Face-Off: Witchboard vs. Night of the Demons

I feel that one of my favorite genre filmmakers doesn't get enough appreciation, despite the fact that he was at the helm of two classic films - his 1986 feature debut WITCHBOARD and his 1988 sophomore effort NIGHT OF THE DEMONS. That filmmaker is Kevin Tenney, and with OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, the prequel to 2014's OUIJA, coming out this weekend, I felt it was time to take a look back at the Ouija-based WITCHBOARD and have it compete against Tenney's other enduring '80s classic, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS. Let's celebrate the awesomeness of Tenney!
When a friend of a young woman named Linda accidentally leaves his Ouija board at her place, Linda ignores her friend's warnings not to use the board alone and inadvertently opens herself up to an evil spirit who proceeds to torment her and her boyfriend Jim. Seeking to possess Linda, the spirit lures her in with progressive entrapment and kills anyone who gets in its way. It's up to Jim to find out who this spirit is, save his girlfriend from being possessed, and put an end to the supernatural killing spree. The identity of the spirit is a nice little mystery that provides the film with some twists and turns, while its homicidal nature keeps things exciting with the occasional death scene.
It's Halloween and teenager Angela is throwing a party at Hull House, a funeral home that was built on land the Native Americans in the area considered to be unclean. The house was the site of a murder/suicide committed by the necrophile mortician who lived there with his family and has been abandoned ever since. The teens attending the party soon discover that the legends about this place are true, as they start being possessed by demonic forces and turned into homicidal maniacs. Those who aren't possessed have to try to survive until morning. The old "characters trapped by monsters" set-up isn't anything special in itself, it comes down to presentation.
Linda is a nice girl and we don't want to see any harm come to her. Jim is a working class hero with a troubled past and issues with expressing tender emotions. There's sort of a love triangle element with Linda's ex-boyfriend (and Jim's ex-friend) Brandon, a wealthy and pretentious guy who's an expert on Ouija boards and deeply believes in the spirit world despite being an atheist. These are interesting characters who have depth to their personalities.
This is not a film that's particularly interested in character depth, most of these people are broad strokes types. There's the milquetoast heroine, the smarmy rich kid, the party guy, the troublemaker, the preacher's son, and obvious victims like the horny couple. The standouts are an obnoxious slob called Stooge, goth hostess Angela, and Angela's sidekick Suzanne, simply because Suzanne is played by legendary scream queen Linnea Quigley.
Eventually the characters discover that the spirit who has been wreaking havoc is axe murderer Carlos Malfeitor, who killed nine people with an axe in 1930 before being shot down by police. Death hasn't stopped Malfeitor from killing people, and he wants to take over Linda's body so he can live again... and chop up some more people. Malfeitor himself doesn't have a lot of screen time, but his brief appearance is unforgettable.
When first possessed, the kids seem to be just a little off-balance, exhibiting odd behavior like unexpected kisses and seduction attempts or performing a show-stopping dance. Soon the possession alters their appearance and they become hideous, zombie-like creatures. The way they end up is kind of disappointing, because they're more interesting when they're doing insane things than they are after they've become the walking dead.
This isn't a body count film, but it makes the most of the violence it does have. Floating and roaming in P.O.V. shots, the spirit causes one character to get smashed under a heavy object, slashes and hacks others with a hatchet, knocks a woman out a window (where she's impaled on a spiked lawn decoration below), and traps someone in a scalding hot shower. That's all before we reach a fight with a weapon-wielding maniac.
The second half of this film is packed with brutal, bloody violence. A tongue is bitten off, eyes are gouged out, a neck broken, an arm slammed in a coffin lid repeatedly until it's severed, demons are roasted with a makeshift flamethrower, characters are forced to climb for their lives up a strand of barbed wire, the touch of the demons burns flesh, there is an amazing moment involving razor blades... There is some nasty stuff in this one.
WITCHBOARD has an intensely creepy atmosphere, with an oppressive feeling of dread present throughout. So much so that even moments set outside in broad daylight can manage to be some of the most troubling scenes in the movie, but the film does have its share of darkness and fog as well. Before we find out that Malfeitor is the culprit, there is suspicion that the murderous spirit could be a petulant 10-year-old boy, which is almost a scarier idea than being haunted by an axe murderer.
Tenney shifted gears with NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, going for a more comedic tone while still delivering the horrific goods. There are moments when the film is still very dark and disturbing, but it's also lively and fun, with a great rock soundtrack. Tenney brought screenwriter's Joe Augustyn's story to life with style, playing up the Halloween setting to perfection and doing a great job capturing the look and feel of the holiday. This movie is Halloween on film.
This was a tough battle to call, because I hold both of these movies in very high regard. I love '80s horror movies, and these are two of my favorites of that decade. When it comes down to it, though, I have to give WITCHBOARD the win. NIGHT OF THE DEMONS is a hell of a lot of fun, but I think WITCHBOARD is the better film overall, and thirty years later it still ranks as the best Ouija-based horror movie ever made. This weekend's OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL may well turn out to be better than OUIJA, but once it gets past that film WITCHBOARD will be waiting to give it some serious competition.

Do you agree that WITCHBOARD is the better film, or do you think NIGHT OF THE DEMONS should have won? Share your thoughts on this Face-Off by leaving a comment below. If you have suggestions for future match-ups, you can email me at [email protected].



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