Witchboard is a 1986 American supernatural horror film written and directed by Kevin S. Tenney in his directorial debut, and starring Tawny Kitaen, Stephen Nichols, and Todd Allen. The plot centers on a female student who becomes entranced into using her friend’s Ouija board alone after it was accidentally left behind at her party, where she becomes terrorized by an evil spirit.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Kevin Tenney|
|Produced by||Gerald Geoffray|
|Written by||Kevin Tenney|
|Music by||Dennis Michael Tenney|
|Cinematography||Roy H. Wagner|
|Box office||$7.4 million (US)|
The film had a limited release on December 31, 1986 and received a wide release on March 13, 1987. Although the critical response to the film was largely unfavorable, it has obtained a cult following since its release. Two unrelated sequels, Witchboard 2: The Devil's Doorway and Witchboard III: The Possession, were respectively released in 1993 and 1995.
One night at a party, Brandon Sinclair uses his Ouija board with his ex-girlfriend Linda Brewster to contact the spirit of David, whom he communicated with before. Her boyfriend, Jim Morar, insults David, which provokes him to slash the tires of Brandon’s car. The next day, Linda uses Brandon’s board that was left behind to contact David, who informs her where her lost engagement ring is. At the construction site where Jim works, his friend Lloyd is killed by fallen drywall. When Jim is questioned by Lieutenant Dewhurst at Lloyd’s funeral, Linda contacts David about the accident, but he says that he did not cause it.
Linda begins to fall under progressive entrapment, where the spirit terrorizes the user enough to weaken them in order to possess them. Brandon brings over psychic medium Zarabeth Crawford to contact David through a séance, and to exorcise him if necessary. After the spirit leaves, a suspicious Zarabeth returns home to research the occurrence, but her throat is slashed before thrown through a window, landing on a sundial. The next morning, Brandon hears about her death and suspects that David killed her.
As Brandon leaves to seek information, Jim witnesses Linda violently thrown against the wall, rendering her unconscious. After she is brought to a hospital, Jim teams with Brandon to Big Bear to conduct research on David. At the lake where he died, they use another board to learn that a different spirit, Carlos Malfeitor, was terrorizing Linda all along. Jim is suddenly knocked out by barrels, and Brandon is killed by Malfeitor with a hatchet. Upon regaining consciousness, Jim grieves over Brandon’s body. That night, he reads that Malfeitor was an axe murderer shot by police in his home in 1930—the same residence he and Linda live in.
After Linda releases herself from the hospital, she is attacked by Malfeitor. The next day, Jim finds their home in disarray, before a possessed Linda attacks him. Dewhurst enters to accuse Jim of the murders, but Linda strikes him with a fire poker. Jim takes his revolver, where Linda tells him that he is the “portal”, taunting him into committing suicide. He shoots the board before he is pushed through a window and lands on a car. After the events, Jim and Linda resume their lives and marry each other. Their landlady, Mrs. Moses, finds the board and wonders if it still works. The board is thrown into a box, where its planchette moves to the word “yes” by itself.
- Todd Allen as James "Jim" Morar
- Tawny Kitaen as Linda Brewster
- Stephen Nichols as Brandon Sinclair
- Kathleen Wilhoite as Sarah "Zarabeth" Crawford
- Burke Byrnes as Lt. Dewhurst
- James W. Quinn as Lloyd
- Rose Marie as Mrs. Moses
- Judy Tatum as Dr. Gelineau
- Gloria Hayes as Wanda
- J.P. Luebsen as Carlos Malfeitor
- Susan Nickerson as Chris
- Ryan Carroll as Roger
- Kenny Rhodes as Mike
- Clare Bristol as Anchor woman
Conception and writingEdit
Tenney was writing the script while a student at the University of Southern California. Inspired to write a horror film based on a Ouija board, he began to research the concept of "progressive entrapment," an element that figures briefly in The Exorcist (1973), in which an individual becomes progressively "entrapped" by a spirit. As some elements of the script were based on incidents he had heard of while researching the experiences close friends and others had with Ouija boards, he believed the viewers would "resonate" from this being based in the facts, despite it being fictitious. Though Tenney never believed in the board himself, he admitted the board was "creepy."
One of the central themes of the film was the "bromance" of Jim and Brandon, whose friendship was compromised in a love triangle with the character of Linda. Tenney viewed the film about the board, who he sees as a character, forcing Jim to reflect on his relationships with Linda and Brandon, the latter whom he had a falling out with. Once he knew this was the story, it was easy for him to work it around with the stories he had researched about. In writing the characters, he drew from his own background to make them "three-dimensional", and thought it would be interesting to see Jim's disestablished friendship with Brandon come back together. The character of Jim was based on Tenney himself, and wrote him to be a construction worker from when he, his brother Dennis Michael Tenney, and their friend James W. Quinn worked in construction before moving to Los Angeles. He stated in interviews that despite it being a horror film, he sought to create a character-driven film.
When Tenney's friend, Rolan Carol, had to drop out of university due to financial issues, he got a job at a commodities' firm where the owner, Walter Josten, was getting bored of commodities. Rolan mentioned Tenney's script to Josten, who had an interest in filmmaking. Tenney and his friend, Gerald Geoffray, pitched the film to Josten, who was impressed by the idea, and agreed to help finance the project. Tenney dropped out of his program at the University of Southern California, four units shy of earning his Master's degree, to begin shooting the film.
Todd Allen was cast as Jim, as Tenney felt he was the only one that was true to the role. Initially, Allen was worried that he lost the role when he saw Tenney laughing while sitting in the auditioning room, but he made him laugh because it reminded him of the way he talked and acted. He received the benefit of returning with the filmmakers to read the actresses that auditioned for the role of Linda, which Tawny Kitaen had read when he wasn't there.
Casting producer Rebecca Boss and Tenney found Kitaen ideal for the part as everyone the latter knew at his office, which were all males, noticed her the most. She had flown to New York prior to shooting so Tenney called up her agent about making a deal, and she flew back to arrive on set when filming began. When she met Allen, they both became very intimate with their relationship. Tenney saw that she brought an "appeal" that affected everyone at the time, which was something he initially didn't see.
Photographer J.P. Luebsen was hired to play Carlos Malfeitor, the villain, when he met Tenney through a friend at an independence day party. Whenever he was on set, Kitaen mentioned to him about being completely distant so that she can build herself up to be terrified of him. Other cast members include Quinn, Kenny Rhodes, and Kathleen Wilhoite. Although Wilhoite was the first to audition for Sarah "Zarabeth" Crawford, she initially didn't respond to Tenney about the part, but she later accepted it when they re-met at a place. Rhodes stated that Witchboard was the only film in his career where he didn't recall auditioning. The costumer gave him a bandanna to "toughen up" his role, which he kept as he was a Bruce Springsteen fan.
Principal photography was shot as Ouija in 1985, at the Higgins-Verbeck-Hirsch Mansion in Windsor Square, Los Angeles and Big Bear Valley in San Bernardino, California. When the filmmakers had discovered that Parker Brothers didn't own the title, their attorney told them that they couldn't use the title, say "Ouija", or use a Parker Brothers board in the film. The Errors and Omissions carrier didn't approve of the filmmakers having already shot with the board, and they had to put up a $50 thousand bond to prevent any potential litigation. Though there was no lawsuit, Josten stated that this should've been cleared before they started filming. They received the insurance to change the title to Witchboard and were allowed to pay the bond, as well as to integrate the early board footage with the new board footage as shown when Jim and Brandon are at Big Bear. However, the filmmakers were divided about the title change, with many preferring Ouija while other felt that Witchboard was a "cooler" title.
Shooting the shower scene was difficult for Tawny as he didn't trust Tenney nor the camera crew to shoot the scene, but she assured trust in cinematographer Roy H. Wagner to do it when she saw his wedding ring. The crew a couple of effects when the spirit turns on hot blazing water in the shower that Linda was trapped including numbers of breakaway glassed shower doors, and a fog machine to represent the hot water's moisture. Kitaen became more comfortable shooting the scene when the set was cleared to only the director and second-camera loader assistant, but this was a big uproar as all of the men were temporarily kicked off-set.
On set, there were numerous running gags that Wagner was mostly involved in. In one, Kitaen devastatingly believed on-set that her poodle was accidentally run over by the prop's truck, but she was relieved to find that the dog was safe and it was only a gag prop with hair similar to her dog that was laid on the road. At the time, they did another gag where since Kitaen was dating O.J. Simpson at the time and he visited her on the set from time-to-time, and would call the production office under a pseudo name to speak with her. They had other gags where they rocked Kitaen's trailer back and forth, flipped the outhouses upside down with the actors inside, and locking the crew in rooms where they couldn't get out to the set on time.
They also, however, had their fair share of some eerie occurrences on set. Some of the crew, mostly those that came in earlier, had significant problems inside the 637 Lucerne Blvd house such as the crew bumping into things that weren't there, as well as things that have moved that no one else around could've done during that time frame. Wagner especially felt a strong presence at the staircase where someone was walking behind him, and numerous occurrences where the cast and crew heard whispering and talking.
The last scene shot was of Jim being pushed out of the window, which was done in one take at a distant park, using a builted replica of the window. Since there was a crane arm behind Allen, he couldn't flail his arms around and instead had to block it out with his shoulders.
The filmmakers hired Tassilo Baur to handle the special-effects for Witchboard. The nightmare sequence of Linda being decapitated by Malfeitor was shot with a stand-in ducking their head, and a Styrofoam head connected to a poll was placed on top with a wig that matched Kitaen's hairstyle. Luebsen was nervous about using a real axe since he was swinging it very close to the stand-in. Baur explained despite they used a real axe, they had also used prop axes for safety reasons as well as to improve their performances. Baur also had some props that were hinged so that they preciously hit a specific spot.
Allen was initially dismissive about the scene where Lloyd throws a carpenter's hatchet near Jim's head didn't work too well, but Tenny reassured him. The scene was originally planned to be shot with an FX man shooting the hatchet directly, but it was the film's cinematographer Roy H. Wagner that suggested if they shoot it in reverse they would also show the scene to Allen to see how he can act it out in reverse if it was real. They also had the fake hatchet put into a piece of balsa wood, and they yanked it out with a wire.
The scene where Lloyd is killed from fallen sheetrock was cut repeatedly mostly due to Quinn's comedic personality on-set kept making Allen laugh. Since they used a dummy for the sheetrock to fall and when it fell, it caused the dummy's legs to slightly fling up which made Quinn hysterically laugh. When the sheetrock fell down, it caused a very loud noise in which Allen's reaction on screen was real, as he felt it sounded almost equivalent to a gunshot. Baur, accompanied with special-effects assistant Mick Strawn practiced dropping the sheetrock from a floor above with bunch of sheets of fake-sheetrock with two actual ones on both sides, and did this until they could drop it reliably to make it look convincing.
When the film was wrapped up to production, Tenny was worried that he made sure that his characters were and whenever he had made the film "scary" when it was being screened by the distributors. Geoffray, in contrast to Tenny, felt confident in the film and they managed to screen the film a lot before it reached its full theatrical release.
Prior to its theatrical release, Witchboard had a 15-screen limited release on December 31, 1986; the film grossed $95,435 that weekend. After this, the distributors picked up the film for a full theatrical release on 1,100 screens nationwide on March 13, 1987. The film grossed $2.7 million during its opening weekend. Through its course, the film's final box office gross was $7,369,373.
John H. Richardson of the Los Angeles Daily News criticized the film's performances and writing, noting: "There's very little tension and almost no slice-and-dice. The few gore effects are terrible ... The only thing that makes you want to forgive Witchboard is the clumsy earnestness of its execution." Desmond Ryan of The Philadelphia Inquirer panned the film, referring to it as "luridly fake" and "a timid "exorcise" in inanity." The San Bernardino Sun's William Wolf praised Kathleen Wilhoite's performance in the film, noting that she "injects some personality into the role, however trashy it is. That's more than you can say for the rest of the cast and the characters they play." David Inman of The Courier-Journal awarded the film one out of four stars, but noted: "For folks who like their scares straight and their movies without much else, Witchboard provides exactly that." Henry Edgar of the Virginia Daily Press called the film "almost funny by accident," also writing: "There's nothing very good in Witchboard, though the film as a unit is so awful it unintentionally qualifies as a comedy by taking itself so seriously you can't help laughing."
Writing for the Great Falls Tribune, Eleanor Ringel noted that the film begins as a "fairly efficient horror movie ... but after a careful, unnecessarily complicated buildup, the film falls apart." The Miami News's Deborah Wilker wrote: "Midway through this nonsense, you give up hoping that Witchboard will emerge as one of those so-bad-it's-good horror flicks. At first the potential seems to be there, but as it unfolds, Witchboard becomes just plain dopey." Malcolm Johnson of the Hartford Courant similarly criticized the film, writing that it "plumbs new depths of tedium incompetence ... unfortunately, none of this is quite flamboyant enough to rise to the heights of camp." Rick Bentley of The Town Talk gave the film a favorable review, referring to it as "a cut above average" and "not afraid to make fun of itself." The Montreal Gazette's Bruce Bailey awarded the film one-and-a-half stars, noting it "boldly goes where everybody else has gone before." Michael Wilmington of The Los Angeles Times gave the film a mixed review, writing: "Witchboard is smarter, and better acted, than much of its bloody competition. But it isn't crazy or original enough to stand too far above them." Caryn James of The New York Times criticized the film as "cheaply made," writing: "The very best I can say is that Witchboard should encourage struggling film makers. Watch it and think, I can do better than that!"
TV Guide awarded the film three out of five stars, writing: "First-time feature director-writer Kevin S. Tenney imbues his picture with a surprisingly slick sense of style and employs some clever camerawork when the narrative warrants it, refusing to bore the viewer with the endless evil-point-of-view shots favored by so many other horror directors." AllMovie awarded the film two out of five stars, writing: "Though it is not the most original or dynamic movie of its type, Witchboard succeeds on its own terms because it concentrates on craftsmanship.”
Witchboard was released by Anchor Bay Entertainment on DVD, now out of print. On February 4, 2014, Scream Factory, a subsidiary of Shout Factory released the film on Blu-ray and DVD as a combo pack.
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