The Special Shelf: Witchboard
After the previous year’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, it feels like the horror industry decided to step up its provocations for the straight world. If that film could tapdance around having a queer protagonist and use the minefield of high school hazing, primal scenes in S&M bars, and sexual ambivalence in its guignol fantasies, Witchboard answers the question of what would happen if a film decided to feature a complicated bisexual love triangle playing out amidst a possession narrative.
Thankfully, writer/director Kevin Tenney (Night of the Demons) has a game cast, some exceptional production design, and great effects to help with this sly, subversive effort, and Witchboard has been helping dialogues and discourse for the past thirty-three years.
Our heroine, Linda (Tawny Kitaen, year before Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” video made her one of the most famous women on the planet) is a grad student working in folklore, myth, and religious studies. Her boyfriend Jim (Todd Allen) is a medical school dropout/construction site foreman with an earthy charm and dickish tendencies. One of Linda’s former professors, Brandon (Stephen Nichols, Days of Our Lives’ Patch and someone with more tales to tell about daytime TV history than you can imagine), pops up periodically to be a supportive friend to Linda and also needle Jim mercilessly. (He’s also the kind of party guest who brings a Ouija board to a suitably bumpin’ party, which leads to a whole lot of mayhem and tragedy, so contemporary audiences will see in Brandon a messy bitch who lives for drama.)
Even before we find out what malign spirit is behind the hatchet (and hatchet-adjacent) murders that start claiming the people around Linda, we discover that the big breakup lurking in the shared history of our trio is between Jim and Brandon. This being the late mid-’80s, with homophobia driving far too much of the culture—we’ve got the principle of deniability in full sway. As long as no one says the word ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ or explicitly states that our two male leads used to regularly make left turns without a car, you can put all sorts of history and text in your film.
To contemporary audiences, it’ll seem almost silly the way they keep it so subtle, but in 1986 this was the most searing of homosexual melodrama. All this, with ghost possessions, hatchet murders, Kathleen Wilhoite as Zarabeth the punkette psychic with lots of manic lesbian energy, James W. Quinn giving slutty surfer John Cusack vibes as construction buddy Lloyd, and comedy legend Rose Marie as the helpful landlady!
Witchboard is an enjoyable ‘80s horror classic with a surprising amount of gay content—one that doesn’t often get discussed in the pantheon of queer horror. It offers lots of fuzzy chests and resists the tyranny of shirt-wearing, and Tawny Kitaen is gorgeous and has the most amazing makeup and the biggest hair in every scene. When she gets possessed and starts flinging hatchets in a tuxedo and hat, with the perfect smoky eye, it is clearly a lewk that needs to make a serious comeback.
Witchboard is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Tubi, and Vudu. It is also available on Blu-ray and DVD in a stacked collector’s edition from Scream Factory.