Wednesday, February 12, 2014

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988) Blu-ray Review

Night of the Demons (1988) d. Kevin S. Tenney (USA)

I missed a lot of the “classic” 1980s B-movies in their prime, only catching up with them much, much later on home video and at a more advanced stage in life. As a result, they don’t often carry the same sentimental nostalgia that they do for many other horror fans my age, although I have come to appreciate their cheesy appeal in a way that the younger version of me probably couldn’t have. When I finally took the plunge and rented Night of the Demons about 10 years ago, though all-too-familiar with its hag-adorned video cover art over the years, I found it to be “not bad,” with Steve Johnson’s exceptional makeup effects (in his first solo effort) balancing out the dumb-dumb characters and logy first act. After recently sitting through it a couple more times, in honor of Shout! Factory’s recent DVD/BR release, I have a much greater sense of appreciation for Kevin Tenney’s sophomore effort – it really is one of those special films that gets better with each viewing.

The set-up is Low Budget Horror 101: a group of wild ‘n’ crazy teens head off to a secluded dwelling (a decrepit funeral parlor) off the beaten path, one with a very sketchy backstory of murder and mayhem, to get drunk, get laid, and paaaarrtaayyyy. Of course, sometime during the festivities, they decide to engage in some activity bound to rile the spirits (in this case, a sitting séance gazing into a mirror), and things proceed to go predictably bonkers.

We’ve got one of every flavor: the cute virgin (Cathy Podewell), her blockhead beau (Lance Fenton), the token black guy (Alvin Alexis), the obnoxious slob (Hal Havins), the bad girl (Amelia “Mimi” Kincade), the tramptastic slut (Linnea Quigley), the foxy Asian chick (Jill Terashita), the bad boy complete with tough guy accent (Billy Gallo), and a couple of bland white kids to knock off early (Allison Barron, Philip Tanzini). None of this motley crew are particularly likeable, nor are they likely to be partying together, but c’est la cinema du ‘orror, no?

To be perfectly honest, during my recent revisit, I was still as annoyed as ever during the first half, put off by the grating characters and uneven acting (which continues without respite for nearly 45 minutes before any actual demonic action occurs). But once the latex starts hitting the fan and bodies start piling up, the movie earns a surprising amount of goodwill, splitting my face into an appreciative smile at the over-the-top thrills and chills. (This is the unrated version with a few extra special red sauce goodies.) By the end, I had been won over, but all-too-aware of the slog I’d endured to get there.

Then a funny thing happened as I went back to listen to the two (count ‘em, two) audio commentary tracks: knowing what I was in for, I accepted the braying and belching and whining and general chicanery. As my discomfort abated, I began to appreciate the complex camera moves and shots (hello, shattered mirror pieces on the ground reflecting a separate cast member in each shard) and the bouncy rhythm of screenwriter/producer Joe Augustyn's dialogue.

I started enjoying the heightened performances that had struck me so false, and once the second act kicked into gear, I found myself respecting Johnson’s innovation and resourcefulness even more than before. Night of the Demons is a true funhouse ride, and unlike many horror efforts, familiarity is its ally – we love knowing what’s coming around the corner so we can scream all the louder (except Quigley’s lipstick/boob moment, which remains the film’s best shock and deserves to be preserved, spoiler-free, for all future generations).

To say that Shout! Factory has outdone themselves is a bit of a cliché at this point, but darned if Aine Leicht and her team haven’t served up the finest banquet of extras any Demons fan could hope for. One of the aforementioned commentary tracks, featuring Tenney, executive producer Walter Josten, and supervising producer Jeff Geoffray) has been ported over from the 2004 Anchor Bay release, but it still holds up well, as the team still seems quite proud of their Witchboard follow-up. The new track, featuring Tenney, Havins, Podewell, Gallo, and Johnson, finds a different, more jocular tone while still remaining undeniably engaging and informative.

But these are just the warm-up for the feature-length making-of doc, “You’re Invited,” which is a deliciously comprehensive retrospective, detailed and chatty and filled with great stories. Leicht (who produced and directed, with Tenney on board as co-producer) assembles interviews with nearly all the primary cast and crew members into a cohesive and well-paced trip down the Hull House rabbit hole. Especially enjoyable is the attention given to the animated opening credits, which were nearly nixed when the final price tag was determined, but which aid immeasurably in setting the wickedly wacky mood.

My only quibble lies with Johnson’s late introduction; with his effects so integral to the film’s success, it seems odd to go nearly 45 minutes into the doc without adding him to the conversation, especially since he turns out to have some of the best stories! But this is a very minor complaint, and where Leicht’s Witchboard supplements satisfied, her efforts on Demons soar. Take note, distributors: this is what special features ought to be – special.

Other extras include extended chatty interviews with Kinkade and Barron, several behind-the-scenes photo galleries, posters and storyboards, trailers and radio spots, and a promo reel, all wrapped up in Nathan Thomas Milliner’s saucy new cover illustration.

Night of the Demons is available now from Shout Factory and can be ordered HERE:

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