Regarded by some as the ‘Italian Hitchcock,’ Argento was born in Rome in 1940. The son of film producer Salvatore Argento, Dario would rise to prominence in international film circles as a writer, director, and producer of what many would say are (ahem!) sometimes bloody, sometimes gory suspense thrillers. While it would be accurate to suggest that the filmmaker’s body of work revolves around depiction of violence both real and surreal, I think far too many critics have dismissed his efforts as ‘cheap’ because it’s easy to complain about excesses when a particular title may not have been your cup of tea from the outset: Argento’s audiences tend to know what they’re getting into, and they’ve returned for repeat engagements again and again for the visceral delights the storyteller provided.
Typically, Argento was regarded as a master purveyor of Giallo-style films. (Again – for the uniformed – Giallo films are identified as features which revolved around a mystery – often times a murder or series of them – and the story is punctuated with heavy graphic detail, uncharacteristic camera angles, and bizarre musical arrangements.) These tales could be dramatic in construction, or they could lean heavily on the suspense, but they usually had a stiff backbone of horror and a steady outpouring of narrative twists that all inevitably lead to the spilling of (you guessed it) blood. Giallo flicks generally distinguish themselves by employing buckets and buckets of that crucial bodily fluid, and no expense was spared in putting plenty of it up on the silver screen.
That said, I think it easy to conclude that Argento’s films are an acquired taste: having seen a good handful of Italian horror films, I’ve no problem admitting that while I’m no fan I can appreciate the amount of work that (at times) went into bringing some of the most bizarre carnage imaginable to flickering life. So when I was offered the chance to review a screener for the filmmaker’s kinda/sorta signature franchise – Demons (a two-film entity) – I really couldn’t pass it up. I knew what I was getting into, and though I found the affair a bit uneven I’m still glad for the opportunity.
Below are my thoughts on Demons (1985). I’ll be penning a separate review for Demons II (1986), and readers can watch for it later this week on SciFiHistory.Net.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessarily solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “…a masked man offers tickets to a horror movie sneak preview at the mysterious Metropol cinema. When a patron is scratched by a prop displayed in the theatre lobby, she transforms into the flesh-ripping demon! One by one, the audience members mutate into horrible creatures hell-bent on destroying the world!”
As sometimes happens in history, a rumor travels around the world before the truth gets its pants on … and it’s inaccurate to say that Demons is entirely Dario Argento’s film. In reality, Argento crafted the screenplay (from an original story by Dardano Sacchetti) along with others, and he produced the film; but the feature was directed Lamberto Bava. It’s the collaboration of these creative minds that fuels much of the madness on display in both Demons and Demons II (and, yes, there is a Demons III, but that’s another story). In giving credit where credit is due, Sacchetti’s work as a screenwriter in Italian circles is impressive, spanning four decades and nearly one hundred different screen projects. Still, Argento’s name appears prominent in all citations regarding the film, and it’s clear that his influence gave the picture its legs at the box office of its day.
Now, I’ve no way of knowing where Sacchetti’s contributions start and stop, but what little narrative center there is to the affair revolves around the communal experience that is the typical moviegoer’s existence: we’re all brought together – in the dark – to watch some tale as it unspools. What Demons does in its set-up is clever: the film-within-a-film mirrors the events of those watching it, perhaps suggesting that truth isn’t necessarily stranger than fiction but could the inevitable result of it. It’s the classic “chicken and the egg argument” wherein no one knows which came first but we’ll each argue our position until we’re blue in the face … or dead in the aisles, as Argento might suggest.
Still, it’s barely accurate to suggest that Demons has a story at all: what it has is a set-up upon which so much of what follows is required, and that’s all. Yes, there is a beginning, middle, and end; but it’s all so weakly constructed here it becomes clear that all everyone involved was interested in was getting to the gory set pieces – the metamorphosis from human to demon, the dismemberment of the various victims, etc. Demons is the classic carnival attraction – the haunted house of mirrors you dare to enter – and little more. Anyone telling you otherwise is simply trying to sell you a ticket.
In that respect, Demons functions with a kind of frenzied efficiency … well, so long as you’re not watching closely.
I suppose that’s the thing about carnival thrill rides: you’re never supposed to look at them too closely. If you do, then you realize the emperor has no clothes, that it’s all just a construct design to scare you in the moment … and, on that front, Demons succeeds. It isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s meant to be watched, enjoyed, and forgotten … until the next time an audience puts it in to experience the same chills, spills, and thrills again. For what it’s worth, Demons is probably the kind of horror flick you watched at the frat house that Friday night in the late 1980’s. You know the one? You put it in maybe once a month, and you and your friends screamed every time someone on screen was doing something immeasurably stupid? Something so insane that you knew he was the next victim? And rightly so … if he was that stupid to begin with!
The Metropol is that carnival ride.
Unlike other films of the era, Demons possesses some incredible craftsmanship in the practical effects department. The creature effects – the transformations and the prosthetics – are the kinds of things now done in CGI; and the stewards here were at the top of their game. Granted, it might look more than a bit campy by today’s standards, but for the 80’s this stuff was nothing short of fantastic. If for no other reason, the film deserves to be seen for its technical proficiency and could be studied as an example of monster effects from a bygone era. If you hadn’t noticed, then yes I do miss those days.
Demons (1985) is produced by DACFILM Rome. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by Synapse Films. As for the technical specifications? This 1985 shocker looks and sounds incredible; no expense has been spared in bringing this to glorious life for an all-new generation of horror fans. As for the special features? Wow! This 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray boasts a jaw-dropping assortment of behind-the-scenes goodness including multiple versions (not all that uncommon to the era for international releases), a bevy of (short) retrospective documentaries, and a few nifty artworks that fans of the feature will likely treasure if not frame and hang on the wall … namely a replica of the Metropol ticket from the film itself. Nice touch, Synapse! Nice touch, indeed!
Argh. Well, it’s RECOMMENDED, but it’s really the kind of release I’d only recommend for folks of either 80’s films, ‘vintage’ horror, and cult films because – in all honesty – I found Demons a hard film to like. Yes, it has some truly incredible practical and in-camera special effects work, and – as a film – I think it definitely captures the state of horror for its time and place … but there’s just no story anyone can sink his teeth into … and, curse you, Dario Argento, but I do like a story to go along with my thrills, spills, and chills. Demons is mostly production pieces linked by a central idea, and you’re encouraged to sit back and enjoy the carnival ride. As a haunted house? It works. As a film? Meh.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Synapse Films provided me with a 4K Ultra HD Special Limited Edition copy of Demons I & II by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.
As always, thanks for reading ... and live long and prosper!