Monday, March 12, 2012

Demonia (1990)

Demonia (1990) is about Liza (Meg Register), an archaeologist and protégé to Professor Paul Evans (Brett Halsey). Despite her mentor's discouragement, Liza has a real fascination with the occult and the supernatural. In her hometown of Toronto, Liza attends a séance and has a powerful vision of young women her age being murdered. She collapses and awakens to find Professor Evans at her bedside. Evans tells Liza that she is accompanying him to Sicily to study the Ancient Greek influence at the base of a local village. Upon arrival, Liza, however, seems drawn to a monastery atop a hill, long abandoned and shunned by the villagers since the Middle Ages. The building once housed a convent of nuns who died under mysterious circumstances, and perhaps they are calling out to Liza, today.
Piero Regnoli co-scripted Demonia with director Lucio Fulci in one of his last credits. The plot of Demonia is the typical tale of small town fear and loathing towards outsiders. The small Sicilian village at whose base the archaeological team has begun a dig fears the archaeologists uncovering their secret: nearly five hundred years ago, the young nuns who lived in the monastery atop the hill were massacred by the local villagers. Why? The young nuns were fond of having orgies with men; murdering them during orgasm; and then drinking their blood. They also committed quite a few other blasphemous and heinous deeds. Hence, the local village lynch mob and vigilante murder. Interestingly, the villagers actually kill the nuns by crucifying them. "I really prefere [sic] the crucifixions," says Fulci, in regards to the special effects of Demonia, "I like them alot." (1)

The small-town tale of fear and loathing within Demonia becomes, thematically, a story of oppression and rebellion. This aspect is mirrored by the main relationship of Demonia between Paul and Liza. To say that Paul is controlling and that Liza is submissive is an understatement. Paul dominates Liza. It’s one thing to control someone’s physical behavior by controlling him/her through his/her actions. It’s another thing to tell someone what to think. Throughout Demonia, Paul continually tells Liza to avoid the monastery and focus on the Ancient Greek influence of the project. It’s not an admonition to Liza in a horror-movie sense: Halsey’s character is telling Liza to stop focusing on superstitions and the occult, because he thinks it‘s stupid. Paul is so controlling and insecure, as Demonia progresses, his character appears more and more pathetic. In acts of quiet rebellion, like exploring the monastery in the middle of the night and researching its history at the city’s archives, Liza never confronts Paul.

The setting, the convent/crypt of the once evil nuns, combined with the central relationship, the dysfunctional/sick relationship between Paul and Liza, equals a ripe opportunity for Liza to become a candidate for demonic possession. With Liza’s body as a conduit, one of the evil nuns will be able to exact revenge on the villagers and continue to do evil shit by killing members of the archaeological team. There are also plenty of opportunities for brutal, Fulcian gore, like a man being quartered, a woman having her eyes removed by kitty cats, and the aforementioned crucifixions.

The structural problems of the script of Demonia, however, are glaring. Meg Register, as Liza, drives the drama as the main character, but once she becomes a victim of the evil, the plot of Demonia takes focus off of her character. Lucio Fulci, as the chief police inspector, then enters the film to drive the narrative. With all due respect to the Maestro, Fulci’s performance is fine but his role is boringly perfunctory. It doesn’t help either that the small town fear and loathing is personified by one character, the village butcher, played by Lino Salemme, a popular genre actor of the period (especially in Dèmoni (1985) and Dèmoni 2 (1986)). Like Fulci, Salemme gives a good performance, yet his character has such a burden and just a little more variety would have helped. Brett Halsey is a real addition to Demonia. He’s a legendary actor in Italian genre cinema, and his charisma is undeniable. However, like the other performances, Halsey’s character is very rigid and limited. At a later point in the film, Paul is a suspect in the rash of murders around the village and the archaeological dig. It is difficult to feel any empathy for him, as he is such a controlling jerk for the majority of the film. Watching Paul squirm a little bit under police interrogation is actually kind of refreshing. Nonetheless, Meg Register, as Liza, is very compelling as the lead in Demonia. It’s very entertaining to watch her indulge her obsessions, like a late-night visit to the monastery. Register is really beautiful and she gives a very good performance and stands out.

Demonia contains the strong elements that have made other Fulci film classics, like Zombi 2 (1979), Paura nella città dei morti viventi (1980), and L'aldilà (1981), for example: very strong atmospheric sequences punctuated loudly by brutal (and often sadistic) gore sequences. The beautiful Sicilian scenery, especially the monastery, is authentic. Steve Fentone, author of AntiCristo: The Bible of Nasty Nun Sinema & Culture, writes:

Demonia was filmed on authentic sites at Monte Castello, the isle of Sicily (in the thick of Mafia country). When we interviewed the star in 1995, Halsey remembered the chief location was a genuinely spooky ancient monastery whose basement actually contained the mummified cadavers of human beings. Fulci and crew were given permission to shoot there by the caretaker, a Roman Catholic clergyman; who evidently never suspected that the script included naked killer nuns.” (2)

Despite the fact that there are few sequences within the monastery, all of them are memorable within Demonia. These sequences carry the film, in my opinion. While the gore sequences are competent and certainly effective, none are as memorable as Fulci’s atmospheric sequences. In the truest sense, Demonia shows Fulci’s growth as an artist: he was always able to create more unique, different, or equally intense atmospheric sequences with every subsequent film. In terms of the visceral in Fulci’s cinema, the films waver wildly in content. Fulci’s cinema set the bar high with films like Zombi 2, for example, with its slow-motion eyeball sequence, and I believe that it would be difficult for any filmmaker to top that work. Fulci’s later work that relied more heavily on atmosphere, like Aenigma (1987), for example, appears more personal and interesting than the later gore-heavy work. Demonia is a good and very entertaining late Fulci work. Unfortunately, the characters are drawn too flat and are too limited from making the film a richer and more whole piece. Definitely ripe for a revisit for fans of Lucio Fulci or demonic cinema.

1. “Beyond the Thoughts of Lucio Fulci: A Conversation with the Man Behind such Legendary Movies as ‘The Beyond,’ ‘New York Ripper’ and ‘Gates of Hell.’” Trauma # #2. Edited by Kristian P. Mølgaard. Karpedam 4b, DK-6200 Aabenraa. Year unknown (presumable mid-1990s). p. 13.

2. AntiCristo: The Bible of Nasty Nun Sinema & Culture. Fentone, Steve. FAB Press. Surrey, England, U.K. 2000. p. 75.


The Film Connoisseur said...

I need to watch this one at some point, I've read good reviews and bad reviews for it, but that doesnt surprise me!

Fulci wasnt the best actor, often times he cameos in his films, I just re-watched House by the Cemetery and in it he appears as some sort of proffessor or something. He also appears in City of the Living Dead as a mortician if I remember correctly.

Alex B. said...

Yes man, yes! I was just thinking 'Demonia' and there's your new review! I am riding the Fulci/Al Cliver wave at the moment, and this film was their last collaboration.
Read your review through and I've got to say that I disagree on a few key points. That's not the point, though.
Overall I do agree that 'Demonia' is well worth revisiting. I've owned several editions of it throughout the years and recently saw it in Italian dub, which was interesting as it contained some alternative sound effects. The slight variations in dialogue between the English and Italian tracks also made it a refreshing viewing.
I love Fulci's acting part in 'Demonia'. He is immensely watchable, even though, as you point out, his particular storyline is a dead-end one. There's something unique about 'Demonia', for sure. The film's would have benefited immensely had Fulci dispensed with the two (or was it three?) interminable 'singing by the camp-fire' episodes. They're shameless filler. As you mentioned in the review, the Sicilian scenery is captivating. There are also more then a few adventurous camera moves in 'Demonia' which show that Fulci's creativity, though hampered by the ever-dwindling budgets (and, possibly, health issues) was still going strong. He was developing, trying new things. A lot of shots fail due to dreadfully mishandled camerawork, but quite a few succeed and there we have another Fulci gem. A little clouded, but precious all the same.
Thanks again for bringing 'Demonia' up!

Hans A. said...

@The Film Connoisseur--I hope that you check it out and share your thoughts! It's readily available on DVD.

@Alex--Cool! I've been watching a lot of Fulci lately, so maybe more reviews this month. Who knows? I really, really appreciate you sharing your thoughts and opinions as always. Cheers!

Giallo Guy 82 said...

I was surprised to find I enjoyed it, what with the negative reviews 'n cheesy cover art. Not essential Fulci, but palatable.