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Movie Review : Standard Stuff In 'Witchboard'

March 16, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

"Witchboard" (citywide) begins: In an eerie apartment house--with a Victorian veranda--a dozen or so youths in their twenties gather around an Ouija board for a little supernatural sport. One of them--blond, intense Brandon (Stephen Nichols)--claims to be in communication with a recently deceased 10-year-old, David. "But be careful," he warns. "The spirits sometimes lie." Around him, his audience of hip young rationalists shake their beers, roll their eyes, chuckle, mutter, "Sure, sure."

What a hapless bunch! Don't they realize they're in a horror movie? If Brandon started babbling about Wachi-ah-Chachoo, demon of the garbage dump, who likes to drive around in Chevy Corvairs, whistling and disemboweling mailmen--you better believe they should listen. Instead, they ignore the obvious. One of the spirits, malevolent Malfeitor, is around the board, lying his head off, and ready to rip off a couple of theirs.

"Witchboard" is standard horror stuff, neither as good as the genre's most imaginative efforts (by Cronenberg, Romero, Gordon, Raimi and Craven) or as bad as the worst, those incoherent schlockmeister carnage carnivals full of slashed starlets, skewered creeps, catsup-coated cameras and the bloody remnants of logic. The young writer-director, Kevin Tenney, keeps his story on-line, is skilled at raising hackles, and he puts an almost plausible triangle romance at the center: Nichols, Todd Allen and Tawny Kitaen. He gets a fairly amusing, punk-Beatrice Lillie, valley girl-psychic turn from Kathleen Wilhoite.

Tenney also tries what amounts to an innovation these days. Knowing that the audience expects the worst, he keeps gore to a minimum, getting most of the shocks from suggestion. Remember that famous moment in David Lean's "Great Expectations" when Magwitch suddenly appears from the frame's edge to grab Pip? Tenney uses variations on this moment over and over--along with a lot of sudden mirror reflections, portentous tracks, and John Carpenter-Sam Raimi-style camera-as-boogeyman subjective shots.

In short, he and his crew and actors don't disgrace themselves. But they don't distinguish themselves much, either. "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. It's makers and its monsters alike deserve the same salutation: Better luck next time.

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