Dario Argento's Horror Disasterclass

by Arthur B

The Demons series isn't Italian horror's proudest moment.
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Italian horror cinema had a funny old journey in the 20th Century. After returning from the dead in the 1950s, when the Fascist-era ban was repealed, it didn't really catch fire until Mario Bava gave it a welcome shot in the arm in the 1960s. Then a new generation of Bava-inspired auteurs (and utterly shameless ripoff merchants) rose in the 1970s, with Dario Argento reigning as the decade's dark overlord. However, by the time the 1980s got into full swing the wheels were beginning to come off. Older hands were slowing down or becoming regrettably inconsistent, and the balance between stylish, artsy originals and schlocky formula material - the two types of movie the scene was best known for - started to swing dangerously towards the "disposable bullshit" side of the coin.

The Demons series seems to have been Dario Argento's attempt to mentor the next generation of Italian horror directors. Enjoying a break from directing after wrapping up his Phenomena, Argento took on the role of producer and co-writer, with Lamberto Bava (son of Mario Bava) in the director's chair. Perhaps the most important thing Argento brought to the table was his name, since it was one of a select few with genuine gravitas outside of the Italian horror bubble and it allowed him as producer to secure a budget for the movies that was well in excess of Lamberto's earlier efforts.

Another protegee of Argento's, Michele Soavi, acted as assistant director on the first movie and performed a couple of cameos in it, having collaborated with Lamberto in a similar capacity in his earlier A Blade In the Dark. In the long run, Lamberto Bava's reputation has tended to be overshadowed in horror critic circles by his father's, and he seems to have had most success outside of horror with his Fantaghiro series of fantasy TV movies. Conversely, Soavi seems to have done rather better out of the deal, with Argento giving him the same producer-and-cowriter help to produce his subsequent movies The Church and The Sect; moreover, Soavi's final horror movie, Dellamorte Dellamore, is widely seen as the best Italian horror release of the 1990s, if not the final movement of Italian horror's golden age. And Soavi… well, he doesn't look back on the Demons films too fondly, writing them off as "pizza schlock". Is he being unfair or ungrateful, or does he have a point? Best way to find out is to crack open the two-disc Arrow Video rerelease of the movies and see for ourselves...

Demons


A vast new cinema, the Metropol, opens in an unspecified West German city. A mysterious figure with a face half made of metal wanders the city, giving out free tickets to the first performance. (It's Michele Soavi in one of his cameos.) A disparate group of city-dwellers attend the screening, which turns out to be of a horror film about a group of youths (including Michele Soavi in his other cameo…) who disturb the tomb of Nostradamus and end up unleashing a plague of demons on the world - "they will make cemeteries their cathedrals, and tombs your cities" as the prophecy goes. As this unfolds onscreen, an audience member who cut herself on a metal replica of a demon mask prop used in the movie excuses herself and goes to the bathroom - where she turns into a hideous demon.

This kicks off a killing spree which sees those who are sliced and diced by the demons turning into demons in turn - and all the exits from the cinema are mysteriously sealed. Will anyone survive, and what will they find of the rest of the world when they leave the cinema?

So, there's a large extent to which this is a Cabin In the Woods-type deal, a horror film taking horror films themselves as its subject matter and exploring the audience's relationship with them. As well as the more blatant plot points such as the demon mask, there's also a range of more subtle nods to all this. For instance, when she's riding on the subway at the start of the film, the character of Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) is carrying a pile of papers - the musical score to Bartok's Mikrokosmos - and for much of the film the cinema does become its own (imperfectly) self-contained microcosm - and the film-within-a-film is a microcosmic encapsulation of the disaster that has its macrocosmic counterpart in the cinema massacre (and the wider events beyond the cinema). The core four audience members set up as the main characters for us to root for (despite the fact that they don't actually get a whole lot more screen time than several of their compatriots) seem to correspond to the four main characters in the movie itself, and Michele Soavi playing both the masked man distributing tickets and the character who gets possessed in the film-in-a-film might be a nod towards some sort of connection between the two.

That said, having burned through its quota of highbrow parallelism in its first half hour, the rest of the movie is pure schlocky fun, with ridiculously gruesome gore effects and an awesome soundtrack of 80s metal - and awesome metal of the Accept/Saxon bent rather than dated hair metal at that. The film's premise having played out by this point, the rest is yet another genre exercise in killing characters off in gruesome set pieces, though it just about manages to remain interesting, particularly with the way in which the script plays with the idea of the cinema building itself being malevolent - witness the way it playfully allows in a group of punks fleeing the police to spice things up and simultaneously lets out a single demon to spread the infection to the outside world.

Although the protagonists of the film are ostensibly Cheryl and her friend Kathy (Paola Cozzo), along with the two dudes they meet at the cinema, George (Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Karl Zinny), Bobby Rhodes rather steals the show as Tony the pimp, who seems to have swaggered his way out of a late 1970s blaxploitation movie and ends up becoming the de facto leader of the party of survivors early on until things all go very wrong for him about halfway through the movie. (Indeed, on the strength of his performance here he'd land another "tough survivor leader" role in Demons 2.) It's notable that after he buys it the rest of the film tends to drag, ultimately feeling like it's less than the sum of its parts. A bunch of cool stuff happens, there's a number of really out-there setpieces (including a really mean trick during the credits), but at the end of the day I'm with Soavi: the movie feels like disposable crap good for filling a lazy evening with if nothing else is on TV but disappointing on repeat viewings.

Demons 2


Riffing on the original film's runaway success on the home video market, Demons 2 shifts the terror from the cinema to a home. In a vast, super-modern apartment complex, Sally (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) is having a birthday party, Hank (the returning Bobby Rhodes) is leading his evening weightlifting class in the gym, and everyone else is going about their evenings perfectly happily. Meanwhile, on the TV a show depicts a group of people infiltrating a city that's been abandoned and walled-off since the previous outbreak documented in Demons; they encounter a demon, which promptly Rings its way through Sally's TV set to infect her.

From this point on the film is mostly a carbon copy of the formula established by the previous movie; once again, Bobby Rhodes' character uses his tough guy credentials to take charge of a band of survivors, once again there's a car full of punks destined to get into trouble, once again there's an awful lot of gore effects. Mashed up with cliches of the various "trapped inside a tall building" films that we've been treated to over the years, the end result is still generic. Even tweaks like substituting the heavy metal soundtrack of the original for a soundtrack of British goth and new wave favourites ends up feeling more like a variation on a theme rather than a genuine departure or new idea.

In short, reviewing Demons 2 is somewhat redundant after covering the first film. There's only really three interesting things the sequel does: firstly, it cleverly pitches the TV show-within-a-film ambiguously so it isn't clear whether it's a horror movie with an intrusive narration (which would mean the events of the past film are fiction in this universe) or whether it's a lurid, sensationalistic documentary relying a lot on dramatic reconstruction, in which case the events of the previous film were part of this universe's timeline. Secondly, early on it has Sally ooze some demonic blood onto the floor which melts its way through the various levels of the high-rise building, providing a convenient way to get a bunch of people infected at once. Thirdly, the film shows no qualms about turning children or cute pets into demons.

Actually, there is one thing that Demons 2 does differently from the first film - it's substantially lazier. The punks, for instance, never actually make it inside the building, ultimately serving no plot purpose beyond preventing two other characters who also don't really add anything to the plot from making it back to the building and discovering that they can't get back in. Likewise, the climactic confrontation takes place in a strange, abandoned TV studio, which feels like it's going to finally try and do something with the whole "demonic TV show" motif beyond using it as a novelty setup for an apocalyptic outbreak.

And where is Michele Soavi during all this? Well, so far as I can make out he was hooking up with Joe D'Amato and George Eastman - schlock-masters extraordinaire - in order to make his first horror film as lead director, Stage Fright - a piece which somehow manages to be far cleverer and more evocative than its simplistic premise gives it any right to be. Perhaps the best sign that the Italian horror industry was going through some strange times in the mid-1980s was that Dario Argento, whose name was associated with some of the finest and most original Italian horror classics of the 1970s, ended up taking the producer's credit on two of the era's most utterly brainless potboilers, whilst Joe D'Amato actually got a producer's credit (if only as his Aristide Massaccesi pseudonym) on a movie with actual depth and artistry for once.
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Comments (go to latest)
Craverguy at 06:15 on 2015-10-01
Ooh, are we in for another month-long FerretBrain horrorthon?
Arthur B at 10:58 on 2015-10-01
Maybe.
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