Movies We Like
What makes a film quintessential? I’ve tried to organize the factors and often come up short. However, I do know that the films of John Hughes are considered quintessential '80s classics and the majority of films starring Sylvester Stallone are considered the same for the action genre. So what about horror? More specifically, that nugget-filled core called '80s Horror? Well, I’ve seen and mentally processed a vast range of horror -- from J-Horror to Giallo -- and can honestly say that I’ve yet to see a more perfect example of the genre from that period than Demons.
Director Lamberto Bava is the son of Mario Bava, world-famous for his films and cinematography -- most of which are Giallo horror. (In fact, the Bavas are a big family of cinematic greats.) Demons was also produced by the legendary Dario Argento. It’s no surprise, then, that the beginning of the film starts out very much like a Giallo; a fresh-faced young lady, Cheryl (Natasha Hovey), is on the subway and finds herself isolated, with the ominous sensation of being followed. There’s a pursuit (with that splendid synthy Itallo-rock in the background) which ends up providing her with a literal ticket to a righteous nightmare at a local theater.
As is typical, the unsettling feeling dissolves and gives way to intrigue and a sense of adventure. Cheryl urges her friend Kathy (Paola Cozzo) to join her for the evening and the two descend on a theater called the Metropol (actually a famous theater turned nightclub in Berlin) that most assumed was condemned.
The crowd of folks hobnobbing in the lobby is the first of the ‘80s signature moments; they all come from different walks of life, thereby giving everyone who watches the movie someone to identify with. There are the two college coeds and two men (Karl Zinny, Urbano Barberini) their age who quickly offer themselves as romantic interests. The loud, obnoxious group is portrayed by a pimp and two prostitutes. Then there's an older married couple who bickers often and the wise ironic misfit -- in this case, a blind man -- and his daughter who dictates what’s on the big screen to him. Of course, there are plenty of extra bodies of varying sorts to fill things out.
The talisman of the film is a silver mask, first seen on the masked man in pursuit of the young woman in the metro, then dangling from a motorcycle in the lobby of the theater as a promotional item. It cuts the face of one of the audience members who puts it on as a gag. The same mask appears in the film they’re watching and, as in the film, the same happens to a character. The cut doesn’t heal and the transformation into a demon slowly ensues.
Like a zombie plague, the curse passes on to anyone partially ingested or even slightly scraped by a demon, causing hysteria when enough people are affected to warrant panic. The crowd soon realizes that they’re trapped. The entrance has mysteriously transformed into a brick wall and that’s when things get really fun.
Here lies the dark comedy that is very specific to '80s horror. For instance, there's watching a fledgling damsel-in-distress go up a flight of stairs instead of out the front door. There’s a thrill to wondering what possible errors the characters will enact and what places will be used to evade whatever impending death waits for each person. Like when you wonder (but can knowingly guess) what will happen to the random couple making out behind a thick curtain...thinking how much it would suck to be in their position. For the horror fan, this exercise is great fun and it's used to perfection in Demons. After all, a movie theater is like a film buff’s cathedral and therefore it’s quite a thrill to see everything from an auditorium to a projection booth be excavated in the hopes of a way to escape.
The music is the second staple, provided by Claudio Simonetti’s (Dawn of the Dead, Suspiria) score and heavy rock ballads from Mötley Crüe, Billy Idol and Go West. Simonetti’s work as a composer is heavily tied to the Giallo genre, but his work here is easily set apart from compositions by Goblin and the like. It fits the film like a glove and the additional songs generously compliment the heavy guitar work that makes it somewhat unique, considering the background of both the director and the composer.
The third, and most important, element that sets this film far above some contemporary gore-flicks and slashers is the art direction. In my opinion, horror, sci-fi and fantasy films from the '80s will forever remain beloved classics in the hearts and imaginations of viewers for generations to come. This is largely due to the use of outstanding prosthetics, makeup, and squibs that have been largely replaced in contemporary films by CGI. Both methods have a time and a place in cinema but nothing compares to the realism inspired by physical art.
The last, and perhaps most engaging, element of the film is the plot. It’s literally a movie within a movie, with the film within the film acting as a sort of gateway to Hell for all those in attendance. What’s on the screen terrorizing one celluloid group terrorized the other. Of course, there are plenty of films that work with this sort of plot pivot but the cast and crew of Demons pull it off wonderfully.
A random addition to the madness in Demons is the presence of a group of hooligans cruising around the city. A brief run-in with the cops leads to the dead-end loading dock of the theater. As if the theater had a mind of its own, the group soon discovers that the cops are the least of their worries.
The film leaves room and anticipation for a sequel in the same way that an adrenaline-packed TV episode leaves you wanting more. Bava directed said sequel, which was released the following year. While it is not as popular as the first, I’m excited to seek it out. The film also has a variety of edits both domestically and internationally. If you’re wondering if you’re seeing the full version, you’ll know that you are if cocaine is visibly introduced to the plot about 2/3rd of the way in. After all, what’s an '80s cult classic without a little sleaze?