31 Monsters in 31 Days: Demons/Demons 2

(A two-fer today, as I’m fond of both installments of this series–the latter not so much, but it does have some great creature effects, hence its inclusion here. Once again I’m cribbing from the 365 Days of the Dead archives–DEMONS and DEMONS 2 were Days 79 and 80, respectively, which is why I concentrate on the films’ zombie-like elements–but I think these older reviews still reflect my opinions pretty well.)

It’s no big secret that the Italian film industry is based on imitating popular American releases–in fact, that’s a significant part of their charm, especially when they fail to measure up to the originals that’ve inspired them. A notable exception is 1985’s DEMONS, produced by Dario Argento and directed by Lamberto Bava, which attempted to cash in on both the lucrative horror and action markets. What makes it notable is that it succeeded, while still displaying many of the traits that made 80’s Italian horror so enjoyable.

Although the film refers to its creatures as demons (hence the title), it plays out closer to the zombie genre than the quasi-satanic demons that were the rage in the mid-eighties; not only is the demonic infection spread by bites and scratches, but the action is confined to a single, restrictive location–here, a Berlin moviehouse where patrons have been given tickets to a new horror film by a mysterious stranger in a metallic mask (played by future CEMETERY MAN director Michele Soavi). The film is perhaps best known for the unconventional way it introduces its monsters, as the film-within-a-film (ostensibly about the prophecies of Nostradamus, with plenty of lip service paid to the then-prevalent slasher film craze) parallels with one of the characters, who’s cut herself on a demonic mask in the theater’s lobby. As the cinematic demons make their appearance, the girl begins her transformation into a scaly, frothing creature. This early sequence is done so well that it almost renders the rest of the story, which follows the usual set-’em-up-and-knock-’em-down approach, anti-climactic; in fact, when I first watched this one many moons ago, I watched the initial reveal of the demons through my fingers (though if I told you exactly how old I was at the time, you’d surely make fun of me).

DEMONS, like so many films of its decade, is an exercise of style and excess, from its distinctly 80’s synthesized score (punctuated with an odd assortment of commercial rock) and evocative lighting, to its non-stop barrage of violence and gore. The action moves at too brisk a pace to really milk the claustrophobic potential of its setting, but Argento and Bava are more concerned with attitude than mood, throwing on one demonic confrontation after another until it teeters on the brink of ridiculousness (i.e. the helicopter crashing through the theater’s roof for no discernable reason). DEMONS also betrays its affiliation with Italian zombie cinema with its apocalyptic ending, as the two surviving audience members find the infection has (somehow) spread throughout the city–and the world, we’re to believe.

Shakespeare it ain’t, but this fun, grisly thrill ride is a nice change of pace from all the hockey-masked momma’s boys that dominated much of Reagan-era horror.

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Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava followed up the success of DEMONS with, duh, DEMONS 2 in 1986, a direct sequel (a rarity in the realm of Italian horror) that follows the first film so closely it’s practically a duplication (which is not such a rarity in the realm of Italian horror). And though it captures the first DEMONS’ aura of stylized excess, with emphasis on the excess, it fails to include its sense of crowd-pleasing excitement.

Bava gets underway with a cheap fake scare (what appears to be a blood-spattered butcher is really a pastry chef with a mess of strawberry glaze) before rehashing the same set-up as before, this time switching the locale to an apartment building but keeping his characters the same personality-barren spear-carriers. TV is the vessel of evil in this one, as various tenants (including a debuting Asia Argento) watch a movie about demons; strangely, the sequel ignores the first film’s ending, which implied a widespread demon infestation, yet the events of that movie are referenced in 2’s film-within-a-film. Like DEMONS, this build-up is the best part, the highlight being teenage Sally (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) watching in horror as the on-screen demon emerges into reality through the television screen, a la VIDEODROME.

Despite the almost identical approach, DEMONS 2 disintegrates into unbearable tedium after its somewhat impressive set-up, with a handful of grody transformation scenes thrown in to relieve the boredom (oddly enough, the one special effect that gets the most screen time is the worst–a hilariously stupid-looking puppet that at least livens up the action with its sheer ridiculousness). In his attempt to recreate the success of his previous hit Bava not only replicates what worked before (again we’re treated to a scene in which the demons scurry through the dark, their eyes aglow) but also what didn’t–again leaving the central location to focus on a group of teenage degenerates, though instead of incorporating them into the action like the first time, Bava seems content to let them grind the movie to a halt. Nor does Bava seem interested in recreating the atmospheric use of lighting, opting to concentrate on gore and forced mayhem (but at least he kept a euro-cheese synth soundtrack).

Perhaps Bava and Argento were aware their sequel would have the tarnished reputation it would soon earn, since they don’t aim for a third installment by ending 2 on a more upbeat note. Our heroes (a young married couple expecting their first child) are trapped in a television studio surrounded by monitors, each one featuring a demonized Tassoni rushing toward the screen. The husband smashes each one in turn as his wife gives birth, reversing the demons’ intent by delivering something good and innocent into the world.

If you must see DEMONS 2, I highly recommend renting a DVD so you can bypass the tedium and enjoy the transformation sequences. There is a few interesting tidbits here, but for a more productive viewing experience you’ll be better off sticking with the original.

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