A regular CdM pen pal said “So have you watched Demons yet?” as though he recommended it a while ago—and probably he did—but this time I read what it was about and put it straight to the top of my list. This is an Italian production, directed by Lamberto Bava, and produced and co-written by Dario Argento.
First we see a subway, then start hearing this upbeat 80s synth music—a promising start! Cheryl is on the train, clutching her Bartok score, and is already feeling a little creepy. She gets out onto the platform, which clears awful quickly, and has a suspense moment as she walks alone through the suddenly abandoned station, followed by a creepy guy with part of a silver mask on. It struck me that this is one of the defining characteristics of the films of Argento and his school—there are often scenes of someone just being SCARED, without us necessarily knowing why. This is part of what makes them seem so abstract, and why the horror can sometimes seem so arty, because it’s not connected to anything, it’s just FEAR. It also helps explain the lurid eroticism of his horror, as if it’s not connected to anything, it points to the character’s internal fears and fantasies. As in this movie, Cheryl seems deeply paranoid and fretful before anything even happens.
Anyway, the guy catches her and gives her a ticket to a movie that night, to the Metropol. He’s all in black robes with the aforementioned creepy silver mask face. By the way, the guy handing out tickets is Michele Soavi, director of Dellamorte Dellamore, or Cemetery Man. He starts giving out tickets to others as well, and Cheryl asks him for another one, for her friend. She then says “Excuse me, are you dressed like this for the promotion of the film?” RUDE! What if he really dresses like that? No one’s running around critiquing Cheryl’s sartorial choices.
So she meets her permanently peeved friend Kathy outside, and suggests that they skip class and go to the movie. Neither of them have ever heard of the movie theater, and wonder why it doesn’t say which film is playing. Maybe it’s a Ron Howard film and not telling people is the only way to get them to go. Kathy hopes it’s not a horror film. They find the big dark looming freaky theater and feel a little creeped out, but go anyway. I’d also be freaked by the sound of raw voltage that fills the air, but they don’t seem to notice.
Okay, now we see a strange thing—we start with a shot of water dripping to the ground, then pan up a woman’s legs, as she pulls her skirt down. They are clearly two separate events, but at the same time suggests that she is dripping piss. This is the red-headed, big-haired usheress. We now meet the other characters who are attending the film, including a blind guy and his companion, two dudes who are going to come on to Kathy and Cheryl, and Jack, who is taking his wife to the free movie as an anniversary present. “So what?” he says when his wife mentions his irritable attitude, “I’m taking you to a show!” In the center of the lobby is a motorcycle display with a headless mannequin holding out a silver mask. Tony, the slick pimp daddy with the white suit, bald head, sideburns and fu manchu [i.e. my new boyfriend], is attended by two women of color. One of them picks up the mask and tries it on, clowning around. It cuts her slightly on the cheek as she takes it off. We know something bad is going to happen, and I like the whole idea that the villains just leave the mask out there knowing that the patrons won’t be able to leave it alone. Surely you will notice that it is the blacks, the low-life ho's who smoke in theaters even when they're told not to, that are responsible for bringing the evil into the world. Is this film approved by the NAACP?
So then the movie starts, and soon we the viewers are inside the movie-within-the-movie. It concerns four young'uns going to this creepy crypt, where they read an inscription, find a book with writings by Nostradamus, and find a silver mask… exactly like the one in the lobby! That's a tie-in! One of the guys puts the mask on jokingly, exactly like the woman did earlier. Then follows what may be my favorite piece of dialogue of any movie so far this year:
Guy 1: "[Take that mask off!] Whoever wears it becomes a demon!"
Guy 2: "How d'you know?"
Guy 1: "It says here, 'Whoever wears it becomes a demon!'"
SPOILERS > > >
Then, in the movie, the guy with the mask gets a slight cut on his face, too. This freaks out the woman with the cut, which has suddenly started to bleed. She runs off to the restroom—the very, very YELLOW restroom [Argento's fascination with saturating the screen with solid colors extends to this film], where she sees that the cut is starting to pulse, and expand, then… IT POPS LIKE A GIANT ZIT!!! Spewing yellow pus down her shirt! It's shocking and revolting! Meanwhile, back in the audience, most of the assembled would really rather not watch a horror movie, and are uncomfortable with how brutal the movie is. So there's this whole sheen of being forced to watch something you don't want to watch. The blind guy is asking his female companion about it, asking "Are the characters scared? Are YOU scared?"
Then the sizzling hot Tony and his companion have noticed that the first woman has not come back, and the second woman goes after her. She finds that he friend is now a full-on demon with yellow eyes and rather vampy nails, and she gets clawed across the neck. She stumbles through all these red curtains and ends up behind the screen. Now, her friend is behind her with a knife, and the woman is scratching against the movie screen, while ON the screen, a woman is in a tent with a knife outside scratching to get in and slitting the tent. So the screen is like the surface of the tent, two stretched canvas surfaces that have something clawing to get in. I LOVE shit like this.
Let's take a turn for the PERSONAL. Part of my diseased personal psychopathology is that I have recurring dreams in which I am IN a slasher movie. It's just like a regular slasher, a bunch of people in the dream with me getting picked off one by one, narrow escapes, chases, the whole deal. The thing is, usually in these dreams, I have READ THE SCRIPT beforehand, so although I can't necessarily see everything coming, when it happens I remember I KNEW it was going to happen. A minor variation is that I watch the movie, then it begins again and I am then IN the movie. So I was finding all sorts of personal resonances and frissons with the first part of this movie as it unfolded.
So finally the woman falls through the screen, people run up to her, and see that her fingernails are bleeding as they turn into claws and, well, I guess only Tony would know if her tongue was like that before. Then her teeth pop out and are replaced with nasty fangs—it's totally gross! Yet in a somewhat gleeful way. So the audience has started to clue in that something is amiss, and they run for the exits, when not suffering vicious attacks from the first demon.
Okay, that just reminded me of another funny but totally unrelated story. Once I was in a movie and it had an opening reel [don't talk, don't smoke etc.] that said "…in case of an emergency walk, do not run, to the nearest exit." Only the film got screwed up in the projector, so it ended up saying "Emergency! RUN to the nearest exit!"
So the audience gets to the exit to discover—they're bricked in! They try to get to the balcony and stop the film, having realized that whatever happens in the film happens to them, and find that it's all automated. So they smash the projector, and finally get the film to end. I was a little bummed about that, since with it goes almost the whole meta-textual aspect of this movie that I was SO grooving on. Meanwhile, we have started to divert to these four 80s punk teens joyriding while they snort cocaine through a straw out of a coca-cola can. The leader of this group, by the way, is named Ripper, but the real star for me was this blonde in the back seat [above] with a mouthful of broken piano keys and teased-up hair of the approximate volume of Carlsbad Caverns. Girl needs to purchase some carbon offset credits for that shit. They are driving along doing coke when they are stopped by the cops, which leads to a chase, and they end up by the theater, by a door that just happens to be open. This puts one in mind of Argento's participation in Dawn of the Dead, which also featured a group of irresponsible ruffians [the bikers] invading the enclosed space where the heroes and their attackers are. Anyway, the audience, while not being picked off by the ever-growing horde of demons, is trying to break through the wall of bricks. Finally they do, and all rush into a cavern that looks hella old and has brick walls that appear to be twelve feet thick. These peeps are fucked!
So the coke fiends [you really have to love any movie with characters that can most accurately be described as coke fiends] are running around like “What the fuck, dude?” when the demons come after them. This is after the blonde one, my favorite, stops in the spooky empty room and reapplies her lipstick, quite methodically, in the mirror that just happens to be dripping slime. I think this is pretty much the last we see of the coke fiends, which makes you wonder why they were in the movie at all. You know why, honey? Because it’s Italian.
Meanwhile, our remaining audience members are holed up in the theater, seats barricaded against the exits. They hear movement and think that help is coming, so they start to pull away the seats. We, and one guy who is roundly ignored, know that it is the demons coming, and that the audience is unwittingly letting them in. This is a good irony, but it’s just not handled to deliver all of the impact it could have. Sure enough, the demons pop in and start a’killin’. The Usheress, who one would have suspected having been an agent of the demons [if not, how exactly did she come by this job?], is in fact killed by the demons. Around this time I realized that one could never really know, at home, what the experience of seeing this in the theater would be like… if it worked, you would start to get paranoid about everyone sitting around you, and being in an enclosed space. Huh, we’ll never know.
So Cheryl and beau [George? Let’s just call him George] make it out to the lobby, but can’t bear to leave the disturbed Kathy behind. Kathy is somewhat catatonic, and her performance at this point is like: “Let me just turn away for a moment here. Look, I’m becoming a demon! If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll just turn my head to glance over here. Hey! Now I’m even more a demon! Just a moment please, while I direct my face away once again...” You want Cheryl to be like “Bitch, what you LOOKIN’ AT?” but all Cheryl is capable of is opening her eyes real wide. Anyway, soon Kathy is a full-on demon [and not a moment too soon, she was a real fountain of negativity], slashes the other hero guy, and then a real, nasty black male demon is born out of her back! We’re talking like demon in the Bosch sense of the word. He runs off, and I thought for sure he’ll be back later, but not really.
So their other male friend is now slashed, and if there’s one thing Cheryl should have learned over the course of the last two hours, it’s that he IS going to become a demon. Still, she’s all like “We can’t leave him like this!” You see, THAT is her problem. And what, praytell, is she going to do for him? Get him a hot compress? Soon enough he’s a demon and they have to kill him.
So George hops on the motorcycle with the samurai sword, two items that just HAPPEN to be in the theater lobby, and he and Cheryl ride through the theater, sometimes over the backs of seats [improbable], slashing any number of demons. It goes on forever, long enough for you to start asking “WHERE do they think they’re going to go? They’re just going to drive around in circles forever?” Then Cheryl gets whipped off the motorcycle as it makes a sharp turn [heh, heh], and George battles all the demons with his sword while they politely leave Cheryl to her own devices.
Then a helicopter crashes through the ceiling. Yep, just like that. Ya gotta be ready to expect anything! So there’s a big hole in the ceiling, their way out. George gets to the helicopter and creates a demon-proof chop radius with the whirling blades. Then it turns out that the average helicopter that might any moment drop out of the sky DOES come equipped with retractable cable and grappling hook, just what one might need to construct a nifty instant elevator when one needs to ascend quickly to a hole in the roof in the event of demons. Please note that George, our average Italian teenager, is an expert daredevil motorcyclist, a master of the samurai sword, familiar with the gear and controls of modern helicopters, and can jerry-rig a neat little elevator in just a moment. Those Italians really do have some comprehensive after-school programs.
So Cheryl and George are on top of the roof, and so is the guy with the original silver mask guy, too. Now, all Cheryl and George have to do is dump the guy down the hole into the theater, located conveniently inches away, but no, they think it might be more prudent to expend a great deal more energy in order to impale his head on these spikes through the eye sockets. You know, if you're going to do it, do it right, as George Michael once so sagely exhorted us.
Anyway, turns out the demons have already taken over the whole outside world already, and there is a whole coda where Cheryl and George run around and find the whole place ruined. I don't know how the demons got out, it doesn't really make sense, but they did, and it sure looks like they didn't waste any time, as the outside is pretty fairly well trashed, and they only had at most two hours! These are high-efficiency demons. I think it would have been better if the demons somehow tricked the humans into breaking down the doors and then escaped out into the world as a finale, but no, they're already there. Cheryl and George hook up with a big burly dad and two others, who are in a jeep headed out for some rural area—suddenly we're deep into zombie movie territory—and just as suddenly, it's over. The movie just ends right there.
< < < SPOILERS END
It was awesome! It was just good, scary, gross fun. The Italian provenance keeps it in a slightly unfamiliar vein, it has some truly unexpected elements, fun characters like the pimp and his wimmens, some of the characters and violence are really nasty, and the demons themselves seem to be so gleeful about the evil they enact. This is good, but it must be mentioned that it could have been so much more; the best part of the movie [for me, at least] was undoubtedly the whole introduction to the many characters and the mask left out there, and especially the creepy resonance of the events of the movie mirroring and predicting the events in the theater. If I were remaking this, we would focus almost entirely on that, since it was really interesting, and the movie became just another zombie / vampire type movie once they turned the movie off.
The sequel, by the way, is apparently just as fun, but apparently about a haunted birthday cake. So I'm sensing that the meta-movie content of this version is somewhat reduced in that one. There are apparently a few different Demons III's, and then it all just goes wonky after that. The trailer for this is quite good, but starts to lose steam by simply going on too long. Regardless, if you want a nice, fun horror movie that'll leave you with a smile on your face, Demons it is.
Sure! Especially if you like your horror more toward the fun, less-serious end.