The horror genre attracts schlock. The reasons are not complex. The sheer popularity and easy profitability of horror movies has always drawn producers eager for a quick buck.
The air of disrepute horror films carry keeps expectations for filmmaking rather low. Horror provided a healthy portion of grindhouse and drive-in fare during the ‘60s and ‘70s. The popularity of the slasher genre in the ‘80s, combined with the VHS revolution, ensured that lots of pretty terrible celluloid labeled horror found its way to mostly adolescent audiences certain to ask for more.
Shout! Factory has given us a Blu-ray release of one of the cult classics of that era, a film that rose above the bevy of John Carpenter and Wes Craven rip-offs to do something truly original. In director Kevin S. Tenney’s Night of the Demons the teens in danger are characters rather than shallow archetypes and the dialogue gets beyond “Don’t open that door!” and “Oh my God, Nooo!”
Night of the Demons retains many of the era’s genre conventions but plays with them admirably. It’s Halloween and the kids are going to party at the scary old mortuary that’s worse than haunted… its possessed! We know who the “final girl” will be within ten minutes (she’s dressed as Alice in Wonderland). The kids party, have some sex (including in a coffin) and the killing begins.
Believe it or not, there’s more going on here. Halloween has unleashed demonic forces, not a masked killer. This allows SFX maestro Steve Johnson to create some of the best, most complex and goriest special effects you’ll see in ‘80s horror. It’s not quite the SFX insanity of Return of the Living Dead or Re-animator, but you’ll still marvel at Johnson’s craft and enjoy how each of the postmortem teens are demonized versions of their worst personal characteristics.
Both Tenney and screenwriter Joe Augustyn deserve plaudits for making a genuinely well-crafted horror movie. Tenney had already broken the mold a bit with his 1986 film, Witchboard, which drew more on the occult and America’s post-Exorcist fear of Ouija Boards than killers in the night. Augustyn, who since has turned to writing horror novels, shaped a decent narrative that went beyond teens being stalked and slaughtered.
The most interesting aspect of Night of the Demons was its ability to draw on elements of the slasher genre while giving it not only a satanic twist but also some elements of the yet to become omnipresent zombie genre. The kids are killed off one by one, much like any slasher flick. But they come back as demons, creating a small army of killers by film’s end. Indeed, the influence of Romero’s zombie oeuvre appears everywhere, from the way the demonically possessed stumble and bumble after their prey to the fact that one of the characters, we learn from his tombstone, is named “Romero.”
You’ll likely find the musical score bothersome. In this era, every horror filmmaker attempted to mimic John Carpenter scores without the master’s talent or finesse. As in many ‘80s horror flicks, your ears are assaulted by a keyboard driven acoustic mishmash that evokes nervous aggravation instead of foreboding. Otherwise, the sound design works well and the possessed mortuary has plenty of knocks and rattles to give you some frisson at all the right moments.
Much has been written about how horror films in the ‘80s are about punishing the young for the sins, or at least the regrets, of the aging. Night of the Demons satired this idea long before Joss Whedon.
In Night of the Demons the kids are bizarrely horrible, picking on elderly people on the street, randomly stealing from stores, threatening little kids and acting out a parody of hormones run amok.
The destruction of these teens spoofs our need to see violence wreaked on the young and unpleasant. An odd little subplot involving what we think is a nice old man rounds out this theme. He turns out to be the ultimate ‘70s/‘80s urban legend, the guy putting razors in apples on Halloween night. In the film’s final moments, its not the kids punished for their sins.
Given the cult status of Night of the Demon, Shout! Factory deserves praise for including some strong extras. A seventy-minute “making of “feature includes interviews with more or less anyone involved with the project, including ‘80s “Scream Queen” Linnea Quigley. There’s also a detailed discussion of the film’s justly famous animated credits sequence, designed by Kathy Zielinski, who later worked on classic animated features ranging from Aladdin to Kung Fu Panda.
We also learn from this feature that Tenney had originally wanted to call the film Halloween Party. None other than Moustapha Akkad, the producer of John Carpenter’s Halloween, went after Tenney and more or less bullied him into changing the name.
Audio commentary features Tenney along with two of his producers. This is a bit weak as having some of the cast and Augustyn would have been ideal. Its clear from the “making of” featurette that Tenney and Augustyn have had more than their share of disagreements and this perhaps explains his absence.
Horror fans need to pick this one up, even if the ‘80s seems like a black hole of bad sequels and a morass of bad ideas. Night of the Demons does schlock right.