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WITCHBOARD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Todd Allen, Tawny Kitaen, Stephen Nichols, Kathleen Wilhoite, Burke Byrnes, Rose Marie
Director:  Kevin S. Tenney
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  98 Minutes
Release Date:  August 24, 2004

“David…are you here?…”

Film ***1/2

So many horror films have saturated theatre screens and video shelves over the years that I find it’s a very easy genre in which to overlook a gem.  Case in point is Witchboard.  Not many seem to remember this mid-80s horror offering, but this clever, well-written and acted movie has long been one of my favorites.  In fact, when I bought my first DVD player some six years ago and made a list of all my most desired titles, Witchboard was on it, along side movies like Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Star Wars!

It took a while, but my patience and faith has finally been rewarded…Anchor Bay, the supreme master of horror on DVD, has released this nearly-forgotten jewel, and going back and experiencing it again for the first time in maybe ten years or so definitely ranks as one of the most fun times I’ve had with my DVD player this year.  Suspenseful, smart, and even surprisingly original for a horror flick, Witchboard  is still one of the rare ones that make falling asleep afterwards a struggle.

It begins at a party.  Linda (Kitaen) is there, with her current boyfriend Jim (Allen), who’s drinking a little too much, and her former boyfriend Brandon (Nichols), who used to be Jim’s best friend before…well, you know.  It’s not exactly a set-up for a tension-free evening.

But the party really gets happening when Brandon pulls out his ouija board and intrigues the guests with his tale of talking to spirits from the beyond.  With Linda’s participation, they use the strange device to speak to a ten year old boy named David.

When Brandon accidentally leaves his board behind, however, Linda starts using it alone to contact David.  And what began as a little harmless fun soon evolves into an all out scarefest.  Brandon tries to convince the skeptical Jim that a bad spirit can use a lone user of a ouija board as a portal to the world of the living.  And as Linda’s world of terror grows more and more out of control, it threatens to envelop everyone around her.  The two one time friends are soon desperately trying to unlock the mystery behind David before Linda becomes irreversibly possessed.  It leads to an all out battle for her very soul.

This movie is smarter than a lot of horror offerings…it develops characters, lets the story evolve from a simple premise, and focuses more on generating suspense than hitting you over the head with gore (even though there are some rather violent scenes here and there).  Almost 20 years later, it still stands up an effective fright film.  The only two things that really date it are the synth-pop soundtrack and Tawny Kitaen’s hair, which was so big she probably got a hole in the ozone layer named after her!

Supernatural tales have always spooked me more than standard slasher pictures, because when dealing with a spirit nemesis, the characters are completely vulnerable, both physically and psychologically.  This is the kind of movie that understands that instinctually, and plays it for all it’s worth, getting under your skin and inside your mind with a few simple ideas and strokes.  Witchboard is not only one of the 80s’ best horror flicks, I think it’s one of the best of all time.  Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me…just don’t play it alone.

Video **1/2

The 80s have always been a problematic decade for film-to-disc transfers.  Anchor Bay’s anamorphic widescreen presentation is serviceable, but shows some of the limitations usually spotted with movies from that time period.  Brightly lit scenes look remarkable, with good coloring, clean images and solid detail, but as the scenes get dark, there is a little murkiness here and there and some loss of definitions as tones approach solid black.  A bit of grain is also noticeable.  Overall, a satisfactory effort, if not an exemplary one.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is likewise serviceable but limited; dynamic range is minimal and spoken words, music and effects are clear if just a tad thin sounding.  No real complaints or compliments to bestow here.

Features ***

The disc includes an enjoyable commentary track from writer/director Kevin S. Tenney and producers Walter Josten and Jeff Geoffray, a making-of featurette from 1985, a trailer, and two TV spots.

Summary:

I’ve never hesitated to recommend Witchboard to anyone who wanted a good and satisfying scare.  It may have fallen through the cracks a bit over the years, but this DVD offering from Anchor Bay is the best possible way to go back and see what you might have been missing.

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