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Witchboard: The Possession

1995, starring David Nerman, Elizabeth Lambert, Cedric Smith, Donna Sarrasin. Directed by Peter Svatek (Vista Street Entertainment).

Even during the "anything goes" days of the late-1980s VHS craze, the unremarkable horror franchise Witchboard never quite caught on with audiences in the same way as dozens of other low budget, video-store bound chillers. Perhaps that's because while similar titles were catering to teenage audiences by spilling blood and nudity over the screen in new and inventive ways, the Witchboard series was delving into the comparatively reserved and stuffy world of chandelier-rattling spirits and ghosts.

It's little surprise then that after helming two of these tepidly welcomed films, original writer/director Kevin Tenney, who receives a co-writing credit here, sent off this third installment north of the border to Cinepix alumni Peter Svatek. Svatek,  who chose this project to make his return to feature filmmaking almost 20 years after co-helming the Quebec kids' epic, The Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck, takes this film even further away from horror territory than the earlier films, which is why many feel that Witchboard: The Possession was a clear indication that the series had been possessed itself, only this time,  by the deadly spirit of mediocrity.

With a story that's totally unrelated to the first two entries, this film stars David Nerman as Brian, an out-of-work stock broker who discovers that his lonely landlord Francis (dependable Canadian character actor Cedric Smith) has been making a small fortune taking market tips from... the dead? Yep, Francis has been using a Ouija board to receive insider info on hot commodities, and shows Brian just how it's donejust one day before the aging landlord decides to take his own life by jumping off the building's balcony, leaving Brian the board, an ornate ring and a treasure trove of ancient, and vaguely evil-looking, fertility artifacts.

With his wife Julie (Elizabeth Lambert) out of town for the week, the flat broke Brian borrows $50,000 dollars from a shady financial institution to invest in coffee futures, as advised by the board. When his purchase doesn't pay off in time to return the loan, however, Brian faces losing a finger until the board's supernatural powers gruesomely take care of his crooked lenders. Scared, Brian tries to burn the Ouija board in his apartment complex's incinerator, but ends up a stone-dead victim of the Ouija magic himself, allowing the spirit of Francis to enter his body while his own spirit is trapped in a nearby mirror. Not noticing the switch at first, Julie is just relieved that her husband's okay, but she soon discovers that she's become a pawn in a nefarious plan by Francis, who is really a body-hopping demon who is dead set on impregnating her with his evil spawn.

As with many of Svatek's later films, there are several good (or at least original) ideas at play in Witchboard: The Possession, but few are used to their full potential, and the entire project is eventually overwhelmed by obvious clichés and familiar twists. Getting stock tips from beyond the grave provides a potential-loaded basis for the story, but very little is done with this concept, outside of creating a situation in which the board's murderous streak can be shown later on. Likewise, the film's best and most memorable scene involves Brian sheepishly returning to the crooked investment banker (Addison Bell) to beg for more time only to be saved by the board, which sends wave after wave of pinned butterflies from the fatcat's framed insect collections into his body. Unfortunately, it just happens way too early, and the film is never able to top this prickly kill, instead getting bogged down with occult objects like rings, mirrors, spearheads and complicated exorcism rituals that all seem borrowed from an inferior film.

Part of the problem lies with the uninspired script, which never offers the reasoning, timing or significance behind Francis' possession of Brian, but also with Svatek's lacklustre execution. Whether the result of budget limitations, or simply his recent inexperience with SFX-dependent genre films, Witchboard: The Possession can't help but squander its opportunities for scares. For instance, Francis' jump from the building has him preposterously balanced by the prongs of an iron gate that have impaled him, and scenes of Brian's ghost trying to get his wife's attention from the strange mirror world he inhabits (which, again, is not actually explained) is more humorous than creepy. Even the butterfly sequence, which is still the bloody highlight of the film, is obviously, and crudely, achieved through the decades-old camera trick of reversed footage, and is not filmed for maximum impact. This is also true of the KNB Effects-designed demon, which looks great, but is unconvincing when finally revealed by inexperienced local technicians, especially in one ill-advised early CGI "morph" effect.

Neither is the film particularly Canadian. Aside from an underlying mistrust of big business and government institutions and a light coating of snow on the ground, Svatek's Montreal-shot sequel avoids delving into familiar territory of previous Canadian demonic thrillers, which often looked to Quebec's rich history of Catholicism for inspiration. Taking place in a blandly portrayed, non-descript urban city, it neatly avoids any patriotic complications, even though a distinct location probably would have gone a long way in helping this entry stand out from the first two Witchboard films.

All of this adds up to a disappointing return to form for Svatek, though thankfully the planchette pointed to "Yes" for possible future projects, and he would go on to much better work in both Sci-Fighters and Bleeders, two subsequent straight-to-video genre films he made before returning to working for television. As it stands, however, Witchboard: The Possession is a ignoble conclusion to a mostly unimpressive supernatural trilogy.

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