If you've never seen the UK poster for Witchboard, it may just have been the best piece of creepy ’80s horror art. So good that, according to director Kevin S. Tenney, another film borrowed it for its VHS cover. "They stuck it on an Italian video," he said. "They just liked the way it looked."
It's a gloriously eerie piece image: model-turned-actress Tawny Kitaen in terror as two hands erupt out of a Ouija board. Today the classic tale of suburban demonic possession and Tenney's follow-up, the gore-drenched kitsch of Night of the Demons, both see a long-overdue Blu-ray release through Scream! Factory – a firm quickly establishing itself as the gold standard for exploitation and horror.
The gruesome twosome established Tenney as an icon of the era of VHS horror, but it wasn't ever his plan to become a master of fear. "It's funny how people pigeonhole you," he said. While studying film at the University of Southern California, he won an Emmy for "War Games," a dramatic short about a Vietnam vet. Then he produced his grad project, a dark comedy called The Book of Joe, which landed him a three-picture production deal. "On campus, it was, 'Oh Kevin, he's the big drama director' Then after Joe it was, 'Oh, Kevin, he's the comedy director.'" He's not the first filmmaker to make that jump (as he points out, "William Peter Blatty was a screenwriter before The Exorcist, and he was known for romantic comedies"). but just four credits short of his master's degree, he left college to direct Witchboard.
Keying on the Ouija board cultural phenomenon, the Kitaen vehicle was a moderate cinematic success which hit its stride on home release. Now Tenney had a taste for gore, but wanted a change of tone. He said, "After Witchboard, which was a more subtle ghost story, we wanted to go completely the other way with Night of the Demons." The end result was one of the great works of ’80s schlock horror. Tenney said, "one of the reviewers said that it was Porky's for horror fans."
Tenney and his team saw their sophomore release as a challenge, to expand and prove themselves. For effects master Steve Johnson, it was a chance to lead a project after years working under industry legends like Rob Bottin and Rick Baker. Ultimately, his designs for the demonically possessed kids partying in a morgue were a creepy, sleazy landmark for low-budget horror (watch for the weirdest use of lipstick ever). Then there was scream queen Linnea Quigley, who Tenney called "a special effect all by herself." She'd already become a household VHS rental legend through rental essentials like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama However, that was all news to Tenney, who hadn't even seen her breathrough role in 1985's The Return of the Living Dead (coincidentally screened at the Alamo Drafthouse as part of Terror Tuesday this weel) as undead punk Trash. "I didn't know who she was, because I wasn't a huge horror fan." Fortunately, Tenney added, "She's a sweetie to work with," and the pair reunited the following year for another paranormal horror, Witchtrap.
Night of the Demons also added two classic scenes to ’80s horror. The opening credits, an animated by line producer Don Robinson, are the bridge between Max Fleischer and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Then there's Mimi Kinkade's showstopping dance routine as Angela: newly possessed, the demonic forces make her gyrate like a puppet in a black wedding dress. For Tenney, it was "Flashdance meets Silence of the Lambs. The whole point was to get this sexy dance, but it's so fricking creepy."
Both movies lived on beyond the grave. Witchboard spawned two sequels (the first, 1993's Witchboard 2: The Devil's Doorway, is official, while 1995's Witchboard III: The Possession was totally unrelated bar the name). Meanwhile Night of the Demons became a veritable franchise, with two sequels and a 2009 remake. In fact, aside from working on two novels (a supernatural horror in the Witchboard vein, and a coming-of-age story of a 10-year-old in Bermuda during Cuban missile Crisis), Tenney has plans for a sequel to the remake. Yet the originals had been languishing on DVD for a while, so when the Blu-ray rights came up, he and producers Jeff Geoffray and Walter Josten (who later worked together on Leprechaun 3 and Rescue Dawn) started shopping the films around. After years of fuzzy VHS transfers, Scream! has done a full restoration, complete with new commentaries and behind-the-scenes footage grabbed by Tenney and his old USC buddy Geoffray. "They do the films justice," said Tenney. Even he had forgotten how good they looked until a 2009 screening at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. "Even though I have a print, I hadn't seen it since years, years, years ago. I'd only seen VHS, and I saw it on the big screen and forgot what a great film it is."
Night of the Demons and Witchboard (Scream! Factory) are out now on DVD/Blu-ray combo. Also available:
Cutie and the Boxer (Starz/Anchor Bay): UT grad Zachary Heinzerling nabbed an Oscar nomination for his documentary about love, creativity, and aging (read our review here).
Dallas Buyers Club (Universal): Matthew McConaughey continues his run as one of the great modern screen actors with this fictionalized account of the life and times of unlikely AIDS activist Ron Woodruff (read our review here).
Escape Plan (Summit/Lionsgate): Schwarzenegger! Stallone! 20 years after anyone cared! (Read our review here.)
DCU Justice League: War (Warner Home Video): The Justice League live action movie may be years away, but DC's animation department fills the gap.
Doctor Who: The Complete Sixth Series (BBC Home Entertainment): Sigh. Only the sixth series if you ignore the first 26 seasons. Ignoring that, it includes some of the best of the modern-era adventures of the time traveling adventurer, underpinned by the spectacular and quirky screwball tension between Matt Smith as the Doctor and Alex Kingston as the vivacious River Song.
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