In her 1969 essay Trash, Art, and the Movies, the late Pauline Kael wrote, “movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Though I sincerely doubt it’s the kind of picture the esteemed film critic had in mind, Lamberto Bava’s gloriously repulsive Demons is undeniable trash, reaching previously uncharted depths in violent exploitation and general bad taste. The movie is considered a cult classic of Italian horror. More importantly, though, it’s tawdry, intellectually bankrupt, and unbelievably disgusting. Still, I have to recommend it.
For all its goofy excesses, Demons is strangely appealing with its lurid imagery and morbid sense of humour. There’s a manic charm about it. Consider the opening sequence, in which a college student (Natasha Hovey) runs across an empty train station to escape a stalker with a metallic plate glued to his face (Michele Soavi). The scene proves somewhat lacking in terms of internal logic: the girl just stepped off a train, yet the platform is deserted; the building is inexplicably devoid of exits; and just how hard is it to outrun a guy who’s not running? Yet I found myself captivated by the prologue’s creepy atmosphere and tense rhythm. I also enjoyed its offbeat payoff, designed to let viewers know they shouldn’t take the film too seriously.
All the gore and mayhem is meant in good fun, you see. Demons must have been a hoot to see in the theatre, given its reflexive premise about demonic creatures from a horror flick attacking and infecting their audience. Unfortunately, the film never develops a proper story beyond this clever concept. Instead we’re treated to a series of ultra violent vignettes in which movie patrons get eviscerated or turn into monsters themselves. None of it makes any sense, of course, and the characters are all paper-thin stereotypes like the heroic playboy (Urbano Barberini), the strung-out gang leader (Pasqualino Salemme), and the cat (Bobby Rhodes) who’s a bad mother… Shut your mouth!
These men and women (or cannon fodder) are also complete idiots. Granted, they sometimes have moments of extreme clarity, usually when the film requires them to explain the plot to the slow members of the audience: “She put on that mask and scratched herself. Get it? Because of that scratch, she became a demon, an instrument of evil, like they said in the damn movie!” However, the characters have an annoying habit of standing around idly while their friends undergo their painfully sluggish transformation into demons. At least the Shaft impersonator acknowledges the problem. He keeps asking what people are waiting for: “What are you waiting for? Run”; “Help me throw her over the stall! Come on, what are you waiting for?”
The answer to that question is fairly obvious. They’re waiting for the elaborate special effects sequence to end. Ridiculously detailed and wildly imaginative, the demonic transformations are the highlight of the film. Dark veins appear on the victims’ faces, followed by pulsing boils. Claws slowly bulge from their fingers. Their teeth fall out, giving way to crooked fangs. Soon blood is spurting out of every orifice, then puss, then blood mixed with puss, and then new orifices are created to start the process over. The most disturbing part, though, is their bizarre shriek, like a dozen chain smokers getting their skin peeled off while watching porn. It’s absolutely disgusting and yet truly spectacular in a demented sort of way.
Some movies aspire to change our view of the world. Others apparently settle on making us want to throw up. In this latter respect, Demons is an unequivocal success. The thing of it is that there’s genuine artistry involved here. I first saw the stylishly deranged gore fest more than a decade ago, and it still shapes some of my nightmares today. Sure, it’s an incoherent mess, but the film unsettles me on a primal level. I’d place the specific feeling it evokes somewhere between dread and nausea. Incidentally, that’s the very definition of horror.
Note: It’s widely believed Bobby Rhodes’ character is a pimp, though I’ve found no concrete evidence his two floozies are actual prostitutes.