Saturday, October 19, 2013

Horror Fest VIII (Day One): Demons and Suspiria

 Lamberto Bava’s Demons is a movie with a great premise… and that’s about it. I will grant you that the gore and makeup effects are nice, but after a spell even those become tiresome, in large part because there’s so little happening in the film that even the demons are boring after a while. For a film that isn’t even ninety minutes, Demons feels padded and overlong, and it’s a shame.
  Quickly, I’d like to dispel an erroneous assumption on the part of attendees at Horror Fest VIII: Dario Argento did not direct Demons; he wrote it and has a “Presented By” title card at the beginning of the film. Now it’s not inconceivable that one would leap to that conclusion, as a) the titles were in Italian (even though I chose the English dub) and b) if you don’t know Italian horror cinema very well, you could make the mistake that if Dario Argento is involved at all, he was a strong influence, but no, it’s a Lamberto Bava film. Bava was Argento’s assistant director on Inferno and Tenebre, but he’s probably better known as a director in his own right (A Blade in the Dark), or for being the son of the legendary Mario Bava.
  At any rate, Argento and Bava co-wrote Demons with Dardano Sacchetti and Franco Ferrini, and it’s hard to imagine that it took four people to write a movie where so little happens. The film is based around a mysterious “Man in Black” (Michele Saovi, director of Cemetery Man and The Church, also known as Demons 3) handing out golden tickets to the Metropol theatre. The tickets are for a very special screening, and we meet a handful of people in the lobby, including a student (Natasha Hovey), a blind man (Alex Serra), and a pimp (Bobby Rhodes). Okay, I’m making an assumption on that last one, and IMDB’s synopsis doesn’t exactly match my reading of it, but it’s not hard to leap to that conclusion when he brings to girlfriends to the movie.
 The plot of the movie within a movie is that four college students are looking for the grave of Nostradamus, and they find one that seems to match, but in the coffin they find a strange mask and a book (which, of course, they read from). If you put the mask on, something sharp cuts into your face and you become a demon, which is interesting because one of the pimp’s girlfriends put on a similar mask in the lobby and has a similar cut on her face…
 As the move plays out, more people are infected and become demons, and as the audience desperately tries to escape, they discover the doors are a façade – the front of the building is now simply concrete, and they’re trapped inside. If anyone is injured by a demon, they become a demon, so they barricade themselves on the balcony and try in vain to find a way out. And that’s pretty much when Demons ceases to be interesting in any way, shape, or form. There’s only so much “bait and switch” Bava can employ when people pair up and split off from the main group, and it’s always the “which one is going to be the demon?” variety. The survivors eventually break through the wall of the balcony and cut off the projector and find an adjacent building, but even that goes nowhere as the building is abandoned and the only room they bother going into is walled off.
 To demonstrate just how disjointed (and front loaded) the plot of Demons is, Bava introduces four totally unrelated punks in the middle of the film, tooling around town and doing coke out of a Coke can (okay, I will admit that’s clever). If you’re under the impression that they’ll be saving the survivors in any way, don’t hold your breath – their purpose in the story is to enter the theatre, but only because one of the demons needs to get out in order for the ending to make any sense.
 Aside from a ridiculous scene involving a motorbike, a samurai sword, and a helicopter crashing through the theatre’s ceiling – all of which happen without any sense of causality – nothing happens in the second half of Demons. People wander around, they die. There’s no sense of tension at all, and the apocalyptic ending is just an excuse for another “bait and switch” to end the film on after the credits finish rolling. Characters abruptly change personalities – the usherette, for example, when introduced appears to be in on what’s happening (or about to happen), but as soon as the demons run amok she transforms into another terrified patron, seemingly without reason.  I understand that people really like Demons, and I remembered enjoying it when I was younger, but the film is too threadbare to really invest in. Sometimes gore just isn’t enough, and the atmosphere only goes so far.
  Are you ready for the fun part of this recap? I just slammed Demons for its slight narrative and I’m about to do the exact opposite for Dario Argento’s Suspiria. To be fair, Suspiria has a “through-line” story to go along with strong atmospherics, stylish color schemes, and at times disturbing gore, but the main difference is that while Demons peters out as soon as the plot should be kicking into high gear, Suspiria builds to a literally explosive conclusion. I’m also more willing to accept Suspiria’s dream logic structure over Demons nightmarish buildup, but perhaps it’s just a matter of personal preference.

I’ve also seen Suspiria more often than Demons, and have come to have a certain affinity for its story construction. We know as much as Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) does when she arrives at a ballet academy in Germany, with an added benefit of a brutal murder for a former student and her friend (this is an Argento film, after all). Information is revealed slowly, punctuated by strange events and even stranger behavior (maggots in the ceiling, suspicious activity by the staff, people leaving and then being murdered), mostly without clear reasons. Anyone who tries to find out too much about the staff, particularly Ms. Tanner (Alida Valli) and Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) end up dead, under mysterious circumstances. At least, to the students: as the audience, we’re privy to what happens to the pianist and Suzy’s friend Sara (Stefania Casini), although the how is often unclear.
Am I spoiling anything by telling you that Madam Blanc and Ms. Tanner are familiars for the witch Helena Markos? If so, I guess *SPOILER*, but I can’t imagine anybody reading a Horror Fest recap this far hasn’t heard of or seen Suspiria, the first of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy (followed by Inferno and, much later, Mother of Tears). I’ve been meaning to show it at a Horror Fest for years, but it always gets bumped at the last minute by something or would fall victim to exhaustion from participants. To be honest, the dreamlike logic of the film was even more effective for me this time because towards the end of the film (specifically around the dubbed Udo Kier scene), I was drifting in and out of consciousness myself. It’s how I always intended Suspiria to play at one of these festivals – late at night, when the mind is prone to wander, leaving you unsure whether what you saw really happened in the film or your imagination.
 I wouldn’t recommend anyone watch Suspiria this way for the first time, but the film lends itself well to a relaxed mind, one that wants to remain invested but is also hovering between lucid and sleepy. Never fear, because just when you think you’ll drift off, the memorably creepy score by Goblin rattles you awake. It was an excellent way to close out the first night of Horror Fest, but there’s a lot more fun to go tomorrow…

 Up Next: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and A Nightmare on Elm Street!

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