The Ecphorizer

Why Witchboard?
Kenneth Schulze

Issue #65 (April 1987)

Driving home, towards dusk, after a fairly well-attended matinee of Witchboard (a March, 1986, release from Paragon Arts International), I realized why I go to horror movies.

[quoteright]Many couples might admit they go for excuses to hold hands,

The right side of our brain enjoys its superstitious day.

[quote1]Many a viewer gets addicted to cinematic jolts.[/quote1][quote2]By the time you read this review, you may be able to buy a cassette of Witchboard...[/quote2][quote3]Surprise, surprise....[/quote3]

hug, or establish other contact that provides mutual assurance of desire to comfort and protect. Their answer wouldn't seem to apply to me. I go to horror movies alone, wistfully certain Ms Right won't hang around to catch me at the theater. You see a considerable number of solitary men at horror shows. I've yet to see a woman by herself at one.

Yes, I used to watch horror movies on TV during adolescence. So maybe I indulge in nostalgia, even though terrible things happened to me — as they happen to us all — before adulthood.

And yes, I like glimpses viewers get of naked or nearly-naked women in many "B" movies. These glimpses may be mandatory, like gore, for the "R" rating that to many patrons of Hollywood signifies real horror. Still I wish we got more of them. It's okay to show moviegoers the supernatural. Why not the natural in the buff?

My main reason for taking in movies like the Witchboard on the big screen, though, is this:

[quote1right]In a relativistic world where evil gets relegated to Halloween, fundamentalism, or religious history, horror movies tell us our parents or teachers were right to assure us of the existence of evil. Devils, demonic minions, vampires, bogeymen, witches stand in for aspects of human nature we can't afford to dwell on in our workday lives. Deceit, corruption, treachery, murder happen to others — on TV, for example, or in the newspaper — until they get projected, acted out, for longer than a ten- or twenty-second news flash into our optic nerves. Then we squirm.

Many a viewer gets addicted to cinematic jolts. The right side of our brain enjoys its superstitious day. Bathed, like its peer, in insulin again and again, our left sits in hyper-tense judgment of its own curiosity and what ideally — and all too seldom — are our vicarious selves.

There's at least one major skeptic in every horror movie. There has to be. Scientific rationalism, pride and touchstone of our materialism, denies the existence of the other-wordly. To make us believe, filmmakers need someone who keeps us saying, "Bullshit." Until the nay-sayer confronts scary proof — in the form, say, of a levitated hatchet. Or a clawed hand stabbing out from behind a door to grab our gizzards. Then while the camera hovers over a corpse or a near-corpse, we sit back, feeling vindicated for having spent emotional energy over an illusion, and think, "There. That'll teach you!"

Witchboard borrows from occult, detective, and slasher/chopper flicks in mainly predictable ways. Music builds when you'd expect music to build. The camera moves in, swiftly, like an attacker, toward hero or heroine at crucial moments. Once an axe appears, at rest or in someone's grip, you know that sooner or later it's going to whistle into at least one neck or skull.

That's de rigueur for these entertainments. If memory serves aright, Witchboard's sole exception to this rule of thumb is a fire poker, hefted to do havoc during a prolonged interior climax.

From the opening shot — a nighttime still of a large, old, two-story frame house that special lighting and filters make appear your typical haunted house (get set for another chiller-diller, folks) — the editor cuts to a party indoors. It struck me at once that the recent remake of The Fly opens with a party, too. Throw a lot of people together at the start, I guess, and you won't mind frequent isolation of main characters afterwards. You can write walk-ons off your payroll early on this way, too.

Sophisticates people the party in The Fly. Townies establish a social atmosphere in Witchboard. A slick law student named Brandon (played, I think, by Stephen Nichols [yes]; I didn't stay for credits at the end because I can never scribble the names fast enough) baits an alcoholic's son named Jim (Todd Allen?) [yes] in front of Linda (Tawny Kitaen?) [yes]. A young woman seated behind me once commented, "God, he's gorgeous," but omitted to say whether she referred to Jim or Brandon. Both men seem likely partners for Linda. Indeed, we learn much later in the film that secretly Brandon has loved Linda for years. You may want to add soap opera to occult, detective, and slasher/chopper after seeing this movie. Both men get into arguments due to intense jealousy and misunderstanding over Linda.

Linda wants to love Jim and bear his child. Brandon and his Ouija board come between Jim and her. Brandon becomes the life of the party when he teaches Linda to invoke the board's invisible jinni — the spirit of David, killed thirty years earlier at age [quote2left]ten. David "answers" Brandon's questions by moving a planchette, a triangle of wood with a hole in it, in Linda's hands and Brandon's, to a "yes" or "no" or around an alphabet on the board. The camera eats up a lot of clock following the planchette, usually on Linda's lap. But focus on this crude deadspeak adds tension to the plot. Suspension of disbelief comes readily once you accept the absurdity of Ouija.

By the time you read this review, you may be able to buy a cassette of Witchboard or watch it on network TV. Hence I won't spoil things for you with descriptions of all the horrific ways David's evil impostor manifests himself around Linda and Jim's house in suburban Fairfield (someplace out West, it seems; probably California) and in Big Bear, the mountain town where David died by violence. Suffice to say the evil intruder — a spirit much stronger than David because it is that of an adult, stereotyped psychopathic serial killer — bears Jim a grudge. Jim doesn't want Linda messing around with a dumb planchette when they could be making love on their water bed. Linda's addiction to Ouija is well under way when she suspects David of killing Lloyd, assistant to carpenter Jim, in gruesome fashion at a construction site.

Jim's nearness to Lloyd at the time and his having dropped out of medical school lead a local detective to surmise that Jim murdered Lloyd. A second circumstantial murder brings Lieutenant Dewhust back after a long hiatus. This subplot seems superfluous at times because Dewhurst doesn't interact much with Linda or Brandon or Jim. The never-say-die Dewhurst does serve a bloody purpose though toward the end.

Brandon floors Jim with the revelation that Linda is suffering "progressive entrapment." Her morning sickness is not a symptom of pregnancy. Her doctor tells her she isn't pregnant, and that's enough for Brandon to guess the truth: the seductive evil spirit is breaking down Linda's mental resistance in order — gasp! -- to possess her.

Jim agrees to call in a medium. Shades of the Exorcist and Poltergeist, the freakish Sara Crawford, who goes by Zara Beth, acts as an intermediary during a seance at Linda's and Jim's. Zara Beth is supposed to inject comic relief with her kooky gaudery and eyeglasses and valley-girl slang. She employs what she calls "psychic humor" to downplay the gravity of Linda's danger. Writer and director Kevin S Tinney drives home the point later that night at Zara Beth's: the evil spirit throws Zara Beth through French doors, and she gets impaled on an iron fence.

Witchboard follows horror traditions to the letter in its exploitation of dream sequences, including a neat beheading replete with neck stump. The sequence leading up to this violates our sense of verisimilitude. Recovering from a concussion, Linda sneaks from her hospital bed into dark corridors deserted but for herself. Strikes one and two: hospitals keep their corridors well lit the clock around, with personnel a sprint away. Of course darkness and desertion dramatize Linda's dream-walk. Why Linda leaves the security of bed for perils occasioned by a possible labor strike never gets explained. There is something out there, by George. And I'm going to find out what the devil it is, so long as my nightgown flutters prettily about me and my next step might be my last.

There is also the obligatory shower scene at home.

Linda gets locked supernaturally into her shower and can't turn off the scalding water. Tinney forgoes blood here for nudity, a choice I much prefer. We actually get to see a bit of pubic hair, albeit for a couple of instants along with bouncing breasts. It makes Linda seem all the more vulnerable. As we might expect, Linda smashes her way to freedom and her next terror.

Brandon meanwhile gets axed at Big Bear, where Jim and he have done research on David. Jim gets conked but survives the presence of the impostor, Malfeador, evil spirit of a Portuguese slaughterer who makes David seem angelic. When the camera zooms in on Jim's undefended back we expect a hideous blow or at least a fight. The killer passes up the opportunity he has long sought. The camera rises, inexplicably, and the editor cuts to a scene miles distant. Later, Jim tells Malfeador that he — Malfeador — could have killed him easily at Big Bear. Malfeador agrees by saying, "I was only tormenting you," or words to that effect. What happened to Mafeador's quest to kill Jim? Either I lost something here or Tinney or his editor pulled a boner.

Malfeador possesses Linda. Linda then tells Jim, in the spirit's voice, that Jim — not Linda — is the portal Malfeador has sought to gain entrance to this world. Dewhurst bursts into the room and gets knocked around. Jim puts Dewhurst's revolver to his own head. We hear a boom. Jim gets blown through a plate glass window, plummeting in slow motion toward certain death [quote3left]in a parking lot.

And two alternate endings make Witchboard fall apart.

What seems at first a funeral service in church proves to be a wedding. Linda is apparently dispossessed, at last herself once again as she embraces Jim, resurrected by a neck brace, with a happy expression. All would seem well.

Surprise, surprise. A couple of housekeepers, one a shrewish and witchlike Rose Marie, speculate on the efficacy of a bullet-riddled Ouija at home. The monster never dies. Malfeador or another villain from the spirit world answers a final question with a "yes" that tells us Witchboard II may be just around the corner. 

KENNETH SCHULZE writes that he is a new member of Mensa and refers to his contribution as a "disposable review." Yes, but is it also biodegradable?

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