The board is back in Kevin S. Tenney’s lesser-seen sequel WITCHBOARD 2: THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY, on special edition Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films.
Hoping to foster her own artistic ambitions, accountant Paige (Ami Dolenz, TICKS) leaves her less-than-supportive cop boyfriend Mitch (Timothy Gibbs, THE KINDRED) and rents out a spacious, fully-furnished loft from eccentric hippie Elaine (SNL’s Laraine Newman, INVADERS FROM MARS) – trapped in 1969 when her parents died – and her sleazy handyman husband Jonas (Christopher Michael Moore, CITY HEAT). Lacking self-confidence in her abilities, Paige isn’t eager to make new friends – especially after Jonas’ creepy come-ons and an ugly scene with Mitch – but she soon has two in the personages of Elaine’s younger photographer brother Russell (John Gatins, GODS AND MONSTERS) and departed former tenant “Susan” who speaks to her through the Ouija board Paige finds in the closet. Susan inspires Paige’s art with some not unscary dream visions, and also informs her that her rival for a CPA position is trying to sabotage her. She also seems to embolden Paige who starts standing up for herself and takes Russell up on his offer to model for him, but what does Susan want in return? Although Russell informs her that Susan moved out and is alive as far as he knows, Susan claims to have been murdered. Mitch can find neither a death certificate nor any record of her existence after moving out of the loft. Russell’s research into the use of Ouija boards – once the exclusive tool of witches to communicate with demons – warns of the threat of entrapment by a spirit or demon that befriends the user, weakens their will, and eventually possesses them. Soon, a series of freak accidents befalls anyone who tries to free Paige of her “addiction” to using the Ouija board.
Writer/director Kevin S. Tenney’s WITCHBOARD (1986) was a surprise sleeper hit that most of us first encountered on home video. It boasted a well-written script, a quirky sense of humor, genuine scares (even if a few of them were the just-a-nightmare jumps), and ambitious special effects and camerawork for the budget. Besides casting Tawny Kitaen as the hot women-in-peril, it gave its male hero an emotional character arc in addition to a supernatural adversary. His follow-up feature NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988) is better known to eighties horror fans as a rollicking gory good time boasting even more refined technical virtuosity than his first film. WITCHBOARD’s more immediate spin-off WITCHTRAP (1989) was a less-satisfying supernatural variation on the stalk-n-slash, while the PG-13-rated THE CELLAR (1989) was a project Tenney took over early in production. That WITCHBOARD 2 wasn’t mounted until seven years later may be less indicative of the film’s slow buildup of a fanbase than of the explosion of the market for direct-to-video features (some of which like this having had scant theatrical play here and perhaps wider overseas) that also produced sequels to PUMPKINHEAD (part two featured both Dolenz and Gatins), LEPRECHAUN (part three starred Gatins), SCANNERS, the AMITYVILLE franchise, and a flood of other titles from the likes of WITCHBOARD 2 VHS distributor Republic Pictures Home Video (formerly NTA Entertainment, named after the company National Telefilm Associates that had acquired much of the Republic library and some other studio titles for TV syndication before being renamed Republic Pictures).
WITCHBOARD 2 isn’t a bad film on its own terms despite its rather derivative setup (new tenant uncovers buried secrets with supernatural help), but it does suffer in comparison to the original. Fans of the original may find it frustrating that new characters go through the same motions of discovering the board and being enticed into using it with the threat that brings (and they’ll already be way ahead of the Russell’s research and the occultist’s (Marvin Kaplan, TV’s ALICE) warnings. There are some nice twists including the climactic revelations that take a turn away from the obvious at the right moment. The attractive Dolenz gives an okay performance as a rather dull protagonist, while Gatins (now a writer of sports-themed movies like SUMMER CATCH and REEL STEEL) and soap opera vet Gibbs (more recently the model for the video game character MAX PAYNE) – scripted as more than just the creepy ex who exists got get his supernatural comeuppance – provide some needed tension. Newman’s comic relief hippie is a bit of a misfire, but Kaplan’s Jewish spin on Kathleen Wilhoite’s memorable medium from the original film is a highlight.
Tenney’s technical execution, on the other hand, cannot be faulted; in part thanks to cinematographer David Lewis and production designer Ken Aichele (who contributed to the distinctive look of not only Tenney’s NIGHT OF THE DEMONS but also Dominique Othenin-Girard’s flashy horror flick NIGHT ANGEL). Tenney draws from his own oeuvre for his bag of tricks: from the floating POV camera pyrotechnics of spirits and deadly projectiles to NIGHT OF THE DEMONS’ strobe light sleight of hand editing tricks during the climax (on the commentary track, Tenney also freely admits to recycling the shattered mirror multiple reflections shot from the aforementioned film). The supernatural attack on Mitch’s truck is an ambitiously-choreographed effects highlight, and the higher budget of the film also allowed for some not-bad-at-all digital visual effects courtesy of industry stalwart Peter Kuran (everything from Joe Dante’s PIRANHA to GHOSTBUSTERS II). WITCHBOARD’s Todd Allen and Kenny Rhodes also make cameo appearances late in the film, and a second sequel WITCHBOARD III: THE POSSESSION followed soon after (lensed in Canada and directed by Peter Svatek who later helmed the Lovecraftian BLEEDERS/HEMOGLOBLIN).
Olive Films’ 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC transfer of this DTV-bound film is immaculate, detailing the care that went into this $1.5 million production, with only the night scenes in the woods look a shade softer. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 rendering of the original Ultra Stereo mix is immediately felt with Dennis Michael Tenney’s synth score and the later jump scares and effects set-pieces. While much of Olive Films’ Blu-ray and DVD output has been barebones – including some reissues of titles formerly released by LionsGate in special editions – they have given us commentaries on some of their Republic Pictures-licensed titles TICKS, NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW, and NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2; and WITCHBOARD 2 is accompanied by a track featuring Tenney as well as Gatins and actress/stuntwoman Julie Michaels (JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY) who plays Susan’s ghost.
It’s a pleasantly chatty track in which Tenney speaks warmly about his collaborators (including production designer Aichele who died of an aneurysm while prepping one of his later films). Gatins talks about his first role in this film, including his first shooting day in which cinematographer David Lewis shouted at him in front of the extras for walking faster than he had during the rehearsals of a complex camera crane shot following him. Michaels recalls being turned away without a reading by the casting director because she had short blond hair (they wanted Susan to look different from blond Paige), so she got extensions and colored her hair and was then deemed ideal for the part. She also point out the scenes in which her stuntman husband Peewee Piemonte (ARMY OF ONE) appears. Gatins recalls the earlier script draft with a different ending, which leads Tenney to discuss the vastly different stalk-n-slash-sounding first draft which was set entirely in the woods with a ghost warning the heroine about a serial killer stalking her and her friends. They also recall that Dolenz was up for the BEVERLY HILLBILLIES movie during the shoot, and Gatins reveals that he auditioned for both BEVERLY HILLS 90210 and MELROSE PLACE after this film. Tenney states that the higher budget for the film allowed for some of the fancier shots not because the equipment was expensive but because of the man-hours needed to block out and set up single shots (which sometimes ate up half-days of the twenty-four day shoot). Tenney also says he wanted to use the Steadicam only for the ghost POV shots – and also discusses how some of the impressive shots were executed – but had to relent for one tracking shot after the funeral scene because it went downhill and there was not enough track for lengthy movement (which doesn’t impress upon the viewer just how long it goes on until viewed under the discussion). The glut of Guess-brand clothing is explained by the fact that Tenney’s wife was working for the company at the time. They also poke fun at some aspects of the film (and the nineties-isms like Gatins’ and Gibbs’ gelled hair) but overall view it affectionately.
The disc also offers up two deleted scenes. In the first (1:02), Mitch goes to the hall of records on a hunch about the address the Ouija board directed Paige to (in the middle of the woods). In the film itself, we see him already at the computer. The second scene (2:30) is a make-out between Paige and Russell that suggests the start of Paige’s possession. It has the two actors on a turntable as the camera pans around them (it also shows how unattractive those Guess jeans really were). The two scenes are sourced from a letterboxed SD master that suggests that widescreen framing was always a consideration for this film even though most of us saw it on videotape or television. The vintage “Behind the Scenes” featurette (7:53) is a promotional piece making mention of the first film’s cult success as a motivation for doing a sequel. The stars provide provocative soundbytes about their beliefs in the power of the Ouija board, and there are plenty of behind-the-scenes looks at the stunts and special effects. The disc also includes two Republic Pictures home video trailers (1:23 + 1:37) as well as sixty-, thirty-, and fifteen-second TV spots. (Eric Cotenas)
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