(Dèmoni, Lamberto Bava, Italy, 1985)


I first saw Demons on VHS in the mid 1980s – in passing, as it were, one in a stack of tapes grabbed from the local video store. I enjoyed it, and thought: “OK film. Some interesting elements”. It resonated with a bunch of styles and trends evident in the global genre cinema of the period: horror, teen, thriller, gore, giallo … at a moment where almost anyone with half a brain could agree with Philip Brophy’s intuition of 1983 that “something different is happening in these films”.


Thirty-five years or so later, I am revisiting Demons on DVD. It isn’t, any longer, much of a film in my eyes. Whatever tingle of mad enchantment it once wielded over me is gone, vanished. So I am clearly “out of phase” with the current fan-cult retro-worship (marked by a 2021 “limited edition” Blu-ray from Arrow) of this film, its 1986 sequel (Demons 2), and its director (Lamberto Bava, son of Mario – although I do have a soft spot for the wild deframings of his 2007 Ghost Son).


But this out-of-it situation, at least, causes me to reflect on certain conditions of fandom: how certain films seem notable in their time and cultural context – or, to switch to the different evolutionary time-scale of the individual, how they can “click” if encountered at a specific, optimal moment of one’s own cinephilic development. Both time-scales (the cultural and the individual) are equally valid; it’s useless crying “I was around when the fad was hot and now it’s gone stone cold!” to a younger generation. In fact, the so-called distinct sensibilities of “generations” (despite journalists’ undying obsession with marking, defining and comparing them) having nothing to do with anything – they’re just a convenient (tired) fiction, a stupid myth. Whenever and however you encounter a film that signals “something different” for you, grab onto it for dear life. And try to figure out what that difference is, what it means, and how to express it in words.


Film taste is never a right-or-wrong situation; there’s not much point in arguing that this film or that director is ultimately “better”, richer, fuller on its own terrain, than Demons or anything else. (Although I do hold onto the personal conviction that Bigas Luna’s great Anguish [1987] plays the reflexive “hysterical panic in a movie theatre” game far more brilliantly than Bava and his confrères.)


Demons, produced and co-written by Dario Argento, runs through various hallmarks of the maestro’s grand haunt-and-slash style. The spectators of horror, transfixed as certain, gruesome death approaches them; the slit of light through a door crack; the plunging knives; the disco-driven music score by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin (alternating with tracks by Billy Idol, Mötley Crüe, Go West). Bava – like many ‘80s filmmakers in the wake of Sam Raimi’s inaugural The Evil Dead (1981) – takes Argento’s terror trademarks to a more hyper-literal level of queasy gore, with animated model work of spikes plunging into eyes, flesh exploding with pus, creatures bursting out of bodies, and all the rest of it – these were the merry years of what Brophy in his classic ’83 essay called horrality, horror and semiotic textuality combined, as much influenced by early ‘80s David Cronenberg (Scanners [1981] and Videodrome [1983]) as by Argento.


In the early scenes (which kick off proceedings well), there’s a clear Brian De Palma influence as well: the rushing-by train windows, fugitive glimpses of apparitions in the dark, imposing station architecture of Dressed to Kill (1980) – mixed with the obligatory, repertory stand-by of stalking (and suddenly disappearing) footsteps from the Jacques Tourneur (1942) and Paul Schrader (1982) versions of Cat People. And all taking place in Berlin, which seems like another Argento production-touch (as well as a premonition of the truly dreadful 2018 remake by Luca Guadagnino of Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria [1977]).


After the opening prelude, we reach the imposing Metropol cinema, refurbished for an enigmatic reopening. Nobody in the projection booth (it’s fully automated: sign o’ the times!) where a horror movie (who made it?) is about to unspool; no one around except a blonde, spooky-looking usher taking the invite cards handed out by that semi-masked man in the metro … But this is not the kind of film where anyone requires backstory explanations of a “demons mythology”, heaven forbid. The sequels (Michele Soavi’s The Church [1989] serves as a loose third instalment) just multiply the fuzzy Chinese-box conceits (like being attacked through a transmitting TV set) without ever really explaining anything. There are demons loose in our world: that’s all there is to it.


It’s only the shut-in, le grand renfermement, that matters: once the demons start multiplying and killing, the Metropol becomes a typical giallo-style spatial architectural labyrinth, with its (literally) confusing thick red curtains, its stairs and corridors and rooms extending to some fuzzy infinity (breaking through walls brings no clarity, for the demon-pursued, as to the floor-plan layout), its vivid patches of blue-lit walls (odd prefiguration of the candy-coloured LED lighting of every indie film of today!). We could almost be in the surreal Roman cinema of Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Luna (1979) – except that where, once, a roof opened to show the miracle of the sky and the moon, now a helicopter full of corpses smashes through the ceiling down into the aisles (its spinning blades will come in handy as a self-defence tool).


Demons is not rigorous in its spatial play (neither full-on surrealist nor convincingly realist) ­– as Argento at his best and De Palma are – but there is a pleasing pattern of tight little gauntlets (an air vent, a passage through heaped-up seats) through which characters must agonisingly squirm. That’s part of what made Demons interesting to the open-minded cinephiles of 1985: that lightly formalist element we (rightly) associated with John Carpenter, Walter Hill and other prime practitioners of the fantastique. Add to that the manic “excess” – an open-access keyword for horror fans back then and again today – of a guy zooming around the cinema on a motorbike wielding a sword for the purposes of mass-demon-decapitation – and I believe I have pretty much accounted for what I enjoyed in this movie when I was in my 20s.


Too often, however, Demons amounts to just the anything-goes trick of a supine body suddenly confronted with a demonic hand appearing from absolutely anywhere in the frame to rip out their throat or whatever. It’s too easy! That, and a fairly facile re-treading of the teen types of the period: wholesome boys and girls in their sweaters and neatly ironed pastel pants, stoned punks in all-black sniffing coke (from a Coca-Cola can, no less!) … But note this separation of the broad giallo tradition from the George Romero “living dead” lineage of contemporary horror: here, neither teens nor demons mean (or suggest) anything! The intellectually stunted genre-freaks from at least the mid 1980s onwards who clamour for an ultra-obvious “subtext” (zombies are mass consumers!) give the likes of Lamberto Bava or Lucio Fulci (like Umberto Lenzi or Sergio Martino, all vastly overrated figures today) a free pass when it comes to such weighty signification. And, indeed, such lack of theme eventually became de rigueur in most run-of-the-mill horror movies by the 2000s. Not a way to go: in the contemporary fantastique landscape, I prefer the ambitions of an upward-trending mainstream figure like Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, 2001).


A final note before I bid adieu to Demons for evermore in my life. Its claustrophobic shut-in (over two-thirds of the movie, as in Anguish) is followed by a supposedly revelatory twist, the one that Alfred Hitchcock originally planned for The Birds (1963): the threat seemed contained, confined to one place, until our remaining whitebread hero and heroine finally get outside to discover … all of central Berlin has already fallen prey to the demonic apocalypse! It makes no sense, but sense (as noted) doesn’t call the shots here. It’s an effect of wishful crushing irony: all is hopeless! So the projected sequel – which is not, in fact, what the sequel takes up – is flagged: a journey of rugged survivalism, tight families with guns and crossbows defending themselves against the invasive horde. Another hallmark of the Red Dawn 1980s. And also, alas, of today …

© Adrian Martin 27 February 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search