Premise: A university student named Cheryl encounters a mysterious masked stranger in the Berlin Metro, who gives her a pair of free passes to a screening at the Metropol, a local cinema, and takes her friend Kathy. The film is a strange horror movie about a group of teenagers who become possessed by demons while prowling around a cemetery. Then the audience members themselves fall prey to possession by demons bearing a remarkable resemblance to the ones in the film…
I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is that Demons looks great. The production design is beautiful, the costuming is striking (particularly the mysterious stranger–played by Michele Soavi, who’d go on to direct Cemetery Man), there’s plenty of gore and noxious fluids, the makeup is excellent in both design and execution, and there’s a number of insanely awesome set pieces. I can’t imagine any film without the word “highlander” in the title daring to stage an action sequence in which a guy rides a motorcycle around a movie theater while slashing at attackers with a sword, and there’s a scene involving a nipple that’s going to stick with me until I come down with Alzheimer’s.
So I’ve got to give director Lamberto Bava credit for making one of the best-looking horror movies of the ’80s.
The bad news is that, honestly, there’s little else to admire about Demons. Bava co-wrote the screenplay with Dardano Sacchetti (who had a hand in most of the Lucio Fulci movies that you’ve actually heard of) and producer Dario Argento (expect you’ve heard of him), and those two names are not exactly synonymous with “narrative coherence.” In particular, Argento, Bava, and Sacchetti spend waaay too much time focusing on characters who aren’t, honestly, all that important and don’t do much that’s particularly interesting. (Specifically, I’m talking about the joyriding punks.)
The film-within-a-film conceit is great and has a lot of potential–unfortunately Demons doesn’t do half of what Anguish did with a similar idea. (And let’s be honest with ourselves here, Anguish didn’t handle the concept all that well either.) Under ordinary circumstances, the demons’ utter lack of development would be a major complaint, but in Demons, it barely registers.
The characterization is uniformly weak–most of the characters aren’t all that distinct from one another, one notable exception being a black man apparently modeled after Huggy Bear of Starsky & Hutch–and the dubbed voice acting (because this is an Italian horror movie, you pretty much have to expect dubbed voice acting) is worse than usual. (Although…Giovanni Frezza makes a brief appearance. He’s not dubbed by the same person who provided his voice for The House by the Cemetery. That’s a relief.) Even the native-language acting is a bit on the flat side.
And it’s all set to a soundtrack that’s made up mostly of hair metal. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have any special affection for the culture of the ’80s. It took me a long time to figure out that the decade wasn’t a vast artistic wasteland and that a lot of the culture of the time was actually pretty good. (In particular, I really regret being wrong about Echo and the Bunnymen for so many years.) But I never liked hair metal, I’m never going to like hair metal, and I was really glad when MTV’s definition of a vital male recording artist who teased his hair and wore makeup stopped being the guy from Mötley Crüe (who contribute a song to the soundtrack) and started being the guy from the Cure. Even those songs that aren’t hair metal–such as an early offering from Go West and some attempts by Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti to do Cabaret Voltaire-style synth-pop–aren’t much good.
Overall, it helps to go into Demons understanding that (pretty much like every other Italian horror movie of the ’70s and ’80s) it’s mostly going to be about the style and the visuals. If you’re predisposed to like its style, you’re going to get a lot of awesome! moments featuring people who look awesome! and doing awesome! things set to awesome! music. If you’re not predisposed to like its style, you’re going to get a lot of underdeveloped plot elements, bad acting and Mötley Crüe. Either way, now that you’ve read this review, you know what you’re getting into and have no one to blame but yourself.
My rating: 5 of 10.
88 minutes. Directed by Lamberto Bava. Starring Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey.