The mid-to-late ’80s was really the last era that independent genre filmmakers could get their movies into mainstream theaters in the U.S. A notable success story from this time was Kevin Tenney, a California film school grad who got a couple of his films to the theaters during this twilight era. The first and perhaps most successful of these was Witchboard, a ghost/possession-themed horror film that became an indie-sized hit at the theaters and endures as a cult favorite with ’80s horror fanatics.
The premise of Witchboard is built around the Ouija board. The story begins at a party thrown by Linda (Tawny Kitaen), who is trying to keep the peace between her current boyfriend, Jim (Todd Allen), and her well-to-do ex Brandon (Stephen Nichols). Brandon is interested in the occult and has brought the Ouija board to the party, much to the amusement of Jim. Brandon and Linda attempt to communicate the patron spirit of the board, only for the little exhibition to go awry.
And this unleashes a danger that even Brandon didn’t see coming: Linda becomes obsessed with using the Ouija, attempting to befriend the spirit. The spirit uses her interest to possess her and wreak havoc in the world of the living. As people around them start to die in mysterious ways, Jim and Brandon have to overcome their differences to find a way to save Linda.
The most impressive thing about Witchboard is its sense of discipline. At a time when indie horror filmmakers were cramming their films with makeup effects and sleaze, Witchboard invests itself in storytelling. Tenney’s script actually uses Ouija lore to impressive effect and invests a surprising amount of screen time to dimensionalizing its characters and their relationships. The results are modest, b-movie level stuff but done with an earnestness that is surprising and welcome in a popcorn horror flick.
It helps that Tenney has a decent cast for a first-timer. Allen is fairly charismatic as an antihero who slowly shifts into a hero and soap opera vet Nichols is melodramatic in a likeable way as his foil. It’s also worth noting that Nichols has to carry the majority of the film’s exposition and does so with subtle skill. Elsewhere, a pre-rock video stardom Kitaen shows she could have done the scream queen thing if she wanted to and Burke Byrnes turns in a slyly humorous supporting turn as a cop who is suspicious of Jim. Kathleen Wilhoite turns up in a brief cameo as a psychic: her gonzo humor will either grate or amuse depending on your taste but either way, she’s hard to forget.
Tenney’s direction enhances the film’s sense of discipline. The killings are doled out sparingly but he works his setpieces with inventive camerawork and a sense of polish that reaches for a Hollywood level. He’s much more interested in the mechanics of building a shock rather than throwing the splatter around and his clean, direct sense of craftsmanship is one of the film’s key assets. Unlike a lot of first-time directors, he doesn’t use wild camerawork for its own sake and sparingly uses it for effect: the best moment in this vein is a dramatic moment where the camera stays with a character as they plummet from a second-floor window.
In short, Witchboard is a quietly effective piece of work – an unusual compliment for an ’80s horror film, to be sure. It’s become popular in recent years to bash this film for being too melodramatic or too sparse in scares but its spartan approach to the genre is actually one of its biggest strengths. It never overreaches and concentrates on hitting its marks in a smart, cost-effective and story-driven way. Low budget horror could use more films like that.