Night Of The Demons (1988)

Our Kevin Tenney (Witchboard 1 and 2, Witchtrap) season continues with a movie you probably think you’ve seen, but almost certainly haven’t. It’s because the title sounds like a dozen other horrors from around the same time, and the plot – teens visit haunted house – is so generic that I’m going to struggle to do much recapping in a few paragraphs time; even I was pretty sure I’d seen it.

There is a problem, though. While Tenney and writer Joe Augustyn (more on him later) had some cool set piece ideas, and a decent story, they couldn’t figure out how to start it. I’m wracking my brain and still don’t have any idea why…anyway, let’s just gloss over that bit (much as they did).

Angela (Mimi Kinkaid) decides to stage a Halloween party in Hull House, which is a former mortuary. Even though she’s seen as a little kooky by her classmates, a few of them turn up, expecting the goth girl to throw a good party. Perhaps she just wanted to throw a party and make some new friends? Who knows. Everyone seems happy enough to attend and there’s some fun archetypes too – horny slob Stooge, party girl Suzanne (Linnea Quigley, who looks a long way removed from high school – to be fair, she initially didn’t go to audition, believing she looked too old herself), prudish final girl Judy (Cathy Podewell), hoodlum Sal, a jock, a hot cheerleader-type, and Rodger (Alvin Alexis), who appears to be absolutely useless at the beginning, as Stooge’s sidekick, but comes into his own.

Hull House has all sorts of creepy history, so when the party starts flagging (the stereo breaks, the lights start going out), Angela decides to hold a séance, and this releases a demon – obviously – which manifests first as a grotesque disembodied head before possessing Suzanne. Also, the demonic spirit can be passed along through kissing, or murder, and passed along it is! You know how it goes.

Aside: the movie was originally going to be called “Halloween Party” before the more famous “Halloween” franchise threatened to sue them; but the introductory demon scene, as we get a POV shot of it emerging from the depths of the basement to possess some teens, and indeed the possession itself, is straight out of “The Evil Dead”. I guess Raimi couldn’t be bothered to sue.

What’s “interesting” about this is how leisurely it is about getting to the reason people would watch an 80s B-horror – death and mayhem. The first actual on-screen death doesn’t happen til 58 minutes, and the demon doesn’t even show up til the halfway point. So, do you really like people wandering around an extremely dark house and arguing? If so, there’s about two-thirds of this movie catering to you – everyone else might have a tougher time.

Tenney has been known to have some relatively weak actors in central roles, but that’s not the case here, and I enjoyed his ensemble. Hal Havins as Stooge is a fun character, William Gallo as Sal gives a potential one-dimensional character some real depth, and…okay, Judy and Rodger are pretty bland, but the rest of the cannon-fodder are excellent. They’re not always given the greatest dialogue, but they try.

We’ve also compliments Tenney’s death effects in the past, and they’re also in full effect here. Eyes get gouged out, people get burned alive, limbs get hacked off, and for the relatively low budget, there’s some superb work going on. The effect I liked the most, though, was relatively simple, and involved the characters switching from their demon-possessed form to their “normal” one, done off-camera – so they’ll turn and attack someone, but when they escape, turn to look after them running away as their old selves. It’s simple but very effective, for me.

It’s quite difficult to summon up much energy for such an incredibly hackneyed plot, though – I could have started this review site in 2012 and written the same number of reviews, just of “teens go to a haunted house” spam-in-a-can movies, and I’d still be going strong today (962 reviews and counting!) Tenney has some flair, and shows it here, but you’re still just waiting round for the deaths and the reveals and so on, and with a first half where so little happens, it’s difficult to recommend it too highly.

Still, we have a couple of sequels, one of which was directed by ISCFC veteran Brian Trenchard-Smith (Dead End Drive In, the Leprechaun sequels, Drive Hard), so I’m cautiously optimistic.

One final word, about writer Joe Augustyn. He was evidently a very good guy, and did not like the racism of Hollywood, so made a point of casting POC in lead roles in his movies. Good on you, Joe! If only you’d given Rodger a bit more personality!

Rating: thumbs in the middle