Much like the female protagonist of Witchboard, the deliciously cheesy 1986 cautionary tale about why you should never use an Ouija board improperly, I have an obsession. But I’m not obsessed with talking to ghosts. I’m just obsessed with Witchboard.
The feature debut of writer-director Kevin Tenney – whose second film, 1988's Night of the Demons, is also a cult classic – Witchboard is not exactly the movie you might picture when you consider its key elements: sinister party games, a ghostly kid, gory murders, a woman pushed to the brink of madness. It often feels way more like melodrama than horror; it spends a lot of time wringing its hands over the love triangle between the three main characters, who include Brandon (Stephen Nichols), a yuppie who knows an awful lot about the supernatural for some reason; rugged regular-dude Jim (Todd Allen), who thinks all this spirit-realm business is bullshit; and law student Linda (Tawny Kitaen), whose innocent supernatural dabbling spells trouble for everyone.
But there’s more. Brandon and Jim were childhood BFFs who drifted apart, only to become present-day enemies when Jim started dating Linda, who happens to be Brandon’s ex. (That said, Jim and Brandon have more chemistry together than either of them do with Linda.) So it’s already messy even before Brandon shows up to Linda and Jim’s house party carrying a Ouija board (snootily correcting the pronunciation of someone who says “weejee” by pointing out the name comes from “yes” in French and German: “oui” and “ja”). Things take a turn for the bizarre when the spirit he summons – the 10-year-old “David” – proves mischievous. When Linda starts using the Ouija by herself, accompanied only by her meticulously manicured 1980s talons, David’s bad vibes become dangerous.
The Hardy Boys.
Can Brandon (a true believer) and Jim (who has a hard time accepting that spooks are involved, despite some rather compelling evidence) put their differences aside when Linda begins showing signs of possession? Will Witchboard briefly morph into a buddy comedy/road trip movie so they can rekindle their friendship while playing at being occult detectives? Obviously.
In truth, most people remember Witchboard solely because it features Kitaen, whose greatest claim to fame is probably her turn as a hood ornament in Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” video, an inescapable MTV staple back in the day. While her Witchboard character is a bit more demure (aside from one gratuitous shower scene – in a movie where the dudes are often unnecessarily shirtless, too), her voluminous hair is already primed for Headbangers Ball. Really, everyone in the movie has a rockin’ coif – there are mullets galore, and a gum-snapping medium (Kathleen Wilhoit) who breezes through for a séance scene has a punky New Wave short cut.
Every day is a good hair day for Tawny Kitaen.
Despite its totally 1980s setting (and that all that glorious hair), unlike some other vintage films, Witchboard doesn’t constantly jerk you out of the movie with period elements. Nobody goes to Jazzercise and, aside from the medium’s Valley Girl affect, there’s no wacky ‘80s slang. That said, contemporary viewers will notice that the entire story is propelled by things that would take less than a minute to handle in 2019. Characters drive for hours to check microfilm at a specific town’s local library, run into bookstores to do urgent fact-finding, page through the phone book to track down strangers, use payphones and answering machines, etc. etc. That pacing’s actually kind of perfect, given all the screen time spent watching a planchette gliding around a Ouija board, slowwwwwly spelling out clues the audience has already figured out long before the characters.
But Witchboard, which was obviously made on a shoestring, has just enough weirdness to make up for its absolute lack of any actual scares – there are multiple “jump scares” when someone spots themselves in a mirror; at one point, the disembodied David pours ketchup over a butcher knife in a scene that’s meant to create a grisly tableaux – to make you see why it’s become a cult favorite. The uneven performances add some unintentional humor, especially anytime anyone is is called upon to burst into a sudden fit of rage, but the characters are all kind of endearing, even Brandon, who’s presented initially as kind of a classic 1980s villain, with his expensive suit and vanity plate-emblazoned sports car, but is actually a total paranormal nerd.
Kathleen Wilhoit also had a memorable role in 1989's Road House.
The supporting characters are also notably offbeat – obviously the quirky medium, who cracks “psychic humour” jokes with terrible timing, is memorable, but so’s the detective who starts to suspect, incorrectly, Jim is up to something. He’s randomly obsessed with magicians, and we know this because he brings it up nearly every time he appears, including misattributing a Vegas show to the great “Sigmund and Roy.” Show biz legend Rose Marie also pops up as Jim and Linda’s landlady. Even the sprawling house where Jim and Linda have their apartment is noteworthy – it’s also used in 1988's Waxwork, which stars Gremlins’ Zach Galligan and is yet another cult movie to add to your rainy-day pile.
Aside from casting Tawny Kitaen, Witchboard’s greatest contribution to cinema is probably that it will appear on any general list of movies featuring a Ouija board. It’s not going to change your life or anything, but it’s silly supernatural fun, and you might just find yourself watching it on repeat for no good reason. To quote a repeated exchange in the movie: “Why?” “Why not?”
All images: Palisades Ent. Cinema Group