"El sueño de la razón produce monstruos" - Goya
When I was a child in the early 1980s, I used to look at the video covers of horror movies with a mixture of trepidation, awe and covetousness. I knew that if I ever managed to get my grubby little hands on the actual tapes, I would witness a universe of unparalleled depravity and gore, in which horrible things would constantly be happening to people for no reason at all while the souls of the damned howled torturously on the soundtrack. These video covers frightened the hell out of me, and I couldn't wait to see the pure, unadulterated real thing.
Of course, when I actually started watching the movies whose covers had such a huge impact on me I couldn't help but be disappointed. The Deadly Spawn, Boarding House, The Burning - not only were they massively over-sold by their posters and video covers,, the copies I managed to see were often cut versions that had came to New Zealand via the censors in Australia or the UK. Worse, many of the movies that really would have had a strong impact on me if I'd managed to see them - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Eaten Alive etc - had completely vanished from the shelves, some the victims of NZ's new video censorship laws and others simply played to death.
It was a while before I saw anything that came close to my initial imaginings of what a horror movie must be like. The first was the legendary first twenty minutes of Dario Argento's Suspiria, and the second was the last sixty minutes of Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead. But the movie that came closest to my childhood dreams was a peripheral movie from the Argento stable, Demons
At first glance, all Demons wants to do is run around screaming and biting people on the throat and gouging out their eyes. That's all I got from it on my first few viewings, and I was perfectly happy with it. But this time around I've realised that there's something going on beneath the skin, something that's threatening to swell and burst and splatter green goo over everything.
The story of Demons is really something. It opens with Cheryl (Natasha Hovey), a music student, taking a train to Berlin on her way to university. She starts getting glimpses of a sinister masked man (Michele Soavi), who then stalks her through the subway... in order to give her a free movie ticket. She convinces her friend Kathy (Paola Cozzo) to bunk off school and take in the movie. At the theatre, they encounter an amusingly diverse crowd.
First and most fun are Tony the pimp (Bobby Rhodes) and two prostitutes, Rosemary (Geretta Geretta) and Carmen (Fabiola Toledo). While they clown around, Rosemary takes a silver demon mask (reminiscent of the one worn by the subway stalker at the start) and tries it on, cutting her face in the process. There's also the blind Werner (Alex Serra) and his daughter Liz (Bettina Ciampolini); as Werner is blind, he relies on Liz to describe the movie for him as they watch it. Liz takes the opportunity to secretly make out with her lover (Claudio Spadaro) while Werner is oblivious. Two young guys, George (Urbano Berberini) and Ken (Karl Zinny) take a shine to Cheryl and Kathy and decide to limpet themselves to the reluctant young women. The rest of the audience is fairly anonymous, though it also includes Fiore Argento, daughter of Dario and half-sister of Asia.
Once everyone has taken their seats, the movie begins. Of course, it turns out to be a horror movie. It tells the story of a group of young people who break into Nostradamus's tomb in the middle of the night, where they find a prophecy about how the world will be overrun by demons. One of them (Michele Soavi - the same actor who played the masked man at the start) finds a demon mask and puts it on, despite his friend's warning that anyone who wears the mask will become a demon.
Just as this happens, Rosemary finds that the cut on her face from the mask in the lobby has started to bleed again. She heads to the bathroom to get cleaned up, and is understandably distressed when she finds that the cut has swollen to a boil, which bursts and splatters green goo everywhere. Soon Carmen goes to find her friend, only to discover that - just like the guy in the movie - Rosemary has changed into a demon. She slashes Carmen's face and they both run off. Soon Carmen finds herself trapped behind the movie screen as her own injury starts to swell and burst. She pushes her way through the screen, transforming into a demon as she does, and in this way the movie quite literally bursts into the audience.
It's at this point that Demons goes absolutely nuts. After a spectacular on-screen transformation Carmen starts slaughtering people at the front of the auditorium, while a gleefully cackling Rosemary runs in from the back and starts creatively killing everyone she sees. The soundtrack thunders with '80s heavy metal, and everybody runs around screaming, especially once they discover that the exits have all been bricked up and they are all trapped in the theatre. Anyone who is wounded by a demon becomes a demon themselves, sooner or later. The movie immediately degenerates into a delirious orgy of violence and gore from which it never returns. Obviously, I am using the word "degenerates" as a compliment.
Meanwhile, a carload of young punks are driving around snorting cocaine out of a Coke can. They bicker amongst themselves childishly and throw tantrums when one of them spills the coke. They don't seem to have anything to do with anything until they attract the attention of the police, and end up ducking into the Metropol through a side entrance, which they leave ajar. As they go in, something sneaks out...
Horror is perhaps the most self-referential of all movie genres, and horror movie aficionados tend to be unusually film literate. The movie references in Demons are even deeper and more multi-layered than is usual in the genre. The concept of a horror-film-within-a-film influencing events in the "real" world is quite common (see such movies as Bigas Luna's remarkable Anguish, the so-so Popcorn or John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, for example), but none of them take the theme quite as far as Demons.
The masks seen in the movie, which seemingly cause the demon plague, are similar to those seen in The Mask of Satan, the first great Italian horror movie, directed by Mario Bava, the father of Demons director Lamberto Bava. In Bava Sr.'s film, the masks have spikes on the inside and are nailed to the faces of the movie's villains; in Bava Jr.'s film, it is a cut on the face from the inside of the mask that causes the demon plague.
The name of the theatre, Metropol, alludes both to an actual famous Berlin cinema and to Fritz Lang's 1927 expressionist film Metropolis; there is also a poster for Metropolis seen in the theatre. Germany is, of course, the original home of the horror movie thanks to expressionistic movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. There is also a poster for Werner Herzog's 1979 remake of Nosferatu in the Metropol, bringing the expressionistic horror movie closer to the present, as well as an in-joke poster for co-writer/producer Dario Argento's movie Four Flies on Grey Velvet. (There are also posters for Paul Newman's uninteresting Harry & Son, for the anti-nuclear weapons concert movie No Nukes, and for the Australian band AC/DC, whose music the filmmakers probably wanted to use.)
The casting of a grown-up Nicoletta Elmi as the Metropol's usherette Ingrid is a multi-layered reference in itself. Although only about twenty at the time, Elmi was an Italian horror movie
veteran, having started her career in Mario Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve in 1972 [*]. Elmi's biggest impression before Demons was probably in her small role as a sadistic child in Dario Argento's Deep Red,
though she also appeared in such gems as Paul Morrissey's Flesh for Frankenstein and Aldo Lado's Who Saw Her Die? She hadn't been visible in the genre for almost ten years, but she had retained her distinctive looks as she grew up, and although Ingrid is a bit of a red herring, Elmi's sinister (and now also sexy) presence confirms that the characters are definitely trapped in an Italian horror movie.
In the movie within the movie (which I don't think is ever given a title) the actor who wears the demon mask and cuts himself on it is the same actor who plays the masked man handing out free tickets at the start of Demons. Soavi also worked behind the scenes as Lamberto Bava's Assistant Director, a position he had also held on previous Bava and Dario Argento movies. While working on Demons he also filmed behind-the-scenes footage for a documentary called Dario Argento's World of Horror, in which he deliberately turns his camera to a mirror and films himself and his camera to accompany his own directorial credit. Somehow, Soavi also found time to film a music video for Claudio Simonetti's theme music.
Along with the aforementioned mask, the other props from the movie-within-the-movie that we see in the lobby are a motorcycle and a samurai sword. Towards the end of the movie, one of the heroes leaps on the bike, grabs the sword, and starts hooning around the theatre cutting demons to shreds. In this scene, it's not just the evil that's come out of the movie but also a means of curtailing it.
And of course in the scene where Carmen is infected, she finds herself pushing through series after series of red curtains - a recurring Dario Argento image from movies like Deep Red and Opera, usually signifying the beginning of the journey into horror - and finds herself behind the movie screen itself. As she starts to transform into a demon, her screams mingle with those of the movie until she finally rips through the screen itself. This scene was copied in the 2012 movie Gangster Squad, in a scene that appeared in the trailer but was ultimately cut out of the movie beause of concerns about a real-life mass murder in a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. [**] It is also reminiscent of a scene in the same year's The Purple Rose of Cairo, written & directed by Woody Allen, in which a character steps out of a movie into the audience.
Apart from its surprising metatextual sophistication, there is a lot to enjoy about Demons just in the realms of good dumb fun. There are many excellent transformation and gore effects by Sergio Stivaletti, on only his second movie, which still impress today; in particular the elaborate transformation of Carmen still looks amazing. The whole cast gives amusingly over-the-top performances, in particular Bobby Rhodes as Tony the pimp and Geretta Geretta as Rosemary, the lead demon. The seemingly unrelated scenes of the coked-up punks driving around Italy offer their own kind of dumb fun. The unexpected arrival of a helicopter at a pivotal moment is cited by some as being the best moment in the entire movie, and the amazing apocalyptic ending (which features another cameo from a distinctive young horror veteran, Giovanni Frezza from Lucio Fulci's The House by the Cemetery and Manhattan Baby, among others) sends the movie off on a high note.
There are also a few unexpected and effective moments of quiet horror. Many people point to the scenes of the demons prowling the corridors with glowing eyes, but I would single out the beginnign of Kathy's transformation as my favourite creepy moment in the entire movie. Having stumbled through the previous scene in a state of shock, Kathy looks up at Cheryl and asks in a distinctively different accent to the one she's used in the rest of the movie, "This place... Where am I?" and then, as her eyes turn red, "Who are you?" The implication that the demons may be rational creatures driven to insane bloodlust as they come into our world is nicely disturbing. Of course, the horned demon that bursts impossibly out of Kathy's back moments later is pretty cool as well.
On the downside, most of the female roles are pretty weak. Not that Demons is a movie with well-written male characters, as characterisation is pretty much beside the point here, but all of the women in the movie basically scream and cry while the male characters tell them to pull themselves together. Horror is one of the few genres which regularly presents women as strong and capable, so it's a shame to see Demons letting the side down. Other than that, unless you're going to carp about the plot being weak - which is also beside the point - or things not making much sense - which almost is the point, as the more "what the fuck?" moments are also the most fun - there's nothing to complain about here.
I recommend Demons to anyone who likes wild & crazy horror movies. If you enjoyed the first two Evil Dead movies or Rec 3, this should be right up your alley. And what's more, there is a sequel that is just about as good as the original (as well as various fake sequels of wildly varying quality).
But that is another story...
[*] Bava Jr. worked as an assistant director on both Twitch of the Death Nerve and his father's next film, Baron Blood, which also featured Elmi. ^
[**] I actually saw this trailer before a screening of The Dark Knight Rises on the very night that the murders were committed - luckily not in the same theatre. ^