A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #29: “Witchboard” (1986)
by A.J. Hakari
Just as his Night of the Demons cribbed a lot from The Evil Dead, Kevin Tenney’s Witchboard seeks to ape The Exorcist on a more limited budget. As ambitions go, it’s not unreasonable, especially when it’s rare that B-movie directors approach their material with as straight of a face as Tenney adopts here. But Witchboard‘s characters are so serious and high-strung, it becomes comical to the point that you’ve no clue when the movie is providing levity for its dark premise and when it’s refusing to acknowledge its own silliness.
Our story is that of young Linda (Tawny Kitaen), whose latest party is winding to a close as the film begins. With the guests and the liquor dwindling at an equal pace, her ex Brandon (Stephen Nichols) decides to liven things up by whipping out his trusty Ouija board and hitting up some souls from the great beyond. Linda’s current beau Jim (Todd Allen) thinks it’s all a load of hooey, but it’s the God’s honest truth to Brandon, who notices some peculiar changes after accidentally leaving his board behind. It appears that Linda has been using the Ouija by herself to contact the spirit of a little boy who’s developed a fascination with her…one so extreme that anyone who comes between the two soon meets a grisly fate.
I can respect that Witchboard aims to base itself on psychological terror over effects-driven theatrics. It plays its possession angle nice and gradual, with a tendency to dial down on the demonic flourishes that most thrillers of its ilk end up awash in. Witchboard has a lot of good going for it, but it’s all for naught when every actor comes off so hilariously intense. The fact that almost all the characters instantly accept Ouijas as legit spiritual gateways raised my eyebrows as is, and that Tenney never effectively sells that belief is a problem when he uses it as the source of the flick’s proceeding tension. When Brandon hollers at Jim for mocking the Ouija or spazzes out due to some soap opera-y romantic subplot, all you can do is sit back, guffaw, and watch the movie whiz its potential to genuinely disturb viewers down its leg.
I’m glad Tenney would loosen up and go wild with the camp in Night of the Demons, because his delusions of Witchboard being high-end horror with low-grade ingredients don’t do the film any favors. Some traces of inherent creepiness are touched upon, but they’re drowned out by the rampant overacting and the sneaking suspicion that Tenney is making up a lot of the supernatural rules as he goes along. Queue up Witchboard for a mock-a-thon with your closest comrades; just don’t expect your perception of the paranormal to be as shaken as the flick wants it to be.