(1988) Directed by Kevin Tenney; Written by: Joe Augustyn; Starring: Cathy Podewell, Alvin Alexis, Hal Havins, Billy Gallo, Amelia Kincade and Linnea Quigley
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“…it doesn’t tax you too much. You don’t have to sit and think any deep thoughts. You just watch the pretty naked girls and the exploding heads and the cool shots, and the funny cast, and just party hardy…” – Kevin Tenney
The 1980s were a vital decade for B-horror, boasting some of the greatest titles of the genre, including Night of the Creeps, Re-Animator, and Hellraiser, to name only a few. Night of the Demons (not to be confused with Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 classic, Night of the Demon) is not one of them. I had high hopes for this video store staple from VHS’s heyday, but instead of a night of good, dumb fun, it left me feeling disenchanted. I apologize in advance for the soapbox rant that follows.
Night of the Demons starts out with a fun little animated title sequence, but it’s all downhill from there. What follows is a predictable story, in which a group of unruly “teens” (who are well into their 20s) party in an abandoned funeral home, and unwittingly summon evil forces. As more teens succumb to demonic possession, the nominal heroes run around the house in a futile attempt to escape. Half-human creatures pop up randomly and the cycle repeats until it’s over. The movie is bookended by scenes with a crotchety old man (Harold Ayer) that have no relation to the rest of the story
One of film’s biggest problems is the lack of a single character to identify with. The first individual, and biggest offender, is the loathsome Stooge (Hal Havins). Typically, portly characters are portrayed as clueless social misfits or loudmouth jerks. In this case, we have both. This obnoxious twit left me counting the minutes until he was dispatched (spoiler: it’s well past the midpoint). Another character, Sal (Billy Gallo), speaks like a stereotypical character from a ‘50s juvenile delinquent flick. As the resident nymphomaniac Suzanne, Linnea Quigley spices things up a bit, but she was funnier and sexier in Return of the Living Dead. True to form of most films of similar ilk, the virginal characters survive, but it’s not likely anyone will care.
While the horror genre has traditionally catered to male-centric tastes, it’s hard to stomach the film’s casual animosity toward its female characters. Angela, a goth girl (Amelia Kincade),* shows the most promise, but has nothing interesting to say (her bump and grind to a Bauhaus song is her claim to fame). Frannie (Jill Terashita) is barely introduced, and seems to exist only to have a topless scene in a coffin. The aforementioned Stooge constantly refers to the other female characters as “bitch,” which might be okay if it was in service to the story, but it makes it difficult to laugh at his wacky antics or have much sympathy for him. The most disturbing scene, however, has nothing to do with the horror elements. An adolescent boy hides in his sister’s (Cathy Podewell) closet while she dresses, then comments on her breasts (twice).
* Fun fact: After reprising her character in two subsequent sequels, Amelia Kincade retired from acting, and became a pet psychic.
Despite its many faults, Night of the Demons had the potential to be much more. In the DVD commentary, director Kevin Tenney alludes to the Alice in Wonderland aspect of the film, stating the house “does whatever it wants to scare you, and there’s no apparent rhyme or reason.” If Tenney and screenwriter Joe Augustyn had stuck with that tact, it would have been a much more interesting film, compared to what we’re left with. The characters are trapped in limbo between the realms of the living and dead, and can’t escape the funeral home grounds. Unfortunately, this theme is never fully exploited. The movie’s punk ethos seems forced, rather than authentic, with the loud and annoying youths acting more like drunken frat boys than counter-culture rebels. Once again, I’m reminded of the far superior Return of the Living Dead, which did a great job melding horror and punk sensibilities, bound by an anarchic spirit.
It’s obvious the cast and crew had a good time making the film, and worked hard with an extremely limited budget and limited resources (the Steve Johnson makeup effects are suitably effective). There’s nothing wrong with the desire to entertain, but even this type of movie could benefit from a little depth. The best B-horror often has some subversive elements that transcend the low brow aim to shock and titillate. Once you get past the requisite gore and T&A in Night of the Demons, there isn’t much to appeal to anyone who isn’t a teenage boy, or distinguish it from other similar video store time wasters from that era. I know there are a lot of folks who hold a great deal of affection for this movie, so if you’re looking for brain-dead horror with cheap thrills, go for it. If you demand more from your horror fix, there are much better examples to be found.