Halloween parties are great settings for horror films. What else but mischief and mayhem can be expected when a group of people, all dressed in their scariest costumes, gathers on the spookiest night of the year? Add the inevitable Ouija board and séance, and the results are usually sheer terror, and that is what viewers get in the 1988 cult classic Night of the Demons.
Night of the Demons is the story of an outcast girl named Angela (dancer Mimi Kinkade from Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) who decides to throw a Halloween party with her best friend, Suzanne (B-movie scream queen Linnea Quigley from Return of the Living Dead and Silent Night, Deadly Night), at a legendary abandoned funeral home that was built on a haunted plot of land. The invitees are initially hesitant but, since Halloween is Angela’s favorite holiday and they figure that she will throw a crazy party, they decide to attend. Upon arrival, the guests are treated to a seemingly normal party; there’s music, dancing, and booze. When the radio unexpectedly dies, Angela suggests the ultimate Halloween party game – a séance. While most of the partygoers mock Angela’s attempt to summon spirits, a girl named Helen (Allison Barron from A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge) sees a demon in a mirror and screams. Horrified, she leaves with another boy named Rodger (The Brother from Another Planet’s Alvin Alexis), but they don’t get far; the gate in the wall through which they arrived has disappeared, and they find themselves trapped within the mortuary grounds. Meanwhile, the demonic force from the mirror makes its way through the partiers, possessing them and turning them into demons themselves, until the only one left is the pure and innocent Judy (Cathy Podewell from “Dallas”). Judy tries to make her escape with Helen and Rodger, but the spirits still don’t want them to leave. The kids must try to find a way to survive the night…and the wrath of their demon friends.
Written by Joe Augustyn (Night Angel) and directed by Kevin S. Tenney (Witchboard, Witchtrap), Night of the Demons has become a second-tier cult classic to eighties horror fans. The story is a clever combination of slasher film, supernatural thriller, and black comedy, wrapped up in a package that is more than a little reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. It was made at the perfect time; audiences were already clamoring for something other than a traditional masked-killer movie, yet still wanted the blood and guts to which they had grown accustomed. With Night of the Demons, Tenney takes the usual slasher fodder group of good-looking teens and gave them a new threat – themselves.
The special effects makeup in Night of the Demons was done by Steve Johnson, a disciple of the legendary Rick Baker who worked with the master on such classics as An American Werewolf in London and Videodrome. Although the lion’s share of the makeup effects involve turning the teens into demons, Johnson does get to pull a few more tricks out of his magic makeup bag through the use of latex and prosthetics. For example, in one particularly memorable scene, the post-possession Suzanne is obsessing over her makeup. Obviously crazy, she draws a lipstick heart on her face, keeps moving the lipstick down her neck, and drags it across her chest. Then, in a completely unexpected move, she pushes the lipstick tube right into her bare breast, where it disappears without a trace. The effect is not gory or brutal, simply surreal, and the results are both seamless and shocking. The effect worked out especially well for Johnson; he and Linnea Quigley, the actress who played Suzanne, ended up getting married a couple of years later.
The music for Night of the Demons was composed by the director’s brother, Dennis Michael Tenney. The score is a slick mix of period new-wave songs and synthesizer-and-drum machine film music. It works incredibly well on both fronts; it gives the kids plenty of reason to dance when appropriate, yet evokes the ghosts of classic horror compositions past when it needs to. And, the entire time, it never pretends to be anything that it isn’t – with or without the visuals, it is obviously the score to an eighties horror movie, and it wears that fact proudly on its sleeve.
The opening title credits for Night of the Demons are another piece of horror movie history. The intro features a simple yet compelling animated sequence (courtesy of Disney and Dreamworks animator Kathy Zielinski) full of flying ghouls, haunted houses, and shifting shadows. The cartoon can best be described as “Scooby Doo” meets Creepshow. It’s cheesy, but acceptably so; it has nothing to do with the rest of the film, but serves as a great attention-getter.
And speaking of having nothing to do with the rest of the film, Night of the Demons also features a cool little set of bookends. Right after the opening animation, the audience is introduced to an old cantankerous man who is shown bringing home a bag of apples and a package of razor blades, planning to take his unhappiness out on the neighborhood trick-or-treaters. He doesn’t appear again until the end of the film, when his superfluous storyline is resolved in a way that is very satisfying for the viewer. The callback at the end is just another unforgettable aspect of Night of the Demons that has helped solidify its place as a horror classic.
Although the Halloween party is a stereotypical horror movie trope, Kevin S. Tenney shows that its can still be utilized well. Night of the Demons takes the scariest night of the year and, through witchcraft and the occult, makes it even scarier.