Friday, February 14, 2014

Scream Factory's WITCHBOARD (1986) Blu-ray: A Deadly Game Worth Playing

Witchboard (1986)

Buy the Blu-ray or DVD

The Movie

Director Kevin S. Tenney's WITCHBOARD may scream 1980s from its characters' fashion styles, but it is a story whose themes hold up just fine today, even almost 30 years after its initial release. Much of this might be a result of our continued fascination with the spirit world. Just look on your TV programming guide, and you're sure to find a handful of ghost hunting or paranormal-centered shows on any given day. As such, I would find it hard to believe that there is anyone out there who is unfamiliar with a Ouija board or its usage, and that's exactly what inspired to Tenney to write WITCHBOARD.

In fact, Tenney initially penned the film under the name OUIJA BOARD, but the title was changed because producers and insurers feared that Parker Brothers, the trademark holders for that particular property, might sue. In retrospect, this may have been a blessing in disguise, as I'm not sure that we'd be sitting here discussing a film called OUIJA BOARD all these years later.

The official synopsis reads as follows:
It’s called a Ouija Board and it’s been used for thousands of years to communicate with the souls of the afterworld. For beautiful Linda Brewster (Tawny Kitaen, Bachelor Party), it brings the playful ghost of a dead ten-year-old boy. But when the friendly spirit develops a sudden taste for violent murder and demonic possession, Linda’s boyfriend (Todd Allen, Django Unchained) and her former lover (Stephen Nichols, House) must race to destroy the ferocious portal of the damned.
If it sounds straight-forward, that's because it is. There are no overly-clever twists or convoluted turns in WITCHBOARD, and that's very much to the film's benefit. Instead of the overly-plotted, under-delivering ghost stories that Hollywood has been churning out for the last decade or so, the film delivers exactly what it should: a creepy little story with some great moments and an engaging story that never deviates from its natural course. And that's a good thing.

You can be skeptical if you'd like, but unlike many other 1980s horror films that I revere, my admiration for WITCHBOARD is not influenced whatsoever by nostalgia. Sure, I remember seeing the standee in the video store when I was a kid, but I didn't actually get around to watching the movie until Anchor Bay gave it its initial DVD release back in the early 2000s. At the time, I remember thinking that WITCHBOARD was fun, and upon revisiting it, my stance has not wavered. In fact, I think I may even enjoy the movie now then I did on first viewing it, so I have no real predisposition here.

WITCHBOARD doesn't rely on elaborate special effects, either. Tenney and Company obviously knew that they were working with a limited budget (even for the time), and they made the best use of the resources that they had available. They use genuine old-school movie magic to create atmosphere and bring the story to life. Sure there is camera trickery at play, but there is nothing hokey or distracting, and I really like that about the movie. Tenney would go on to work on movies that were much more effects-driven, but he made a wise choice with his first effort, and I tip my hat to him for it.

Oh, and it has to be mentioned that WITCHBOARD has a wonderful soundtrack and score as well. Like later Tenney films, the music was done by the Director's brother, Dennis Michael Tenney. The synth heavy sound sets the creepy tone of the film perfectly, and theme song that plays over the end credits ("Bump In The Night" - written by Dennis Michael Tenney and performed by Steel Breeze) is simply wonderful. After watching the film, I can't help but find it lodged in my brain, and that doesn't bother me at all.

Sure, the acting isn't Oscar-worthy, and the subject matter is far from unique, but that doesn't mean that WITCHBOARD isn't a good film or enjoyable entertainment. It certainly is both of those things, and audiences must have agreed when it was released, as it spawned two sequels and is currently slated for a remake sometime in the future. 

It's true that they just don't make movies like WITCHBOARD anymore. Today, everything is about the gritty realism, with a strong undercurrent of nihilism thrown in for good measure. You'll find none of that here; just a fun movie with nice jolts and a sense of humor in its mayhem. Witchboard is a very good film, and Kevin S. Tenney is certainly one of the more underrated directors in the genre. He may have slowed his output in the more recent years, but here's hoping that he keeps on making movies for as long as he likes.

Movie Score


The Blu-ray

Scream Factory's WITCHBOARD Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack may not be labeled as one of their "Collector's Editions," but it sure is packed to the brim with special features. The disc comes without a slipcover and features retro artwork on the insert. As mentioned both a Blu-ray and a DVD copy of the film are included. I didn't watch the DVD, but it is nice to have for those occasions when a Blu-ray player isn't handy (though those are becoming few and far between these days).

Video Quality

It goes without saying that, as a low budget horror film from the mid 1980s, WITCHBOARD has never been a visually striking affair. However, Scream Factory's Blu-ray transfer is a significant upgrade from the old Anchor Bay DVD release of the film. Colors are bright, there isn't any noticeable overuse of DNR, and the fine grain present gives it a wonderfully filmic feel. I can't help but imagine that this is probably the best that the film will ever look on home video. 

Audio Quality

WITCHBOARD comes to Blu-ray with a new DTS-HD Master Audio track that does just fine. The track is 2.0 Mono, so don't expect any surround action. However, it preserves the original sound design for the film, and it is perfectly fine. The lows are nice and deep, and the vocal track is nice and prominent in the mix. No complaints here.

Extra Features

Here is where Scream Factory's new Blu-ray really shines, as WITCHBOARD is packed with bonus content; including a new audio commentary and a wonderful new Making-Of featurette. I'm honestly surprised that the film isn't one of their "Collector's Editions." The only real reason that I can figure it's not is because it doesn't feature newly commissioned artwork. 

  • (New) Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Kevin Tenney and Actors Stephen Nichols, Kathleen Wilhoite, and James Quinn: This newly recorded audio commentary features Director Kevin Tenney and several key cast members having a genuinely good time discussing everything about WITCHBOARD. There's never a dull moment or any artificial back-patting here. Instead, we get pretty candid and lively discussion about how they became involved with the project, their careers before and after, and of course, the making of the movie. Tenney continues to prove that his commentary tracks are some of the best out there.
  • Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Kevin Tenney, Executive Producer Walter Josten, and Producer Jeff Geoffray: This audio commentary with Tenney and some of WITCHBOARD's producers is directly ported over from the old Anchor Bay DVD. It's just as engaging as the new commentary, though maybe a little bit more reserved, and I think it may be more technical as well, which makes sense. Still, it's never dull, and there isn't a ton of overlap between the two tracks, so it is definitely worth your time to listen to both.
  • Progressive Entrapment - The Making of WITCHBOARD (46 min): This newly commissioned Making-Of featurette is simply wonderful. Featuring all-new interviews with cast and crew members, the entire process of making the film is covered. This is easily my favorite feature on the disc, and it's almost as good as the movie itself. 
  • Vintage Making Of WITCHBOARD (7 min): An old Making-Of featurette, made up of video clips from the set. Nothing great, but a fun inclusion, and great to have for historical perspective.
  • Cast Interviews (20 min): Twenty minutes of archival interviews with the cast from the set of the film. Many of the clips are used in the Vintage Making-Of feature.
  • On Set - With Todd Allen and Stephen Nichols (20 min): Twenty minutes of interviews with the film's lead actors.
  • Theatrical Trailer (3 min): The original theatrical trailer for the film.
  • On Set - With the Makers of WITCHBOARD (20 min): More behind-the-scenes video footage and interviews; this time with Tenney and the Producers of the film.
  • Life On The Set (20 min): Even more random behind-the-scenes video footage.
  • Constructing the World of WITCHBOARD (21 min): More home video footage from the set of the film; this time focused on the construction of the sets.
  • Outtakes (6 min): Bloopers and unused takes from the film.
  • Behind the Scenes Gallery (14 min): Still photos from the set of the film; probably taken for publicity during the initial release. 
  • Promo Gallery (4 min): A slide show of various promotional materials, theatrical posters, etc.

Final Thoughts

Scream Factory once again delivers a fantastic release of a wonderful cult genre film. Though it's not labeled as a "Special Edition" or a "Collector's Edition," this package is loaded with several hours' worth of bonus content; including some great commentary tracks and a wonderful Making-Of documentary. It goes without saying that this is probably the definitive home video release of the film, and I don't imagine that any fan of WITCHBOARD would want to pass this up. Even if you aren't a die-hard lover of the movie, there is a lot here to entertain you, and all of it is quality. Furthermore, all of the old features from the previous Anchor Bay DVD have been brought over, so there is no need to keep your old disc.

Highly Recommended!

Blu-ray Score


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