Thursday, February 6, 2014

WITCHBOARD (1986) Blu-ray Review

Witchboard (1986) d. Kevin S. Tenney (USA)

Growing up in the 80s as I did, I have many formative memories of early MTV-era, where big hair and bodacious babes ruled the airwaves. And, like many a red-blooded heterosexual teen, I was gobsmacked in late 1987 by the sight of a certain fiery-maned, negligee-clad lass frolicking in, on, over, and around David Coverdale’s two Jaguar XJs in the video for Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.” Even before the days of the interwebs, word quickly spread: the unattainable beauty in question was one Tawny Kitaen, and I missed many a class while waiting to catch a glimpse of her in a pre-YouTube era. (She’d already made a splash in the 1984 Tom Hanks movie, Bachelor Party, but I hadn’t seen it yet.) So, when I learned that there was a haunted Ouija board movie out there on the video shelves starring “that girl,” I made a point of tracking it down.

After moving into her new home with her boyfriend Jim (Todd Allen), Linda Brewster (Kitaen) hosts a housewarming party and, in a friendly gesture, invites her snooty ex-boyfriend Brandon (Stephen Nichols) to attend. Despite her good intentions, the festivity is wrought with tension between the romantic rivals, who we learn used to be childhood friends before the luscious redhead entered their lives. Brandon produces a Ouija board as a party game and lures Linda into joining him at the planchette, but things go awry when Todd ridicules the spirit of a ten-year-old boy, causing the board to flip into the air and Brandon’s tires to explode. The next day, Linda uses the board again (alone), and soon finds herself obsessed with her new beyond-the-plain companion, and, as the bodies start piling up, exhibits signs that she has been possessed by the malevolent tot. The two hunky guys must put aside their differences if they hope to save Linda’s soul...and their own lives.

Witchboard was the feature debut from USC film school wunderkind Kevin S. Tenney, who already had a student Emmy to his name and a three-picture deal with Ivan Reitman before graduating. Considering the low budget and relative inexperience of everyone involved, there’s a lot to admire in the flashy cinematography, excellent production value, and attention to character over cheap scares or gore. That said, it’s still a pretty slow-moving and uninvolving affair further hindered by Allen’s off-putting lead performance. We are told several times that Jim has problems with intimacy (he can only respond “I know” when Linda tells him “I love you”), but being emotionally stunted doesn’t have to equate to being an obnoxious jerk. The result is a lack of identification with our protagonist, which no number of beefcake scenes featuring Allen’s manly hairy chest can help.

On the flip side, we have the handsome Nichols – who went on to enjoy great fame as Steve “Patch” Johnson on the daytime soap Days of Our Lives – over-emoting as though there was a bet on. (We learn on the commentary track that Tenney encouraged such histrionics, wanting there to be a large contrast between Allen and Nichols’ characters. Mission accomplished, Kev, except that now there are two unpleasant acting choices going on.) In the middle, there is the lovely but lightweight Kitaen, who does her best with the fanciful material, remaining an engaging presence even as she slips into paranormal thrall. The worst offender in the acting stakes, by far, is Kathleen Wilhoite’s punk rock spiritual medium Zarabeth, trotting out lame Valley Girlisms and stupefyingly unfunny examples of “psychic humor.” Only Burke Bynes, as a pleasantly off-key police detective, seems to find the middle ground between quirky and appealing.

Tenney’s capable grasp on the mechanics of filmmaking is evidenced by a number of impressive crane shots and well-staged action sequences – one character’s demise-by-sundial is particularly memorable – and in spite of the errant thesping noted above, the final result remains fairly entertaining. Even when an ambitious shot doesn’t come off successfully, such as a climactic POV crash through a window onto a parking lot below, one has to admire the youthful moxie. (There’s also Kitaen’s tastefully shot shower scene to recommend, which avoids being completely gratuitous by actually serving the plot.) The film found an appreciative audience both during its theatrical release and on VHS, spawned two sequels, and has now been brought screaming back to life by the good folks at Scream Factory in a deluxe edition DVD/BR combo, stuffed to bursting with tasty supplements and goodies galore.

The commentary track that Tenney shares with Nichols, Wilhoite, and James Quinn (who plays Allen’s ill-fated construction worker pal), while filled with good-natured conviviality, comes off a little strained – we learn a few enjoyable bits of trivia, but it’s a long road of labored jokes and needling absent friends to get there. Oddly enough, it is Wilhoite who proves the most able moderator, asking pertinent questions to keep the track on track. The other commentary with executive producer Walter Josten, and producer Jeff Geoffreys is a more sober and informative affair – not to say they don’t all have a good time reminiscing about their first major success, but Tenney has calmed down considerably, making it a better ride.

There’s also a 45-minute making-of doc, “Progressive Entrapment,” produced by Aine Leicht, which gathers all the major players together for some fond reminiscences. Allen and Kitaen express their deep affections for one another, while Nichols remains effortlessly charming and pleasantly craggy. Tenney, who co-produced the special features, seemingly had the foresight to shoot a lot of behind-the-scenes footage during a time when such a thing was not considered de rigueur. Much of this footage appears in additional interview blocks with Allen and Nichols (each lasting more than 20 minutes), as well as a vintage making-of piece that shows how some of the more difficult effects were accomplished.

With a still gallery, trailers, and more, this is a supremely satisfying package that should cause Witchboard fans to dissolve into paroxysms of Steel Breeze-infused ecstasy while giving those who are not as overly impressed with the final product a fuller appreciation and context for the film overall. Hats off to Leicht, Tenney, and all involved.

Witchboard is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.

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