Blu-Ray Review: Witchboard (1987)

FEBRUARY 4, 2014


A few years back, Kevin Tenney came to the New Beverly with Witchboard and told the audience not to hold their breath for a new special edition due to the usual rights issues that seem to plague all of our favorite 80s horror movies at one point or another. Luckily, whatever the problem was, it's been worked out - Scream Factory has put together a fine release for the film (along with Tenney's more popular, but in my opinion inferior, Night of the Demons), offering a decent transfer and a plethora of supplements new and old. It will take you about 8 hours to go through everything on here, which is pretty damn good for a little indie movie that was originally only released on 15 screens.

As I explained in my old review, the movie isn't quite as good as I remembered from my viewings as a kid. But in a way I'm kind of impressed that I liked it so much then - the "problem" with the movie is that it goes long stretches without anything really scary happening. There are only 3 deaths in the 95 minute film, and apart from one quick nightmare scene no physical villain like Freddy - I wonder how it held my interest as a 7 or 8 year old used to seeing the faster paced Elm St and Friday the 13th films. In its place, we actually get a surplus of character development, and it's the rather rare horror film that focuses on the friendship between two men instead of the females. Our heroine (Tawny Kitaen) has become obsessed and possibly possessed by the titular witchboard (the original name for a Ouija), so it's up to her current boyfriend (Todd Allen) and her ex (Stephen Nichols) to figure out who exactly has taken control and how to stop it before the presence causes the death of any more of the film's supporting cast (including Kathleen Wilhoite as a medium who gets impaled on a sundial - causing a lifelong fear in me).

But it's not a typical team up - the two men used to be best friends before Kitaen came between them. So you have an interesting dynamic at play; Allen is the blue-collar guy, but kind of a dick. Nichols looks like a William Zabka cosplayer, but he's actually the one trying to help Kitaen and convince Allen that something's wrong - essentially giving you two male heroes that you want to win, making it actually kind of sad when one of them dies (a bit earlier than you might expect). So it works not only as a "solving a mystery" type, but as a bit of a male bonding movie too, something that you don't see in horror movies all that often. It actually borders on homoerotic territory at times (that motel scene in particular - they seriously look like they're about to embrace at one point), but it's certainly more interesting than the usual approach, which would be to have the ex be a complete dick to everyone and for us to cheer when he got his comeuppance.

Speaking of the mystery, this movie reminded me of how much technology has "ruined" horror movies. The two guys need to dig up old newspapers, so they drive a few hours to Big Bear from Los Angeles, which is what inspired their repaired friendship. And they need to look through phone books and hunt around in a cemetery looking for information on how the ghost's parents died - all of this stuff would just take place via a Google search nowadays, costing us the built-in excuse for their bonding and a legit scare scene where they're poking around the graveyard. Also, when Allen finds out something dreadful and needs to get back to Kitaen right away, he has to haul ass - not text her like he would now (or, if he didn't, we'd be complaining about the plot hole). Nowadays, a filmmaker has two options: explain why the technology doesn't work ("no service!") which is hacky, or use it and be forced to come up with something else to fill that time, something that's usually extraneous (hence why so many characters Googling stuff in a library in a modern horror movie get scared by a custodian turning on their vacuum cleaner or something).

Another thing I liked that I didn't discuss last time is that it actually has a helpful Ouija scene to explain why the heroine gets so attached to it. Most movies, they just keep using it because they're idiots, I guess, but here there's a silly/fun bit where it helps her locate a missing ring in a pipe under the sink (which she retrieves with a toothbrush and then puts it back without rinsing it - ew), so it makes sense that she'd want to play with it again. The two ghost thing is slightly clunky (at one point Nichols has to run down a list of the film's events asking David (the good ghost) which was him and which was the bad one), mainly because we don't get to see much about Malfeitor (the bad one, if you couldn't tell from his name), but it's still an intriguing concept that keeps the focus on the board for a change, rather than merely an exposition tool like most horror films.

The movie has two sequels; I haven't seen Witchboard 2 (which Tenney wrote/directed as well) in 20 years, but W3 is rubbish and should be avoided at all costs. Still, a movie doesn't get followups without a fanbase, and those fans should be happy with Scream's release. The vintage making of and interviews are a delight; I wish Tenney had provided commentary for the former since a lot of it is silent, random footage of the production, but it's still fun to see how these things used to be put together as opposed to the corporate blandness of such things today. Some of the footage is repeated (interviews and making of share a number of sound bytes), but it's all fun to go through. The two commentaries are also a lot of fun; Tenney is on both, one with the cast which has a ton of anecdotes and ribbing, and another with two of the producers, which is more serious in tone as they discuss the various issues of making a low budget film: securing the house, pulling off ambitious shots (like the lengthy 360 shot during the seance scene), dealing with distributors, etc. This track may be an old one; I know the one with the cast is new but the one with the producers is, I believe, taken from the previous DVD release. Either way, the only frustrating thing about BOTH tracks is that they mention a deleted opening sequence that shows how David (the boy ghost) was killed, and that sequence, along with a few others that were cut (Tenney says they had enough footage for a 3 hour movie) are nowhere to be found. It's clear they were digging deep if they found the self-shot behind the scenes footage, so it's a bummer this continues Scream's strange opposition to deleted scenes.

The biggest new feature is a lengthy retrospective doc that covers the film's origins (as a script Tenney wrote for his screenwriting class at film school) to completion, featuring new interviews with most of the cast (including the three leads and Wilhoite) and several crew. I always prefer these to a collection of solo interviews, and it thankfully keeps the clips to a minimum, so you're not spending the entire time watching stuff you just saw in the film - if you have the previous release, I think this makes an upgrade worthwhile. I haven't gone through all of Demons yet (again, not really a fan), but it looks just as jam-packed as this one and again has Tenney's full cooperation, so I expect it will make fans of that film just as happy as I am with Witchboard.

What say you?


  1. Huh, I had no idea there were sequels to this.

  2. I actually saw Witchboard 2 in the theater when movies like that got wide releases.

    I've always found Night of the Demons to be overrated. It's a movie I want to like a lot more than I do.

  3. I met Kevin Tenny at a horror film festival in Durham, NC five years ago and I asked about the deleted scenes from Witchboard. And he said that several years after the movie was released the negative containing all of the cut footage was destroyed. However he told me that all of the deleted scenes still exist on several VHS cassette tapes which he has locked up in a safe in his house.


Movie & TV Show Preview Widget