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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Witchboard Kevin Tenney 1985

Two Guys, a Girl, and James Brolin

I for one am delighted to see Kevin Tenney's Witchboard being given the attention it deserves with a nice DVD release. This tale of a powerful and tricky evil spirit who gets to the luscious Tawny Kitaen through her ex-boyfriend's Ouija board was one of my favorite rentals as a pre-teen, and this loving release is like revisiting old times. At the time I didn't really know what attracted me so powerfully about this clever little supernatural mystery; it is cheap-looking, has no real stars, and isn't particularly gory or funny. But after viewing the movie again, I now fully understand why I had such a soft spot for this goofy little movie:

Witchboard is a gay soap opera disguised as a horror film.

Before you get all "oooh, Buzz is off trying to faggify everything he sees - nothing is sacred!", let me point out that arguments about Witchboard being a thinly-veiled gay love story are widely accepted and well-documented, most notably in Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws, in which she devotes nearly an entire chapter to the love triangle of the film. Try though you may, it is absolutely impossible to ignore the fact that the movie spends more than half of its running time with the two male leads bickering back and forth to one another, while Tawny is quickly reduced to dream sequences and a chaste shower scene. While she is ostensibly the victim of the spirit (or at least the physical body at risk of possession), her plight is placed at deliberate discount to the reunion story of her current boyfriend and her ex, between whom she has driven a wedge. Fortunately, she is more than willing to play host to a murderous ghost and don a shocking array of mid-eighties fashions in order to bring the boys back together again. Hairdressers, set your dryers to "Woof".

As our love story begins, Linda (Tawny, fresh from her Whitesnake video car-humping and Bachelor Party) is living with Jim (Todd Allen, fresh from his bartending job at the local Ground Round) in a gorgeous mansion apartment that would be utterly impossibly for them to afford on his construction worker's salary (she doesn't work, or do much of anything, for that matter - oblique references to her going to "class" could be anything from nuclear physics to aerobics). In the first scene the couple are hosting some sort of party (the occasion is not addressed), and lo and behold, in attendance is Linda's ex, Brandon (played with fashion-mulleted abandon by Stephen Nichols, who played "Patch" on Days of Our Lives for years. Yes, Days is my "story".). Brandon naturally has brought his Ouija board to the party (what was a party in the 80s without occult paraphernalia?!), and he and Linda begin playing the board game while simultaneously kicking into action the real game at hand: Will they or won't they? By "will they" I of course mean "do it". And by "they" I of course mean Brandon and Jim.

The tell-tale signs of repressed homo love are bountiful and precariously close to the surface. Upon being goaded by Brandon, Jim begins drinking and smoking heavily and engaging in some healthy "gay panic" banter with his oddly effeminate friends (his friend Lloyd delivers every line while peering over a pair of sunglasses like Hollywood from Mannequin!, and even queens out in an oddly appropriate gay-baiting moment). Jim returns to the living room and "throws down" in a "push you on the playground 'cause I like ya" sort of way, and he and Brandon engage in what will stretch out to ninety full minutes of the Gayest Looks Ever: lingering eye contact, loaded glances, and intense glares will basically carry the rest of the film as these two buddies entertain having a back-room swordfight while casually investigating Linda's crumbling emotional and physical condition.

Luckily, people start dying as a result of this newly-unleashed homo bond. C'mon, what did you expect -- this isn't Dawson's Creek. The first to go is, not surprisingly, the flambouyant Lloyd, who looks about as at-home at a construction site as I would at a snake-handling. In a rather unpleasant turn of events, as Jim is explaining his complicated past with Brandon (they were apparently very close as youths, and an unspecified event tore them apart… hey, did anyone see Chuck and Buck?), Lloyd is squished into pansy pate by a stack of falling sheetrock. Conveniently, this effectively clears Jim's social calendar (as Lloyd was apparently his only friend) and now he can spend more quality time with Brandon. Yaaaaay!

Oddly, it seems like this will become a pattern: every time Brandon and Jim's past is discussed or the two get a little closer to one another than is generally safe for straight men to be (it happens a lot. A LOT.), someone is either slaughtered or attacked by the beastie. Check out the passionate argument that they have about Brandon's tendency to avoid conflict, in which Brandon accuses Jim of "walking out" on him in a decidedly melodramatic manner. Just as the two are about to fuck each other blue in a rousing bout of construction site make-up sex, the foreman pokes his head in the window (visibly confused at the lover's quarrel he has walked in on) to tell Jim that Linda has been strung up by her ankles from a telephone pole, or some such nonsense - it's really quite irrelevant when you realize the real issue at hand is which of the pair is the bitch and which is the butch (my money says Jim's doing the pitching, by the way).

Once you accept the true gay romance story and relegate the whole evil possessing "witchboard" nonsense to the sidelines, the film is an incredibly compelling watch. As Linda is previously engaged with demon-inspired false pregnancies and a stunning array of broad-shouldered blouses, it's wonderfully exciting to see these former buddies re-connect and give it another go. To this end the movie is stuffed with loaded double-meanings and visual sight-gag setups that scream for bitchy commentary (indeed, I am certain that if Witchboard were re-cut to eliminate the whole possession story entirely, it would play just like Parting Glances). When a night scene opens with Brandon sitting in his convertible alone, the shot is brilliantly composed to lead you to expect Jim's grinning face to pop up out of Brandon's lap. Likewise the scene in the motel (where Jim essentially accuses Brandon of losing Linda because he couldn't get it up for her) where Brandon appears to throw his clothes onto both beds. Jim plays an entire scene to Brandon with an open-chested shirt, and then watches Brandon go all the way to his car rather than go back into the house to check in on Linda, whom he has just learned is possessed (every scene is one shot short of being straight-up gay romance: the POV of Brandon's ass; the reaction shot of Jim's eyes flicking down; the shot of the motel room the next morning, one bed unmussed).

Sadly, this love dare not speak its name in front of Tawny - who, in an imitation of life, would likely beat both men bloody with her stiletto. And so the demon that she unleashed from the board and who bears a striking resemblance to James Brolin puts an axe in Brandon's head (an important lesson: pushy bottoms never get the guy). Jim cries in his only expression of true emotion in the film (the point is made earlier that he didn't even cry at his parents' funerals), as he realizes that his pud-pulling buddy is gone and that he now must return to the woman at home whom he has driven to maniacal frenzy through his emotional schizophrenia. In "Chainsaws", Clover points out that possession films generally use the woman's penetration by a spirit as a catalyst for a man to reconcile his own feminine impulses, and here it is certainly true; Linda's unleashing the demon coincides perfectly with the reappearance of Brandon in his life, and only after his doting purseboy has been eliminated can Jim regain his assertive masculinity and regain control of his woman.

To sum up the rest, Linda freaks out hardcore and attacks Jim while dressed up like Tiffani, and we really get the impression that he might kill her (more importantly, we don't really care at this point). It's enormously telling that this is the point of the film where we also see our first glance of female nudity - only with Brandon's elimination can order be restored, and Tawny's bare yams arrive to remind us that there is, indeed, a woman around to help Jim make the difficult journey back to heterosexuality.

Very advanced stuff. Too advanced, maybe? I honestly don't think so - there are far too many innuendos and odd moments to be simply accidental, and there are even a few overt references that make one wonder (the detective bringing up how much he loves Sigfried and Roy at the funeral stands out, as well it should). The DVD also features a delicious "making of" piece that shows some revealing behind-the-scenes footage, including a moment where the two leads start roughhousing and someone yells "you two have sex on your own time." But did the director intend to create one of the most cunningly queer mainstream genre movies of the past 30 years? Probably not. But let's not let that stop us from enjoying it.

Rating (out of 5):