“Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe.” Not when you’ve got a horror movie made under the working title of Ouija it isn’t (the switch to Witchboard was presumably to appease Americans of low literacy levels), especially when you’ve also got a bunch of kids indulging in the occult. Admittedly they have jobs and talk of marriage and children, but they still gather in giant houses perfect for steadicam prowls and visit cemeteries for dubious reasons. In the case his name is David, a 10 year old who died in a boating accident and is now contacting our leads form the other side. That they don’t all take him seriously seemingly prompts him to run amok, in the process killing off several supporting players and possessing our heroine.
Witchboard was the feature debut of Kevin S. Tenney, made in 1986 when he was in his early twenties and fresh out of film school. He concluded the decade with two other horror pics, The Cellar and The Night of the Demons, both of which drew on the genre’s clichés to such a degree (ancient Indian burial ground; teen Hallowe’en party results in multiple fatalities) that they were barely distinguishable from the low budget fright flicks that were then clogging up the video market. Witchboard is slightly different: the concept was deemed original enough that two sequel-cum-remakes were spawned, whilst the overall approach shares little affinity with mid-to-late eighties horror norms. Special effects are largely shunned, especially those of the rubbery variety, and neither does it belie the influence of arguably that decade’s most influential directors working within the genre, Sam Raimi and David Cronenberg.
Indeed, there’s an element to Witchboard that could almost be described as sweet. The gore is minimal and whilst there is a wholly gratuitous shower scene for Tawny Kitaen, it comes so near the end of the picture that you can almost hear the filmmakers apologising for its inclusion. Their interests would appear to be elsewhere and, oddly for a debut horror pic, these lie with the script. Though not wholly successful, fumblings are made towards character development resulting in dialogue that - again proves quite surprising in such a generic context - often sees the actors conversing rather than simply screaming about who got killed off last and what to do next. It would have helped, however, if Tenney had employed a co-writer for, despite an obvious talent for smart arse one-liners (which provide Witchboard with a welcome sense of humour), he does suffer from a tin ear elsewhere. Exposition in particular proves a problem, with talk of “progressive entrapment” and the like rendered as far too po-faced for its own good.
Tenney’s direction is far more assured with a perfectly capable handling of his cast. Largely populated by actors who are now better known for their television roles (had he been working with a bigger budget then Andrew McCarthy, James Spader - in his mid eighties slimy yuppie mode - and Molly Ringwald would have been perfect for the leads); only Kathleen Wilhoite, in a minor role as a medium, is overindulged resulting in an uneasy sense of embarrassment during her scenes. More importantly, however, he never appears to struggle with the low budget. Witchboard may not look particularly impressive, but Tenney does know how to handle the scares. Each is executed (pardon the unintentional pun) with a minimum of fuss and in a manner that is almost old fashioned; as said, the gore level is never overt, rather the tried and tested techniques are favoured, yet they seem fresh within the context of the eighties horror movie. Indeed, it is perfectly clear why Witchboard became such a popular video favourite, even if it is also apparent why it has never quite made the leap into cult territory.
Released by Anchor Bay, Witchboard’s DVD release follows the company’s usual policy of providing a number of soundtrack options. As well as the original stereo, both DD5.1 and DTS mixes are also provided. Whilst both never once demonstrate any noticeable technical problems, there really is little need for the upgrade as the original mix sounds perfectly fine. It remains clean throughout with the expected crispness, plus of course it’s the option as intended by the filmmakers. (Indeed, the sound editor is constantly acknowledged in the commentary.)
With regards to the picture quality things aren’t quite so pleasing. Certainly, the film is provided with an anamorphic transfer (at a ratio of 1.78:1), but the print suffers being a little too soft and occasionally demonstrates some highly visible artefacting, particularly during the fogbound cemetery scene. Admittedly, the lack of sharpness isn’t too apparent during the medium close ups or anything nearer, but what disappoints is the fact that one trailers looks to be of superior quality in this respect.
This piece is just one of a handful of extras, many of which prove worthwhile. Some, like the trailers (two 30 second teasers and a longer two-minute-plus promo) and the film notes that offer little beyond a plot synopsis, will be viewed once and never again, but others, such as the commentary and the 1986 ‘making of’ featurette, prove more rewarding. The latter is pretty much standard EPK material although it’s far less frantically edited than today’s model and as such allows the actors and other interviewees a little more to say. More interesting is the fact that the various clips that bulk out the 22-minute running time are pre-sound mix which gives them a certain oddness until you realise what’s missing, plus we are also witness to a number of excerpts from scenes that were excised from the final cut.
Indeed, as the commentary reveals, Tenney’s initial assemblage amounted to three hours worth of material, though sadly the disc is bereft of any deleted scenes proper. Still they do come under discussion during his talk track, one in which he shares the microphone with producer Jeff Geoffray and executive producer Walter Josten. They make for a likeable trio and obviously have a great affection for their film, so much so that they chat non-stop throughout the commentary, bombarding us with anecdote after anecdote (O.J. Simpson’s visits to the set; Tenney’s phone calls to critic who gave him a bad review). The only complaint is that they get a little chummy at times, seemingly forgetting that this piece is as much for the home audience as it is for their own pleasure.
The extras package is rounded off by a clutch of reasonably in-depth biographies, though oddly these leave out both Tenney and Todd Allen who is, ostensibly, the picture’s lead.
Unlike the main feature, none of these special features come with English subtitles.