Night of the Demons / Halloween Party (1988) -**½
Okay, so we’ve done junky 80’s movies reflecting, in one way or another, the era’s anxieties related to both heavy metal music and role-playing games, the two pop-culture betes noires of the Satanic Panic. That still leaves unexplored one major route to teenage damnation from those days, albeit one that was harped on by only the most truly unhinged elements of the Religious Right. If you had little or no contact with people of that sort, you might never have realized that Halloween was the road to Hell paved with Fun-Size Snickers bars. Now obviously it’s absurd for Christians to object to a Christian holiday, or to impute demonic significance to observances meant originally to constrain the power of evil spirits, but if fundamentalists understood anything about the histories of their own religions, they wouldn’t be fundamentalists in the first place. Halloween was evil, said the Christian supremacist lunatic fringe, and nobody was going to tell them different. There was a Jack Chick tract and everything! Consequently, if you did have someone like that in your life, and you were a teen who loved having an annual excuse to dress up like a monster, to festoon your house with spooky knickknacks, or to invite your friends over to eat junk food and watch horror movies, you could more or less count on getting a raft of shit for all of the above behaviors from your grandmother or your youth pastor or whoever it was that had appointed themselves your personal Chorus of Disapproval. And if you were a child for whom trick-or-treating was one of the major highlights of the year, you could similarly count on having the old urban legend about apples booby-trapped with razorblades drilled into your head every October. Once again, the makers of cheap horror movies noticed the trend, and were quick to capitalize on it with films that not only exploited the atmosphere of the holiday, but proceeded from premises embodying the fundies’ hysteria over it. The most famous example is probably Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but I’m not ready to review that one yet. So instead, here’s Night of the Demons, an All-Hallows’ horror flick that enjoys a significantly more favorable reputation, even though it’s really much worse by virtually any imaginable standard.
We begin with an old man (Harold Ayer) trudging home with an armload of groceries, running a gantlet of teenaged hecklers. It’s Halloween night, and foremost among the codger’s provisions are half a peck of apples and a pack or razorblades. By the time we take our leave of him, most viewers will probably be on his side as regards the neighborhood kids, but he and his wife (Marie Denn, from Bury Me an Angel and Stewardess School) are in this movie only to set up a Tales from the Crypt-style twist ending.
Among the old man’s tormentors are three people about whom we are expected to care— which is unfortunate, because Grandpa Razorapple is a much more appealing figure. The big lout wearing the rubber pig snout is the aptly-named and aptly-costumed Stooge (Hal Havins, of Witchtrap and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama). The chick in the fairy princess outfit is Stooge’s girlfriend, Helen (Allison Barron, from Beverly Hills Bodysnatchers and Blood Nasty); if you’re wondering how it’s possible that someone as thoroughly loathsome— physically, mentally, and behaviorally— as Stooge has a girlfriend, I’m pretty sure Helen herself wonders right along with you. The black guy dressed as a pirate in the back seat of Stooge’s mangy old Dart is Roger (The Brother from Another Planet’s Alvin Alexis), who is easily the least awful of the trio. Indeed, were it not for his appalling taste in friends, Roger would be more or less okay. The three teens are on their way to a Halloween party being thrown by neighborhood goth weirdo Angela (Amelia Kinkade). If nothing else, the affair promises to be effectively spooky, since Angela is holding it at Hall House, the long-abandoned mansion-turned-mortuary generally regarded as the most haunted spot in town. That isn’t strictly speaking allowed, of course, but what’s a little breaking and entering between friends? After all, if anybody could be considered a friend to whatever lurks in Hall House, Angela would be the one. The party isn’t going to cost her a cent, either, since she’s got her trash-sexpot pal, Suzanne (Linnea Quigley, of Beach Babes from Beyond and Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula in Eight Legs to Love You) running interference for her with the counter clerks while she shoplifts everything she needs from the convenience store.
Also on the guest list for Angela’s party are a rather square bunch of kids named Max (Philip Tanzini), Frannie (Jill Terashita, from The Big Bet and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland), and Jay (Lance Fenton). Jay just recently started dating Judy (Cathy Podewell), a girl even squarer than him and his friends, and he originally intended to take her to a dance at the high school tonight. Once Jay found out about Angela’s party, though, it was obvious that the dance would be an inferior use of the evening. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be telling Judy’s mom (Karen Ericson, of Hustler Squad and The Boston Strangler) about the change in plans. However, Judy’s little brother, Billy (Ghoulies II’s Donnie Jeffcoat), knows what Big Sis is up to, because he was spying on her when Jay called to make the new arrangements. Surprisingly, the little brat keeps his mouth shut in front of their mother, but Judy’s ex-boyfriend, Sal (Billy Gallo), is able to extort all the relevant details from Billy when he comes over to make his latest futile play to win the girl’s renewed affections.
Once the venue shifts to Hall House, Night of the Demons turns into a remarkably shameless rip-off of The Evil Dead, even to the extent of representing the demonic force dwelling in the crematorium as a roving POV cam. Angela and Suzanne, inevitably, are possessed first, as a direct consequence of the séance that the former organizes for amusement’s sake after the batteries in Stooge’s boom box go dead. The demoniac girls then spread the supernatural contagion to their fellows, exploiting the congenital tendency of horror movie teenagers to split up into easily slashable small groups. Eventually, only Judy, Roger, and Sal remain alive and unpossessed, with just two chances for continued survival before them. Either they can run out the clock, keeping the demons at bay until the dawning of All Saints’ Day sends them back to Hell, or they can escape beyond the underground stream that encircles Hall House, trusting in the local legend that the evil inhabiting the property is unable to cross running water. The trouble with the former strategy is obvious, since the remaining protagonists are outnumbered seven to three, and no injury seems sufficient to deactivate the demon-controlled corpses of their friends. And the latter approach will be more difficult than it sounds, because the course of the underground stream is marked by a brick wall fifteen feet high, and the first thing the crematorium demon did upon waking up was to magic the gate leading through that wall out of existence.
It speaks to the abysmally low standards that horror fans had to set for their favorite genre in the last two years of the 80’s that Night of the Demons became an almost instantaneous cult hit. The film sold shocking numbers of tickets in its token theatrical release, and it remained a strong performer in home video for years. Some measure of its perennial popularity may be taken from the dates of its direct-to-video sequels, which arrived as late as 1994 and 1997 respectively. And yet Night of the Demons does very little to earn that fan loyalty. It is, to begin with, derivative in the extreme, using one of the hoariest clichés in the genre— a séance in a spooky old house— as the launching pad for a plot lifted almost whole from The Evil Dead. Meanwhile, the makeup for the possessed undead copies Demons (indeed, cashing in on Demons may well have been the rationale behind the title change from Halloween Party), and on those occasions when we get to see the crematorium demon for ourselves, the puppet representing it is a dead ringer for the skeleton gargoyle that the World’s Creepiest Hobo turns into at the end of Hellraiser. Night of the Demons also takes a moment to crib from Legend, of all things. The dance of seduction that Angela performs for Sal is unmistakably patterned on the scene in the latter film where Lily acquires the Gown of Ultimate Gothness. And the framing story with the old couple, unrelated as it is to anything else in the movie, works only as a mash note to the old EC horror comics, which by this point had enjoyed no shortage of tributes from worthier suitors. Even the name of the principal setting is a tiresomely unoriginal, recalling both The Haunting’s Hill House and The Legend of Hell House.
Night of the Demons is also lazily illogical, beginning with its basic setup. Think for a moment about how one goes about throwing a party. You invite your friends, right? I mean, maybe you give them permission to sub-invite friends of their own, too, but the point is, you want the guests to be people you like, and who like you in return. That’s not how it is at Angela’s party, though. The only friend she has among the crowd at Hall House is Suzanne. The rest are contemptuous or fearful of her at best, and to all appearances, she actively detests most of them. For that matter, the two main cliques of attendees— Stooge, Roger, and Helen on one side, and Judy, Jay, Max, and Frannie on the other— are mutually antagonistic, and nobody is happy to see Sal show up. Not that I can blame any of these characters for despising their fellows, since this is one hateful and repellant bunch even by the standards of late-80’s horror movie casts, and they spend virtually the whole of acts one and two establishing and reestablishing their hatefulness and repellency. Perhaps it shouldn’t matter, since the inter-character relationships end up meaning so little anyway, but it does serious harm to the film when you realize that everything proceeds from a social gathering that has no credible reason to be happening in the first place. Unless, of course, Angela meant for herself to get possessed, and the party was never anything more than an elaborate revenge scheme against her enemies at school. Understand, though, that there’s no textual reason to imagine that Angela is up to any such thing. It’s just that the movie begins to make some semblance of sense only if we read it that way.
Other manifestations of laziness in Night of the Demons inadvertently have more interesting effects. Characterization is strictly limited to paper-thin renditions of tired teenage stereotypes, and the filmmakers can’t even be bothered to use those stereotypes sensibly, but for that very reason, Night of the Demons sometimes ends up taking a step or two in an unexpected direction. Jay, for instance, turns out to be a much bigger creep than Sal, while Sal ultimately displays a degree of standuptitude wholly unforeseeable given his portrayal prior to the final act. Roger, preacher’s son that he is, should be the natural choice for figuring out what’s haunting Hall House and shutting it back up in that crematorium, but instead he falls right to pieces in the face of real supernatural evil, leaving that task to Judy (who has hitherto exhibited no obvious qualifications for the job). Mind you, Roger’s crackup puts him irritatingly close to Mantan Moreland territory, but at the same time, he gets to break the “black guy dies first” rule, and arguably saves Judy’s life at the climax. And the friendship between Angela and Suzanne is weirdly thought-provoking, precisely because each girl is sketched much too lightly for us to see what really makes them or their relationship tick.
I don’t think any of that can account for this movie’s undeservedly strong following, though. For that, I believe we need to look primarily at the material aspects of the production, which clearly enjoyed the bulk of director Kevin Tenney’s attention. (Linnea Quigley, meanwhile, is a fairly obvious secondary source of appeal.) A lot of late-80’s horror films amount to little beyond a demo reel for their effects artists, but Night of the Demons is one of the few that do not disappoint on that score. Chief gore-and-monsters guy Steve Johnson has some pretty impressive credits on his resumé, having been part of special effects makeup crews on Humanoids from the Deep and An American Werewolf in London, and going on to lead a team of his own on Species a few years after this film. Tenney uses the toys that Johnson gives him very well indeed, showing every prosthesis and puppet to optimum effect. Night of the Demons similarly enjoys superb art direction and production design for its price range. This movie takes forever to get properly rolling, so it’s imperative that it give us something interesting to look at during the first 40 minutes or so, while all that nothing is going on. I can’t say the prop-buyers, set-dressers, costumers, and so forth were quite equal to that challenge, but their skill, creativity, and hard work make almost all the difference between a frustrating first half and an insufferable one. In the final assessment, Night of the Demons may be a cheap piece of shit, but it’s a cheap piece of shit that looks like a cult classic. In a fright-film landscape dominated by movies with neither style nor substance, sometimes that had to be good enough.