31 October 2011

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, PART II

Part of the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon hosted by Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

I have a terrible secret, but I trust all of you enough to admit it: I don't dislike Demons 2. The film has a fairly cast-iron reputation for being a cheaper, stupider retread of Demons - not, in and of itself, a movie that can be rightly called an unassailable classic outside of the extremely circumscribed world of 1980s Italian horror buffs - that is incoherent and strange in all the wrong ways (whereas Demons is incoherent and strange in all the right ways. I concede that Demons 2 is not a patch on its predecessor; and while its Italian subtitle translates as The Nightmare Returns, it could just as easily be called Basically the Same Thing, but in an Apartment Building This Time. Plainly, less money was spent on make-up and effects, and the characters frequently make no sense, and it's pretty much impossible to say why the things in the movie happen. Though this last was also true of the original, and it's really tricky to say that one of them is more or less incomprehensible than the other.

But anyway, as I said, I didn't dislike it. Which is arguably not the same thing as liking it, and God knows the film suffers from more than its fair share of shortcomings. Yet I am partial to it anyway. It's dopey as hell, dopier by far than Demons at any rate, and maybe this is part of its charm. Certainly the level of "why the hell not?" enthusiasm that Bava and Argento evidently sank into this second chapter is addictive in the same way that a sugar rush can be - while the "cool" factor of the original has been sacrificed (despite the presence of New Wave on the soundtrack that was, I assume, not so hackneyed in 1986 as it plays today; and at any rate, heavy metal is more the stuff of a rampaging zombie/demon army, n'est-ce pas?), the second film may even be a touch more fun, on account of taking itself even less seriously.

A sign of how far off the rails the script went for this one can be found in the fact that different summaries of the plot don't even necessarily agree on the content of the first act. There are four teenagers who have broken into the demon quarantine zone established at the end of the last movie because teenagers are all inveterate adrenaline junkies* and they like to break into places clearly marked with signs reading approximately "YOU WILL BE KILLED AND EATEN BEYOND THIS POINT STOP FOR FUCK'S SAKE". And they, naturally, run into demons; and this is all happening on TV, though what, exactly, the relationship of the on-TV events to the people watching is part of what nobody seems to agree on - I got that it was a movie-of-the-week thriller, but I've also heard it argued that it was a documentary, or even a live newscast.

Anyway, the important bit is that in a hyper-modern high-rise apartment, just about everybody seems to have their TVs tuned to this program, among them Sally (Coralina Cataldi Tassoni), a girl celebrating her 16th birthday. She is about to get the worst present ever: for reasons that none of the four screenwriters are remotely interested in exploring, one of the demons suddenly turns to the camera and breaks out of her television. Thus is Sally demonised, and it takes only a little bit of time before she's turned most of the building alongside her. The few survivors fight back, ineffectually of course - once again, the DNA of a zombie movie is in here, and no right-thinking Italian zombie movie would want to cash out with anything more than a 5% survival rate among the named characters.

I have, it is true, focused mostly on the ways that Demons 2 is not like Demons, but truthfully, that's not most of what there is to talk about. It's not exactly the case that every incident is copied, but the overall structure of the thing is matched down to the very minute in some places, including the arbitrary introduction of a gang of music-loving toughs who muddle their way into the kill zone for essentially no discernible reason. And in this respect, Demons 2 is aggravating, particularly since the lowered budget means that all of these awfully-familiar demon attacks and the like are not nearly as convincing or disgusting & thus not as discomfiting.

Nor does the removal of the scenario to the high-rise do much good: I imagine the idea was that "holy hell, they can come into your living room!" which is a nominally scary idea, but the building we see is so transparently a set with such obviously production-designed rooms that it absolutely does not register as a normal space for the horror to be intruding upon. That being said, all of the film's very best moments both manage to key into that exact sense of the homey and familiar being horribly violated: an awfully cute dog turning into some nightmare beast in an effect that isn't offensively close to the dog-monster from The Thing; later on, the single nastiest death in the whole picture is given to a child (played by a dwarf in make-up). I do understand that I run the risk of sounding like a complete sociopath right this minute, but I kind of have to give major respect to a movie willing to Go There with a kid (see also: Night of the Living Dead - Lamberto Bava plainly did), because it's one of the only genuinely transgressive things a movie can do, and when it doesn't feel absolutely cheap and exploitative - and knowing that it wasn't an actual child actor involved helps with that feeling - it can be as devastating as anything else in the genre.

That both of these moments are spoiled by subsequently awful effects, well, that's why this isn't an actual "good" movie: the dog has bright green glowing plastic eyes, the kid erupts into a monster that looks precisely like Bava asked the effects team to make one of the titular beasts from Gremlins, but not family-friendly.

At any rate, the whole thing feels unmistakably cheesy, lacking the atmosphere of the malevolent movie theater that worked so darn well in the original (and the attempted commentary on TV culture, if it is there at all, is not a tenth as interesting as the self-parody of horror features in Demons), and there is absolutely no defending it on the grounds that it looks amazing and uncanny, the line in the sand for every Italian horror picture. There are shots, unquestionably: one image looking up a stairwell and spinning in a circle while the glowing-eyed demons tromp down the stairs is as magnificent an image as can be found in any 1986 horror movie I can name.

By and large, though, this is all about having a goofy blast; and we need look no further for evidence than Bobby Rhodes, who featured in a minor role as Tony the Pimp in Demons, and here portrays Hank, the personal trainer at the apartment's gym who leads all his heavily built gym rats to a glorious last stand in the parking garage - there is absolutely no way this is meant to be taken seriously, and Rhodes's ecstatic performance and the mock-epic heroics of his subplot are simply too damn silly not to be fun to watch; assuming, I guess, that you're willing to meet the movie halfway. Very important stuff in a picture like Demons 2. We have here a picture where the director is conspiratorially leaning in and murmuring, "This is totally stupid. It's great, right?" Not great, but not at all as rancid as its reputation, for the viewer willing to smirk back, "It is totally stupid, and exactly what I was looking for. Thank you, Lamberto Bava." It's daft as fuck, but always & only in the good way.

1 comment:

Kevin J. Olson said...

Your last paragraph is spot on. In fact, I would argue that for every cheesy horror movie, that paragraph works...just substitute the appropriate bits for whatever movie is being discussed.

Yes, Demons 2 isn't as good as the first film, but it's just as fun if you're in the right frame of mind.

Oh, and you're so right about Bobby Rhodes. For those that need convincing:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lBnJW7h_ds