It may not be the best horror movie of the ’80s, but movies like Night of the Demons are the reason we love ’80s horror. Gory, funny, sexy, scary, and silly, it’s the total package of a certain type of horror film that made so many of us fall for the genre in the first place. It’s like mainlining 88 minutes of monstrous fun directly into our horror-loving hearts.
The story is a simple one: goth girl Angela (Amelia Kinkade) is having a Halloween party at an abandoned mortuary that’s supposedly been haunted since a series of grisly murders were committed years earlier. She gathers a group of friends, some booze, and some music, but things don’t go exactly as planned and before you know it, Angela is conducting a séance to pass the time. Unfortunately, she conjures up a long-dormant demonic spirit in the process, which takes turns possessing the partygoers and killing them off in nasty ways. Best Halloween party? Or best Halloween party?
The sophomore effort from director Kevin S. Tenney (who made his feature-length directorial debut with another cult classic, Witchboard, just two years earlier in 1986), Night of the Demons is a celebration of R-rated horror and all the stuff we weren’t supposed to see as kids, whether it’s sex or violence or demonic rituals or a human being shoving an entire tube of lipstick inside her own boob. Tenney places energy and fun above all else, making for a film that’s lively and entertaining and, at under 90 minutes, gets out before it overstays its welcome. Combining the characters of an ’80s slasher with the trappings of a haunted house movie and the special makeup effects of a creature feature, Night of the Demons whips a whole bunch of subgenres together into a devil’s brew that feels very much like its own thing while, at the same time, resembling all of the other ’80s horror we love.
The characters aren’t especially likable, as Night of the Demons belongs to that school of ’80s horror in which everyone mostly bickers and insults one another as their primary form of communication. It makes you wonder how any of them are friends, quite honestly. But just because they’re not likable doesn’t mean they’re not memorable, and both Tenney and his cast are smart about creating characters that stand out in just a few broad strokes: there’s Angela’s goth weirdness, or the fun and flirty Suzanne (Linnea Quigley), or Stooge (Hal Havins), the loud, obnoxious boor, or New York Italian Sal (Billy Gallo), who is played with maximum New York Italianess, or Final Girl Judy (Cathy Podewell), who breaks a few Final Girl rules and still succeeds at surviving the night because she’s one of the only characters who is appropriately afraid of what is happening. When most of the characters in a horror movie are killed off because they don’t understand the threat until it’s too late, sometimes all it takes is a keen sense of awareness to make it through the night.
Though it inevitably comes up in discussions about “favorite Halloween movies,” I’m always surprised to find that Night of the Demons tends to be listed somewhere below the top five, only after the usual suspects like Halloween and Trick ’r Treat have been named. Don’t get me wrong: those are great movies! But I find myself constantly hoping Night of the Demons will have a better showing, because for me it’s one of the best examples of the spirit of our favorite holiday captured on film. From the amazing animated opening credits set to Dennis Michael Tenney’s really fun synth score to the grouchy old man who hates Halloween that bookends the film (and who gets his comeuppance in the best EC Comics tradition), Night of the Demons is steeped in holiday atmosphere even beyond the fact that it’s actually set on Halloween night. From the pranks to the parties to the playfulness, Tenney made a movie about how being scared can be really fun. That’s exactly what we celebrate on Halloween.
1988 was maybe the last year for the kind of horror movie we saw a lot in the ’80s. There were certainly still good films released in the next year and into the ’90s, but the genre was changing, entering a period of transition into something else, the new form of which wouldn’t crystallize until the release of Scream in 1996. Night of the Demons comes from a time when practical makeup and gore effects were still commonplace, when horror and comedy regularly went hand in hand, and when so many entries in the genre focused on groups of young people behaving irresponsibly and paying the price. It’s not the last gasp of this sort of ’80s horror, but it is one of the last best examples of a very special kind of horror movie—the kind that’s now being imitated by the current crop of horror filmmakers paying tribute to the ’80s and to movies like Night of the Demons.
As most good horror movies are, the movie was, of course, remade in 2009 by Autopsy directors (and frequent Tobe Hooper collaborators) Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson. To their credit, the filmmakers assembled an impressive cast (including Edward Furlong, Shannon Elizabeth, Monica Keena, Diora Baird, and even a Linnea Quigley cameo) and really tried to retain the spirit of fun that the original movie captured. But Night of the Demons is such a product of a very specific moment in horror history that it’s lightning in a bottle—the genre was in too different a place over 20 years later for a new Night of the Demons to work the way that the truly special original movie does. The year 1988 is as important to Night of the Demons as Night of the Demons is to 1988.
There are some horror movies released in 1988 that were big commercial successes, helping bridge the gap between the genre geeks and mainstream audiences. There are some that were about continuing franchises and maintaining the status quo, as 1988 is one of the only (maybe the only) years in which every major ’80s franchise is represented, save for Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are some horror movies from 1988 that are about trying to push the genre forward at a time when it felt like it was beginning to fade. And then there’s a movie like Night of the Demons, which feels like a great big party every time I come back to it. The morning’s gonna come. The end of the ’80s is coming, and horror is going to change along with it. Just for tonight, just for this one movie, let’s remember everything that makes this decade and this genre great.
The party’s just begun.
Be sure to check here all month long for more special features celebrating the Class of 1988!