‘NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988)’ deserves more recognition as a camp masterpiece

#31DaysOfHorror: October 5th, 2016

This October, as I have for the last three years, I’ll be watching 31 horror movies in 31 days and reviewing them all! You can see the ongoing list of what I’ve watched and reviewed here.


THE PLOT

It’s Halloween night and these teenagers are doing what movie teenagers do on Halloween — making plans to party, drink, and have sex. Judy is in costume as Alice, and she’s excited to hang out with her cute new boyfriend Jay. That is, until he suggests they attend a party thrown by Angela, the class weirdo, at a local mortuary. Their friends will all be there, and the house will afford them chances to sneak off and have sex! Little do they know, Angela plans on holding a séance… a séance that will awaken a demon…


MY REVIEW

I’ve seen some great horror movies already this October, but one thing that has been largely missing from my overview of the genre thus far has been one of my favorite frequent elements of horror — campy fun. None of the films I’ve watched up until this point have delved too deeply into camp; both Event Horizon and The Hills Have Eyes have their campy moments, sure, but neither was really made with a camp sensibility in mind. Both seem to my eye to be designed to shock most of all, rather than to entertain. (Not that those are two mutually exclusive aims, of course, but I think that’s a topic for a whole different article).

To be honest, I’m not 100% certain Night of the Demons was made with camp “in mind,” either, but then again, Susan Sontag writes that “camp which knows itself to be camp… is usually less satisfying.” And while I don’t necessarily agree with everything Sontag writes in her seminal elucidation of camp — for one, she writes that “it goes without saying that camp is apolitical,” whereas I think that camp can be incredibly political — I generally agree with her here. To be more precise, I think that camp which knows itself to be camp is less intellectually satisfying; campy films that are purposely campy can be incredibly entertaining all the same.

And Night of the Demons sure is entertaining. First of all, the acting is hilariously over-the-top. Characters deliver lines in an exaggerated, whiny style that suggests middle-schoolers trying to talk like adults, or perhaps adults trying to talk like teenagers. Sontag calls camp “the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience;” the acting style in Night of the Demons is definitely failed something. If these actors were aiming for “seriousness,” they’ve failed miserably; this is, after all, a movie that features this moment:

How can anyone take her seriously with that hair?

The acting calls attention to itself at every turn, with practically every single line reading; you know at all times that these are people who are performing. Camp sensibility extrapolates out that these sorts of films can reveal to us that all life is performance. Reading something as camp can make visible the tensions between all sorts of binaries that society takes for granted, most commonly male/female and heterosexual/homosexual, but also young/old, white/black, human/inhuman.

Night of the Demons, as with many camp films, especially campy horror films, winds up being a(n admittedly muddled) treatise on gender and sexuality. The film is concerned at many moments with sex. Sure, the aim of some or even most of this is to titillate the presumed straight male audience. But there are many moments that also seem designed to shame the audience’s objectification of the female characters, and by the end, we find ourselves rooting for the possessed Angela as she converts the disgusting, sex-obsessed male characters into her army of demonic minions.

Nowhere is the film’s have-it-both-ways attitude toward fan-servicey objectification, and simultaneous shaming of said objectification, more clear than in the character of Suzanne. She is introduced in an upskirt shot, the most stereotypical fanservice angle of all, as she bends over in a convenience store to inspect laundry detergent — a product that certainly carries gendered implications. Two greasy, sweaty, slackjawed men leer at her from behind the counter, providing obvious audience stand-ins.

However, we quickly realize that Suzanne is the one in control of the conversation. She knows full well what she is doing — she is providing a distraction so Angela can fill a bag with party supplies and waltz right out the front door. She has weaponized her sexual attractiveness, using it against the men to get what she wants.

Suzanne is the embodiment of female sexuality, all pink frills, gaudy makeup, and time spent staring into mirrors. It’s a deliciously-campy over-performance of gender. And it’s no accident that she’s the first one possessed by the demon that Angela’s seance releases from the basement of the mortuary. She begins acting strange, speaking in a much deeper voice than she had previously used; here, too, we see a very intentional slippage of gender performance. Then, just before the gang splits up to explore the house, Suzanne plants a kiss on Angela.

The men are clearly intrigued and aroused, if confused. Once more, Suzanne has weaponized her sexuality — in kissing Angela in what at first appears to be a move to titillate the men, we soon learn that she has passed her demon possession on to Angela and has enlisted her in her mission to kill the others.

Night of the Demons has, among all of its other attractions, some legitimately excellent camerawork at times. Some shots are truly inspired, like this shot of the entire cast arguing after their surprisingly-effective seance has caused a mirror to shatter.

There’s also a longer-take shot of a conversation, the camera rotating around and around the circle of partygoers, weaving in and out of them as they debate what to do about the fact that they might have just summoned a demon.

And then there’s Angela’s dance. After Suzanne has kiss-transferred her a piece of the demon, Angela is left alone with a boy and a jukebox. She turns on some Bauhaus; the strobe light comes on by itself. And she dances, and dances faster, and faster and faster until she’s twirling through the flickering light like the classic old-fashioned Universal monsters moved through flickering projectors. The effect is mesmerizing. Sure, it’s bizarre and out-of-place and way too serious for a movie with this silly tone and it goes on for an insanely long amount of time, but that’s what makes the scene a masterpiece camp moment. Seriously, watch this and tell me it’s anything other than incredible.

When we next encounter Suzanne, she seems to have lost her mind. She’s sitting in a corner, examining her makeup in a shard of shattered mirror. “I’m fixing my face!” she drones. “I can’t seem to get it right.”

Whereas before Suzanne was an over-performance of female sexuality, here, now that she is possessed and therefore monstrous, she becomes a mis-performance of gender. Her makeup — a way women are expected to signal their femininity — before was gaudy and a manifestation of her laughable vanity; now, it’s an indication that there is something deeply frightening about her. It’s laughable at first, of course, on two levels: it’s funny to see someone who has intentionally applied lipstick like that in what appears to be an earnest attempt to “fix her face,” but then, it’s also funny that Night of the Demons apparently thinks this is an eerie, unsettling scene.

But when we next see Suzanne, she has ripped open her shirt and is tracing the lipstick down her chest, circling her breast, and spiraling to her nipple, as though hypnotizing the viewer. The music has changed, as has her body language. This isn’t funny anymore; the film tips over into legitimately-creepy territory. It’s actually eerie and unsettling. And then, in a moment that would make Freud’s head explode, she manages to penetrate her nipple with the lipstick tube and shoves the entire thing into her breast.

Video is NSFW, obviously.

And suddenly Suzanne isn’t so silly anymore.

From this point on, Night of the Demons veers wildly between scary and silly. There are still moments that are laugh-out-loud terrible. But the film finds its footing and after Angela’s dance and after Suzanne’s demonic areola devours her lipstick, and Night of the Demons somehow delivers some legitimately-jarring jolts and some strangely-unsettling scenes.

And it’s precisely the combination of all of these bizarre elements — the failed seriousness of the performances, the misunderstanding of its own tone, the willingness to play with gender and sexuality— that makes the film such a camp masterpiece that deserves far more recognition. If nothing else, Night of the Demons is brilliantly entertaining.

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