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Interview: Director Kevin Tenney Talks WITCHBOARD and NIGHT OF THE DEMONS

Director Kevin Tenney is a staple of 80s horror, having written and directed two of the most iconic films of the era: Witchboard (1986) and Night of the Demons (1988). Luring you in with their party atmospheres, both films are gory, sexy, and silly — in all the right ways. When Shout! Factory announced they were re-releasing the two films in 1080p (or, as I like to call it, Tenney-80p) on Blu-ray through their Scream Factory line, there was an outburst of joy from horror fans all over the internet. DIABOLIQUE took the opportunity to get in touch with Kevin Tenney and chat about the Blu-ray releases and his current and upcoming projects.

DIABOLIQUE: Has it been exciting seeing Scream Factory releasing your first two features on Blu-ray?

KEVIN TENNEY: Yeah. It’s funny how they keep turning up like bad pennies!

DIABOLIQUE: They’re really popular films! You didn’t see them having such a long lifespan?

TENNEY: No, no. I mean, with Witchboard we thought we had something, but Night of the Demons — no. When we finished the film, I called my agent and said, “You’ve gotta find me another job before this thing comes out because I’ll be unhirable afterwards.” It became my most popular film, but it wasn’t when it first came out. It did well, it didn’t do as well as Witchboard. Witchboard did about three times the box office. But yeah, through word of mouth and all,  Demons became the big cult thing.

A Still from Night of the Demons

DIABOLIQUE: There’s a ton of special features on the discs, although I haven’t had time to look through it all yet. I can’t believe how much content there is.

TENNEY: It’s quite a bit, isn’t it? Kinda harrowing. [I was involved] on both discs. They go back and interview everybody, twenty-five years later, and I helped find a lot of the cast and get them to the producer so we could set up the interviews with them and with me… They asked me to do a commentary track and I find that when one person is talking you get too many dead spaces, so I brought in a few cast members for both commentary tracks, and those were fun too. Some of us hadn’t seen each other in years.

DIABOLIQUE: So you’re not only hearing a commentary for the film, but getting to hear a reunion, in a way.

TENNEY: Exactly. I think that’s fun for the fans, because we’re having such a good time. We actually have some pretty funny stuff on the commentary. On Witchboard, there’s a moment with Stephen Nichols… We shot all the Ouija Boards at the end as a closeup — so we got stand-ins, and used their hands. [Nichols] complains that the hands we got for him were too tiny and feminine looking! [Laughs] …When the hands show up again on the dock, they had asked me, did you know [filmmaking] was what you were gonna do? I said, “I always knew I wanted to make films. I was gonna grow up and go to USC, and then make a film, and cast somebody with foppish hands for my Ouija Board movie.” We just started talking about how we went to grade schools to find little girls to play his hands, and riffing on it. It was really funny.

A Still from Witchboard

DIABOLIQUE: So, you always wanted to make films?

TENNEY: Yeah, I made my first film in 6th grade. It was a detective film. I got all my friends and the neighborhood kids; we all put on our Sunday suits and played grown-ups.

DIABOLIQUE: Do you still have that?!

TENNEY: No! I wish I did. Later on in high school, I needed the reel, so I just unspooled the whole film into the trash. I thought, “It’s my first film, it’s really bad, and I’m never gonna show it to anybody.” So I tossed it for the reel. I kick myself for it now. If only it occurred to me that someday, somebody would actually care to see that! Then again, if I had it, I might still refuse to show it to anybody.

DIABOLIQUE: One of the things that was so fun to me about revisiting these two films — I watched them back to back last night — is that your writing has so much personality. It’s unique to your scripts.

TENNEY: That’s funny! Back when people actually wrote letters to each other, rather than make long distance phone calls, I would get friends saying, “I love getting a letter from you! You write just like you talk, and I can actually hear you.” My friends who grew up with me, when they saw Witchboard, they said, “Oh my god, that’s Kevin! He would have said that!” It’s funny that you picked up on that! It’s usually only people who know me who hear it.

A Still from Witchboard

DIABOLIQUE: It’s so obvious after you watch a bunch of your movies! It carries through them. You can even hear it in Brain Dead (2007).

TENNEY: Oh thank you! Although I didn’t write that, I did throw in a lot of the one liners.

DIABOLIQUE: I’m a fan of it. It is drastically different from your early stuff, but I think that has to do with changes in the medium.

TENNEY: It was my first time working with digital — so I was kind of trepidatious. I know film backwards and forwards; I pretty much can do anybody’s job on a film set — not as well as they can do it, but if we had an emergency, I could. With digital, I had no clue. To be in that position, for me… was unique and unnerving to a degree. I don’t like having some element of the filmmaking process that I don’t understand. We had a very tiny budget on that one… We had started a new company and were just trying to get a film made. It was a smaller budget than I usually work with, and just wanted to see what we could do.

A still from Night of the Demons

DIABOLIQUE: It’s strange, looking at the way film used to be made 30 years ago, and now, there’s tiny budgets, you barely need anything, and you can make a feature film.

TENNEY: What’s funny is, so many people make films now and say, “It’s a throwback to 80s horror!” and people see it, get mad, and say “No it’s not!” I never claimed that Brain Dead was that, but almost everybody, in the reviews, say, “Wow! What a great throwback. If it wasn’t on digital, you’d swear it was made in the 80s.” Are they saying I haven’t grown as a filmmaker?! [Laughs]

DIABOLIQUE: Well, maybe critics are looking at your earlier films, and citing your style as a great example of 80s horror. You’re still stylistically similar, so it makes sense to me! Are you still working with your brother on scoring your films?

TENNEY: Not for a while. He’s actually retired now. Brain Dead was his last soundtrack, so he won’t be doing anymore. Although, he still plays! He’s one of the best guitar players I’ve ever seen. Maybe he’ll get bored with retirement and come out! He’d already [scored] ten of my films before I ever made a feature. He did all my Super 8 films and my USC films. He’s always my go-to composer, because he works cheap!

DIABOLIQUE: And you also always work with good special effects guys too.

TENNEY: Yes, Steve Johnson, who did Night of the Demons… It was his first time running a shop. He’d already worked on Ghostbusters and Big Trouble in Little China and things like that, but for Richard Edlund. This was the first time he was the guy running the shop.

A still from Night of the Demons

DIABOLIQUE: There’s two special effects scenes in Night of the Demons that always freak me out. The lipstick sequence is the first, which is so weird. How did anyone ever come up with that?!

TENNEY: I came up with it, and even I don’t know where that came from! [Laughs] The thing is, after I thought of it and I mentioned it, I went home that night and I thought, “Oh god, that’s really out there. Do I want to be associated with a film that has a girl shoving lipstick through her nipple?!” So I went back, and said… “I think maybe it’s not a good idea.” But the whole office was abuzz — they all thought it was great. It was an idea whose time had come and there was no stopping it.

DIABOLIQUE: And the second moment is the razor blades in the apple pie sequence at the ending. It makes me so nauseous!

TENNEY: [Laughs] As if you could chew up and swallow two entire razor blades and not notice it till they’re going down your throat! It’s still kinda creepy though, isn’t it?

DIABOLIQUE: What else are you working on right now?

TENNEY: I’m trying to put together the last bits of financing to get the sequel to the Night of the Demons remake out there. I’m writing a couple of books —  slowly and painfully. I have a little project, a very tiny horror film that takes place in one location with only a couple of characters, my wife and I are talking about producing that together.

DIABOLIQUE: What’s your role on the sequel to the Night of the Demons remake? Is it a remake of the original Part II?

TENNEY: I would be the producer. And no, It’s gonna take off from where the remake ended and go in a completely different direction. We already have the script finished, and it’s really funny. We have, right now, attached Anthony Hickox, who did Hellraiser III and Wax Work 1 & 2. We have Gabe Bartalos attached to do the make up. And we have Harry Manfredini, who scored the original Friday the 13th, to do the music. Now we just have to get the thing off the ground!

DIABOLIQUE: I think there’s a lot of horror fans who would be very into that.

TENNEY: Yeah, well, it’s the investors that have to be into it! [Laughs]

 

Blu-ray cover of WitchboardBlu-ray cover of Night of the Demons

About Madeleine Koestner

Madeleine Koestner is the former managing editor of Diabolique. She is a writer, filmmaker, and she plays the ukulele, performing songs as Erik Leafinson, a Viking past life of hers who was a major disappointment to his father, Leif Ericson. Madeleine has been involved with horror all over the country but is currently based in New York City, where she continues to not make any sense at all ever all the time.

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