Monday, October 29, 2012

Witchboard Movie Review

This one I also wonder if my older sister had it on video. I really only remember seeing it once. I think it was already 1992 when she was living back home, so maybe that's why I remember it so well.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

Let me be clear up front that any limited praise I offer for Witchboard, a 1986 horror movie about a mishap with a Ouija board, is not meant to suggest that it’s worth seeking out. It is, by almost every measurable calculus, a hilariously bad movie. But it happens to aspire to do something more than most horror flick filmmakers even dream about. Whereas the majority of horror films, especially in the slasher sub-genre of the 70s and 80s, are interested solely in killing off a bunch of indistinguishable characters who have nothing interesting to say, and doing it in varied and gruesome ways.

The execution is as absurd as the premise, which has Brandon, an allegedly upper crust educated man, trying in all earnestness to convince friends at a party that he regularly communicates with the dead through the use of his Ouija board. He even gives a brief history lecture on the tool, which I always understood to be a parlor game made by Hasbro. He’s partially trying to put the moves on Linda (Tawny Kitaen), who now lives with his old childhood friend Jim, a working class guy who wears jeans and flannel to his job and doesn’t have patience for the airs that Brandon puts on. When Jim mocks the spirit that Linda and Brandon are supposed to have contacted, someone car tires suddenly blow out. The next day, an accident at work kills one of Jim’s colleagues and stranger things begin to occur when Linda tries to contact the spirit, a child named David, on her own. Brandon later explains that this can leave her extremely vulnerable to something called “progressive entrapment.”

That is about the most creative expression wrought by writer and director Kevin Tenney. This is an exercise in the absurd, a screenplay that invents as it goes along. The only thing I can say by way of praise is that Tenney admirably tries to offer something extra in the way of character development. He builds in a love triangle formed out of an ancient friendship between two men who are now antagonistic toward one another. He works in a scene between these two men that strives for pathos and history. When certain characters die, they are not simply brushed off in anticipation of getting to the next death scene. There is real mourning on the part of the main characters, the deaths have what look almost like real life effects on them.

Still, that doesn’t forgive just how technically poor the film is. Tenney is an unsure first time director. He has a strong sense for the story he wants to tell and he’s obviously not afraid to inject emotion into what was likely to be considered cheap throwaway thrills by the majority of his audience, but his ability to generate those thrills and scares is borderline inept.

The actors’ performances also leave much to be desired, despite the presence of experienced soap opera actor Stephen Nichols as Brandon. Most of us would consider the acting in soap operas to be overly melodramatic and generally pretty bad, but Nichols is probably the best thing in this movie. Kitaen is not entirely up to the challenge of a woman still torn between two men, one of whom is supposed to love her but can’t muster the words to express it. As Jim, Todd Allen wears his inexperience on his sleeve, especially when the script calls for him to get weepy. The oddest choice of performance and direction has to be Kathleen Wilhoite as a young medium brought in to exorcise the spirit. She tries to inject a wacky offbeat sense of humor to the proceedings that has the wrong tone and just doesn’t quite work.

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