“I’ll hold your hand if it’s scary”
The concept behind Lamberto Bava‘s Dèmoni [Demons] is pretty great. It’s a reinvention of the rise of demons trope for an age of pop culture devotees within the 1980s era of its making. Rather than deal with cemeteries or rituals, Dardano Sacchetti‘s story (the script is credited to him, Bava, Dario Argento, and Franco Ferrini) uses the cinematic medium itself as the vehicle used to facilitate its terror. To watch a movie at a theater is to engage in a communal act. And if that film insidiously plants the seed of demonic possession, everyone is exposed at once. You could think of The Ring as its successor using videotape as its vessel to entrap victims, the home replacing the theater as young people’s main mode of consuming content.
There’s no better way to bring a mass of people together than free tickets to an event. And as the Man in Black (Michele Soavi)—with half his face covered by a metallic silver mask—proves, you don’t even need to explain what the event is to pique interest. If the ticket is fancy enough, it will attract the bourgeois elite seeking exclusivity. If the mystery is high enough, it will cajole co-eds into skipping class to figure out what’s going on. We’d all laugh at the weirdo handing us a flier in outlandish costume, the engagement’s mystique and our desire to embrace our fear augmented. Those lucky few to receive admission will make a night of it, the darkened theater at worst supplying a place to make-out.
Well, this theater supplies much worse when the supernatural magic at play begins. And everything happening in reality occurs on screen or vice versa too. Once Rosemary (Geretta Geretta) puts on a display mask, cutting her cheek, laughter builds. But when a character in the film experiences the same thing, a sense of uncertainty replaces it. She is patient zero, the first victim of demonization before it is passed on to Carmen (Fabiola Toledo) and then Liz (Sally Day) and so on and so forth. Veins are made visible, eyes turn to yellow, and green puss flows from mouths and wounds alike. It only takes one scratch to seal your fate so Tony (Bobby Rhodes) rises up to bark orders and get things done. Unfortunately, however, they’re trapped.
From here it gets more interesting as the connection between reality and fiction sparks an infectious feeling of excitement. I was eager to discover how everything was related and what secrets would be revealed. Who was the Man in Black? Why did he seemingly stalk Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) at the train station? Who was organizing the screening and how was the lone steely-eyed with indifference usher (Nicoletta Elmi‘s Ingrid) involved? Was the movie onscreen a documentary of sorts or was its inclusion for surface aesthetics, the perpetrators using it as a model to base their own brand of evil upon? And how would Cheryl, her BFF Hannah (Fiore Argento), and the boys they just met (Urbano Barberini‘s George and Karl Zinny‘s Ken) survive as our obvious heroes?
Bava therefore delivers a slew of questions, some tense interactions, and a few wonderfully gory and cheese-fueled attacks. Throats are spread open, chests slashed, and lovers kissing in the wings hung by rope. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the action as the walls close in. The demons start multiplying in numbers and those unaffected have to block entrances and exits to remain safe. Anticipation rises as anger and frustration takes control over sense. And right when things shift to survival mode, we’re transported outside to a stolen car filled with a quartet of coke-sniffing punks. Suddenly the tension is released as we assume our focus has shifted to experience something wholly separate but equal on a journey towards saving the others. Sadly that’s not what happens.
This is when Demons went off the rails for me, showing that the four screenwriters didn’t really have anywhere to go with their captivating premise. The pacing slows to a crawl as we go back and forth between Cheryl, George, and the others within to Ripper (Lino Salemme), Baby Pig (Peter Pitsch), and Nina (Bettina Ciampolini) in the car outside. The former keep hitting dead ends and the latter prove their worth by forcing their way inside (with some other-worldly help) to tear down the defenses the others installed and release the demons upon those in hiding. We drag through nonsense (including a moment of Baby Pig cutting Nina’s cocaine-covered breast with a razorblade, a scene censored in some versions) simply to watch the theatergoers scream again.
That’s a long journey to return back from where we came. I know the reasoning—keep watching blind Werner (Alex Serra)—but it’s hardly enough to care. Theme and concept disappeared so violence, gore, and more hard rock music could take its place. It’s a real shame because Bava and company got me ready to learn some underlying truth that doesn’t exist. I’m not saying the campiness isn’t fun or a motorcycle rampage with sword in-hand isn’t a rousing way to cut down the demons’ numbers. That being the payoff just wasn’t what was set-up. I’m glad the Man in Black returns at least, but even his reunion is a hollow gesture. Everything that might have possessed substantive answers becomes fodder for carnage and little else.
In the end I was left with more questions than answers, like: What makes one victim so special that a demon spawn escapes his/her back while the rest remain possessed only? Thankfully the conclusion contains a very pessimistic outlook on the future because it helps ignore that lull of excess preceding it. I understand the appeal and rabid cult following, but it could have been legitimately great if it actually gave us a mythology to grab hold of rather than a promising aesthetic façade with nothing behind it of any worth. Don’t try and tell me the mystery is part of the appeal either because it doesn’t ever feel intentional. Bava hopes we’re too distracted from the chaos to remember he forgot to give any of it meaning.
Watched in conjunction with Season One of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.