Friday, June 11, 2010


Most church leaders prefer to be addressed by their surname as a means of commanding respect amongst their congregation, but ours insisted he be known by his first. So, we all called him Pastor Sam. The moniker had a less formal ring, and it was certainly the perfect counter-balance to the dose of frothing conviction we'd get every Sunday. He was a man with power, but he was accessible at the same time. Terrifying behind the pulpit, his flip-side soothed. He had a gentle smile and voice that matched. Children felt comfortable enough to ask for rides on his shoulders, and he'd always oblige with a laugh. His stature always made the ride a little scary, but there was never any fear that he might drop you.

After service, the men would lineup for casual macho banter revolving around Cadillacs and sea bass, and the wives would hang back, their breasts a'flutter as their men got the rub from this towering amalgam of John Wayne and Billy Graham.

That was the scene every Sunday, and I rarely stuck around to eavesdrop. But this time, I'd been instructed to take a number. I sat on the front pew for several hours, pumping my velcro sneakers and staring at my Skeletor action figure. I tuned out the adult yammering by focusing on the empty ocular sockets in his face and contemplated the relevant topic of how he could see anything while fighting He-Man. That always bothered the shit out of me.

I've always been more compelled by villains. After all, they had a mystique. Rarely did they ever explain what made them so bad, and so I was often left to contrive origins for them in my own little brain. The hero always required less imagination to exist, and was therefore always far less engaging. So, naturally, Skeletor and his band of sinister flunkees were the center of the plastic universe on my bedroom floor. Besides, without the villain, what was a hero anyway? If not for Skeletor, He-Man would have just been another Ken doll in S&M gear; an unemployed gay bartender turned drifter, existing only for Ponch and John to pull over and harass before telling him to move onto the next town, where he would inevitably blow his brains out in hotel room painted with semen and Wild Irish Rose.

Gene Simmons once sang a dower little tune, denouncing a world without heroes. But if you ask me, a world without villains would be void of color and purpose. Indeed, without the good fight, there would be little other to do than turn on each other until there is no one left and all there is to do is lay down and die. All that said, fuck KISS. Congratulations on the pussiest use for a flying V ever, assholes.

So, finally, the sycophants all clear out, and I'm nudged to my feet. I approach Pastor Sam, Skeletor in hand. My grandmother says, “Pastor Sam, my grandson would like to show you something.” Sam looks down at me, smiles and kneels. I hand Skeletor over. Pawing at his blue skin, a concerned expression evolves. I remember vividly as he removed Skeletor’s little purple staff. Plucking the accessory from kung fu grip, he held it up and asked me, “Max, do you know what this means?” I shook my head. Pastor Sam paused for a moment, and told me, “this is a sign of the devil.”

It was possible. After all, Skeletor was the embodiment of all that was evil. He was a bad guy, so it seemed pretty natural. I didn't have a problem with it really since Skeletor was supposed to be the guy He-Man stomped the shit out of. Now, if the role model had a cod piece with a pentagram on it that pissed goat blood (I want one), it might have been a totally different story from my child-like point of view. At that point, all Pastor Sam had done was assure me that the bad guy was actually... well, a bad guy.

Later that night, I stood in the parking lot of the Foursquare Church, crying as several birthdays and Christmases worth of gifts went up in smoke. I watched Castle Gray Skull morph and twist into a puddle while Pastor Sam, high on toxic plastic fumes from his cleansing bonfire, slurred through “Hosanna in the Highest.” I’m positive that night set in motion a rebellion within me that only further encouraged my keen interest in morbid subject matter. Raised into pacification through material objects, the destruction of my entire toy collection was far more damaging than any Catholic handjob ever could have been.

Since every school I've ever attended was of some religious variety, I encountered kids who were either similar, or even more fucked up than I ever could have been. Repression rears a mean brat, drawing kids toward taboos at hyper speed, and heroin too. By the eighth grade, bum wine and teenage pregnancy were mostly passé. What really cheesed the penguins off was finding spell books in the school yard. The first time I laid eyes on a book of magic was in the Saint Thomas Aquinas boys’ room. We passed it around in awe like most well-adjusted kids would a smut magazine.

Throughout the eighties, the Christian fundamentalist right was popping off to anyone who’d listen about the approaching thunder of an underground Satanic network. According to them, the devil’s followers were running our day care centers. They were in our local government. They were the policemen covering up cattle mutilation. They were taking the white man’s scholarships and women. They were also corrupting the youth of our country through heavy metal music and horror films. Even Parker Brothers had aligned itself with the dark one, and was mass marketing witchcraft under the guise of traditional board game fun.

According to elders, this mass-produced piece of cardboard, known alternately as the “mystic oracle,” was a spirit world walkie-talkie. We were warned against using the board, for it may yield dire repercussions, inviting unseen forces into our homes, and possibly even our bodies. That wasn’t a hard sell to a bunch of rebellious pubescent kids. And while Sunday morning rants and news reports made us all aware of the existence of this portal to evil, one movie taught us all how to actually use the thing. Of course, I speak of the 1986 Kevin Tenney classic, “Witchboard” – a varitable primer for Ouija Board use.

When I was a kid, no single social gathering was complete without a bunch of stupid, doe-eyed girls standing under the red hue of the bathroom's heat lamp, chanting "Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary" into the mirror. Retrospectively, games like light as a feather epitomize teenage innocence despite the fact that we all thought we were toying with cataclysmic forces that could rend us limb from limb. And of course, there were the Ouija Board sessions, which always told me who had and had not seen "Witchboard." Of course, the board must be used by two people only, and it must rest on their knees since it acts as a spiritual conduit. The people using the board should also have clean systems, meaning, they shouldn’t drink or do drugs. Everyone generally shrugged that one off. And of course, no one should EVER use it alone, lest they end up the victim of "progressive entrapment."
Every culture has had its own variant of the spirit board for thousands of years. Widespread house hold usage, rather than Satanic corporate conspiracy, is to credit for the board’s industrial reproduction. The Ouija Board’s popularity has waned only slightly over the past two decades, drifting into the realm of kitsch for some. Nevertheless, it remains a potent piece of pop culture iconography, thanks largely to "Witchboard" writer/director Kevin Tenney, who is perhaps second only to Patience Worth when it comes to propagating the board's popularity in modern culture. This film is to the Ouija Board what "The Outer Limits" was to the Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction case. Both have influenced a culture’s perceptions on their respective topics on a potentially subliminal level, and are perhaps even responsible for a low grade of hysteria regarding both abduction and encounters with the spirit world. In fact, I’m pretty sure almost every psychic ham out there probably owes Kevin Tenney royalties for using whole verbiage to make a living.

The story starts off at a banging house party, where some yuppie assholes attempt to bring the fun to a crashing halt with theological debate. Amidst this mess, we’re introduced to Linda, her low-brow drunkard boyfriend Jim, and their respectively estranged lover and best friend Brandon Sinclair, “of the Sinclair vineyards!” As the party winds down, the spiritual debate takes a turn for the best when Brandon breaks out his trusty Ouija Board, providing us with a short lecture on its origins. Brandon, along with Linda attempt to contact the spirit of a little boy named David, who is apparently attached to the board since it was made on the approximate date of his death. During the low-rent séance, Jim tells some awesome jokes to piss the spirit off, which leads to the destruction of Brandon's tires. Sinclair leaves in a huff, conveniently forgetting his Ouija Board, which Linda discovers while cleaning up the next day. She contacts David once again, and develops a bond with the little boy’s spirit. Brandon warns her about using the board alone, but Linda is a free-thinking 80s kind of gal and continues using the Ouija. Soon, a swirl supernatural foreboding and death threatens the trio as Linda falls deeper into progressive entrapment. Jim and Brandon are forced to put their friction aside to fight something far more sinister than originally suspected. Check out the trailer, dudes.

Tawny Kitaen is probably the most recognizable face here, and she actually turns in a surprisingly solid performance as the Ouija-addicted Linda. Other notables include Rose Marie ("The Dick Van Dyke Show") as Jim and Linda’s landlady, and Kathleen Wilhoite ("Roadhouse") as annoying psychic hippie punk Zarabeth. Lastly, Soap opera fodder Todd Allen and Stephen Nichols play the men in Linda’s life. It’s hard to say whether these guys help or hinder the movie, but they do provide for some unintentionally hilarious moments via melodramatic delivery better suited for "General Hospital."

However, for my money, James W Quinn, who plays Jim’s best friend, Lloyd destroys every actor in this entire fucking production. Once in a while, there's just some guy who stands out in spite of the fact that his part is inconsequential. Jim is one of those guys. If Tenney is out there, I'd like to urge him to make a fourth "Witchboard" movie, starring James W. Quinn as both the hero and the villain, and perhaps even playing a few supporting roles. Quinn also did a lot of the demonic voice work in Tenney’s “Night of the Demons” films. Here, though, we get him in the flesh. It’s a shame this guy never got a comedy feature, because he’s solid gold here. Never have I been so distraught at the death of a supporting character. Every time Lloyd dies, a piece of me goes with him.

Overall, this film achieves a genuine and compelling atmosphere. Tenney aptly constructs true suspense, and in the process never really resorts to using gore, which makes this anomalous for the period, but ultimately far more accessible. "Witchboard" is due recognition as a unique artistic accomplishment since it barely abides by any genre standards of the time. Let's face it, there aren't a slew of movies out there about Ouija Boards, though it does seem like such an obvious niche. Lastly, though, it deserves a heap of credit for it's influence on popular culture. Even if you dislike this movie, chances are, you've been infected by it somehow.
Tenney followed up with “Witchboard 2: The Devil’s Doorway” in 1993, but the film never quite achieved the same level of acclaim as the original, more than likely due to the fact that it’s not really a true sequel. Another sequel, “Witchboard 3: The Possession” followed only two years later, and while I own it, I’ve never bothered to watch it.

Are you awesome enough to take the VHS Summer “Witchboard” Drinking Game Challenge? Don't be a pussy! Take a drink any time any of the following things happens. And, remember, Pabst Blue Ribbon is the official beer of the VHSS.

  1. Someone says the word “OUIJA.”
  2. Lloyd appears on screen.
  3. We see Jim’s chest hair.
  4. Anyone says the phrase “PSYCHIC HUMOR.”
  5. Any time there is sexual tension between Jim and Brandon.
  6. Any time Tawny says a bad word.
  8. Tawny’s shower scene.

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