AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 88 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Various people are invited to a special screening at an isolated and recently renovated cinema. As some are disgusted by the film, a vicious horror flick about a prophecy of Nostradamus which says that Demons will one day conquer the earth, one of the attendees, a prostitute called Rosemary, cuts her face on a display mask in the foyer and transforms into a hideous Demon like the ones in the film, starting a spreading plague that soon engulfs the whole cinema….
In the years that HCF has been up, I’ve spent much time extolling the virtues of the work of Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, the three who make up [despite the weakness of much of Argento’s and Fulci’s later stuff] the Holy Trinity of Italian Horror. I guess that most would place Argento at the top, though I’d personally have Bava up there instead – but that is a discussion for another time! I’m here to sing the praises [for the most part, anyway] of Demons, which isn’t directed by Argento despite being often called ‘Dario Argento’s Demons’. I can’t imagine that any lover of Italian horror would consider to be anywhere near an artistic masterpiece like the best work of the three filmmakers I’ve mentioned, yet I’m sure that it’s a favourite of many even if they may not admit it. It’s almost the ultimate guilty pleasure Italian horror film, so on some level one could call it bad, but it’s so deliriously entertaining that its many silly aspects can be forgiven and even become virtues. Mario’s son Lamberto Bava never approached his dad in terms of film-making skill, but I still feel that he’s been somewhat underrated because he was almost always able to turn out a solid product, and Demons must be his most notable contribution, an extremely daft but rip-roaring mixture of crazy thrills, bizarre plotting, blood, puke and heavy rock, and a film which is as quintessentially an ‘80s horror movie as any from the United States. I must say though that my relationship with it didn’t get off to a very good start. Back in the age of video, the first [supposed] copy I bought at a market stall was totally blank when I played it – though seeing as it only cost me £1, I wasn’t too bothered, and soon found it elsewhere [there was a time when copies if this movie were everywhere].
Its origins lie in a proposed three part horror film anthology film written by Dardano Sacchetti and directed by Bava, similar to his father’s Black Sabbath. Bava liked one of the stories, involving monsters that came from a cinema screen and attacked the audience, so much that he began developing it into a feature film. The two took their treatment to producer Fabrizio De Angelis, who wanted to use footage from some of Lucio Fulci’s movies as the film within a film to cut costs. They understandably didn’t like that idea, so they then took the treatment to another producer Luciano Martino who suggested that they produce the film themselves. Meanwhile Argento was getting into producing, and he became interested in Demons, though insisted on bringing in Franco Ferrini to make script alterations, notably having the Demons appear later and more special effects scenes. The film was shot in Berlin and at De Paolis In.Ci.R. Studios in Rome. The building used for the exteriors of the Metropol cinema became a club called Goya that’s been host to several horror conventions thanks to its appearance in this film. Demons was fairly successful around the world, though a planned UK cinema release was canceled, while in Germany it was only released later as the sequel to Demons 2, the two film’s titles being swapped. While the US video version had some altered sound effects and dubbing, the UK video version lost just over a minute of the most graphic shots, including two eye gougings and a brain being ripped out, plus cocaine being scraped off a woman’s breast with a razor-blade. Everything except for the cocaine bit was restored for the 2000 DIVID DVD, but another company Platinum also released it the same year ‘accidentally’ uncut.
The opening scene grabs you and then ends with an amusing twist. While Claudio Simonetti’s synthesiser theme music [with a little quote from Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King] plays on the soundtrack, a girl called Cheryl is on a train with assorted types and is feeling distinctly uncomfortable. She gets off and feels even more uncomfortable when she sees a masked man [played by Michele Soavi who soon became a director] approaching her. She flees, but runs straight into him [presumably he can teleport] – but he just gives her a ticket to a showing of a movie, after which she begs him to give her one for her friend too. We then gets shots of the cinema marquee with the film’s title on and shots of a motorbike in the foyer with a model of a masked person on it wielding a sword in one hand and holding a mask in the other – hurray for unsubtle foreshadowing! – plus an usher [the only one there it seems, and played by Nicoletta Elmi the strange little girl from Deep Red, Bay Of Blood and others] making herself look presentable – though all we then see her do is give people strange looks. The guests include two college boys, one of whom, George, fancies Cheryl [did women still fall for the “hold my hand when it’s scary” stuff in the ‘80s?], a blind man [yes, a blind man] and his wife who soon cops off with the nearest available guy, a married couple, a boyfriend and girlfriend [Fiore Argento, Dario’s daughter]; and a pimp named Tony along with his two prostitutes. Oh yes, Tony, who’s straight out of an early ‘70s Blaxploitation flick. I’m not at all saying that pimps are cool in real life, but I can’t imagine anyone watching Demons and not loving Tony, whose women dote on him and who quickly takes charge when things kick off. And it’s rather funny that actor Bobby Rhodes is quite obviously the only cast member not speaking in English.
We get to see quite a lot of the film [shot on some of the same locations as Black Sabbath] they are all watching, which feels a bit like one of Fulci’s later efforts. Four teenagers discover an old tomb and dig up the grave of Nostradamus. Sample dialogue: “Nostradamus, sound like a rock group to me”. “Yeah, top of the pops of 1500”. “They had rock groups then”? I guess such chat is meant to be intentionally bad, though considering some of the dialogue elsewhere it’s hard to tell. But then again nobody watches Italian horror for its dialogue anyway – even in genuine works of art like Lisa And The Devil, Inferno and The Beyond the dialogue is easily the weakest aspect. Anyway, nobody is in the tomb, just an old book and a mask identical to the one in the lobby. When one of the movie’s characters puts the mask on and is scratched by it, causing him to begin putting a dagger to good use, one of the hookers Rosemary also tries on the mask in the foyer at the same time – and she becomes the first Demon. The inter-cutting between movie and movie-within-a-movie is very good here, and a scene soon after of Rosemary crying out from behind the screen before crashing through it [after running around in panic for absolutely ages] suggests interesting ideas of the relationship between horror films and their viewers – though these are never followed through unless you count lines like “the cinema is to blame for this”. Instead, it’s just a lot of bloody fun with much running around, screaming and flesh ripping, along with the odd random happening like a monster bursting out of someone’s back. And then, just when things threaten to stall a little, along comes the film’s fist in the air “hell yeah!” sequence where George jumps on the motorbike, and with Cheryl on his back, rides all over the place, including up steps and over auditorium seats, cutting down Demons with a samurai sword while Billy Idol plays on the soundtrack. And then a helicopter with a dead person in it crashes through the ceiling.
Bava thinks that devices like getting the cameraman to run down the sides of walls provide extra tension, while sometimes we cut away from moments that seem like they’re going to be highlights, something that’s indicative of a low budget. However, Fulci’s makeup effects maestro Gianetto De Rossi is nonetheless able to give us plentiful gruesome sights including some interesting details. Rosemary’s second transformation may feature a dummy face which looks like it was rushed, but the sight of the teeth growing and pushing out other ones [also spared viewers of the UK video] looks really good and is quite queasy. There are a few great shots of Demons or infected people in shadow with only their eyes lit up looking really creepy like in the poster art. However, its apocalyptic ending pretty much suggests a different movie altogether – though as I type it does remind me that, while Argento’s influence does show in places such as some garish lighting here and there [love the pink silhouettes in the control room, and some characters illuminated by alternately yellow, red and ‘normal’ light], The Evil Dead and especially Dawn Of The Dead were obviously major influences – though you ‘ll be looking in vain for any social commentary here. And that’s fine. Something I can never understand is the cinema setting – even after lots [too many] of viewings of this movie I still haven’t worked out the geography of the place, its dimensions seem to change. You also get scenes where loads of Demons are running amuck but you can’t hear anything in a room nearby, and these running Demons take ages to get anywhere. A group of cocaine-taking punks are suddenly introduced half way through [along with loads of shots of the local shops], including a woman who just exists to be mocked by the others [“already selling your twat” says one as he looks at a photo of her as a very small child], but have virtually no bearing on the film’s outcome. I always laugh when a barricade is erected with lots of effort, only for it to be knocked down soon after.
There are so many unanswered questions. Where did the mask come from? Why does the usherette appear to know more than she’s letting on? What was the point of the showing of the film? Who made the film? Who locked them in? Who let ‘Ripper’ and his mates in? Who or what is the man in the mask, and how is he connected to the Demons? In the end though, it doesn’t bother me that so much is left unexplained, because any explanations provided may have been even sillier. Demons makes no sense even on a subconscious level, and yet in a strange way it’s kind of exhilarating to watch. The acting is pretty much weak all round, even if one appreciates that people’s voices were not recorded speaking, then dubbed by someone else whether you watch the English or the Italian language version, though getting them to apparently run around for ages each day just before filming means that at least their sweat is real. The soundtrack’s usage of heavy rock songs from the likes of Saxon and Motley Crew suit the film perfectly and add to its energy. And I find it strange how so few horror films have used a cinema setting, it’s ripe for both claustrophobic fear and commentary on the genre – not that Demons really attempts either of those things to any great degree. All it really tries to do is deliver a bloody good time – and in that it most definitely succeeds. It’s almost the perfect Beer Movie – which is why I’ve probably rated it much higher than I should have done if I had more integrity. Invite some mates round and buy loads of booze and it may just seem like one of the best horror movies ever. Honestly.
Demons 2 review Coming Soon!