When I think about it, it’s surprising the idea of having a horror movie take place at a movie theatre isn’t used by more directors. I have always thought horror movies are more terrifying when watched at home since most of them take place in a house. At a theatre, you have the good fortune to be in a safe place, in the comfort (well, not really) of a fold in chair and anonymous amongst complete strangers. Besides an occasional crying baby, the only events happening are on the screen. I often wonder why someone brought a baby to a horror movie, but I digress. In 1985, Horror directors Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava have turned that comfort zone into a battle zone with Demons, a creepy, gruesome campy horror movie full of 80’s kitsch.
While on her way to the subway, the contractually obligated virgin girl receives a ticket for a surprise film premier. Would you trust a guy with half of his face looking like a combination of a lizard and the T-1000 from Terminator 2? If the guy pops out of nowhere at a subway station and hands you a ticket without even telling you what it is, they either a) suck at marketing and/or b) the film sucks.
So off she goes with her best friend to a metropolitan theatre for the premiere. They are joined by a group of complete strangers and some of them are real jerks. There are two guys who hit on the girls. There’s a pimp-like mac daddy with two girls who may be his escorts. There’s even a blind man who gets left in his seat while his guide is busy having sex in the lobby.*
The mysterious movie is a standard type of horror movie. In the film within the film, a group of teenagers stumble upon some ancient ruins. There they find the grave of infamous prophet Nostradamus, and within it, a demon mask and an ancient book. The book warns that anyone who wears the mask will become a demon. Of course, one of them doesn’t listen and puts on the mask. Soon, he is slaying his friends. This film sets itself up pretty well with a great environment and interesting premise but then descends into a subpar slasher film.
Then life starts to imitate art. Don’t you hate it when it does that? One of the prostitutes finds the mask on display and puts it on. At first it leaves a little cut, but within five minutes the wound bulges out and starts oozing green pus. In the next five minutes, she has sharp teeth and claws. Then she starts slashing necks. To make matters worse, anyone who gets scratched will become a demon. But wait, there’s more! The audience finds they are unable to leave the theatre.
Italian Horror directors have a knack for gruesome images and creative deaths and Bava is no different. The demon transformations get the audience curling in their seats from the bulging of the wound to the close-up of teeth popping out, to be replaced with bloody fangs. Then there’s the scene where a demon rips the flesh off a man’s neck. The most unforgettable is the image of the demons’ eyes glowing as they run through the auditorium
What is surprising is that the gore is limited. Within the short 84 minute run, Bava takes his time to keep the kettle boiling. Whether it’s the unsuspecting audience in their seats, or the heroes walking through the hallway, the camera lingers as new wave beats on
With Italian horror, there is fewer guarantees the heroes will make it out alive. This adds more suspense in the scenes. Bava manages to find a way to creatively match the film within the film with the scene in the audience. The most creative is when one girl is trapped behind the screen and tries to rip through it. At the same time, the movie has the image of a demon ripping through a tent.
As I have said, the film has 80’s written all over it. 1st is the new wave synthesizer music running throughout the movie. Then there’s the classic 80’s fashion, especially with the biker gang. The climax goes into Indiana Jones territory with one of the guys riding a motorcycle and swinging a samurai sword. There is the classic problem with foreign horror movies; the dubbing. Though the lip movements actually match what the characters are saying, the voices feel off, creating an awkward feeling. The Pimp in particular sounds like Popeye. Depending on taste, it will make the experience more or less entertaining.
Even for fans of horror, this film will be a matter of taste. Demons is so not a masterpiece, even in the horror genre. It hasn’t aged as well as Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. But it still delivers gripping terror within the unsuspecting playing field that is the movie theatre. Plus, some of the audience will take guilty pleasure with the 80’s campiness, whether it is nostalgia or amusement. And if life imitates art, which imitates art, at least you can learn from their mistakes, right?
*Have you noticed I didn’t refer to the characters by their names? It’s kind of pointless since there’s little chance that you will remember them by name. If anything, these characters will be more remembered for their archetypes. These characters are stripped to the bare bones of stereotypes. In the last half, the film even adds a gang of Billy Idol-like biker punks. But this doesn’t make them forgettable. Quite the contrary, they are memorable in how over the top these caricatures are and the leads are endearing enough for you to fear for their safety.