Witchboard. 1986. Directed & Written by Kevin S. Tenney.
Starring Todd Allen, Tawny Kitaen, Stephen Nichols, Kathleen Wilhoite, Burke Byrnes, James W. Quinn, Rose Marie, Judy Tatum, J.P. Luebsen, & Kenny Rhodes.
Paragon Arts International/Blue Rider Pictures
Rated R. 98 minutes.
The 1980s were the Golden Age of horror movies. Not to say there aren’t great movies still coming out in the genre; there are, and arguably right now more than there have been in a long time. A few years ago I set out to watch all the ’80s horror I could find that I hadn’t seen yet, digging deep until I hit stuff like The Video Dead and Pin to beloved movies of the era such as Society, Night of the Comet, and The Funhouse.
Still, it took me until now to see the fabulously devilish Witchboard, a horror that doesn’t exactly fall in line with the endless, and sometimes forgettable, slasher flicks that populated the era. The story of the Ouija board, all its potential evil, one that’s become so common they even made a bad movie recently in the same vein. Kevin S. Tenney’s 1986 film isn’t the first Ouija board-centred horror out there, which started in 1920 with an animated + live action short called The Ouija Board, continuing 1944’s classic The Uninvited, then continuing on as the game made appearances in 13 Ghosts and even William Friedkin’s genre masterpiece The Exorcist.
But undoubtedly, Witchboard played its own part in making the Ouija board and the idea of playing around with it when you don’t understand the implications a genre staple. Even spawned two sequels, as well as a semi-spin-off Witchtrap, also written and directed by Tenney. Although it wasn’t the most popular trilogy of movies, the Witchboards are fun and eerie at times. In particular, the first of them is an unexpectedly enjoyable, underrated horror for its day.
A big part of what separates this from other similar films is that doesn’t start out immediately like so many of them from the ’80s, hooking us in with kills and blood, giving us a taste of what’s to come later. We dip into the story slow, building up an atmosphere that’s dreadful, a suspense that tightens around the neck until the first moment of full-on horror. Makes for good impact. It isn’t what’s expected totally, refusing to be a prototypical slasher. Doesn’t change the game. Doesn’t play it boring, either, and certainly not badly.
This belongs in the pantheon of awesome ’80s horror, if only for the fact it bothers creating characters and actually fleshing them out. Compels you to want to stick around, to absorb the story, even if this slasher-style flick doesn’t start out like others with a dose of blood and terror. It’s over fifty minutes before Witchboard becomes what you expect. This works. So well, too. Because the characters feel developed, we’re intrigued, invested in everything that’s happening rather than just waiting for the next murder; and that’s not always a bad thing, but here, there’s a lot more to enjoy!
This is a frequent crime of lesser horror, you could fill a vast graveyard with underdeveloped, forgotten, misused characters from lead to supporting, especially from this era. Tenney keeps the viewer enthralled, going for more emotional resonance than gore. Don’t get me wrong, there are nice moments of bloody goodness. There’s simply better weight to the story than it being a throwaway backdrop for a killer’s spree. The initial forty to fifty minutes could just as easily have been a dark drama with fantasy mixed in until the true horror winds up.
Cinematographer Roy H. Wagner takes Kenney’s film to another level, giving it a look that rivals the best of the ’80s, hands down. Wagner would go on to shoot Return to Horror High, lots of television, and the genre classic A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. The guy’s been around the block. For the time, his camerawork, in horror, was a bit different than the standard cinematography. Using so much space left unused by slasher movies that don’t do much more than the standard handful of shots. For instance, the camera moves up above characters, to its side and back; not stationary wide, close, and medium shots, there’s so much fluid movement it has a unique atmosphere in part created by the camera’s motion. On top of that, the house where this was filmed was also used in Waxwork and Willard, though it’s since not been used for filming. In addition to the camerawork, the house is a whole part of the mood by itself.
Not only are the visuals solid, the music is unreal. Score punctuates the really good jump scares appropriately, drawing us in then jostling the audience. This is Dennis Michael Tenney’s first feature as composer; he also did Night of the Demons, Leprechaun 3, among other films. His score aids in setting the overall spooky mood and the dark fantasy-type of tone.
And Kathleen Wilhoite as Zarabeth is one of the cast’s shining points. Quirky, cute, lots of that mid-80s fashion style. In a long line of medium characters, from The Legend of Hell House right up to Insidious, Wilhoite makes Zarabeth memorable and not annoyingly cheesy as many of these archetypal characters can end up. In such a short bit of time, Wilhoite makes us remember her, and you can’t ask for anything better.
Witchboard doesn’t always get mentioned as one of the better horror flicks from the ’80s. It should, because lord, is it ever enjoyable! Fun. Good characters. A hack and slash or two, few squirts of red. There’s so much to love. While it might not be as great as the horror movies with the big names like Freddy, Jason, Michael, Tenney makes this a memorable 98 minutes that deserves recognition beyond a cult following.
Totally recommend this for a cold, fall night, as we inch closer to Halloween. This is great for any time; watching it with a few friends, a bit of food, some drinks, fits perfectly. Whatever you do, don’t break out the Ouija.
Although if you do, be prepared: just might be your last game.