Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Demons (1985)

"They will make cemeteries their cathedrals and tombs, your cities."

I first saw Lamberto Bava's Demons (1985) about twenty-three years ago when I was twelve. (It received an American VHS release.) My summation and review of the film when I was twelve is approximately this: "Demons? Fuck yeah!" (I don't care what anyone says, as this is funny to me.) In the intervening years, I must have seen it a dozen times, at least; and this last week, I pulled my old Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD of the film and just left it in the player, watching it four or five times over successive nights. This morning, I was flipping through my film notebook (which is just a composition book that I use to take notes while watching a film for review) and I noticed that I only made six observations and transcribed three instances of dialogue. From solely these notes, I am going to write about how delicate and sensitive a film Demons truly is. Yes, really.
For those who do not know, Demons is about a group of complimentary ticket-holders who attend a movie screening. The movie is revealed to be a horror film about, what my younger brother eloquently and accurately refers to as, "people fucking with shit that they should not be fucking with": a demonic mask is unearthed by four young people in the crypt of Nostradamus. One of the young four puts the mask on and cuts himself, becoming infected or possessed by a demon. One of the complimentary ticket-holders also donned a demonic mask in the theatre lobby and cut herself. This coincidence is not lost upon two of the complimentary ticket-holders, as this exchange of dialogue evinces:



"Did you see that? The same thing happened in the movie."

"Ahh...that's a bunch of shit, baby."
The coincidence turns out to be, unfortunately, not a bunch of shit.One of the complimentary ticket-holders who shows at the screening with his daughter is a blind man. While blind people are free to come and go anywhere that they please, like anyone else, the presence of a blind person at a movie screening is perhaps unusual. He asks his daughter to describe what's happening on the screen as she watches and then relates. The blind man and his daughter are the only two in the balcony seats until the daughter is approached by a man. These two escape from the blind man into a dark nook of the theatre for a romantic interlude. The temporary lovers are among the first victims of the demon invasion. Hearing the commotion below, the blind man searches for his daughter. He is all alone. This balcony scenario leads to one of the most subtle and affecting shots from Gianlorenzo Battaglia (Battaglia shot A Blade in the Dark and Blastfighter for Bava, previous to lensing Demons). The blind man shuffles in the dark and among the seats, calling his daughter's name. He steps and hears a crunching sound underfoot. In close-up of his foot, the actor pauses. The blind man steps upon his daughter's pearl necklace which lays broken, inches from her corpse. The dramatic pause and the close-up emphasize that the man knows exactly what he has stepped upon; and this leads him to intuitively kneel down and feel the dead face of his daughter. Why the scene is so affecting is that there is an intimacy created by the inclusion of the necklace. It's as if the pearl necklace has an association that only this father and daughter share. What follows soon after this scene is another unique sequence. In an unsurprising move, the blind man is attacked by a demon. Surprisingly, he survives the attack as the demon chooses to only gouge out his eyes and leave him with his dead daughter on the balcony. The rest of the movie goers eventually retreat to the balcony to escape the onslaught of the demons. The blind man greets them and reveals that the curse lies in the theatre, almost as if he has seen something like a mythological blind soothsayer. The scenes within Demons with this character are few but are imbued with quite a bit of sensitivity and depth. One wonders at how much more powerful these sequences could have been with this anecdote: "Had the fifth draft of the Demons screenplay been ready earlier than April 1985, chances are that Vincent Price would have starred. 'The part of the blind man was written for Price,' said Bava. 'The screenplay wasn't ready in time and he couldn't commit himself. If Price had done it, the part would have been more substantial. As it was, we cut it back.'" (from Profondo Argento, by Alan Jones, FAB Press, Surrey, England, 2004, p. 149.) The screenplay for Demons is disjointed, but perhaps this works in its favor. Much of the subtlety and richness to the film may be attributed to screenwriter Franco Ferrini: "Dario, Dardano Sacchetti, Luigi Cozzi and Lamberto Bava had all tried their hand at the Demons concept but he wasn't happy with it and wanted someone to look at it with fresh eyes. It was basically a script doctor job for me because the ideas were all there, they just weren't put together with any cohesion. It was always designed to be a horror adventure with lots of action and that was the basic problem, as the action was distributed across many characters attending the ill-fated movie screening in the cinema. It was exciting when they were all being attacked by demons at the same time but that undercut the scariness. My additions to the scenario were devising ways of getting each character alone so the frightening atmosphere could build rather than have continuous slam-bangs. What's character A doing while B is stuck in a lift? And what's C doing in the meantime others in such a confined space wouldn't notice? That took a lot of working out--like moving chess pieces around a charnel house--and I do feel that slant added enormous amounts to the overall box-office success of the movie." (Profondo Argento, p.144.)One of the best and most endearing sequences in Demons is of the young lovers, Tommy (Guido Baldi) and Hannah (Dario Argento's daughter, Fiore). The orchestra seating of the theatre becomes a death trap when the demons invade, so everyone retreats to the balcony. (Yes, they are trapped in the theatre. The exit was their first thought, too.) During the commotion, Tommy loses track of Hannah. Hannah gets trapped in the orchestra seating and hides under one of the seats. Demons is aided in this aspect of the story by its use of Dario Argento's signature theatrical lighting: unfiltered colors like red and blue, often flashing or shadow-filled. This lighting technique, being overtly theatrical, creates an unreal effect: so when everyone retreats to the balcony, two worlds are really created--one above and one below. Tommy searches for Hannah among the shadows, and by this time in the film, the action has come to a halt. At really any second, one of the shadows can reveal its inhabitants (and kick start the action, again.) Do the young lovers find each other's arms again? Yes. Is this a set-up for their tragic ending? Take a guess. It's a sentimental sequence, yet seriously tension-filled; and perhaps I'm showing my age, but it's a sweet and endearing addition to the film.Four criminals appear on the streets of Berlin, riding around in a boosted car, snorting coke from its can. Okey-doke. They're listening to Billy Idol, too. Initially, I had no idea what the hell these characters were doing in Demons. But like snorting coke from its can, I took their inclusion as important. They eventually factor into the events at the movie theatre. Yet again, there is a real sensitivity to their portrayal. The sole female among the four is small and blonde and cute and bubbly (her English voice-dubbing gives her this super-sexy, smoky voice which is totally trippy). Eventually, they spill coke all over the car. The four's leader tells them to pick it up, every last bit. With razor blades and thin pieces of paper, almost every gram is collected. What does the cute little blonde use? A picture of herself at one-year's old. She takes a moment to share this with Ripper (the four's leader). The black-and-white picture is actually shown in close-up. The four eventually get caught by the police and have to give chase. They take shelter in the movie theatre. (Ha, ha! There's the tenuous connection. I'm making fun of this, but I love tenuous connections and segue ways in films.) The lobby of the theatre is in disarray, and eventually, the four encounter a demon. The three males run quickly away to find an exit, and the young blonde woman pauses. She finds a full-length mirror in a storage room. She pulls her lipstick from her pocket and dons seriously-bright red lipstick. Her lips are shown in close-up. I would pay a lot of money to know what she is thinking at that moment. It is probably both poetic and inspiring. Demons is a rousing action horror film, but there's an amazing amount of detail in its fragments. In another signature Dario Argento moment, the desperate group in the balcony find a hidden room by knocking a hole in the wall. What's in there? It's a surprising answer. It's the same answer possibly as to what is causing the demons to appear in the theatre--cursed building, the actual celluloid of the film, or the demonic mask? I still agree with my review as a twelve-year old, as I've always wanted to ride a motorbike while brandishing a samurai sword with a pretty girl's arms wrapped around my waist. I still rock out to hearing Motley Crue. I’ve never snorted coke out of a can. There’s still hope, and Demons is still a great film.


A.D. said...

That's a hell of a review. I only saw DEMONS for the first time about two years ago. That being said, I have no nostalgic attachment to it, which may have to do with why I just can't get into this movie. I've seen it two or three times since my initial viewing and always try to approach it with a new set of eyes and an open mind, but yet it never fails to come across as a mess to me. I absolutely LOVE the soundtrack, though.

Infinite Jester said...

I've probably seen this movie more times than I can count since I was a kid (seven or eight years old in my case) but I might break it out again; really insightful stuff, man.

True story- when I was 12 I got caught trying to steal a VHS of this from Tower Records because they said I needed an adult with me to purchase it and my mom was too lazy to drive the mile and a half to the store to help me out. As punishment, my parents sentenced me to no allowance or lunch money for six months (more to do with them being cheap than discipline, really). On Easter, while my younger brothers were spoiled with all manners of toys and Pokemon cards, I was given a dollar and told I could rent a movie from the video store. I chose Demons, but when I came home was unable to watch it because my brothers refused to vacate the room that housed the VCR.

It's a wonder I don't hate my parents, or make them contribute $$$ to my therapy (not that they would), haha.

Jeff Allard said...

I'm dating myself here but I saw DEMONS in the theaters. It was one of the earliest unrated movies I got into and man, was it an experience on the big screen! It was so satisfying that I've never gone back to the film on video or DVD for fear that it wouldn't live up to a second viewing but this review has me thinking that I really need to see it again. Thanks!

Hans A. said...

@Aaron--Thanks! I understand where you are coming from. As for the soundtrack, I didn't even mention Simonetti's funky score for this one. It's pretty cool, too.

@IJ--I love hearing stories like yours. I can also remember films from my past, because of the events that surrounded them. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts.

@Jeff--I would be really curious to hear your thoughts on the movie after such a gap in years. Incidentally, the first Italian horror film that I saw in the theatre was Demons 2.

Thank you very much to all for taking the time to read my work and share your thoughts, as they are always appreciated.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Those coke heads riding around in the car were always so funny to me as well, surprisingly a similar group of coke heads pops up in the sequel as well! Snorting cocaine from a coke can non the less.

Another scene I think is hilarious is when the people start to rip apart the doors of the movie theater with their own bare hands! What the hell are these guys super humans or something??

Love the gore and the effects on this one, and its a fun fast paced movie.

Damn, I wonder what this movie would have been like had Luigi Cozzi directed it..probably way cheesier consider all the other movies he made. Vincent Price as the blind man would have been interesting as well.

John Connor said...

Fuck yeah, this is still a great film. Saw it as a kid (in the French dubbed version)and i have cherished it ever since. Great review, thanx!

Neil Fulwood said...

I don't think I've ever read a better review of 'Demons'. Like Aaron, I find it a complete mess of a movie, but it's something I always watch with a sort of retarded affection. The cokeheads are a scream, and the helicopter "crashing" through the roof is so ridiculous that I actually stood up and applauded the first time I saw it.

BRENT said...

Ah the memories!! My god this blogging is awesome. The amount of blogs out there with films I have seen and forgotten about is incredible.
I remember seeing Demons and Demons 2 on VHS in 1988 and being terrified by them. Will have to take a trip to the video store and hire them and see how they stack up today
Certainly in their day they were at the fore front of really scary horrors.