Friday, October 28, 2011

31 Flavors of Horror #28: Witchboard

Today's film wears out the "ice cream" connection and goes right to the cheese, but it was a big, visible horror video rack hit in the 1980s. Does it deserve your time and attention? The planchette points to NO, but I still had a good time ragging on it. Enjoy!

Bonus: This features Cincinnati native Stephen Nichols, a veteran of multiple daytime soaps, and Tawney Kitaen, former wife of a Cleveland Indian. Maybe this shoulda been set in Ohio?

31 Flavors of Horror #28:

This was a video-store staple, and I have vague memories of renting and catching it at parties during my teens. What I remember clearly is that every copy had those stress-and-rewind lines right before Tawny Kitaen's shower scene. Personally, I think they should have been included as part of the DVD experience. You know, to complete that "retro" feel.

Anyhow, like many an Eighties flick, Witchboard opens at a party attended byclean-cut, mid-to-late twentysomethings (in conservative dress and mom jeans) who're supposed to be wild, crazy college kids. Smug Brandon (Stephen Nichols), buddy Jim (Todd Allen), and pretty Linda (Tawny Kitaen) and her rat's nest of hair are having (ahem) deep discussions and trading jibes during the festivities (which are taking place in a house I've seen in a dozen other movies). Bad music, smoking in the house, mullets? This is definitely showing it's 1986 origins. Some things don't age well. Jim and Linda are a couple, but she used to be with rich-boy Brandon, and it's giving Jim the vapors. I immediately decided, based on his melodramatic guzzling from a whiskey bottle that not only is he insecure, but it's probably Brandon he's really in love with.

The party starts to simmer down, settling into a discussion of completely unsubstantiated convictions about the existence of the devil. You know, it was much easier to say "there are tapes, photographs" and not have to prove it in a time before teh interwebz. Our sulky, lovelorn Brandon whips out his Ouija board and planchette, helpfully defining them for our audience, while one queen with enormous eyeglasses perches on him. New boyfriend? What did Linda see in this guy besides his cash and unthreateningly good hair anyhow?

(Spoilers, man-love, and possible merkins ahead!)
Now, Ouija boards have mostly struck me as a tool for the skittish and highly suggestible to use in order to freak themselves out. Witchboard requires the audience to buy into its chatty ghosts and self-determining planchettes. Brandon, however, seems the skittish type. He and Linda use it and conjure up a spirit claiming to be a little boy named "David" that Brandon communicates with, but he says spirits lie and this isn't his David, so they then reach the "real" thing. Jim, not buying a moment of it, needles Brandon to the point where he pitches the board in a hissy-fit he's pretending is sparked by a spirit while, coincidentally at the same time, his car's tire blows out for no reason at all. OOH, SPOOKY!

Here is where I was about to check out, but then something caught my attention. In going out to investigate, and then chewing out Jim,  Brandon is clearly holding back tears. When they nearly come to blows, there really is a palpable closeted chemistry. Witchboard: come for Tawny's tawny kitten, but stay for the man-lovin' subtext.

Afterwards, Linda is mad at Jim, but who cares? As a viewer 25 years later, I'm more amazed to see him smoking in bed. They make up and make out (ashtray kisses), but we drift over to what I can only suppose is an ominous shot of the Ouija board. Is this good? I can't tell. I'm curious as to what's going on, but the slow pace and low budget are getting in the way.

The next day, Jim is on the construction site with buddy Lloyd, who's not only enough of an ass to throw an axe-headed hammer at Jim's head, but to then mock Brandon in a silly voice. Meanwhile (back at the ranch), Linda's at home checking her messages. Something ominous from the doctor and Brandon asking her to bring the Ouija to "class" Friday. Wait. She's in school, he's a construction worker, and THAT is their house. Construction must play DAMN well. (That or they pay for it by renting it out to other movies...)

Linda starts playing with the board solo (isn't that a big no-no with an Ouija?) and asking "David" if he'd like to pick her as a mommy (...which I guess that answers her lab test question). David, however, is grumpy, so we head to the construction site for some plot exposition about how Jim and Brandon used to be besties (yeah, I'm totally going with ex-lovers here)... and also to drop a scaffold on Lloyd's head.

I'm starting to think this David may not be very nice... but as soon as I do, David redeems himself by helping Linda find her lost diamond engagement ring. Wow. Lloyd's life is worth the same as a quarter-carat princess cut in a 14 karat setting... even with the price of gold nowadays it sucks to be you, dude. (Clearly, it's a blood diamond - ha-HA!)

Love me, love my hair...
Clearly these Ouija boards are not children's toys, Milton-Bradley be damned! At the funeral, after everyone shakes Jim's hand like they're congratulating him on a job well done, over walks Lt. Dewhurst (Burke Byrnes), a homicide dick who brings up Sigfried and Roy to Jim. Obviously... he's got 'dar. He's there to imply that Lloyd might have been murdered, but this whole scene is really here so Kitaen can look "concerned," and "thinking" while sporting a jaunty black hat. She's a stiff actress, but undeniably easy to look at.After the funeral, Brandon calls her and says Jim has "ice in his veins. I've never seen him cry for anyone or anything." See, now, that is what we call "carrying a torch." Since Jim sneaks up behind her the next minute, I'm thinking this closeted repression is making him downright creepy.

Now comes a Whitesnake video... no, wait, just Tawny's dream sequence in a house that's going to smell like chemical fog for years after this scene. The jump scare in her dream where arms reach out for her? Incredibly non-jumpy in this day and age. (It probably didn't play well back then, either.) A flying knife and gurgling ketchup fare a little better as her very house starts to attack her. Is this becoming an Ouija Board Demon Seed? Are we that lucky? (I doubt it.)

Over at the construction site, Brandon visits his real ex to discuss his beard-ex. Sure, he says he's concerned about Linda, but it's all just so much wind-toussled hair and subtext. Jim just can't take this Ouija board stuff seriously (much like the audience), but the plot exposition is worth delivering in person. They pretend they're fighting over Linda, but really Brandon just wants to chew Jim out. He'll walk away from Linda, just like he did medical school, and "just like you did..."

Hoo-boy, that is one scorned lover. Nowadays, this would be a David DeCoteau movie, Brandon and Jim would be having this discussion in tighty-whities and Linda would probably be written out completely...

The one thing going for that construction site conversation scene is that they set it up as "Jim couldn't be reached by phone." I've always hated in TV shows and movies where people show up at houses and offices for 3 minute conversations. Factor in the travel time and tell me a split-screen two-shot of a telephone convo isn't a whole lot more realistic. So, of course, the story rolls into a phone call of an upset Linda with her landlady, Rose Marie! (Whew, I'm so glad they're just renting a ridiculously sprawling apartment instead of owning a whole mansion. Keeps it a little more real and making me not rue not going into a building trade.)

Jim's now coming around to buying into the plot, so he lets Brandon bring in annoying California psychic Zarabeth, played by Kathleen Wilhoite. She's one of those actresses who show up in everything and I can't understand what she's doing here. The movie's been played straight, if dully, but Zarabeth is a purple pompadoured, joke spouting ham. Also, totally hearing her future character Pepper Ann here... some people really can get typecast for the oddest things.

Rose Marie! (It should always have an exclamation point)
Zarabeth's arrival means it's seance time! She channels a very hokey and childish David, but things fall apart pretty quickly, ending in Brandon taking his board back. Brandon and Jim do get "A Moment" though: They agree not to mention the seance "to anybody," while passing a conspiratorial glance I'm sure they've shared many a time before. In the car, though, Zarabeth drops the hokey for just a moment to ask Brandon about "Malfaidor" and share that David's "a real toughie." Yeah, she's playing a plot exposition character. Thankfully, we are then shown a giant, sharp-bladed sundial outside Zarabeth's apartment, so we know things'll get back on-track quickly. Add some backstory-homework so we can see a photograph of a bearded man unconvincingly inserted into a big book and then she's chased around, chopped with an axe and thrown out the window... to get impaled on her sundial... which was a complete surprise that they in no way set up with that big shot of the pointy-thing earlier, nope, not at all...

 Brandon discovers Zarabeth's dead and Linda gave him a grocery list in place of his Ouija board, so he runs into the arms... I mean, goes to tell Jim about it. He's not buying Brandon's story, or worried that the ghost is out to get them, but his heart is open... I mean, he's willing to listen. Gee, they should remake this sans Linda. It's clearly a story about a ghost who wants to get two closet cases back together...

Jim may not be buying it, but then Linda's attacked by the ghost. He takes her to their waterbed (gawd, but I miss the Eighties sometimes) and has Rose Marie! call for an ambulance. Shame she's not wearing her trademark hair bow... Meanwhile, Dewhurst the Dick's been lurking about and corners Jim in the hospital waiting room. The cutesy stories and orange juggling have me thinking the actor must have auditioned for every quirky detective character in TV history. Jim, smoking the whole time in the Hospital waiting room, also hears from the doctor that Linda isn't pregnant after all... ooh, ominous!

Linda's clearly in dire straits and a homicide detective is sniffing after him, so Jim sensibly decides to run off to the mountains with Brandon for a weekend of "research" as they try to hunt down information about dear, dead David. More importantly, the boys have a heart-to-heart in a hotel room. Jim's afraid he'll spend his whole life alone and knows he should get outta Linda's life. Brandon seems pretty happy to hear it, but tries to play it cool and remember Linda's the star of this flick.
Tawny today - still workin' the hair...

The guys then grab a new board and go to the pier where this David died. They find out what the rest of us realized twenty yawns ago.... that they're in lov... I mean, that David is not the one terrorizing Linda. The evil Malfaidor then drops a bunch of drums on our dashing dumbasses and puts an axe into Brandon's head. Shame that. These two star-crossed lovers really were meant to be. Oh, well...

Meanwhile, poor Linda's at home and trapped in the era-defining full-frontal nude scene involving a scalding shower... that I think has been optically-fogged a bit for the DVD release. I swear she was either more nude, or everyone was more hungry for nudity in those pre-internet days. Also, in today's wall-to-wall, sexed-up internet culture there are certain... aesthetics that dominate now, and it's nice to see she's sporting some "hair down there," enough in fact that I assume it's a wig...
Ah, young, dewey, beautiful Tawny Kitaen, made immortal by Whitesnake videos and this be-merkined piece of cinema history.

Jim, bereft at the loss of his real better half, trudges home to find the apartment's been wrecked and the clearly-posessed Linda is wearing drag and sporting an axe.They fight, but wimpy, wishy-washy love (nearly) saves the day by breaking the spell. Dewhurst the Dick shows up to cock-block love though and, assuming Jim killed Brandon, pulls a gun on him. Spooky Linda takes Dickyboy out with a fireplace poker and Jim gets his gun. Malfaidor/Linda decides to tell Jim that he's actually the root of all this and she's screwed as long as Jim is still alive. He's smart enough to not buy it and shoots the Ouija board, so possessed Linda shoves him out the window in an elaborate tracking shot that follows him down to the hood of a car... where we then cut to their wedding. This is followed by a dumb ending that implies the evil Ouija board will live to haunt another day, but at least features one more appearance by Rose Marie!

Sorry I subjected us to this one, kids. I remember it being a scary, shudder-filled flick, but those were memories as densely fogged as that shower scene was...

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