Saturday, February 22, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: WITCHBOARD (1986)

(US - 1986)

Written and directed by Kevin S. Tenney.  Cast: Todd Allen, Tawny Kitaen, Stephen Nichols, Rose Marie, Kathleen Wilhoite, Burke Byrnes, J.P. Luebsen, James W. Quinn, Judy Tatum. (R, 98 mins)

With countless iconic slasher films and monster movies with then-state of the art makeup effects to cut their teeth on, horror fans who came of age in the '80s are perhaps the most sentimental about their movies.  But with that comes the risk of being sentimental for the era rather than the movies themselves.  There's no doubt that the '80s were a great time to be a horror fan, but--and we're all guilty of it--sometimes we champion films today that play a lot better in our memories than they do in present-day reality.  Sometimes this nostalgia backfires and you find something you held dear really isn't all that good.  Do you leave it alone or do you risk taking another look?  I hadn't seen 1986's WITCHBOARD since perhaps 1990. I had no strong affinity for it but recall it being a competently-done B-movie from back in the day.  It was recently released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory and I decided to give it another look after approximately 25 years.

Shot in the summer of 1985 and given a limited release at the end of 1986 (I assume to build word-of-mouth momentum and not to qualify for the Oscars) before expanding nationwide in March 1987, WITCHBOARD, written and directed by a debuting Kevin S. Tenney, became a surprise hit in theaters and was an even bigger success in video stores.  Children of the '80s have held it near and dear to their hearts and it's become a genuine cult classic over the years.  Of course, this is due not just to the film itself but also the short-lived pop culture phenomenon that was Tawny Kitaen.  The sexy redhead had a few films under her belt, most notably playing Tom Hanks' fiancée in BACHELOR PARTY (1984) and starring in the softcore cable favorite THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF YIK YAK (also 1984).  She was also a noted "video vixen" of the hair metal era, appearing on the cover of Ratt's 1984 album Out of the Cellar, as well as a couple of their videos, in addition to dating Ratt guitarist Robbin Crosby.  But it was 1987 that proved to be Kitaen's breakout year with both WITCHBOARD and her involvement with Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale.  The pair became an item after Kitaen appeared in several of the band's videos and were married from 1989 to 1991.  Kitaen's fame was fleeting, and by the early '90s and onward, her acting gigs were sporadic while her tabloid notoriety increased due to a drug bust, a DUI, later accusations of spousal abuse by her second husband, major league baseball pitcher Chuck Finley, and, perhaps most cringe-inducing, a several-year fling with O.J. Simpson that apparently dated back to her WITCHBOARD days (on the bonus features, crew members recall Simpson's frequent calls to the production office and visits to Kitaen's trailer) and through her marriage to Coverdale.  All things considered, it was inevitable that Kitaen would end up on trashy reality shows like THE SURREAL LIFE and CELEBRITY REHAB, but looking back, she does an alright job in WITCHBOARD.  She's no great actress by any stretch, but she's got a presence that's both seductive and wholesomely appealing in equal measures.  She clearly got sucked into the L.A. fast lane, though let's place the blame where it probably lies:  O.J. Simpson.

Anyway, how does WITCHBOARD hold up?  Fairly well.  Some of it is obviously dated (check out Steel Breeze's closing credits tune "Bump in the Night"), some of the smartass quips Tenney supplies his actors with are real groaners (when told he's rude, the hero huffs "I got a D in manners!"), some attempts at humor fall embarrassingly flat (what's with Burke Byrnes' detective teaching himself to juggle?), and the "falling" effect used in the climax (hooking star Todd Allen up to a rig and slowly pushing him out of a second story window and lowering him onto a car) is laughable.  But Tenney does a commendable job with cheap jump scares and building suspense.  There's always an inherent unease in any situation where people are communicating with spirits and Tenney handles these elements like an experienced pro.  All hell breaks loose when Linda (Kitaen) starts putzing around with a Ouija board left at her house after a party by her ex-boyfriend Brandon (Stephen Nichols, then a popular star of DAYS OF OUR LIVES).  Brandon and Linda were communicating with David, the spirit of a murdered eight-year-old boy, much to the dismissive derision of her boyfriend Jim (Allen) and his blue collar buddies.  Using the Ouija board on her own, Linda thinks she's communicating with David, thus ignoring Brandon's warnings to never do the Ouija alone and that spirits often lie.  It turns out she's communicating with the spirit of axe murderer Malfeitor (J.P. Luebsen), who then uses Linda as a portal to re-enter the world and off those closest to her.

One thing that's legitimately surprising in WITCHBOARD (other than the presence of '60s TV star Rose Marie as Linda's landlady) is the little bait-and-switch Tenney pulls with the two male leads.  It's established that the two were once best friends who became bitter enemies when Linda started dating Jim.  When introduced as "Brandon Sinclair of the Sinclair Vineyards," there's practically a flashing neon sign that Nichols' character is going to be a stuffy, condescending asshole and a sort-of James Spader prototype, if you will.  But as the film proceeds, Brandon emerges as the sympathetic voice of reason who's acting in Linda's best interests while Jim comes off as an increasingly abrasive prick.  I'm even willing to entertain the possibility that the dismal one-liners that Tenney gives to Allen's Jim are intentionally so, as if to illustrate that Jim is a smug dick who isn't nearly as funny as he thinks he is (Tenney has said that he based Jim on his own personality, so interpret that how you will).  Additionally, once Linda starts showing signs of possession--what Brandon calls "progressive entrapment"--Kitaen is essentially relegated to the background while Jim and Brandon set aside their differences to find out what's happening to her.  Another big surprise is how little screen time Luebsen has as Malfeitor.  In the two and a half decades since I last watched this, his grinning, axe-wielding visage is really the only thing I recalled, with the possible exception of Kathleen Wilhoite (who had just teamed up with Charles Bronson in MURPHY'S LAW) totally Wilhoiting it up as a medium with her "psychic humor."  What a shock to see that he's onscreen for a total of maybe five seconds in a dream sequence where Linda sees herself being decapitated.  It's such an effective shock, and Luebsen is made up in such a memorably creepy fashion that his appearance, however brief, really sticks with you.

WITCHBOARD isn't as stylish as a lot of its contemporaries but it works well within the confines of its budget.  It often looks like a TV-movie, but the score by Dennis Michael Tenney (the director's brother) has a nice Italian horror feel to it that lends the film some big-screen personality.  Of course, the murder scenes are nicely splattery but not too over-the-top.  As far as '80s horror classics go, it's no FRIDAY THE 13TH or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, but WITCHBOARD proves to be a case where, other than the hair and the fashions, time has generally been kind.  It's harmless, cheesy fun that never takes itself too seriously but is refreshingly lacking the sense of ironic self-consciousness that would permeate it if it were made (or, God forbid, remade) today.  That sense of fun is infectious on the Blu-ray's newly-recorded commentary track with Tenney, Nichols, Wilhoite, and co-star James D. Quinn (who plays Jim's buddy, an early Malfeitor victim).  They share a lot of production memories and get a lot of laughs out of the big cordless phones, the big answering machines, and Kitaen's big hair ("She looks like a lion!"), but they do have a tendency to have so much fun that they're sometimes reduced to just giggling.  There's quite a bit of vintage on-set interviews and a making-of,  plus a commentary track with Tenney and the producers that was ported over from Anchor Bay's DVD from a decade ago.  There's also a newly-filmed, 45-minute retrospective titled "Progressive Entrapment" that features all the main players, including Allen reminiscing about Kitaen's "great bod and great boobs," Luebsen, who now actually looks like Malfeitor, and likably self-deprecating comments by Nichols, Wilhoite ("I was gonna be a rock star, I was gonna win Academy Awards!"), and Quinn ("Looking back twenty-some years...long hair, sunglasses on all the time...what was I thinking?"). Kitaen, who's had some cosmetic work done, also appears through the Barbara Walters/Diane Sawyer lens filter.  The extras on this release are seemingly bottomless, and with the HD transfer making it look as good as it possibly can, this is as close as WITCHBOARD fans will get to a Criterion-level package.

"This Time, It's Not a Sequel"
WITCHBOARD was successful enough that it made Tenney a "name" B-lister for several years.  His 1988 film NIGHT OF THE DEMONS has enjoyed a similar cult following, and he directed the Robert Forster/Robert Davi sci-fi outing PEACEMAKER in 1990.  In 1989, Tenney made WITCHTRAP, which featured Luebsen, Quinn, and others who had smaller bits in WITCHBOARD, plus cult horror favorite Linnea Quigley.  It wasn't a sequel to WITCHBOARD but everyone did their damnedest to make it appear so.  Magnum Entertainment's VHS box boasted artwork that blatantly imitated WITCHBOARD's but also contained a stipulation that "This film is not a sequel to WITCHBOARD."  Tenney delivered a belated official sequel with 1993's WITCHBOARD 2: THE DEVIL'S DOORWAY, which featured no returning cast members.  Tenney scripted 1995's WITCHBOARD: THE POSSESSION, but handed directing chores off to Peter Svatek.  Tenney's career seems to be more or less on hiatus as his last film of note--and dubious note at that--is the straight-to-video, Charlie Sheen-less sequel ARRIVAL II (1998).  He hasn't made a film since the PG-rated, family-friendly teen movie BIGFOOT (2009), where the title creature appears to be the tattered remains of a HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS costume that Tenney found in a dumpster on the Universal backlot.

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