Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Film Appreciation - When Things Go Bump in the Night

Cody Hamman isn't playing when he shares his Film Appreciation for Witchboard (1986).

Writer/director Kevin S. Tenney was freshly out of film school when he got his first feature off the ground, an independent production with a budget around a million dollars.

The idea for Witchboard first struck Tenney when someone revealed they had brought a Ouija board along with them to a party being held at a Victorian home that had been converted into an apartment building. So it's quite appropriate that the movie begins during a party at a massive, beautiful Victorian home that has been converted into an apartment building.

Someone has indeed brought a Ouija board to this party, and that someone is Brandon Sinclair, a law student who comes from money, vineyard money to be exact, and doesn't mind flaunting his wealth via his clothes and car. He's an arrogant, judgmental know-it-all, and when he's first introduced to viewers, he's holding court with other party attendees by talking about his atheism. Yes, he has started a religious discussion at a social gathering. This guy is a nightmare.

The party is being thrown by a young couple who live in one of the apartments, Jim Morar and his girlfriend Linda Brewster. The situation between Jim, Linda, and Brandon is very complicated - Jim and Brandon were childhood friends, Brandon met Linda in law school, where she was a classmate, Brandon and Linda started dating, Jim coincidentally met Linda somewhere down the line and made a move on her without knowing she had been with Brandon, now Brandon believes Jim "stole" Linda from him and hasn't spoken to his old pal in a friendly manner for two years. What he does do is make spiteful comments to Jim, using against him the information he knows about Jim and his family from their days of being best friends. For example, Brandon knows Jim's parents were both alcoholics, and he loves to bring it up.

Despite being an atheist, Brandon is a firm believer in the spirit world, and regularly communicates with spirits through his Ouija. As he tells the partiers gathered around him, a Ouija works best when it's used by a man and a woman at the same time, placed on their knees, and the man and woman should be "clean and pure" - non-smokers, and without alcohol in their system. Basically, he's wooing Linda into using the board with him, and he's successful in getting her to do so.

Brandon warns that spirits tend to be lousy spellers and liars, but there is one spirit he trusts, a little boy named David who died in a boating accident thirty years earlier. Brandon and Linda are able to contact David, but the skeptical Jim, mad at Brandon and having been hitting the booze, makes interjections that are so disruptive and disrespectful that he gets David angry enough to pop one of the tires on Brandon's car. That's what Brandon blames the blowout on, anyway. Jim certainly doesn't believe that ghosts go around slashing tires.

Brandon is so distracted by the tire issue that he forgets to take his Ouija board home with him when he leaves. Linda finds it in the apartment the next day... and while Jim's at work, she attempts to contact David on her own...

David has been hanging out in the spirit world for thirty years, but he will someday live again. Reincarnation is real, according to the spirits in Witchboard, and when you come back, you even get to choose the parents you'll be born to. Linda suspects that she's pregnant, and in an oddball move she even asks David if he'd consider choosing her and Jim to be his parents, being reincarnated through the baby she may be carrying. She has barely talked to this dead kid and she already wants to give birth to him?

Well, it's a no go for Jim and Linda raising David anyway, because David doesn't like Jim. And he assures Linda that yes, he knows how to hold a grudge.

Could David's dislike of Jim be so intense that the little spirit boy is even driven to go on a homicidal rampage? It appears that may be the case, as people around the young couple start dying in mysterious but brutal ways, ways that seem to involve a hatchet. Like the ones Jim uses at his construction job. The hammers he and his co-workers use don't have claws on the back to remove nails, they have hatchet blades... And some spirit uses just such a hatchet to cut ropes holding up heavy objects and to slash throats. How similar the tool Jim is familiar with is to the murder weapon doesn't escape the attention of a magic-loving local detective.

The deaths aren't the only troubling thing that goes on. The more Linda uses the Ouija board on her own, the more her attitude and demeanor change. She develops a foul mouth and hair trigger temper.

Realizing that something is very wrong here, Brandon begins to suspect that Linda is experiencing progressive entrapment, a process through which an evil spirit will lure a person in by at first being nice and helpful, but then will start to terrorize the person, breaking them down and ultimately possessing them. Using the Ouija board alone has made her more susceptible to being influenced by an evil spirit. A spirit which may be David, or another one pretending to be David.

In an attempt to release Linda from the hold the spirit she's been contacting has on her, Brandon brings an exorcist/medium, a lively, punk-styled young woman called Zarabeth, in to perform a séance. Bringing Zarabeth into the situation doesn't do much other than provide the spirit with another victim, but it does introduce an intriguing word into the mystery. Malfeitor. A Portuguese word meaning someone who's trouble, a wrongdoer. Evil. David wasn't Portuguese, so why did this word come to Zarabeth's mind?

As things intensify with Linda and the violent spirit, which makes its existence very clear to Jim, Jim and Brandon have to put their differences aside so they can work together to get to the bottom of what's going on and find a way to save Linda before it's too late.

Witchboard is an incredibly well made film, impressive by any standard, but even more so when you realize how inexperienced most of the crew behind it were. Not only was it Kevin S. Tenney's first movie, it was also the producers' first movie and the editors' first movie... and yet it came together perfectly, it looks fantastic. It sounds fantastic as well, with a score provided by first time composer Dennis Michael Tenney, brother of the director.

Cinematographer Roy H. Wagner had a few credits to his name when he took on the Witchboard gig, and has rightfully gone on to work steadily ever since, mostly in television but with some features peppered through there, most notably A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, one of the best looking installments in that very visual franchise.

Throughout the movie there are some awesome "spirit P.O.V." moments, a mixture of crane shots and floating Steadicam movements where the camera was set higher up on the Steadicam rig than they usually are.

There are also some subliminal touches thrown in to mess with viewers during creepier moments. There were different Ouija boards used for scenes, swapped in and out depending on what the tone of the spirit's message was. During innocuous interactions, the board's design is topped with an angel and a smiling crescent moon. When the spirit is more sinister, the angel's wings are replaced by demonic bat wings and the moon has an unsettling grin.

Tenney did a great job on the script. He actually wasn't a big horror fan before making Witchboard, so he wasn't influenced by the trends that were popular at the time. His characters aren't teenagers out to have sex and get wasted, they're adults with complicated relationships and troubled pasts. Each one of them has layers. Brandon isn't simply a jerk, he's a human with feelings and a point of view. There's more to Jim than he shows the world. It's very admirable how Tenney made sure to make his characters well-rounded people and not just the cut-outs that some genre movies slip by with.

The cast does fine work bringing Tenney's words alive on the screen, with Todd Allen being extremely likeable as Jim, Tawny Kitaen effectively playing every step of the beleaguered Linda's evolution, Stephen Nichols taking you on a journey from disliking Brandon to empathizing with him, and Kathleen Wilhoite having a lot of fun in the role of Zarabeth. Dick Van Dyke Show co-star Rose Marie also appears in the small role of Jim and Linda's landlord.

As the film nears its conclusion, the story of Carlos Malfeitor comes to light. Malfeitor was a mass murderer who killed nine people with an axe before being shot down in 1930. The long dead killer appears to Linda a couple times, and in his brief moments, actor J.P. Luebsen makes Malfeitor one of horror's all-time great creeps.

I've been a fan of Witchboard ever since I first saw it as a young child. The story immediately captivated me, I was totally invested in following the characters as they found out what was going on, and really freaked out by the whole David/Malfeitor/spiritual aspect of the film. It had me hooked, and established itself as a movie that I would be revisiting many times over the years to come. More than twenty years later, those viewings are still happening, and my appreciation for Witchboard has just kept increasing as the years have gone by.

Witchboard was a success and has a solid cult following, but I don't think it gets as much attention as it deserves. In my opinion, it's a movie worthy of being discussed alongside the heavyweights of the '80s genre classics. Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Witchboard.

When you check the movie out, which is highly recommended, be sure to stick around through the end credits. No, there isn't an after credits scene, you just need to listen to the song that accompanies the credits, the rocking "Bump in the Night" by Steel Breeze. In fact, you might have to sit through the credits a few times, because it's a song worth listening to on repeat.


  1. Great review! Revisited this film after seeing some of it years ago, and enjoyed it quite a bit, even the flashbacks of some of the worst 80s fashion and slang I thought (and wished) I had successfully forgotten. Gotta disagree on one thing, though....Jim was a jerk who talked to his adult girlfriend as though she were a child-I mean, scolding her for swearing, really? Not sure how he got the nice guy edit here....maybe it could be chalked up to the era?

  2. This is my favourite childhood film. Her possessed voice used to scare the crap out of me. Really good and informative piece