My Demon Lover

(Charles Loventhal, USA, 1987)


A typical day at my VCR: I am about to watch the latest acquisition from my local video store – a rather unknown quantity (certainly to me) called My Demon Lover. I'm watching it because I'm convinced it's going to be a teen movie, and I'm presently trying to watch every teen movie available.

Today, because of my mood, I'm after something a little special, a little particular – a teen horror comedy, big on monstrous special effects, a film in which everything performs: not just the actors, but the cameras, lights, colours, music, everything. Considering that the young director of this film is (according to Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide) a "protégé of Brian De Palma", perhaps my expectations are reasonable. So: do your stuff, My Demon Lover.

But first, let's freeze the video before diving into the film, and consider what kind of desire it is, the desire to watch a teen film, a film which is rather like – but not exactly like – something already seen many times before. It's certainly a pervasive desire, and even a rather consumerist one, being drawn to a film because of its tag, brand name or genre. As genre theorist Rick Altman has pointed out, what draws us to a genre film is the pleasure of familiarity and recognition. Each genre, as it developed over time, develops a pool of stock elements – stereotype characters, places, situations, moods, a cinematic style. We enter into a ritual relation to the genre – over and over again, we enjoy seeing the same people, the same plots, the same set pieces, and thus we enjoy what should neutrally be called the clichés of the genre.

But it is never (or rarely, at least) a matter of a film purely repeating a previous instance of the same genre. Since each new entry in a genre can (indeed must) make a selection from the stock options, there is always room for a game that the film plays with both the history of the genre, and its ardent viewer – who sometimes enjoys trying to predict what he or she will see, and equally enjoys being beaten at this game by a particularly inventive move on the film's part.

Time to roll My Demon Lover. How was I convinced it was going to be a teen movie? The way most ordinary consumers who wander into the video shop are – by the conjunction of the title, the cover graphics, the tantalising synopsis, photos – all the elements which conspire to form a vague but potent narrative image (in John Elis' phrase) to hook me in, much in the same way that a trailer does. As it turns out, this film is more novel, more surprising, and a hell of a lot stranger than I could have predicted. But on the level of being a typical teen movie, it certainly delivers – and how!

For the uninitiated, let me outline some of the basic teen elements as they appear in My Demon Lover:

1. A horny male teenager. Although the lead female in this film (unlike some films of the Porky-Lemon Popsicle-Screwballs variety) is not exactly devoid of lust herself, it is the male protagonist's horniness which is here most prominent and problematic – especially since each time he becomes aroused, he turns into a monster. (It is of course this premise which makes the film a teen-horror movie – a cross-breeding of two distinct genres, like the Nightmare on Elm St films (1984 – 89), or The Lost Boys (1987), rather than just simply a teen move). This unfortunate condition is the result of a curse cast upon the heroes puberty (as the film shows in a flashback) by a stern and forbidding Rumanian grandmother – 'Rumanian blueballs', as the film piquantly describes it.

2. An obstacle in the way of consummating this horniness. Roger Corman, the famed producer of B movies (i.e. cheap, often 'sensationalist' genre based films) once described the typical teen movie formula as follows" 'a schmuck who can't get laid'." In actual fact, not every teen movie fits this bill (contrary to some particularly ill-informed public opinions), but My Demon Lover does, with glee, for each time the hero is stricken with 'Rumanian blueballs' and becomes a demon, he has to run away into the night – for fear of killing his girlfriend. Like in a fairy tale, he learns he must perform a 'noble deed' to rid himself of his curse – which turns out to be saving his girlfriend from another, nastier demon. Ingeniously enough, the film contrives that in order to be strong enough to perform this noble deed, he must first engage in 'meaningless', wild sex with his girlfriend's best friend – a busty, libidinal, Latin American sex bomb stereotype. Paradoxically, once exorcised, he is returned to a state of seeming virginal purity, ready to finally get it on with this girlfriend. Which brings us, in the schizophrenic manner of both the film and the teen genre, to the next point:

3. A sweet teen romance. Like many teen movies, this one tells the rather sweet love story between a boy and girl, in which the 'innocence' of the characters is stressed – their fresh, youthful energy, their idealism. The sweetness is mainly carried by the lead female character – she is 'fair' (i.e. blonde), shy, sensitive, a loser in love, and a keeper of stray pets. When boy and girl are finally about to 'do it' in the closing scene, the film tactfully hides their act behind a drawn curtain (similar endings appear in Valley Girl, 1983, and Joy of Sex, 1984).

4. Animalism. The whole of My Demon Lover in a sense plays out or materialises a pun: the demon lover is called an 'animal', but this word can mean two very different things, especially in this genre which is the true modern home of what William Paul has called 'animal comedy'. On the one hand, an animal is a threatening, disgusting low-life character (the film is full of references to urban crime, violence, dereliction); but on the other, he/she is a classic 'goodtime' figure, wild, crazy, uninhibited, i.e. a 'real party animal', like those prototypical figures of John Belushi in Animal House (1978) and Michael Keaton in Night Shift (1982). Raymond Durgnat calls animal comedy the 'comedy of bad manners' (there is even a teen movie called Bad Manners! [1984]) – and this film is appropriately full of deliberately 'disgusting' jokes involving food and the public display of normally private bodily functions.

5. A nerd. A nerd, stereotypically, is obnoxious, boring, bespectacled 'straight', wimpish, conformist, unimaginative. Some films mock-heroically celebrate the nerd (cf. the Revenge of the Nerds series, 1984 – 94, and Wimps, 1986) but this one lambastes him as the epitome of all that is 'uncool' – particularly signalled by his bland cultural tastes (in clothes, music, drinks...) – and even makes him the ultimate villain of the piece, a truly evil demon and a serial killer (or 'slasher') to boot.

6. A cool black dude. In contradistinction to the nerd figure, the film boasts the presence of a streetwise, hip 'cool black dude' with magic powers – source of all cultural 'authenticity' (i.e. he is not fake or a 'phoney'), all wisdom. In the fairy tale level of the film, he performs the role of the hero's magical helper and adviser. In a neat move, the film's ending changes this character into the party-loving demon – leaving him chasing a policeman and crying 'lets howl!".

7. Allusions to other teen movies. I would swear that the start of this film, where the demon lover walks beside women on the streets trying to chat them up, is a direct allusion to the very similar beginning of The Pick-Up Artist (1987) with Robert Downey, Jr. – even the locations look similar. Many contemporary teen movies are rife with homages: a recent film She's Out of Control (1989) 'quotes' (restages or reuses material from) 10 (1979), Flashdance (1983), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), and many other '80s films.

8. Upbeat 'rock video' cinematic style. Although not an extreme example of this tendency (best exemplified by Electric Dreams, 1984, Flashdance, 1983, Purple Rain, 1984, and Dream a Little Dream, 1989), this movie has the standard hallmarks of what is often called a 'rock video' cinematic style: it's bright, loud, pacey, and the editing in particular 'performs' in rhythm with the pop songs that exhort the characters to enthusiastically 'Let Go!'.

What makes My Demon Lover novel and unique is the way that, by mixing elements of various genres (not only teen and horror, but also slasher and cop movies) it creates for itself numerous opportunities to switch from comic to dramatic scenes, and eventually, at the climax, to mix up the 'signs' and effects of comedy and drama within the one, very elaborate scene. This is an example of what I mean: when the nerd is eventually revealed as the nasty demon, there is a horrifying moment when he transforms; he grows very huge, and his voice changes into a threatening bass growl akin to Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm St films. Then, a few shots later, we see him from a less expressionist angle – and out of that massive body, with fine comic incongruity, comes his old nerd voice, saying some banal thing. These kinds of bodily transformations, often teetering between horror and hilarity, have become and obsession of contemporary cinema – cf. Beetle Juice, 1988, Innerspace, 1987, the Return of the Living Dead films, 1985 – 88, and The Hidden, 1987. Even the video cover for My Demon Lover plays with this sense of different moods and textures – horror and comedy, animalism and love – in its tag line: "a monstrously funny romance".

© Adrian Martin 1989

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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