When Demons was released in 1985, horror remained a popular genre option for audiences, and whilst a substantial slump was not far around the corner for supernatural horror, there remained sufficient fuel in the tank for sub-genres to morph, develop, and splinter from horror's beloved and trusty core. Whilst gothic horror was increasingly passe for modern audiences, the improving special effects opened the bloody floodgates for previously unimagined volumes of outrageous gore, and filmmakers were keen to sate the appetites of ravenous and gore-hungry viewers with skiploads of visceral slop.
Many filmmakers were also keen to eschew the bleak, black shocks of horror from the often grimly serious seventies, and chose to inject their eighties horror with potent shots of black humour and unashamed gory silliness. Regardless of the frankly ridiculous spectacle that this would often spew up, viewers demonstrated a distinct penchant for this horror brand, and Demons tapped directly into this vein. The film was a success, and enjoys an affectionate following all these years after its release.
In this context, the film makes for a strange offering. At the helm of directorial duties was Lamberto Bava, son of legendary gothic horror director Mario Bava, who had been responsible for some truly ground-breaking and disturbingly grim gothic horror entries. Production and writing duties were handled by Bava junior's friend, one Dario Argento, who had catapulted his name into full view with a slew of impressive and exhilarating giallo films, including the stunning career-high, Deep Red, a masterpiece of tension, shock, and psychological terror. With such pedigree underpinning Bava's film, it seems nothing short of odd that Demons would be targeted at the successful yet mainly vacuous comedy splatter subgenre, yet that is what we are presented with here.
Argento had already shown a deftness and aplomb for spectacular full-on horror with the absorbing and immersive Suspiria, yet his stunning 1977 baroque film gave only a passing nod to any humour, and treated its bloody visuals with the highest possible seriousness. It seems that Argento had amassed considerable creative energy for the creation of a certain brand of horror away from his giallo roots; not only did he write and produce Demons in 1985, but he also directed and co-penned the colourful and spacey Jennifer Connelly fronted gorefest, Phenomena. Whilst the imperfect Phenomena was a more serious stab at horror than the self-aware Demons, it does - perhaps inevitably - share a number of similarities with Bava's film. Both movies showcase the mainly incongruous heavy metal musical backing, for instance, yet there's a substantial gap in integrity, and quality, which marks Phenomena a number of points higher than Demons.
Yet just because Demons completely rejects any notion of seriousness in its approach to storytelling, this doesn't mean that it is entirely without influence from its more serious counterparts. It's interesting to view some of the moments where victims morph into the dreaded Demons, with the extending fingernails recalling the groundbreaking effects first showcased in John Landis's phenomenal An American Werewolf in London in 1981; if only Demons had also captured that film's fine balance of comedy and horror. Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead had also recently demonstrated what gory wonders could be achieved with a low budget, extreme creativity, and bitter determination, and it is surely no coincidence that Bava's film adopts some similar techniques (albeit with less energy and impact) in the creation of its eponymous nasties.
Bava's product is a minimal piece of work in terms of its cerebral capacity, which selects its strategy - one of comedy gore - at the expensive of almost everything else. The threadbare plot, concerning Demons who cross from the world of a fictional horror film through to reality via the cinema screen, largely works well when considering (and forgiving) Demons as an unashamed splatterfest, with the plot merely existing as a vehicle to move the action from one scene of silly gore to the next. Yet the insistence of the inclusion of some initially intriguing plot components - such as the suspicious behaviour of auburn-haired usherette Ingrid (Nicoletta Elmi, who also starred in the infinitely superior Deep Red and Mario Bava's A Bay of Blood) - eventually proves annoying as we feel cheated of any meaningful storyline. Other moments prove equally perplexing, including the sudden arrival of a helicopter in the cinema; it's as if Bava suddenly decided he wanted to recreate a scene from Dawn of the Dead with a set of spinning rota blades, and who is to care if that scene needs to be shot in the middle of a cinema? I want a helicopter to drop through that roof, right now!
We are also starved of any restraint in other areas and feel similarly disrupted by the result. The garish lighting, for instance, recalls (albeit in extremely large factors) the almost offensively vivid palette of Argento's Inferno, with its overtly bold primary colour approach. The script is poor - though we should perhaps be braced for that - and the actors play characters who are almost exclusively irritating at best, and devoid of meaningful development. The most redeeming features arrive at the start of the film, with the subway scene and shots of the Metropole cinema in Berlin reminding us of some of Argento's earlier work, although admittedly the scene where the demons march up towards the camera with glowing eyes showcases some impressive creative gusto.
Bava's film is a gaudily colourful comic-book splatterfest, and is rather like many eighties relics, such as enormous perms, large, thick rimmed glasses, and hideously colourful clothing; whilst the generation of today will look on in utter incomprehension and a substantial level of distaste, those who were fans of the film at the time will hold it with some level of affection. It's hardly Argento's best moment, and Bava demonstrates little of the talent which was so abundant in his father, yet as a brainless eighties splatterfest, it's a case of job done. Whilst in the year this was made (1985), you could be watching the superior yet equally silly Re-Animator, the less gory yet enjoyable Return of the Living Dead, or the eighties horror powerhouse that is called A Nightmare on Elm Street, Demons still carries enough interest to merit a viewing, for the horror enthusiast at least.
Whilst Arrow Video peddle a selection of specialist film fare which many might consider to be at the slightly grimier end of the film market, there's little doubting their commitment to presenting their releases in high quality formats. Demons is released on region B encoded Blu-ray, and is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The resolution on this transfer is 1080p, and whereas some transfers of older films to high definition formats can reveal the weaknesses in the source material, this restored transfer from the original negatives by Cineteca di Bologna showcases a solid representation of the film which belies the real age of the material, without over-processing the image. You can expect strong colours (and as fans will know, there is no restraint of use of the colour palette in Bava's movie) and a smooth image, and perhaps most surprising of all is the level of accuracy and the detailed definition in the display; close-ups of faces, for instance, reveal remarkable detail which is impressive given the age of the film.
I haven't seen the full retail copy of the film, but Arrow have delivered another thoughtful package which includes reversible and interchangeable inlay artwork, a fold-out poster, and perhaps most appealing of all, a booklet featuring new material from Calum Waddell. There is also a specially commissioned comic book penned by Stefan Hutchinson.
If you are interested in such things, the main feature consumes approximately 20Gb of the 24.6Gb disc.
There are English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, and English subtitles for the Italian audio. The subs are rather small, but unobtrusive and keep pace well with the action.
You can select either Italian or English Dolby stereo, and as with the visuals, Arrow have worked well with the source material here. The audio is clear throughout, and the bass resonance in Claudio Simonetti's synth-tastic eighties electronic soundtrack is surprisingly deep. Don't expect too much from a film which was recorded in the mid-eighties, and you will certainly not be disappointed, although if pumping 'hair' metal isn't your bag, the clarity of the soundtrack might be considered a positive disadvantage.
Existing investors in other Arrow Film products will find the extras here familiar, though nonetheless a welcome supplement to the film. Dario's Demon Origins presents an interview with the director (from the same session as on the Arrow Cat O'Nine Tails release, amongst others) which is typically watchable. The piece is well done, with the requisite cuts of film clips and photos from various shoots. The only frustration here is the overlong intro and credits sequences, which eat far too heartily into what is a relatively short running time of 10 and a half minutes.
Defining an Era in Music features Claudio Simonetti discussing his role creating the soundtrack for Demons in English, and the nine and a half minute piece is also enjoyable enough, not least because of the lack of extraneous title and credit padding at each end of the production.
No Argento release on Arrow Films would be complete without an appearance from Argento's close buddy, the immensely likeable Luigi Cozzi, and they don't let us down here. On this occasion, we are granted an insight into Luigi Cozzi's Top Italian Terrors, and though it's short at 11:27, it's a fine segment where Cozzi talks affectionately and in informed fashion about his favourite Italian horror and giallo films. Naturally, Argento is afforded recognition, with Cozzi pointing towards the truly stunning examples of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and Deep Red. Other recommendations include Fulci's Zombi 2, the elder Bava's Black Sunday, and Michele Soavi's weirdfest, Deliria.
There is a generous allocation of commentary, commencing with a Director's Commentary accompaniment. This features Lamberto Bava and the prolific special effects expert, Sergio Stivaletti. Bava speaks in English and Italian, with his Italian utterances translated and paraphrased for English audiences. Bava's voice wavers in and out of the sound space, and he regularly reverts to a quiet Italian voice when discussing certain key elements of the film. Whilst his English is infinitely better than the majority of English people's Italian, this is nevertheless somewhat off-putting, as the commentary is afforded a stilted and disjointed feel.
That said, it's still worth a listen for fans of the film, with the commentators discussing the heavy metal influence, stories about the development and shooting of the film, and key areas of the plot. The latter subject matter is sometimes distinctly uncomfortable, with Bava evading the elaboration of some of his answers. It's surely telling that when Bava is asked 'who' locks the assembled dimwits into the cinema, he replies that he 'can't remember', and when he is asked why a helicopter drops into the cinema towards the end of the film, his answer is the same. Lamberto, we have a right to know!
I am not sure when the commentary was recorded, but when asked if he still watches horror films, Bava notes that he is a fan of The Crow, which will give some clues, unless Lamberto is catching up on an extremely hefty movie backlog.
It's a mixed bag when considering the commentaries, as the second piece, a Cast and Crew Commentary featuring Lamberto Bava, Geretta Giancarlo (the actress who plays Rosemary), Sergio Staveletti, and a couple of journalists, is spoken in Italian. Yet, this seems to inject a certain energy into discussions, and where Bava seemed to want to sink into the shadows at times during the first commentary piece, he is much more confident speaking in his native tongue, and the piece is more enjoyable as a result. It is perhaps Geretta Giancarlo who really brings this section to life though, with her sharp sense of humour, her ability to keep the discussion running at pace, and her undeniable, infectious charm.
I understand the second commentary to be new, recorded in 2011.
A critique of the garish lighting, non-existent character development, vomit-inducing splatter, and bizarrely random plot components will, to fans of this eighties gorefest, be considered as missing the point. For those who hold the film with some affection, this careful Arrow release will be a welcome event and a solid investment, as the Blu-ray benefits from a solid transfer, and a range of enticing extras.