31 Days of Gore: The Demons series

It’s Halloween. I’ve reviewed more than thirty movies this month. This year’s 31 Days of Gore comes to an end with three Italian horror films. Do they bring the gore? Read on to find out!

Demons (1985)

A bunch of strangers mysteriously receive tickets to the screening of an untitled movie. Shortly before it begins, a woman finds a mask in the lobby and tries it on, goofing around with her friends. When she takes it off she discovers the mask somehow cut her cheek. As we all know from watching too many movies like this, wounds are never so minor, especially in a film co-written by Dario Argento and directed by Mario Bava’s son, Lamberto.
Later, one of the characters in the movie-within-the-movie finds a suspiciously familiar mask, puts it on, and cuts his cheek. It’s not long before he turns into a demon, much to the disgust of the overly squeamish audience. Meanwhile, the woman who cut her cheek “in real life” goes to the theater’s bathroom where she secretly begins to transform. Some time later her friend goes to check on her, discovers the woman is now a demon, gets chased into the off-limits area behind the theater’s screen, and ends up getting herself brutally murdered. The demon tosses the body through the screen and—as so often happens in horror movies set inside theaters—the real horror comes tearing through the movie itself.
So meta.
a well-made but slightly overreaching analysis on movies within movies
The man who’s apparently the boyfriend of both women (or a pimp… probably a pimp) doesn’t seem too heartbroken when he discovers they’ve both turned into demons. In fact, he’s the first person to announce, “Don’t touch her!” and “We’ve gotta get outta here!” And guess what… he’s the best character in the entire movie. Played by Bobby Rhodes, he’s like the black Hugo Stiglitz (the real one from Nightmare City as opposed to the fictional one in Inglourious Basterds), kicking and switchblading his way through each obstacle the filmmakers throw at him. 
When the survivors are trapped on the balcony, Rhodes commands them to rip up the seats and use them to barricade the doors. When they find dead bodies among them, which can turn into demons at any minute, he forces his impromptu army to toss them over the side. Someone says some nonsense about respecting the dead, but Rhodes isn’t fucking around. He’s too experienced, too crafty for that. Do what he says and you just might survive the night.

A character like this should make it to the end of the picture, but… well, these movies don’t always make sense. 

There’s a reason the About Me section on this blog mentions my affinity for “characters who punch their problems in the face.” Yes, I understand the appeal of realistically examining death and those it affects in slower paced media like Fear the Walking Dead and so on, but honestly, haven’t we had enough of that lately? And is it ever as entertaining as a film like Demons? Isn’t inconsequential violence just as artistically valid as the consequential stuff? I mean, for fuck’s sake, where’s the fantasy in having characters moping around funerals all the time?

Even before the trend to make genre fiction more like real life, most characters just didn’t have a satisfying sense of agency. In horror films they’d almost always make one boneheaded decision after another while screaming their heads off. In Demons there are a few characters who’d be perfectly willing to do just that, but then there’s always another character, like Rhodes, who’s willing to step up, slap ’em across the face, and keep the pace of the movie moving.

And what a movie it is. The camera never cuts away from the good stuff, there are plenty of killings (and victims) to go around, and music from the likes of Billy Idol, Go West, and Mötley Crüe gives it all a fun yet aggressive tone. The climax is splatter-filled and frantic, and the glowing eyes of the demons are used to great effect throughout.
you have to love any movie which combines samurai swords with motorbikes
Movies like this are why so many horror hounds would sit through one crappy VHS after another: hoping to find a gem like this one. I was getting a little burnt out this month. This one made it worthwhile.

Click the “Read more” link below to read about the sequel.

Demons 2 (1986)

Major spoilers for the first film follow….

I hoped (but did not expect) Demons 2 would pick up exactly where the original left off. The sword-wielding survivor of the first film was just becoming interesting by the time the credits rolled: last time we saw him he’d slayed a theater full of demons with the help of an unlikely helicopter. Although Demons 2 technically takes place after the events of the first film, it’s little more than a redo.

What worked well for Evil Dead 2 doesn’t work as well here, but it’s a pleasant surprise that Lamberto Bava cast some familiar faces, particularly Bobby Rhodes who stole the original picture. Although his new character lasts a little longer than his pimp counterpart in the other film, Rhodes isn’t quite as intense as he was the last time we saw him. Why they didn’t just make him the main character beats the shit out of me. Maybe because it’d be so awesome our puny little eyeballs would explode?

those eyes are spoo-ooo-ooky

This time Bava trades the movie theater location for a high-rise apartment building in which everyone seems to be watching the same horror film on television. A narrator informs us the events of the first film “convinced the world that demons can exist.” And you think to yourself, “Hey, a world in which everybody believes in demons sounds like a pretty interesting setting for a horror movie! I wonder how they contained the outbreak from the first film…”

And you’ll keep wondering because they never explain what stopped the seemingly unstoppable spread of demons. Yeah, I know there was a lot that wasn’t explained by the first film either (Chrome-Face’s motivation, the motorcycle, the fact the owner had no idea her theater was haunted even though—literally—a blind man figured it out), but the difference is the first film was riotous good fun. When you make a movie with that level of crazy entertainment, you earn the right to take a few liberties. I don’t feel like Bava completely earned that right with this film, which is not to say it’s a bad movie, just a retread with a lot less energy.

The original film managed to set up its large cast of victims in the first thirty minutes or so. This one takes something like forty and then some. Whereas the movie playing in the predecessor’s theater had a little bit of plot and a whole lot of gore, the movie-within-the-movie here has little more to add than background noise. The characters are a little dumber, the glowing eyes of the first film aren’t as effective, and—for reasons incomprehensible to me—the demons are as scared of fire as Frankenstein’s monster, even though they, uh, presumably come from hell.

Again, it’s not a bad horror movie when you consider it on its own merit, but it’s impossible not to compare it to the original because they’re too much alike.

The Church (1989)

No spoilers for the first two films from here on out.

So here the pedigree of the series becomes a little complicated as it so often does in the world of Italian horror movies. Lamberto Bava went on to direct The Ogre, which Italian distributors tried to pass off as a sequel to Demons 2 even though it wasn’t. Meanwhile, Umberto Lenzi also made an unofficial entry to the series called Black Demons.

Dario Argento, on the other hand, intended to produce an official Demons 3, but that movie became The Church, starring Argento’s daughter, Asia. (Asia Argento briefly appeared as a child in Demons 2 during the parking lot scenes, while her older sister had a bigger role in Demons 1.) Although it shares some similarities with the first two films, The Church is such a radical departure in terms of tone you can’t even compare it to the previous entries.

That’s not a bad thing. Like I said, Demons 2 kind of disappoints because it hits so many of the same notes as the original. The Church succeeds because it takes the original premise (that demons can spread like a zombie outbreak) and scraps almost everything else, including the stale movie-within-a-movie angle. The Church is a much slower movie than its predecessors, but the film’s atmosphere keeps it captivating. The Philip Glass and Goblin music doesn’t hurt the mood, either.

In the opening act, Teutonic Knights massacre a village of cursed people, bury them in a mass grave, and build a church over it. The church’s architect installed some secret features straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, which will activate only in the event the seal to the secret tomb is broken. Fast forward to modern times and even the current clergymen are unaware of what took place on the site so many years ago.

I probably don’t even need to tell you they’re about to find out.

Par for the course, there’s a lot of stilted dialogue and nonsensical “what the fuck?” moments. The beautiful leading woman, pursued by a grotesque demon in her own home, calls the cops, dives through a window, runs across her yard, and gets trapped in a flannel blanket. Initially you think she ran through a clothesline or something, but it turns out the cops—who she called about twenty seconds ago—have already shown up to throw a blanket over her head. You couldn’t even get that kind of speedy service if you lived inside a police station.

Those kind of flaws are inherent in a movie like this. Everything else—and I really do mean everything—is practically flawless.

The Church is one of the most flavorful horror films I’ve ever seen. I know I said it can’t be compared to the original, but I’ll be damned it if I didn’t like this one a lot better. Which is saying a lot considering how good the first one is.

That’s all for 31 Days of Gore this year, but don’t wait eleven months to come back! Since I had such a blast featuring movies this month, I’m planning a similar, but not strictly horror, feature for every Monday! Stay tuned for more details, and don’t forget to watch Ash Vs. The Evil Dead tonight!

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