3 out of 5

Directed by: Lamberto Bava

During my birth into the horror worlds beyond the standard theater fare, I did the requisite tour of the Italian scene.  It started with Fulci, thanks to that massively grody zombie on the cover of the film of the same name – a VHS that stared out like a dare from the Blockbuster shelves – and then went from there.  I liked some things quite a bit, and appreciated some things, and then there were movies like Demons that just never really clicked for me.  Every now and then, I’ll read or see something that will make me think it’s time to reconsider the movie, but I always end up in the same state: confused by how such a great concept never really sizzles on the screen.

Out of all the curses and masked killers and zombies, Demons’ pitch of a possessed movie theater stands out.  I like the opening, which has lead Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) handed a ticket to a screening by a creepy Phantom of the Opera-esque dude.  I really like the movie-within-a-movie conceit, when the demon-causing curse that’s on screen in the theater ends up playing out upon the theater-goers as well.  But when we start to get to our first gore gags, of pustules bursting with liquidy goop, my interest starts to wane.  When the movie pretty much runs itself out of initial ideas and then drops the locked room pitch – the theater has mystically walled its patrons inside – to transition to some snotty teens driving around town who run in to the theater to escape from the cops, I start to get actively bored.  Bava shows none of the stylishness of a lot of his fellow scenesters – the color work pales behind guys like Argento; his foreground / middleground juxtaposed shots feel poorly edited in to scenes – and even the effects are rather unimpressive, cutting away to cut back to unconvincing dummies which just spurt different colored liquids.

But then: when I can stay awake for the final third, Demons becomes one of the best movies of all time.  It’s like Bava didn’t care about the opening hour, just so he could get to a primo gag of a demon crawling out of someone’s body; to get to frikkin’ samurai swords and motorcycles; a goddamn helicopter crash that’s as unexpected as the hopelessness of the ending.  With the familiarity of this pacing, I can enjoy some of the pointless character work that stocks the front 2/3rds of the movie, such as the blind filmgoer who espouses our “don’t go in there!” warning, and the pimp who’s decided to treat his two employees to a free movie.  …But I can also wonder why the mysterious movie concept wasn’t developed more – it’s such a fun idea, and it’s left as just an instrument to gather people, and nothing more – and why the usher seems to be in on the shenanigans but becomes part of the body count anyway.  In general: I can wonder at the disconnect between the material and the execution, exampled on the micro level by the way the film’s last third well exceeds its lead-in.  However, take it as a vote of such confidence in that last third that it has made the movie, overall, enjoyable on my several revisits, and still merits an approval nod of watchability for anyone doing a horror tour.