Fango Flashback: “WITCHBOARD” (1986)
Lord, is there anything not to love about the exquisite 1986 kitsch fest WITCHBOARD?
Here’s a movie that takes the promising raw material of a love triangle amongst a feather-haired DAYS OF OUR LIVES star who looks like he could be a first cousin to Cobra Kai standout (Sweep the leg!) Johnny Lawrence, the exotic stunner/ car fetishist from Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” video, and a standard-issue smokes-jeans-and-shiny-vest John Hughes-esque wisenheimer rebel—and transmogrifies it into a not-so-lovely genre square by throwing a malevolent spirit with a penchant for a well-trimmed beard, finally tailored suits, and a solid chopping axe into the mix.
If that set-up sounds like pure empty calories, think again: Writer/director Kevin S. Tenney manages to slip in more than a bit of philosophical rumination between jump scares and smart-ass repartee.
Take, for example, the opening sequence at a posh semi-formal house party. The New Wave music is pumping. Everybody’s mingling, swaying, and/or taking liberal pulls at plastic cups full of their chosen social lubricant. Meanwhile, our aforementioned sexually-tensed trio—Linda (Tawny Kitaen), her preppy ex Brandon (Stephen Nichols), and current roughhewn beau Jim (Todd Allen)—are off on a couch in the corner indulging every libertine, filthy whim as they…
Just kidding! They’re actually debating whether creation could have sprung into existence minus divine intervention.
Now, delving into the primary existential conundrum of both science and theology doesn’t exactly scream idle soiree chit-chat, and things take an even sharper metaphysical turn fairly quickly: Brandon denies an “infinite God” while simultaneously affirming his belief in “spirits”; some random nerd biting off Alex P. Keaton’s swag calls Brandon out on what he sees as a distinction without a difference; which leads to an awesomely voguish exchange that sets the tone for the rest of the film:
“There’s been evidence of their existence—recordings, eyewitness accounts, photographs, you name it,” Brandon says. “And I’ve contacted some of them myself.”
“What? With a wee-gee board?” one of Jim’s friends scoffs.
“It’s pronounced oui-ja not oui-gee,” Brandon replies. “It comes from the French and German words for ‘Yes’—oui and jah. Oui-ja.” He holds up the heart-shaped piece of wood designed to glide across the lettered board, powered, in part, by the fingertips of the dead. “And this is a planchette.”
Jim’s pal lowers (briefly!) the sunglasses he’s wearing to block out any potentially damaging rays thrown off by indoor incandescent light bulbs. “I don’t care what you call it, dude. It’s just, like, a game.”
“For your information, dude, the Ouija has been around since recorded history,” Brandon says, cutting through a chunk of exposition as if it were hot butter. “It was in wide use as far back as 540 B.C.”
“I guess if Barbie dolls had been around that long,” Jim retorts, “you’d be talking to them, too.”
“Beats talking to you.”
“That’s ‘cause I use words with more than one syllable.”
Yikes! Nominations for the party burn book are officially closed, people…
Tensions abound, but Linda has a brilliant idea for how to diffuse the situation—fire up a board!
It’s no great spoiler to reveal the trio end up receiving more than they bargain for from the spirit world. And when Brandon storms off in a huff after an angry ten year-old ghost blows out the tires of his cherry red sports car—yes, really—he leaves behind his Ouija, which Linda soon takes to riding solo…a serious no-no which will prove disastrous in very short order.
Violent specters, creepy dreamscapes, altered realities, possession, a séance with prankster punk rock medium (a fantastic, hilarious Kathleen Wilhoite), rival suitors reluctantly joining forces to save the soul of their lady love—WITCHBOARD covers a lot of ground in its gloriously entertaining 98 minutes. We’re talking about an unabashed supernatural romp where those who can’t decide whether they’d rather see Kitaen in a hot shower or wielding an axe in men’s formal wear do not have to choose.
The recent Scream Factory Blu-ray/DVD combo reissue is loaded up with excellent special features, including new commentary tracks and interviews with cast and crew alongside time-of-their-lives vintage clips, all of which are so genuinely enlightening, funny, and full of warm, easy camaraderie, you’ll find yourself wishing this gang could’ve collaborated on a dozen films rather than one—or at least found a way to reunite for WITCHBOARD 2: THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY.
Does WITCHBOARD feel a bit dated? Of course. But for a film that hearkens to a gloriously rambunctious, kinda beautifully naïve, and, yes, spirited time for genre filmmaking that seems more boon than albatross.