WITCHBOARD, the film that made you afraid to play Parker Brothers' Ouija board alone comes to Blu-ray/DVD combo courtesy of Shout! Factory's Scream Factory line.
At a party given by Linda (Tawny Kitaen, GWENDOLINE) and her boyfriend Jim's (Todd Allen, WYATT EARP) – at which he and his construction buddies are noticeably underdressed – Linda's classmate (and Jim's ex-friend) Brandon (DAYS OF OUR LIVES' Stephen Nichols) breaks out the Ouija board. Linda is intrigued and takes part in the game, in which Brandon attempts to contact David, the spirit of a young boy who died thirty years before. The spirit seems to react negatively to Jim's wisecracks and lashes out, but Linda cannot resist trying to contact him again when Brandon inadvertently leaves the board behind. The spirit contacted by the board begins terrorizing Linda and killing the couple's friends. By the time Jim and Brandon – forced to work together by their shared concern for Linda – realize that the spirit is not a lonely boy but something evil, they may be too late to prevent it from possessing Linda.
An 1980s sleeper horror flick that perhaps many of us outside of major cities first caught up with on home video, WITCHBOARD has plenty of jump scares, elaborate camera movements (a Tenney trademark), and a smattering of gore (as well as memorable Tawny Kitaen shower scene); but what surprises with more recent viewings of the film is its emphasis on character, particularly the emotional arc of hero Jim whose emotional coldness stems not from an idea of machismo but an upbringing that has left him wondering if he even has the capacity to love (which the evil spirit uses against him during the climax). The film is longer on drama than horror, but it also has a good helping of humor from supporting cast James W. Quinn (WITCHTRAP) as Jim's wisecracking co-worker, Rose Marie (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) as Jim and Linda's landlady, Burke Byrnes (CHILD'S PLAY 3) as the detective investigating the murders, and a spotlight performance from Kathleen Wilhoite (DREAM DEMON) as medium Zarabeth ("Just a little psychic humor"). Kitaen showed more skin in Just Jaeckin's THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE, but she is given a more mature and likable character even if her character ends up being pretty passive when it comes to driving the narrative (it makes sense that Allen gets top billing over Kitaen who was better known even though film predated her famous White Snake music video appearance). The director's brother Dennis Michael Tenney contributes the film's synth score. Tenney's follow-up feature NIGHT OF THE DEMONS was slicker, better-paced, and with a better balance of horror and humor, but WITCHBOARD is a striking debut and still entertains with repeat viewings.
WITCHBOARD was released on VHS by Magnum Entertainment, and then on DVD by Anchor Bay in 2004 in a special edition with commentary with Tenney, producer Gerald Geoffrey, and executive producer Walter Josten, as well as a comprehensive twenty-odd minute making-of featurette that included discussion of the original opening boat explosion as well as some of the footage. The film has always had a more evenly lit, sometimes flatter look than Tenney's NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, but the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded 1.78:1 Blu-ray encoding makes some of the subtler touches of Roy H. Wagner's lighting and use of shadow more apparent, so it's the best the film has looked. The film's original mono track is on offer here in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, but it's fine without the surround upmixing applied to NIGHT OF THE DEMONS' Ultra Stereo track (optional English SDH subtitles are also included).
The Anchor Bay commentary is carried over to this release, but Tenney has also recorded a new track with actors Wilhoite, Quinn, and Nichols. Like the director/actor track on NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, it's a chatty "family reunion" affair (Tenney's and Nichols' children grew up together) with the rowdy quartet poking fun at Allen's hairy chest, Wilhoite's hair and costume in the film, Kitaen's dog (which she brought to the set and reportedly dyed its fur to match her hair), the mismatched hand doubles for the Ouija board close-ups, and the "bromance" between Allen's and Nichols' characters. Wilhoite – who describes herself as being pretty much "out to lunch" in the 1980s – recalls not knowing that her agent had turned down the film until she ran into Tenney (who shared the same agent), as well as a particularly cruel trick the crew played on Kitaen involving her dog. Nichols recalls doing a story arc on DAYS OF OUR LIVES and being offered a full contract which he turned down to do WITCHBOARD. They offered a contract to him again due to his character's increased popularity and he decided to take it for the job stability only to then be let go by his agent (he has since worked regularly on DAYS, GENERAL HOSPITAL, and THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS). Entertaining as it is, the byplay provides plenty of prompts for Tenney to work in discussion of the film's origin as a film school script (he left film school four units short of a master to direct the film), the camera work, and the special effects (as well as mention of more scenes with Rose Marie cut for time and Jim's nightmare visions of ex who committed suicide). The older Anchor Bay commentary is a bit more focused with Tenney, Josten, and Geoffrey going into more detail about the film's financing and development, the title change from OUIJA, concerns over the insurability of the film, the staging of the more complex camera movements, and the film's reception.
Todd Allen and Tawny Kitaen were not available for the new commentary track, but they are featured in the new documentary "Progressive Entrapment: The Making of WITCHBOARD" (45:37) along with the participants from both commentaries and actors Luebsen and Kenny Rhodes (WITCHBOARD 2), cinematographer Roy H. Wagner (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3), and effects coordinator Tasillo Bauer (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET). Allen recalls being worried about cracking Tenney up during the audition before realizing that the character's sarcasm mirrored the director's own while Kitaen recalls disliking the shower scene and still being creeped out seeing her character's dream death scene. Luebsen, not an actor but a photographer who ended up shooting stills for the film, recalls Tenney approaching him at a party and casting him as well as his nervousness swinging a real axe at an actress. Rhodes mentions that James Quinn was originally intended for the lead, while Quinn pokes fun at his past hair and wardrobe choices as well as his death scene. Wagner and Bauer fill us in on some of the on-set pranks (as well as visits to the set by Kitaen's then boyfriend O.J. Simpson). Tenney, Josten, Geoffrey, Nichols, and Wilhoite mainly reiterate some of the stories from the commentary. Although effects artist Mark Shostrum – who sculpted a brow application to make Luebsen's character look more sinister – participated in Scream Factory's PHANTASM II extras, he does not get a mention anywhere on this disc.
The making-of featurette from the Anchor Bay disc has not been carried over here, but it appears to have been constructed from the roughly one hundred minutes of vintage behind the scenes and promo video contained here in six vintage featurettes. The "Making-of" featurette here is a shorter (6:52) loose assemblage of outtakes, sound bytes from the cast and crew, joking around the set, a mention of Kitaen's nude scene, and footage from the deleted opening boat explosion. "Cast Interviews" (20:08) is a series of Allen, Nichols, and Kitaen talking heads with lengthy excerpts from the film with unmixed sound (including the climax without Kitaen's voice altered in post). It actually appears to be either a rough cut of a press kit extra or an EPK extra that could be edited to the specifications of the user. Allen and Nichols appear again in an on-set featurette (19:54), but this assemblage has them actually responding to off-camera interview questions about their character motivations and reactions to the film and working with Tenney. It is also very rough technically with plenty of pauses and off-camera distractions.
Another on-set featurette (19:57) features punchy, off-the-cuff remarks from Tenney and company during the crew's arduous morning set up. "Life on the Set" (20:11) is more of the same, but the camera takes a more active role in exploring the set in action and giving us more a candid look at the actors and crew than in their talking heads. "Constructing the World of WITCHBOARD" (21:42) is devoted thoroughly to the construction of the final scene's crane rig that allows the camera to follow one of the main characters crashing through an upper story window and down onto a car below (the same rig was used for a similar but more polished scene in NIGHT OF THE DEMONS). Anchor Bay's distillation of this footage may be preferable, but it is nice that the Blu-ray has enough space to contain all of this low-fi standard definition footage without compromising the feature's video and audio specs. Ported over from the Anchor Bay release is the film's theatrical trailer and TV Spots (3:38), but Scream Factory also includes two still galleries – behind the scenes (4:51) and a promo gallery (2:10) – as well as a short reel of outtakes (6:17) that includes a couple flubs and alternate takes, as well as a botched bit involving a dog that is supposed to react badly to Linda's possessed presence (although the dog proved uncooperative). (Eric Cotenas)
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