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Interview with Witchboard and Night of the Demons director Kevin Tenney

There is no doubt that the 70s and 80s delivered some of the best horror films to date. While there were numerous big budget horror flicks making their mark on the industry, it was the lower budget independent ones really delivering the most memorable films and director Kevin S. Tenney no doubt slapped some new life into the genre with his hit films Night of the Demons and Witchboard among many others. Now Shout Factory is bringing these two classics to Blu-ray for the first time in all-new collector’s editions and I had the chance to sit down with Tenney to discuss his career, these two classic horror films and of course the famous lipstick scene.

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Bobby: Through your career you have done a lot of horror films. Was that something you intended to go into or just happened to be the scripts that spoke to you?

Kevin: Actually not even remotely. I wasn’t a big horror fan other than things like JAWS and the big studio horror films. I had never gone to see anything like Halloween or Friday the 13th, they just didn’t appeal to me. While I was in film school at USC my undergraduate film was a drama about a Vietnam vet who was having flashbacks and it won an Emmy and then my graduate film was a comedy about a lawyer defending a guy who claims to be the second coming of Christ and that got me a three picture deal with Ivan Reitman. This all happened while I was still a film student. I actually had an office right on the lot and was writing a script for Ivan Reitman, but before that we had a screen writing class at USC, where you had to write a full blown screenplay which I had never done. The only idea I had was when I used to live in this old Victorian home that had been turned into apartments and a friend brought a Ouija board to a party and I thought that sounded interesting and had never heard of a movie focusing on a Ouija board. So when we had to write that script I went and read up on Ouija boards and just drew from personal experiences to create the characters, mixed it all in a bowl and came out with Witchboard. The guy that was raising money for it called me and said we got the money let’s go, so I left before finishing my Master’s Degree to go shoot Witchboard.

Bobby: With Witchboard you have the supernatural elements, but there is also an axe wielding killer who is more of a manifestation of the evil. Was there ever a thought to making that character more prominent in the film?

Kevin: I wanted the audience as well as the characters to be fooled into thinking they were indeed communicating with the spirit of a ten year old boy. So I couldn’t really reveal Malfeitor until they discovered that they were talking to a different spirit and then of course we brought him to the forefront, but until then we had to keep him in the background.

Bobby: You get a lot of people that are superstitious regarding Ouija boards. Did you have anyone uncomfortable or any kind of weirdness filming that stuff?

Kevin: Not the Ouija board, but there were some people creeped out by the house. They felt the house was creepy and would hear planks moving, but you know old houses settle though. I’m not really superstitious, but I know you can hear some of them talk about it in behind the scenes interviews. There was a custom when shooting on 35mm that when you broke your 100th roll of film you stop for a few minutes and celebrate by drinking champagne and we happen to break our 100th when we were shooting in the grave yard. Many of the crew members, after we wrapped that night, were going to stay and play with the Ouija on top of a grave and drink champagne and they asked me if I wanted to join in. Like I said I don’t believe in all that stuff, but on the other hand I wasn’t going to push my luck and said no thanks, I am going home. They were all there alive and well the next day so I am assuming nothing earth shattering happened.

Bobby: Unless they just kept it to themselves.

Kevin: Right, maybe they were wearing gloves after that because they had a stump under there. (laughs)

Bobby: As you know Night of the Demons is a huge cult hit, but was this just another script that just happen to come up or did you decide to stick with the horror after Witchboard?

Kevin: It was just another project that came up. It was the same producers that made Witchboard and they were having trouble finding the right distribution for Witchboard. We had finished it over a year ago and it hadn’t come out yet, so my agent couldn’t find me anymore work because most times when a film doesn’t come out right away they assume there were problems with the film or they hadn’t heard of me because they hadn’t heard of the film. I was down to about to sell my car to pay rent and the guy that was supposed to direct Night of the Demons bailed because one of his scripts got optioned, so they called me out of the blue and asked me to read the script and if I was available and I said absolutely because I would much rather keep my car. So by the luck of the draw my first two films happened to be horror and both became these huge hits and now suddenly I am a bonafide horror director.

Bobby: As a director I know you get a lot of input on your film, but at this time you were still a new director so how much input did you get to have with the look and direction of the film?

Kevin: I had a lot of input because even though it was only my second film I had worked with these guys before so they knew and trusted me. On top of that knowing of my Emmy and three picture deal with Ivan Reitman knew that I was new but not untested.

Bobby: When dealing with Night of the Demons, I am sure you know the one question I am going to have to ask you.

Kevin: The lipstick? (laughs)

Bobby: Exactly, how did that idea come about, was it written in the script that way?

Kevin: In the script, Suzanne is coughing up bile and some lands on her chest, not on her breasts but between them and then it dissolves a hole and she shoves the lipstick through. I hadn’t seen a lot of horror films, but had seen the Exorcist and thought his whole spitting up bile thing has been done to death and better than we would be able to do it. So I had been reading about hookers in India in the ancient days and they would paint their lips read to indicate that they would give blow jobs and lipstick their nipples so that they would pop and be really pink or red, so I thought what if she is drawing on her boobs and it’s sort of this sultry sexy thing and then she just shoves it through and everyone freaks because they didn’t see it coming. After I suggested it I went home that night and thought that is really out there, do I really want my name attached to that? So I went back and said I don’t think we should do it, but by then everyone knew about it and Steve Johnson, who was our make-up effects guy had already figured out we could do it so it kind of had a life of its own at that point and we went with it.

Bobby: The scene is so well done that when she pushes in the lipstick as well as her entire finger and then pulls it back out there is no hole there. How hard was that to pull off?

Kevin: Back then they didn’t have the equipment and materials they have now. Nowadays they have silicone, but back then everything was done with rubber basically. Steve knew that the rubber breast would look like crap, especially since I wanted to push in for a close-up, so he experimented and made the entire chest piece out of gelatin, which has the luminescence and opacity that human skin has and it has such a great memory that when you shove it into the hole it seals back up, which we didn’t know at the time it just happened and looked really cool. HE came to me telling me what he wanted to do, but the down side was that the stuff has a real short shelf life so once he built it we had to shoot within 24 hours because after that it turns into JELLO. We built it and shot it and I think we got it in two takes and the rest is history.

Bobby: With that kind of sequence and the horror genre in general you always have to deal with a lot of sex and nudity. Have you ever run into any issues regarding people doing these kinds of scenes?

Kevin: Actually I had those issues right away on Witchboard because Tawny came in a read for us and then left and we negotiated with her agent. So when it came time to film the nude scene, she said she doesn’t remember agreeing to this and we told her that her agent did. She ended up doing the scene, but was clear she didn’t really want to do it, but her agent had committed her to it. I made the point then and there that anyone that had a nude scene I would have come in and tell them myself and tell them exactly how I was going to shoot it and I would hear them say ok. Then if they showed up on set and I was doing it differently they could say this isn’t what you said and if they tried to back out I could tell them that this is what I told them and they said ok. I have never had a problem since, because I sit down and take the time to talk to them about it and they have delivered.

Bobby: In the world we live in these days it is all about sequels and remakes. Were you directly associated with the Night of the Demons remake at all?

Kevin: Yeah I was one of the producers and actually the one that put it together. I went to Walter and Jeff who produced the Night of the Demons trilogy and whom I am friends with and they had a lot of people ask about it but never had anyone that really wanted to do anything with it. I told them I would like to remake it, so I got the rights from them and took it over to Seven Arts who I had talked to about another project that didn’t happen, but I knew they might right for it because they had the money and distributer. I took it to them, they said absolutely and that they had a director they like. So I met with Adam and Jace and talked with them and knew Adam was perfect for this. So I was involved with the hiring of the director and writers and gave them notes on the script and the rough cut. The only thing is I wasn’t on set during production because we ended up pushing back and Bigfoot a film I was going to direct which was not going to be shooting at the same time ended up going at the exact same three weeks. So my partner had to be on the set, but I was involved in every other aspect. I will say this though; I tried very much to not get in the way. This was Adam and Jace’s film and in interviews at the time I said I already made mine, we don’t need to remake my version they need to make their version and update it and I think they did a great job. I am sure I am probably biased, but I do think it is one of the best remakes in the last decade.

Bobby: Well you mentioned the other film you worked on during production of the remake, but it stepped away from the horror genre and was a family film.

Kevin: Right, Bigfoot was a family film, but I told my wife that I finally get to do a family film and there is still a big animatronic monster in it. I can’t get away from it. (laughs)

Bobby: I know the film making process is probably not much different, but shifting from the horror to a family film does that change how you look at your process?

Kevin: Not to a large degree because comedy and horror both rely on timing for something to be funny you have to catch the audience off guard and not see it coming or they do see it coming and it’s the anticipation that gets them revved up and then laughs when it happens. The same with horror you scare them with jolts that they don’t see coming or you create tension where they know something horrible is coming but they don’t know when and you’re drawing it out. So basic storytelling is manipulating emotions whether it is a scream or laughter.

Bobby: Is there any other projects you have coming up that you can tell us about or would like to promote?

Kevin: My wife and I are putting together a really small film. I had a great idea that could be done in all one location. I am also writing a novel and we are still working on getting the final financing for the sequel to the Night of the Demons remake, which is a really funny script and I am really excited about it.

Bobby: I’m a big fan of Night of the Demons and really appreciate you taking the time to do this.

Kevin: So you’re the one? I knew if I did enough of these I would meet you. (laughs)

Bobby: I actually just saw Witchboard for the first time with this new release and it’s a lot of fun and I look forward to seeing what else you have coming up.

Kevin: I appreciate it, thanks.

Be sure to grab your copy of Witchboard and Night of the Demons when they hit Blu-ray for the first time on February 4th.

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