Every Day Is Halloween: NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988)

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As a reminder of things past and departed:

The (un)Holy Trinity:

  • Primary or tertiary characters must be identified as “a Goth” either through direct reference or indirect allusion;
  • This identification must be the central position of the character’s identity (i.e. a character cannot just be depressed, or just listening to dark music, or just clad in black; the character must be defined by the fact that they view/are viewed as a Goth);
  • This identity must influence interactions of both an interpersonal and intrapersonal nature in the narrative to the extent that these interactions inform how we understand how this character is representative of the subculture as a whole.

Angela. Oh, my dear, evil Angela.

I was a teenager once. In fact, I was a teenage boy. Imagine that! I was full of hormones and emotions and feelings I didn’t understand… and to some extent still don’t. But being a teenage boy and not having any particular gift for sports or the arts or things that could be considered productive to society, but still needing some way to work out those annoying feelings and hormones, I gravitated towards movies. I watched a lot of movies; I saw some good movies, but I fell in love with bad movies. Chief among them horror films.

Horror holds a special place in my heart because it’s easy for an adequate person “to get.” I call myself adequate because I’m still not really good at things; I don’t have refined tastes; I’m not especially clever or smart. Most horror films are adequate. They can skate by on cheap budgets and lazy productions, although that doesn’t automatically mean they’re bad. But it often does. Of course, even when they are bad that also doesn’t mean there aren’t things about them to enjoy. If it’s on, you’ll watch it, but you won’t necessarily go out of your way to track the movie down. Adequate. A perfect example of an adequate film is 1988’s Night of the Demons.

There are many things wrong with Night of the Demons. Some of its problems are amusing, like the fact that it doesn’t bother to hide the bad acting, but others are frustrating, such as the creature design getting noticeably worse with each death as it becomes clear the budget was being stretched thin. It’s also not particularly ambitious by the standards of a horror film, or even for the era in which it was made. It skirts the line on Ebert’s definition for the Dead Teenager Movie.

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That said, it has some surprising strengths that elevate it above the trash heap of 1980s budget-bin horror. It has a fairly caustic, if uneven sense of humor, and tosses off gags at such a rapid clip that you barely have time to groan at one joke before another hits its mark. The film also taps into the zeitgeist of youth culture in the era, as it’s a showcase for various sub-cultures in a manner not dissimilar to The Breakfast Club. You have the preppy kids, the religious guy, the hippie, the obnoxious punk, the slutty friend, and, most importantly, the goth girl.

That goth girl is named Angela and she holds a number of distinctions. For starters, she was one of my first movie crushes. I’m sure that doesn’t mean much to you, but I’m kind of partial to her for that fact alone.

The real reason I bring Angela up is because in spite of the horror film’s tendency towards the macabre few of them had had a “goth” character until her arrival. You had Vivian in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, but you could also argue she was more of a generalized new wave kid. She dies breakdancing to Australian New Romantics Pseudo Echo, after all. And then there were the death-punks in Return of the Living Dead. They were actually much closer to a real representation of the attitudes and style of the era, but, again, they can be easy to write off. They’re punks first and foremost. They come from an off-shoot of punk that evolved into goth but because of the bad mohawks and David Byrne-biting over-sized suits, it’s easy to see why ROTLD is identified today as more as a “punk film” than a “goth film.”

No, Angela was horror’s first real goth. When we meet her in Night of the Demons she isn’t just wearing black. She’s wearing a modified funeral dress. She’s wearing a cross and a spider web as earrings. She’s wearing every era-specific style cliche a costume designer could muster up. It’s as if someone on the crew stumbled upon old copies of Propaganda and figured it would be easier to just copy everything rather than pick one or two of the more subtle items.

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Angela’s style choices are important, however, because they frame how other characters view her. Her reputation as “weird” and “creepy” precedes her physical presence. And these are all things we come to learn about her before we ever see her. When we do finally meet Angela, her personality is probably not what most of the audience was expecting; rather than brooding or morose, she’s mischievous, sly, and a little silly. Basically, she’s like any other teenager.

Of course, reality has never been something to stop a good rumor from spreading and Angela doesn’t really try to run from the perception that she’s a weirdo. The MacGuffin that sets the film in motion is Angela’s party at Hull House, an abandoned and supposedly haunted mortuary. It’s never explained why she would want to have a party there beyond being a slightly off-kilter goth girl, and it’s never explained why her one friend would believe she could rope “cute boys” into showing up, and it’s also never explained why a group of preps would think a party thrown by a weird goth girl would be particularly exciting, but Angela’s having a party and everyone’s invited, so there you go.

The party itself is illuminating due to the strange interactions of the various sub-cultures that are forced into Hull House through happenstance. One of Night of the Demon’s strongest qualities is its subversion of traditional character archetypes. We have expectations for each character going in based on their archetype’s relationship to similar roles in previous horror films: Judy is the chaste Last Girl; Jay is her brave White Knight; Sal is the jerkass creep; and so on. And while Judy ultimately charts the course we expect her to, many of her companions don’t. Jay and Sal specifically invert audience sympathies as we come to find Jay is an entitled creep who’s only into Judy for sex, while Sal is a decent guy, if maybe a bit too arrogant.

Angela is the most interesting example of all, though. She and Judy are set up as opposites from the moment they meet. Angela is clad entirely in black and clearly believes in Hull House’s history, whereas Judy is dressed, literally, as Snow White and scoffs at Angela’s belief in spirits. The two represent different ends of the social spectrum, as one is a popular cheerleader and the other a social misfit. While the filmmaker and writer could have used that to flip audience sympathies, as with Jay and Sal, they instead chose to embrace that gap and highlight Angela’s misfit status as her driving force once she is transformed into a demon. At that point, Night of the Demons also transforms and becomes less a traditional horror flick and more a campy revenge film.

Once transformed, Angela isn’t really all that different from her original human form. If anything, she’s a more liberated version of herself as she can act on impulses she may have previously ignored. Her coming out, of sorts, is to a dance set against Bauhaus’ “Stigmata Martyr,” and climaxes in her acceptance by obnoxious punk Stooge because she’s moved from “weird” to “weird hot.” This is short-lived as Angela once again isn’t interested in acceptance, and she sets off her grisly road to revenge by biting off Stooge’s tongue.

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One of the more interesting ways to look at Night of the Demons is to see it as a feminist-tinged spin on Animal House. The first characters to be turned into demons are the two women most looked down-on by the group, the goth and the slut. But they use that newfound power to reject integrating into a group that had previously rejected them, and to exact revenge on each member in ways specific to their offenses. More pointedly, Angela and Suzanne prey upon the guys in the group who see women as sex objects: Stooge has his crude tongue removed, Jay has wandering eyes gouged out, and “good guy” Sal literally loses his heart. The lone male survivor, Rodger, is highly religious and superstitious, a perfect target for a demon, but he’s also the only guy who isn’t interested in sex.

That Judy survives the night shouldn’t be a surprise. She is the Last Girl. And even if she’s Angela’s opposite, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re rivals. Angela’s revenge is as much about her womanhood as it is her being a goth. Both inform her anger towards the group. Angela’s pursuit of Judy is meant as a lesson: against judging others in peer groups; against trusting in men who cut a smooth outward appearance; and against self-doubt. To that extent, Angela isn’t all that different from the mischievous persona we’re first introduced to. She’s just become more of a Dischordian figure, something that would be picked up on in the sequels.

Look, I’m not trying to argue Night of the Demons is good. It’s about a goth girl exacting her revenge on a group of popular kids in a haunted house. Even that “feminist-tinged” connection is tenuous as the film conforms to as many horror tropes as it subverts. But it’s also surprisingly forgiving of Angela and her many strange quirks. So while I would never argue that the film is good, I would also never say it’s bad. It’s the type of movie you watch if it’s available. Y’know, adequate.

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