Wednesday, October 5, 2011

October 4th: Night of The Demons (1988)

It's Halloween Night. Goth chick Angela Franklin (Mimi Kinkade) and her sexy friend Suzanne (Linnea Quigley) are throwing a Halloween party and have invited eight of their peers; Judy Cassidy (Cathy Podewell), Jay Jansen (Lance Fenton), Sal Romero (William Gallo), Roger (Alvin Alexis), Stooge (Hal Havins), Helen (Allison Barron), Max (Philip Tanzini), and Frannie (Jill Terashita).
Unbeknowst to the group, the party is being held at Hull House, a run-down mortuary abandoned years ago after the Hull family was murdered. With the radio dead, Angela and the partygoers decide to hold a seance to connect with their past lives. Following the seance, the house is blocked off by a brick wall and Angela and Suzanne start acting strangely, with Angela performing an erotic dance and Suzanne disappearing into thin air. As the night wears on, the partygoers realize that their seance has unleashed demonic entities that have possessed Angela and Suzanne and that these creature intend to turn them into demons for all of eternity.
In addition to the slasher film, the horror-comedy genre was a booming trend in the 1980s. While horror comedies have been around since days of Abbott and Costello, '80s films like Critters Galaxy of Terror and Motel Hell saw the genre boom in popularity. In fact, some of the best horror films of the '80s were horror comedies; George Romero's anthology flick Creepshow, Tom Holland's vampire renaissance Fright Night, Stuart Gordon's modern Frankenstein take Re-Animator and, arguably the best of all, John Landis' werewolf masterpiece An American Werewolf In London.
Despite its popularity, the mixture of horror and comedy resulted in many misfires and Kevin S. Tenney's Night of The Demons is one of the worst offenders. What the aforementioned films did so well was blend the two genres together, perfectly balancing atmospheric horror and knee-slapping humor. The perfect example being the theatre scene in An American Werewolf In London, where David Naughton's David Kessler is confronted by his victims, all of whom are trapped in limbo. On one hand, it's horrifying and stark to see dead people confront their killer, informing him that he's left their families broken and sad. On the other hand, it's hilarious to see them gleefully suggest different methods of suicide for David to use on himself.
Night of The Demons, on the other hand, struggles to find that balance. For the first 35 minutes, when we're getting to know the characters and see them arrive at Hull House, everything is zany, unfunny comedy; the partygoers pull pranks on each other, the guys' tough talk sounds goofy and idiotic and the animated opening credits sequence looks like something out of Killer Klowns From Outer Space.
The last 30 minutes, which sees the surviving characters hiding from the demons, is straight horror of the worst variety; the tension is non-existent, the demons do nothing but hiss and float and the resolution is weak and unsatisfying.
It's only in the 25 minutes comprising the second act, which sees the demons take possession of Angela and Suzanne while the others explore the house, that the horror and humor finally come together in a cohesive fashion and, while nothing mind-blowing, this portion of the movie is at least watchable. The characters stop being annoying, the dialogue is toned down and the supernatural elements get whipped out in very cool fashion. In fact, the best scene in the movie happens around the 50 minute mark, when Angela performs a psychosexual dance number before going into full-on demon mode.
Angela's dance, though iconic, is unfortunately the only moment in the film that feels original and unique, for everything else in the film is lifted from The Return of The Living Dead, easily the best '80s horror-comedy after An American Werewolf In London. Let me count the ways in which Tenney's film rips off Dan O'Bannon's zombie classic. The female lead is squeaky clean and innocent? Check. The outcast is foulmouthed and has a run-down car that breaks down? Check. The token black guy makes it to the end? Check. There's a crematorium? Check. The female lead's boyfriend turns evil? Check. Linnea Quigley gets naked? Check. Given how much Night of The Demons emulates The Return of The Living Dead, it's sad to see these once great elements handled in such an amateurish, piss-poor manner.
Without a doubt, one of the best things about O'Bannon's film was his actors; Thom Mathews, James Karen, Miguel A. Nunez, Jr., Don Calfa, and Linnea Quigley highlight the lively, fun cast. In contrast, Night of The Demons' cast is pretty dismal. They're either vanilla bland (Cathy Podewell, Lance Fenton and Philip Tanzini) or annoying (Hal Havins, Alvin Alex and William Gallo). In certain cases like Silent Night, Deadly Night, this can be acceptable if and only if the characters are so despicable that you find yourself rooting for their deaths and, with the exception of Stooge, nobody in the film is really deserving of the demon's wrath. They're just there to assure a high body count rather than move the story forward or give the film some energy before the demons crash the party.
Wes Craven, director of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, has often said that a horror film's ability to scare you lies in the effectiveness of the central villain. Taking that point of view into perspective, Angela Franklin is pretty far down in the pantheon of horror villains, residing alongside Killer Ken from Slumber Party Massacre III and Jeremy Melton from Valentine. As Betsy Palmer and Kathy Bates have proven, a female villain can be just as imposing and nightmarish as the standard male boogeyman. The problem with Angela isn't so much Amelia Kinkade; she does what she can and looks great in the dance (she also choreographed the film); rather, the problem lies with the script. Angela, despite her goth chick status, is positioned as eccentric but innocent. She doesn't come off as genuinely evil and, in fact, she's not even the first person to be possessed.
That honor goes to pretty in pink Suzanne, played by Scream Queen Linnea Quigley. Having made memorable appearances in such films as Graduation Day, Silent Night, Deadly Night, the aforementioned The Return of The Living Dead, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Quigley made quite the career for herself in the 1980s as the Scream Queen least afraid to strip down to her birthday suit. She did it in all of those films and Night of The Demons is no different, her most memorable moment coming in her first scene, where she distracts the convenience store clerks by bending over in an insanely short skirt, exposing her pink underwear. While she clearly made her career on her body, Linnea shows some real acting chops in Night of The Demons, bringing some much-needed charisma and menace to the screen. Furthermore, she's the only demon-possessed character in the film who is scarier sans prosthetic effects. Kudos to Linnea for giving it her all, even for bad films like this.
Speaking of effects, it should be noted that special effects designer Steve Johnson, who also worked on Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf, fell in love with Linnea Quigley while making molds of her breasts and the two married shortly afterwards. How sweet. As far as the effects go, they're acceptable but suffer in that they clearly limit the actor's facial expressions, preventing many of them, especially Amelia Kinkade, from really being able to portray menace through the latex. In Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, the possessed's makeup effects were limited to creepy contact lenses and light flourishes of color, allowing them to be as expressive as possible. Given the similarities between the villains of the two films, one wonders why Johnson didn't take a page from Raimi's film.
We've already established that Joe Augustyn's script sucks; how does Kevin S. Tenney do in his second directorial effort? It's nothing spectacular, but it's sufficient. When making a movie where 95% of the film takes place in one location, it's imperative that the director keep the visuals interesting and prevent the viewers from losing interest in the singular setting. Tenney gets the job done in a workmanlike manner; he uses shadows and lighting well, the shots of Angela floating are impressively spooky and he knows how to film the requisite nude scenes. My only real complaint would be the constant use of the running camera technique Sam Raimi used to great effect in The Evil Dead. Given how memorable those visuals in Raimi's film are, it's hard to understand why Tenney would think he could copy them and not be called out on it? Other than that, Tenney's directing is perfectly acceptable and far from the film's biggest problem, that being the script and the victims.
It's probably worth mentioning the biggest difference between this film and the previous franchise films in this series, Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist and Psycho, for me. I have no connection to the Night of The Demons franchise. Prior to seeing Dominion, I was already deeply familiar with The Exorcist and had seen the two sequels afterwards. Gus Van Sant's Psycho was the only film in that series I hadn't seen until recently. Prior to this writing, I had never seen this film, either of the sequels (Brian Trenchard-Smith's Night of The Demons 2 and Jimmy Kaufman's Night of The Demons 3) or the recent remake. I bring this up because unlike the previously mentioned films in the series, I don't have any nostalgia. I can't look back at this with fond memories, remembering when I first saw it and how many times I rented the VHS tape from Blockbuster. Other than remembering seeing the VHS box in my hometown's video store as a kid, I have no past feelings about this film. I can only look at Night of The Demons through the eyes of a jaded horror fan experiencing this for the first time. Taking that into account, I doubt I would've liked this anymore today had I seen it when I was younger; I can't even understand how this managed to spawn two sequels, let alone a remake.
I give Night of The Demons 1.5 out of 5 Stars. I'm well aware this is a cult classic that many people have fond memories of, but I struggle to see many redeeming values in this film. The script is horrendous, the cast is worthless save for Linnea Quigley, the demons aren't the least bit scary, the humor falls flat, and the film ends on two horrid notes; 1) a cheap way of destroying the demons and 2) a twist ending that comes out of nowhere and doesn't make a lick of sense. Unless you have a strong desire to see every '80s horror film ever made, there's honestly no reason to see Night of The Demons. You want to see Linnea Quigley's ass? Google it. You want to see the dance scene? Go to youtube, it's Don't bother watching the film; it's 85 minutes of your life you won't get back.

Next Up: October 5th: He Knows You're Alone (1980)

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