There are people out there who will warn you about the horrors of a Ouija board, which is what the title of the film Witchboard refers to, but what I think they should be warning you about are the horrors of 1980s hair. Witchboard came out in late 1986, right in the middle of an era known for some of the most godawful mops ever inflicted on scalp follicles (and on display in this film): hair that was puffed, bouffed, shagged, permed, teased, spiked, and blow-dried; swollen like a dandelion with dropsy or ringleted like Shirley Temple in a slut walk. It was sideburned and mulleted; waved and sprayed; moussed, gelled, glittered, and neon-dyed the colors of a tropical fish. How did humanity survive the hair abuse of that decade, how did we not enter the 1990s as collectively bald as a billiard ball? Whenever I now watch a film made back then, I can’t help but think, How could this have happened?
What prompted my hair-raising thoughts was Witchboard‘s star, Tawny Kitaen, whose name I presume was inspired by her hair, a rich, rowdy, reddish-brown mane, like copper wool applied with impasto; it’s a veritable rust-tinged Niagara cascading from her scalp. My reaction to that huge display of auburn frizz was not one of admiration or envy, but bemusement: lordy, I thought, that must be a bitch to shampoo. In one scene, as she’s brushing it, the thatch makes a noise like a Brillo pad scrubbing wood. I assumed it was soundtrack FX, but I did wonder.
The film purports to be much about Ouija, but it’s more about the muchity-muchness of Ms. Kitaen. Who’s much more than a russet coiffure. Per Wikipedia, Tawny was best known for appearing in rock videos that I haven’t seen, but there’s a lot of her to see in Witchboard. There’s just a lot of her. I don’t mean that she’s fat. She’s quite svelte and lovely, but she’s BIG. I’m curious about her appeal. Surely some would find all that feminine bounty just a bit intimidating. Tawny’s tall, with battering-ram shoulders, treetrunk legs (when she crouches, her knees form peaks), and a large, long head framed by a jawline as big as the Indianapolis Speedway. Add that cataract of hair and you’ve got a super-sized Ann-Margret, but without the latter’s shimmy or sparkle. Tawny’s a much more placid onscreen presence; though at one point in Witchboard she does swing an axe. It seemed a good idea to get out of the way.
In spite of looking like Wonder Woman on Spring Break, Tawny in the film plays a helpless character, one who becomes addicted to Ouija sessions and unconsciously channels a dead serial killer trying to return to the earthly realm. Battling to save her soul are her current and past boyfriends, who were once themselves BFFs, only they had a falling-out over Tawny and now, when they meet, snipe at each other like backstabbing dowagers from The Women. I’m in awe of any man willing to take on so much Tawny, though I frankly can’t see this goddess-like woman needing help with anything. With her Amazonian torso and Herculean hands, and all those Medusan curls, I think she could handle with ease whatever the natural or supernatural world cared to toss at her. Though, as it turns out, the two fellas are more interested in each other than in her. Indeed, the film’s emotional arc follows the current Tawny boyfriend learning to find his feelings and weep over the body of the past Tawny boyfriend, which, if anyone was paying attention, could make for quite a different, Tawny-less movie.
The film strikes the nostalgia chord with the (brief) appearance of “special guest star” (and the only one with anything resembling a normal scalp) of an elderly but still spry Rose Marie. She’s most famous as the perennially frustrated spinster on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but I, and probably other classic-film fans, best know her as Baby Rose Marie, who in the late 1920s and early 1930s was promoted as a baby-faced version of Sophie Tucker: a jazz-chantoosie infant phenomenon growling out saucy blues in a startlingly mature voice; Mae West in a cradle. I’d be curious to know what this Really Last of the Red Hot Mamas and the Mighty Tawny might have talked about between takes.
Witchboard passes on some mildly interesting Ouija lore, such as never to use it alone and to be wary of something called “progressive entrapment,” which refers to a kind of Ouija board addiction and not to our current political landscape. But a Ouija board is not an inherently cinematic device; the film’s problem is that its title gadget doesn’t do anything. Too many scenes are of Tawny’s well-manicured hands just pushing a planchette before the plot devolves into standard slasher scares. The board’s fascination (especially for giggly teenagers, its main users) is that it’s a visual and tactile object, combining images, text, and, most important, physical interaction. For those curious about all matters Ouija, check out this entertaining Web site here for your one-stop Ouija-knowledge source. Now that the Spooky Season is upon us, you might even want to pull out that dusty ol’ WeeJee you had packed away in the attic (maybe way back in 1986) to try contacting a spirit or two for fun and profit.
Only whatever you do, please don’t get in touch with the 1980s. Life is hairy enough as it is.