at 11:13 PM
"The very definition of geek show cinema, Demons is nothing more than 90 minutes of mindless, gut wrenching mayhem..." - DVDTalk
Lamberto Bava's Demons is a film that is so easy to misread as 'mindless, gut-wrenching mayhem.' There's nothing wrong with mindless, gut-wrenching mayhem at all. I voted for it in the last election. But Demons just isn't that. Demons blasts you with wild, gory horror action, oozing demonic sores, pounding heavy metal music, and terrible dubbing. It's so successful at this that you barely notice how carefully constructed this film is.
Demons begins with a little prologue set in the subway. The first shot is the lights of the train shining out of the darkness at we the audience, like the light of a projector. An attractive girl on the subway suspects a mysterious punk with a chrome mask covering half his face is stalking her. She gets off the train at her stop and finds the man is still behind her. She runs up the stairs toward the light of day. She feels safe, until the punk steps out in front of her. He hands her an invitation to a movie at the MetroPol, then silently walks away. She's relieved. He's in a costume, promoting the movie, right? He doesn't answer. But she gets a second invitation for her friend.
What's interesting about this scene is that we, and the girl, are both conditioned to expect movie events to happen in real life. In real life, men in metallic masks don't stalk you on the subway then slay you with a gleaming knife. In real life, this is just some weirdo. But in a movie, he'd be a black-gloved murderer. Or he'd become one at the end of the chase sequence. Movie reality has saturated real reality through our imaginations. We're prepared for movie events to happen to us. This girl has seen her horror movies.
This scene also introduces us to our main female protagonists, Cheryl and Carmen, and the central setting of the movie, the MetroPol. Most of the movie will take place in the MetroPol and will center around the movie they are being invited to watch. End of prologue.
We then plunge into the first act by meeting our main characters: the MetroPol and its stylish usher, Tony the pimp and his two whores, the blind man and his slutty amanuensis, and our leading men, George and his preppy friend. There doesn't appear to be any discerning characteristic in who the chrome-masked punk chooses to invite. They're just people. The wide variety of very different people who can all come together and enjoy the same movie.
In the lobby with them are props from the movie they are about to see. Again, film reality is intruding into real reality. Most patrons regard the memorabilia as museum pieces. But Tony's uncouth whores are quick to try on the strange mask. This contact between the audience and the film's substance is what opens the gates of hell. She is infected, so to speak.
The audience is seated. The lights dim. The light of the projector shines into the darkness. Then the film within the film starts much as the real film, with two lights shining out of the darkness. This time the lights of motorcycles. A group of college students are driving into a cemetery to explore the crypt of Nostradamus. The man on one of the motorcycles is recognizably the same man who wore the chrome mask. As these students point their flashlights in the movie, the usher points her flashlight at individual groups in the audience. It's as though the movie were looking at them, one-by-one. In the Nostradamus movie, the actor from the subway puts on the mask of Nostradamus. He receives a cut on his face and we see, at the same time, the cut on the whore's face.
The whore runs to the bathroom to tend to the cut, but it blisters and explodes as she transforms into a demon, just as the man in the movie. Cross-cutting juxtaposes the action in the movie of the infected man trying to kill a woman with the whore trying to kill the other whore, who came to check on her. She's gashed just as the girl on screen is murdered. Trying to hide, the second whore finds herself behind the movie screen. As the killer in the movie slices an opening into a tent to get at another girl, the whore rips through the film screen in just that spot, as though the movie itself were exploding out into the real world the way the demon puss explodes out of the gash in her neck.
As the patrons all rush to check on the whore, Cheryl and Carmen realize it's all happening "just like in the movie." As they do so, in the background we see the possessed man in the movie (the same man who gave the girls the invitations on the subway), his face filling the screen, regard them/us with a sinister smile. The second whore begins to demonize. So ends the first act.
The metaphysics of Demons raises some questions, of course. The Nostradamus film had to have been made prior to the patrons being invited to the theater. So if the film is evil, were the actors infected in the making? And then how are they functioning in society? Or is it produced through supernatural means? Or is it really just a movie and the theater is the sinister force? This is a Dardano Sarccheti penned movie. It meddles with the notion of reality, but has little regard for logic. My point thus far has been just how carefully the film is crafted to decay your sense of what constitutes reality, what distinguishes the barrier between a film and an actual experience.
As the demons, their numbers growing, wreak havoc in the theater, the survivors flee to the doors to find they've been walled in. The event's organizer is most industrious. Tony the Pimp and the preppy guys who have been hitting on Cheryl and Carmon team up to lock a demon in using a vending machine. They then try to stop the madness by trashing the projection room. They find no projectionist, but just a computer, not unlike the mechanical autodialer in 976-EVIL, running the film. Smashing up the machines does nothing to stop the horror already unleashed, however. They conclude that it's not the movie that's evil, but the theater itself. They don't know, as we do, that there are serious links between the theater and the movie.
So here's a good time to stop and ask, "What the hell's the point?" Sure, maybe the movie is actually well-constructed and does break down the barriers between film and reality. But it's still just Motorhead and gore effects, right? Demons was made in 1985. The Video Recordings Act had just taken effect in Britain, creating the "video nasty" by banning obscenely violent or erotic movies. This was part of a wider discussion about the influence of violent movies on individuals and society, whether these movies weren't creating violence. The same discussion we have about video games today. I think Sacchetti was playing with this idea, that these movies are a corruptive force. But Sacchetti is not a subtle guy. That's why I love him. He's giving us a reductio ad absurdum. Look at how corruptive these movies and the theaters that show them are--it's not just spurring a few nutjobs to mass-murders, it's transforming the whole of society into demonic killing machines. It's apocalyptic. Hence the use of everyone's favorite apocalyptic poet, Nostradamus.
This is why he starts the movie with a girl afraid of a man on the subway. She's afraid of him because she's conditioned to expect movie violence in reality. She's fearful, like the people who signed the Video Recordings Act. When she lets her guard down and accepts the invitation to the movie, she finds the corruption of the movie spilling out all around her, threatening her with grievous harm.
In what follows, a hideous hag demon emerges out of Carmen's arched back, a group of coke-snorting punks break into the theater, a demon escapes at the same time, our preppy leading man, George, steals a motorcycle and sword prop from the lobby, and a helicopter crashes through the roof of the theater. On the roof, Cheryl and George are assaulted by the man with the chrome mask. They slowly jam his head onto some nails, escape the theater, and flee with some well-armed jeep-drivers. Cheryl begins to transform and is quickly shot.
All of these events are over-the-top, full of guts and mayhem, and lacking much logic. They chronicle the spill of the violence from the movie into the rest of society from just one ill-advised screening. As for the narrative, the man in the chrome mask, who appears to be some sort of cyborg, is the only link between the theater and the film, so it's a safe bet that he's behind the whole scenario. Why or how is never explained. Logical or not, any or all of these events could be read into the theme I argued for. I don't think it's of much value to treat the whole movie as a meditation on the influence of violent movies on society, or to view every event as symbolic. The use of movie props to defend oneself show the positive power of immersion into horror movies. The violent punks breaking in and releasing a demon can show that it is our own flawed society that's at fault, not movies. But then, in this movie, the movie IS to blame! The punks are innocent blunderers. Again, it's a reductio ad absurdum for these kinds of statements about horror movies.
Demons is a film whose logic is really in the editing. Like the scene in the ducts, where the young man keeps hearing demon claws approaching. We see the shots of the claws. His face. His girlfriend's face. Only after he lets her take the lead do we realize the missing information: those were her hands. Demons is a triumph of film language over conventional logic to tell its story and make its point. This, more than "mindless, gutwrenching mayhem" and heavy metal, is why it remains a relevant and exciting movie thirty years after release. Demons is not just a wild ride; it's an expertly-crafted wild ride.
976-EVIL is a movie about a premium-rate horoscope hotline that either
kills or corrupts its callers. Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys), the nerdy
hero-villain, uses the hotline to escape his reality of not-having-sex
and getting beaten in the graffiti-covered bathroom by high school ruffians. The hotline starts giving him advice, but soon it gives him claws, long, stringy hair,
and a desire to kill his busty Spanish teacher.
A lot of movies simply do not profit from the passage of time. Quite the opposite, their relevance seems to evaporate as they're left in the wake of the "whirlwind of progress." These are movies that have capitalized on fleeting fads and unfulfilled promises. One might expect 976-EVIL to be amongst those. But, the strangest thing, this movie seems immensely enhanced by the otherwordliness of its obsolescence. It now evokes hidden, disconnected pockets of virtual space only accessed through antique rituals. Allow me to explain.
In 1971 the 976/1-900 number was first created. Nobody used it for six years, until good ol' Jimmy Carter came along and created the "Ask Uncle Jimmy" hotline. I'm not kidding. Of course, you couldn't have phone sex with Jimmy Carter--that was coming later. Not with Jimmy Carter, but with fat women with seductive voices. The 976 number had the unique property of being monitored and screened at local levels, which gave it a lot of versatility when it came to use as a premium, pay-per-call number. And since we live in America, that's exactly what happened.
In the '80s, the popularity of the 976 number, and later the 1-900 number, surged. All sorts of stupid shit was out there for you to call and waste money on. You could call the Two Coreys if you'd finally worn out that Lost Boys (1987) VHS tape. You could call the Warrant hotline and found out if she really is his cherry pie. You could call a joke hotline and get a cheap, vaudeville joke for $0.99/minute. There was an insult hotline that would, yes, just insult you. Another one would try to make you cry. Video game hints, various types of phone sex, KISS, Bill and Ted, Freddy Kreuger, He-Man--you name it, and there was a premium-rate number for it.
What's really interesting about these lines is that they were such an analog means of networking. The internet generation has grown up with a form of databasing virtual space that is easily accessible with a click. The 1-900 number craze was an attempt to carve out that virtual space, but when there was nothing but phone lines, tape reels, radio waves, and paper. The closest thing to databasing the space was a local TV ad you'd see once after an episode of SNL and never see again, or simply cheap, paper ads distributed by an old man in a greasy coat.
The idea that there could be lots of strange, obscure niches of this virtual space that you'd never know anything about was a really high probability. You'd just have to stumble upon the ad to know it's there. And so it wasn't implausible that something like the 976-EVIL number could exist. A goofy, occult horoscope number for whatever small audience would be interested. (Most of these numbers that were not aimed at children were, after all, aimed at lonely nerds with odd tastes.) That there could be sinister, rather than capitalistic purposes to such a line is not so difficult to imagine.
Something about that old, analog technology seems more feasibly malign. A mysterious website seems like a very twee sort of notion, as does a mysterious HDMI signal. A mysterious phone line or radio signal, perhaps because they have a more elemental nature than their human-coded digital cousins, just feel more genuinely frightening. Or perhaps because, on the internet, you can "navigate away". It's a distant, nebulous connection. A "cold connection," to steal one of McLuhan's notions. A phone line or radio wave seems to be a physical connection, present in your home, your ear, near your body: it's a "hot connection." You call someone and you're bringing them into proximity with you. You don't always know who or what you're calling, what you're letting in.
When I first watched 976-EVIL, I was perhaps ten years old. There was no internet--not as it is today, anyway. 1-900 numbers were still advertised on late-night TV and the scariest thing about them was the phone bill. Game tip hotlines were part of my world. The notion of a mysterious phone line like the one depicted in the movie was still evocative, I suppose, because stumbling upon that ad could actually happen. Really, what I identified with was the beaten-down protagonist. The narrative was current for me.
Watching it today, when 1-900 numbers, while extant in some countries, are very archaic, it is much more evocative. These mysterious, old virtual spaces are like sorcery; dialing in is a dark art not to be tangled with. Like slumbering gods, these spaces could still be out there, no longer advertised, far from any database, but waiting to be awakened. These lines were housed in physical locations and, as in this movie, could be automated by very clunky, analog machines with magnetic tape. These machines could still be out there. While most were not just innocuous, but even downright silly, there could, just maybe, be some with sinister purposes. Waiting.
As a narrative on its own, 976-EVIL is decent. The real tension in the movie is between Hoax and his studly, popular cousin Spike. They have a close relationship, despite being so different. Hoax turns to the phone line instead of his cousin when he's feeling particularly resentful and abandoned. He shoulda went with the sex line. If there's any major flaw in this movie, it's in how quickly Hoax turns to the darkside. It's not like he gradually gets addicted to the number. One or two calls, and he's already a-murderin'. A quirky detective is on the trail and actually visits the hotline's headquarters in a scene I particularly enjoyed. It's in this scene that we meet the machine behind the eponymous number.
976-EVIL is not such an amazing movie in itself, but it latched onto this strange artifact in such an evocative way. In 1988, the premium-rate hotline was a novelty, like internet cafes in 1998. Perhaps the farther we get from the reality of such analog hotlines, the more strange and mysterious 976-EVIL will seem. And the more strange and mysterious it seems, the better it will come off. At least this movie, and its Wynorski-directed sequel, stand as the only 1-900-themed horror movies out there.