’s with Brandon, she loves Jim. And Jim loves Linda, but won’t admit it because he doesn’t want to lose her in his life like he lost Brandon. And when Linda is in trouble, the frenemies put their beef aside to help the woman they both love. These characters are human beings with flaws and issues all of us can identify with. I think because of that, we’re invested in the stories of these characters. A great story is the foundation for a good film. WITCHBOARD has that in spades.
Kevin S. Tenney, who also directed NIGHT OF THE DEMONS [another favorite of mine - lipstick anyone?], is an excellent director. He only had a tiny budget for this film and it shows. But what Tenney does with the budget is really incredible, making you realize that if someone has a vision and uses it properly, the film will be a success regardless of lack of gore and special effects. Tenney is one of those directors who loves those "Raimi POV shots" a la THE EVIL DEAD, and imitates Raimi pretty well during the POV shots of the moving spirit that wants to possess Linda. Tenney knows the right camera angles to use and the steady cam stuff is flawless. Tenney also understands that tension and suspense are needed to create a good horror film. And Tenney succeeds in that as well. The film slowly builds to its climax and you never want off of the ride. I actually jumped during one of the "jump scares" and that doesn’t happen usually when I watch horror. That, right there, gets my respect. Too bad the guy is only really respected amongst cult fan groups because he really is talented. Michael Bay could learn a lot from this dude.
The acting was very good in this film, I thought. Tawny Kitaen will always be known as the hot chick who pretty much dry humped that car in those Whitesnake music videos back in 1987, but I gotta say...she’s more than a decent actress. Hell, I was convinced every time she spoke a line of dialogue that she was the Linda character. I was impressed. She does do a bit of overacting on occasion, but she’s not annoying. I dug her alot in this. Too bad she didn’t build an acting career out of this. But I do have to thank her for that shower scene where she goes fully nude. Very nice!
Todd Allen did good as Jim. He was sarcastic and pretty funny when he had to be, but also handled the serious moments well too. He had great chemistry with Kitaen and with Nichols. Speaking of Nichols, he was pretty cool as well. He wasn’t made to be the rich snob who does nasty selfish things to ruin Linda and Jim’s relationship. He was actually a very decent fellow that I could respect. Nichols played it very subtle and was convincing when he got frantic over Linda’s obsession with the board. Out of everyone in the film, he’s the only one I know who’s still working [he’s on DAYS OF OUR LIVES - geez, I gave myself away there, didn’t I?] and he’s still doing some good acting. Kathleen Wilhoite, however, annoyed me as the Medium named Zarabeth. I’ll get to her shortly. And Burke Byrnes was entertaining as the cop who followed Jim around, thinking he was a murderer [the ghost had set him up]. So four out of five is pretty darn good.
Now back to Zarabeth and Wilhoite’s protrayal of the character. What an annoying bitch. God, looking at her and listening to her were absolutely painful. Now I don’t mind the whole psychic subplot in the film. I think it actually works as a whole. But why THIS character and THIS actress to play her? She would come out and make these jokes that weren’t even funny. It was like watching the female version of Dane Cook. One is enough, lady! And then she’d chew her gum so loudly that I wanted to smack it out of her damn mouth. Oh...and her favorite phrase was "TTFN!" She said it like 10 times within her five minutes of being actually in the film. Geez, I really wanted to go Ivan Drago on her fuckin’ ass. If she was funny and actualy charming, I wouldn’t even be writing this. But she fuckin’ blew and she deserves a roasting. Or an impaling, which she got and it put a massive smile on my face. Fuck you, Zarabeth!
I also had an issue with the whole "detective following Jim" subplot. It added NOTHING to the film and just left more questions than answers about the whole thing at the end. It really threw off the pacing of the film. I would have definitely left those scenes on the cutting room floor. And the ending was weird as well. I have no major qualms about it, but it just seemed a bit sudden and kind of lacking in a way. I was expecting more and didn’t get it. Other than that, WITCHBOARD is pretty awesome.
THINGS I’VE LEARNED WHILE SUMMONING THE SPIRIT OF MARILYN MONROE FOR A QUICKIE
1. To get the best results out of a Ouija board, two people of the opposite gender should hold it on their knees. I’m sure that’s the line former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer used to those high-class hookers when he convinced them to get on their knees to play with his "witchboard".
3. After David was pissed when Jim made fun of him, the spirit popped Brandon’s car tire in retaliation. Hey, at least it’s better than his eye!
4. Linda used the Ouija Board to find out if she was pregnant. She could have just used an over-the-counter test and peed on it. At least she doesn’t have to wonder why she hasn’t been able to concentrate lately.
5. Linda got startled one morning, feeling a presence in her room. She must have seen her future self.
Yeah, that would startle me too.
6. Brandon tried to warn Linda not to use the Ouija by herself, but she didn’t listen. You know Linda’s motto: Here I go again on my own/Going down the only road I’ve ever known/Like a drifter I was born to walk alone/And I’ve made up my mind/I ain’t wasting no more time/Here I Go Again...
7. Brandon brought a medium over to Jim’s and Linda’s house to exorcise David out of the house. That’s nice and all, but I would have preferred if Brandon had brought an expert to do that. I’m just sayin’...
8. Jim had trouble believing Brandon about evil spirits trying to possess Linda. Hey, he’s seen some crazy shit. Like Marlena getting possessed by Satan and being brainwashed into an assassin by Stefano Dimera. Don’t doubt the days of his lives!
9. Brandon asked Jim why Linda chose Jim over him. It’s obvious: Jim’s white snake was bigger and badder than Brandon’s. Duh.
10. When you become possessed, you end up looking like one of the Blues Brothers. Damn, John Belushi is really ticked off about that drug overdose. Or maybe it’s because he’s ashamed of watching his brother on ACCORDING TO JIM. Yeah, that’s probably it.
THE FINAL HOWL
WITCHBOARD is a hidden gem from the 1980s that’s still surprisingly enjoyable even to this day. Good acting [except from Kathleen Wilhoite], great direction, and a script that’s actually interesting, inviting, and logical are some of the reasons why WITCHBOARD should garner your attention. Sometimes I like my horror films to be subtle and filmed with a lot of passion from everyone involved. Unfortunately this is going on the remake block, but at least that’ll give everyone an opportunity to watch this version before the new version is released. But this film should be a warning to anyone who loves to play with their Ouija. If you plan to contact James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, or Keith Richards, be careful. You might get possessed by one of them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. TTFN!