AVAILABLE ON DVD [REGION 1 ONLY]
RUNNING TIME: 84 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Sicily 1486: a mob of villagers crucify and burn five nuns, suspected of witchcraft, in a chamber beneath their convent. Toronto 1990: archaeologist Liza has a vision of the crucified nuns during a seance. Several months later, Liza and Professor Evans lead a survey team to Greek ruins near the small Sicilian town of Santa Rosalia. The locals tell them to avoid the ruins of a monastery that overlooks the dig, but, against Evans’s wishes, Liza enters the monastery crypt and breaks into a chamber containing the charred remains of the five nuns. Soon, strange murders begin to take place.…
I first saw Demonia 25 years or so on a bootleg video of terrible quality. Disguised considerably by the atrocious picture and sound quality, it didn’t seem to be too bad a film, so I was looking forward to finally seeing what seemed to me to be an unfairly maligned entry in Lucio Fulci’s filmography on a decent copy. Unfortunately, I have to say that this rather different viewing experience revealed the film to be another late Fulci disappointment, and in a way the most frustrating one out of the examples that I’ve so far seen, because if you read a synopsis of the entire picture it may actually seem rather good – sure, little in it makes sense, but you can imagine the Fulci of the early ‘80s turning it into a terrifically atmospheric, surreal nightmare of a film like The Beyond. Instead, it looks more like it was directed by a fan of his who wanted to pay tribute to him but who had little actual film making talent. Despite what you might expect, Fulci doesn’t seem energised by the material at all and the direction is mostly anonymous, which just confirms to me even more that a great deal of his talent went when he began to have his lengthy periods of illnesses. Maybe this isn’t that surprising, but it’s very sad. Then again, the direction is a minor flaw compared to the cinematography which sometimes veers towards being genuinely incompetent, meaning that in places the film to me looked just as ugly in good picture quality as it did in bad. Even the gore effects usually look poor, though I’ve noticed a general lack of interest by the director in the graphic stuff in the later films – yes, there’s plenty of it, but it isn’t handled with the old gruesome relish and seems more put in because Fulci’s reputation demanded it.
Demonia came just after A Cat In The Brain and was developed by Fulci and Pierre Regnoli under the working title of Liza. Obviously closer to the films that made him famous, it was intended to be the most prestigious of the 1988-89-90 films, the one that was definitely going to get a good theatrical release, though I’m sure that fans would already have been dubious. Catriona McCall, who had become something of a scream queen legend due to her roles in Fulci’s classic City Of The Living Dead–The Beyond–House By The Cemetery trilogy, was asked to star, but turned it down, thereby not sullying her reputation, though by god the film could have done with somebody who could actually act as the female lead. Male star Brett Halsey then rewrote much of his dialogue, which makes one wonder how bad his original lines were. Most of it was shot in an area of Sicily where nearly every issue of the local paper would show a photograph of yet another victim of the Mafia. Shots of the ruins were done at Syracuse, the convent interior scenes filmed in a real Sicilian catacomb where hardly anything was altered by the film crew, the boxes, biers and niches containing real human remains [local tradition being to keep the ancestors on display] that you see on screen not being set dressing at all. According to Halsey, some of the financing came from the Mafia, and a disagreement about money meant that the film crew had to leave really quickly with some footage uncompleted. For some reason Fulci thought the result to be “a wonderful movie” except for its photography, but few others did, the thing not getting even a minimal theatrical release, and not coming out on video till 1998 when it was only in some European countries and Japan. The first release in the US was the DVD from 2004.
An opening camera track through part of the crypt to peer into a hole in the floor is a good beginning, after which we get a scene obviously intended to recall The Beyond’s opening, with villagers crucifying and setting alight some nuns, one of them getting nails through the wrists and neck in close-up, though the music is already a problem, as it would be for the majority of the rest of the film. It’s not so much that composer Giovanni Cristiani seems to be using the cheapest synthesiser around, it’s more that his noodlings often have little relation to what’s taking place on screen, as if they just recorded him improvising somewhere and then stuck the result onto the film soundtrack. We cut to a seance in America, and some shots from City Of The Living Dead are actually replicated here. But we’re soon back in Sicily. Liza and Professor Evans don’t seem too bad despite Evans’s arrogant view of the locals, but as for the assistants, it’s another matter. They never seem to do anything at all during the day, then have noisy campfire parties at night trying to sing Molly Malone. Liza is soon distracted by the ruin of a monastery which overlooks the dig. ”It’s just that the ruins are so compelling, they give the feeling that something’s alive in them”. Meg Register just seems lost among all the shoddy lines that she has to deliver, performing the majority of her part with a very vacant expression, though it’s possible that she was just confused by the script. Her character appears to be possessed several times, but these moments lead nowhere, unless I’m wrong and it isn’t the spirits of the five executed nuns who soon start killing people – after locals have given warnings.
First to go is familiar Fulci face Al Cliver [mis-spelt as Al Clever on the credits], who in his brief part as Porter does bring a bit of genuine human life to the proceedings. A ghost nun kills him with a harpoon, and what’s strange is that this ghost nun is naked and has, for some reason, left her habit on Porter’s bed. But then there are signs here and there that it’s all meant to be a bit amusing, a sure sign that Fulci wasn’t really committed. One probably improvised scene has two actors play at being drunk and one referring to the other’s “phony Irish accent”. In an especially pointless scene that adds nothing, one of the cops investigating the case does a lengthy Columbo imitation as he interrogates Evans. How hilarious and appropriate for such a supposedly dark and scary tale [I know sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but…]. So – we have a large H. G. Lewis-style tongue being nailed to a bench, cats gouging out eyes [the cats looking like they’re being cruelly hoisted up on wires], more Manhattan Baby-style falling on spikes, a flashback revealing what these nuns were really like showing one stabbing a lover in the neck and collecting the blood in a cup while the other one gives birth and tosses the baby into a fire, etc. You’ll certainly have seen worse effects, but makeup man Franco Giannini is no Gianetti de Rossi, and there’s a blase attitude to it all. The most disappointing scene is, despite the actual effect being quite good, a Cut And Run-style pulling in half by trees, because it’s edited so badly it seems like footage is missing. One moment the victim-to-be is racing after a robed figure which is leading his child away, the next moment he’s tied between two saplings which are about to pull him apart, leaving us wondering how on earth he got there.
The confusing identity swapping towards the end just adds confusion rather than adding some juicy ambiguity. The lackadaisical feel and lack of conviction prevents the film from feeling like another of Fulci’s genuinely artistic, dream-logic exercises in fear, revulsion and despair. The only moments with genuine atmosphere are a short bit in a library featuring a spooky appearance by another one of those mysterious know-all Fulci characters who seem to exist in both this world and another, and a lengthy exploration of the crypt where the fact that nearly all of what we see is real is genuinely unsettling, even though the remains are obviously more recent than the 15th century. But the light levels in the scene are terribly mishandled, which leads me to the biggest problem of a film with many – the cinematography by Luigi Ciccarese. This guy has loads of screen credits including Fulci’s earlier Aenigma which I recall looked quite good, but here – well, I don’t know if he was pissed or not during filming, but he doesn’t seem to know what on earth he’s doing. Some outdoor scenes are shot through a scrim, presumably to give a dreamlike feel, but the focal length has been obviously misjudged because the scrim in front of the lens is often visible! Other scenes where one character is in the sun and another isn’t look like they’re from two totally different and different looking films, even when they’re in the same shot! As for Fulci’s direction, he doesn’t seem to have been interested in the performers at all, while only some rapid zooms during the crypt break-in and one [just one] very slow zoom into a pair of eyes suggest his old style.
Fulci himself has a more substantial part than usual as ‘Inspector Carter of Interpol’, though the killings hardly seem like a matter for Interpol. I guess that if you just want some B-movie trash to laugh at then you could probably do worse than watch Demonia – though it only currently exists on DVD in North America and somehow I can’t see one of our favourite Blu-ray labels picking it up, can you? Aside from finding it to be the worst of his films so far, I found the act of watching it to be rather depressing. I genuinely think that Fulci was a very fine director in the ‘70s and the early ‘80s – and probably some of the ‘60s too even though I’ve only so far seen one film of his from that decade. But he almost suddenly seemed to lose a great majority of his skill somewhere around the mid ’80s at the same time as his health began to suffer – yet he still wanted to continue to make films, and succeeded in doing so for some time even if he surely can’t have been pleased with the end results despite what he may have said. I don’t like the fact that I’ve given this film such a low score – but it just isn’t very good at all.