On the 30th anniversary of Kevin Tenney’s ‘Witchboard,’ we take a look at all of the films in the series and how they hold up now
When it comes to the realm of horror, the various sub-genres that populate the dark corners of the topic are given the ability to refine themselves over the years. We might be able to get complex zombie narratives or vampire stories that can bring us to tears over their nuance, but it took years of delivering rote, archetypal monster movies before reaching this point. One of horror’s sub-groups that has never really been allowed the sort of leeway or seen the popularity of ghosts or werewolves is that of the Ouija board. Through the years there have been sporadic (and usually direct-to-video) attempts at Ouija tales and the last few years have seen the success of the maybe-franchise Ouija, but beyond that (and give or take an episode of Scream Queens) the area has largely gone untouched. While Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: The Origin of Evil managed to revitalize the topic and open it up in exciting ways, before that the sort of leading horror text on this supernatural topic was Kevin Tenney’s Witchboard trilogy. Now, on the 30th anniversary of Tenney’s original film, we look back at why Witchboard and its sequels are such a delightful part of horror canon.
Admittedly, the Witchboard series might not be the most frightening endeavor that horror has to offer, but the films operate with the sort of brazen, outlandish universes that you’d hope to encounter from some lurid VHS that you stumble upon in the horror aisle. The prime reason that the Witchboard films stand the test of time—not only in spite of, but because of their campy flaws—is because of writer/director Kevin Tenney’s clear passion for the area of Ouija. He digs into and pulls off all sorts of Ouija lore and presents it proudly through awkward exposition. He’s such a stickler for all of this too. The mere fact that he enforces that the characters all pronounce it “We-Jah” rather than “We-Gee” through the three pictures means that you have to admire the guy. It’s not hard to imagine cast or crew members mocking Tenney’s insistence to stick to the antiquated—albeit accurate—pronunciation, even though nobody goes with the “We-Jah” version anymore. Anyways, get ready for it here because you’ll never be able to un-hear the alternative once you’re done with this film.
Tenney’s original Witchboard operates routinely enough. It has a fairly simplistic plot wherein basically some people get fascinated with a Ouija board, but more specifically the spirit that they’re communicating with, a boy named David. As they continue to poke this ghost-bear, sinister consequences appropriately follow and it’s a classic situation of, “Boy, you shouldn’t have mucked around with that Ouija board.” In spite of Witchboard’s story hardly breaking the planchette (that’s a Ouija board joke—an excellent Ouija board joke), it makes up for it in its endless charm. To begin with, this truly might be the ’80s-iest movie out there. The wardrobe, dialogue, and hairdos are ridiculous and you’ll love every second of it. The medium that’s consulted in the film, Zarabeth, is such a cliché (dyed hair, tinted glasses, bedazzled denim, popping bubble gum…) that it’s hard to believe that this is actually how the ‘80s viewed mysticism by and large. There’s also an ‘80s Ouijia board research power montage that is just too sublime for words to describe. Not to mention, I respect the hell out of the idea of filling a Ouija board film with a bunch of forty-somethings who are completely un-invested in the experience.
Something else that I adore about this film and its sequels is how they’re simultaneously super meticulous about historical accuracy and the “rules” of Ouija but also flagrantly being romantic with the past. At one point Zarabeth enlightens the audience by sharing, “For your information, dude, the information has been around since the dawn of time. It’s been in use all the way since 540 BC.” This is radical misinformation, but the film has such conviction behind it all that you can’t help but be charmed from the experience.
Before long it’s figured out that this friendly boy spirit, David, is actually an evil entity by the name of Malfador (yes, Malfador, as if this were a villain from out of Harry Potter). The film then spends a solid amount of time on a whole primer for the different stages of Ouija possession that basically become the blueprint for the rest of the film. One of the stages, “Progressive Entrapment” is said so much in this movie that I’m truly surprised that one of the sequels wasn’t titled Witchboard: Progressive Entrapment. And it’s just fucking nonsense! It doesn’t mean a thing. So much of this movie is just babbling, but in the most fun, addictive sort of way. Witchboard also introduces the idea—which I love—of the Ouija demon having bad spelling/dyslexia and passing out incorrect info accordingly, which is not only pretty creative but also makes sense when you think about it.
The mischief that Malfador causes is all pretty laughable in the best possible sense. One particular scene sees his spirit knocking a knife into the ground and then spilling ketchup onto it so it’ll resemble a bloodied murder weapon and drive Linda into a fit. This Ouija demon also simply makes the water get too hot in the shower as well as other low stakes acts of could-be-plumbing. Furthermore, Linda’s solution to escape this scalding water is to smash the shower door to broken bits rather than just slide it open. It’s crazy. Curiously, once Malfador’s possession of Linda slowly begins to take place she begins to swear a ton. This is a huge red flag for James and a huge hint in alerting him that something is wrong here. “Has she been swearing?” “Like a truck driver.” “My God…” What’s crazy though is that this whole swearing angle becomes a throughline across the other Witchboard films, too. These are all chaste, virginly individuals who have apparently never said anything worse than “darn” before. At the end of the film, Malfador’s complete possession of Linda is conveyed by her just wearing the same suit and hat that he did, and yet, it’s somehow really creepy and unsettling all the same.
When dealing with some sort of otherworldy threat like a Ouija board, it’s always fascinating to see how this danger is overcome in the end. In the case of Witchboard, is it some more powerful psychic force that keeps the spirit at bay? Perhaps resolving the spirits unfinished business so they can find some peace and move on? Nope. Here they solve the problem by brashly shooting the Ouija board repeatedly. A decision that is both the stupidest and greatest thing that I’ve ever seen. This is something that they could have done from frame one of the film!
Underneath all of the Ouija mumbo jumbo this is a film that kind of boils down to a story about two old friends—practically brothers—who have lost sight of who they are and are both in love with the same woman. It’s a weird angle to juxtapose with all the Ouija material but it makes for a film that feels well rounded. Witchboard manages to accomplish what it sets out to do, even if it does so in an incredibly campy manner, but there’s still something to be said for that. The fact that the film performed quite well in theaters, turned a profit, and actually built a demand for a sequel is a testament to the unusual world that Tenney built 30 years ago that still holds resonance today.
In spite of the success that Witchboard saw, its sequel Witchboard 2: The Devil’s Doorway, came out a staggering seven years later. This delay was the result of financing issues where the studio didn’t have the necessary funds to move forward on a sequel until years later, rather than the delay having anything to do with waning studio or audience interest. It might have taken seven years, but Kevin Tenney, back in the writer/director’s chair, doesn’t squander this opportunity to return to his world. Witchboard 2 has such a sequel-y tone, but in a comforting, nostalgic sort of way if that makes any sense. It ups the stakes in all of the ways that a second go-around at this topic should, while also making the clumsy sort of sequel mistakes that are just a delight in ‘90s B-horror of this nature.
Witchboard 2’s premise sees Paige talking to the deceased “Susan” via a Ouija board (again, everyone knows to pronounce it “We-Jah,” with zero prompting), trying to help solve her murder and give her spirit justice. However it’s eventually revealed that this spirit is playing games with Paige and that it’s not actually Susan after all…or is it? The film keeps playing with this as Paige gets more deeply involved. Like in the previous Witchboard film, Paige slowly begins to “change” due to the spirit that she’s communicating with. She begins dressing differently and yes, even swearing. This is all culminating in the evil spirit from the other side trying to trade places with her and get into our world.
One of the most pleasant things that Witchboard 2 has going for it is its decidedly weird sense of humor. The film operates with a sort of swagger where it thinks it’s being really funny—like in the case of the dog’s name and Elaine’s misunderstanding around the song lyrics she’s named him after. Or exchanges like, “He’s the handyman, isn’t he?” “More like unhandyman.” Brilliant, right? A lot of this stems from Laraine Newman’s portrayal of Elaine, the quirky psychic du jour. She floats through ultra-hippie mode here, talking in that relaxed drawl while tending to her dog Dew and spitting out phrases like “far out.”
While on the topic of characters, let’s explore the rest of this film’s eclectic supporting cast because man oh manatee. Elaine’s handyman husband, Jonas, is literally sexually harassing and ogling Paige within three seconds of meeting her. Not long after he’s greedily drinking from a flask while sizing her up. Later on, Jonas is hitting on Paige right in front of Elaine and it’s just awful. It’s an absurd sort of character that only exists in this era of films. Furthermore, how is Paige affording this ridiculous, insane apartment, especially while working as an artist?
Cut from a similar cloth as Jonas is Paige’s ex-boyfriend, Mitch. He’s just the worst and is immediately enraged simply over the idea of her being an artist. He’s constantly berating her, insulting her abilities, and wants her to be an accountant instead of following her dreams. It’s such a weird angle for the abusive, stock boyfriend to have that’s given no real context. He’s just enraged right out of the gate, and on top of all of that, he’s also a crooked cop. Of course, just as Paige is having too much of Mitch’s abuse, a cute, nice art lover, Russell, enters the scene and is the perfect replacement. It’s still such bizarre characterization for Mitch though. The film even gives us the incredibly stereotypical Gary Burns-esque mystical character, Morris, who imparts all of the Ouija board rules (“I know what you’re thinking. You’ve never seen a Jewish occultist before.”). Morris also introduces the premise that all spirits are liars and that you naturally can’t trust the message you’re getting (“Are you kidding? Spirits are terrible spellers!”). Furthermore, it brings up the interesting idea that maybe the message you’re getting from the Ouija board is misspelled. This eventually comes into play with the whole “riflecape” mystery in terms of what the spirit is communicating to Paige and its message actually being “fireplace.” It’s a spin on the formula that works.
Witchboard 2 continues to rejuvenate the Ouija idea in creative ways, like by introducing the concept of a planchette that you can put a pencil in so the spirit will carry out their message in the deceased’s actual handwriting. I sort of love this extension of the Ouija board, and I’ve never seen it come up anywhere else. It’s a great way of helping determine who you’re actually dealing with in these movies. That being said, a lot of this film is just characters spelling out the messages that they’re getting from the Ouija board. It’s crazy how much is just lengthy scenes of people spelling. It’s nuts.
With these sorts of films the murders are always a super important discussion point and while the original Witchboard sets the standard for WTF deaths, its sequel truly goes above and beyond with just how laughable it makes the act of murder. For one, when Jonas’ handyman gear (which mainly includes rotating blades) starts flinging itself at him there’s no real reason for him to be picked as a victim other than we as an audience knowing that he’s an asshole and “okay” for murdering. The ghost itself has no reason to target him though. Regardless, the “blade POV” work here is actually pretty well done and it destroying a path of light bulbs as it recklessly careens towards Jonas looks pretty damn cool. As is the way that the spirit finally manages to dispose of Jonas in the end. There’s also a notable car crash sequence that is such a ridiculous set piece. Here the Ouija board somehow cuts the brakes to Mitch’s truck without any explanation behind it. The car then proceeds to smash through a boat before being totaled. At another moment the power of the Ouija causes a giant wrecking ball to smash into Laraine Newman’s Elaine and her Mystery Machine copyright infringement of a vehicle. These are far from your run-of-the-mill knife slashings and as surreal as all of these death scenes are, there’s something to be said for their unpredictable, original nature.
Rounding the film out, there are some otherwise appreciated touches, like the film’s quasi Carpenter-esque Halloween aping score, which actually works well and suits the picture. On the topic of the film’s sound design, whenever the Ouija board flings itself at Paige it makes a jaguar or some sort of jungle cat sound when it does so, for whatever reason. Tenney also employs unique, roving camera angles at choice opportunities that manage to evoke an early Sam Raimi feel, too. All of this adds to the strong foundation that the first Witchboard film introduced while then going in a bonkers direction on top of it. The third and final film in the Witchboard series pushes this mentality its furthest and ends up becoming a rather controversial film in the process.
In the same way that the original Witchboard is deliciously ‘80s, Witchboard 3: The Possession is drowning in huge cell phones and endless stockbrokers who are doing “insider trading” in a way that’s almost patronizing to what the ‘90s were. The perspective becomes all the more humorous when you see how Brian, the film’s protagonist, has absolutely no business being a stockbroker. What truly kills me here though is that this is a film where a Ouija board is being used for hot stock tips and a way to get rich quick. If that isn’t a ‘90s take on Ouija and the supernatural I don’t know what is. It’s like your basic monkey’s paw parable where naturally all the Ouija’s big stock choices are ironically cursed. Just take that in: The Ouija board’s stock tips are haunted. This is a film where people are asking the board questions like, “Do you feel like talking about commodities?” rather than inquiring how this spirit died.
Witchboard 3 also kicks off with a monologue that is so obtuse and self-important that I just had to capture the whole thing. The film begins:
“When I first discovered the Ouija—known in ancient days as the Witchboard—I thought it was just a toy. A party game that pretended to summon the spirits of the dead. I was dead wrong. The Witchboard is a portal to the other world, that summons evil fortunes as well as good. It was my misfortune to call up the Spirit of Nargor, and his cult of fertility. My name is Francis Redmond, and now I’m dead.”
That’s your gripping intro! Also, this Francis Redmond character is a no one! It’s not like it’s the main character telling you this or anyone of importance. But in terms of starting your film off with clunky exposition? 10/10, no question. The film is also eager to make wild claims like, “The Ouija has been around since the times of Pythrageous—540 BC,” which is just sophisticated sounding lies. There are some claims of the Chinese experimenting with rudimentary Ouija boards in 1100 AD, but the modern version is widely thought to have originated in 1890. Witchboard 3 certainly gets points for trying to romanticize the origin some.
It’s interesting to note here that Kevin Tenney is not back on board to direct this film (although he does still co-write it), with instead the unknown, Peter Svetek stepping in. The story goes that Tenney wasn’t allowed to direct Wtichboard 3 because he refused to coerce Ami Dolenz to get naked in Witchboard 2. Dolenz had a no nudity clause in her contract and Republic Pictures tried to get Tenney to get her to waive this. Tenney didn’t play ball and as a result this, allegedly, was his punishment. It’s all just so insane and sure enough, the first scene of this film is Brian and Julie having sex, with Julie’s breasts pretty glaringly on display. She’s not very chaste for a cultural anthropologist, evidently.
These Witchboard films are all an awful delight, but it’s kind of absurd how Francis Redmond’s suicide at the beginning of Witchboard 3 is such bonkers out-of-the-blue madness. Francis just randomly goes and jumps out the window of an apartment building (right after he’s given all the necessary Ouija exposition—his only purpose). If that’s not enough, he has to also land on a weird set of antenna and scaffolding so he ends up getting impaled in the process, too. The film likes to pile on its gore in this respect where there’s some sort of second element of brutality involved with each death.
In another perplexing scene that might end up being my favorite in the entire film, at Francis’ funeral his grieving wife jams her thumb into her corpse husband’s head in order to check if he’s actually dead. He is. Embalming fluid spews out accordingly. I really can’t get over this scene. Like, this isn’t her discovering Francis’ body after he’s recently died and she’s in disbelief. This is all the way post-embalming and after a funeral service has been planned. And then she goes for the forehead for this sort of test? I don’t even care though because the moment is so gross and glorious.
Fortunately, the film continues to ride this wave of insanity through everything. There’s some stuff here that you truly need to see in order to understand what you’re dealing with. Not too far into the film Brian gets electrocuted by a light bulb, dies from it, and we get to see his spirit campily leaving his body, flying through a Ouija planchette, and then getting trapped in a mirror dimension. Like does any of that make sense? The rest of the film has Brian appearing in the reflections of household items, making them shake, as he tries to get Julie’s attention. And then there are also just moments like where a bunch of dead, pinned up butterflies end up slicing a guy to death. That’s what you’re dealing with here.
All of the deaths in Witchboard 3 are thoroughly entertaining but there is also plenty of delightful dialogue that highlights the level of sophistication that’s in play here. One exchange has a man saying, “Please give the man $50,000 in currency.” Currency, he says! He’s already said dollars. What else is it going to be $50,000 in? Drugs aren’t even broached in this film. Then later on the possessed version of Brian says to his wife, “I’m not going to kill you. I’m going to fuck you,” before then proceeding to make her spin around in the air repeatedly courtesy of some crazy effects.
These curious special effects hit their heights at the end of the film where Brian’s body is getting all melt-y and the spirit is attempting to leave him. It’s such a weird looking depiction of what’s happening. Furthermore, once the demon is finally out, it’s a crazy horned beast with a tail sort of deal. It’s just such a generic monster rather than anything that’s actually been established in this world. Also, the destruction of the demon seriously looks like something from out of a video game. This film gave me serious Phantasmagoria vibes (not necessarily a good thing), with these video game effects only inviting the comparison more. PS: A single arrow from a crossbow is totally not destroying an interdimensional demon…Not even one from Green Arrow’s quiver.
With the questionable level of quality that Witchboard 3 goes out on, getting three films in this series is probably all that we need. While the fact that each film goes about the Ouija concept in wildly different ways while still paying respect to the lore of the Witchboard, the current films we’ve been seeing on the topic have been more than suitable substitutes. If anything, a much more aggressive reboot of the film would be the right approach to move forward. Take the fundamentals of the film, but cut out the camp and humor and really try to turn up the scarier, more ridiculous moments from the series. Thirty years later the franchise is definitely worth revisiting, whether by a film a studio or just by you. If nothing else, we need more people in the word pronouncing it “We-Jah board.”
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This Week in Horror - December 3, 2017 - Halloween, Friday the...
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