Most horror franchises start out with a relatively decent film before declining in quality. By contrast, the appalling Witchboard (1986) sired a sequel that, while certainly no classic, outdoes its predecessor in every aspect. Seven years on from the original writer-director Kevin S. Tenney concocts a fresh plot wherein perky wannabe artist Paige Benedict (Ami Dolenz) moves into an apartment where she discovers an abandoned Ouija board that puts her in contact with the spirit of the previous tenant, sultry dancer Susan Sydney (Julie Michaels). Speaking from beyond the grave, Susan hints that she was murdered. Having split from her unsupportive cop boyfriend Mitch (Timothy Gibbs), Paige strikes a friendship with nice neighbour Russel (John Gatins) who used to know Susan. He insists she did not die but moved away. Unnerved she might be communicating with a far more duplicitous and malevolent spirit, Paige tries to solve this mystery while people around her start dying as the result of supernatural mayhem.
Also known as Witchboard: The Return this sequel shares the same uncertain, semi-humorous tone playing its murder mystery and ghostly possession elements relatively straight but taking time out for comedy character work. Veteran supporting player Marvin Kaplan (the voice of Choo-Choo from Top Cat!) essays a Jewish occultist who makes amusing observations about the afterlife and cracks mother-in-law jokes, and former Saturday Night Live star turned prolific voice-over artist Laraine Newman has a substantial role as the flaky hippie landlady whose horny handyman husband (Christopher Michael Moore) makes a crude pass at the hot young heroine before being bisected by a flying buzzsaw. Once again, Tenney’s direction proves frustratingly inconsistent. He grinds laboriously through scenes that are meant to advance the plot, as if bored by his own story, only to explode into frenzied camera acrobatics for the supernatural set-pieces.
While Tenney’s storytelling is not the strongest, somehow the mystery stays compelling and keeps the viewer guessing before springing a number of pleasing twists in the last reel. Even the cheesy coda raises a smile. For the most part the film succeeds on the strength of its solid subtext and an admirably committed, genuinely engaging performance from fetching leading lady Ami Dolenz, daughter of Monkees star Micky Dolenz. The plot proves something of a worm-that-turns fable with spectral Susan goading meek little Paige to take charge of her life and smack down anyone that tries to quash her dreams, from her bullying ex-boyfriend to a bitchy co-worker (Sarah Kaite Coughlan).
Dolenz ably pulls off her subtle, slow-burning transformation from mousy girl-next-door into a confident, sexy free spirit manifest through her increasingly provocative attire (she goes grave-digging in the woods dressed in tight denim hot-pants), although the film tries to have it both ways with the spirit as both liberating force and conniving evildoer. Happily the finale does not cop-out by having Paige revert to a docile girlfriend having learned the folly of her reckless independence and macho Mitch suffers some amusing retribution for his sexist ways. Gore and violence are pared down to a minimum but the film packs the odd suspenseful sequence, notably with Mitch at the steering wheel of a runaway car, and remains livelier and wittier than anyone would have expected. Ami Dolenz went on to be something of a DTV horror staple throughout the Nineties while Tenney struck back as screenwriter only of another sequel, Witchboard III: The Possession (1995).