Demons is one cool cucumber. It’s often hard to tell whether the film’s satirizing the cold excess of 1980s horror cinema or actively indulging it (probably both), and that ambiguity informs even the redundant sequences with latent tension. The premise is simple even for an ultraviolent ghoulie feature: Folks are invited to a mysterious theater for a horror-film screening and proceed to turn into demons that tear apart the remaining survivors, who soon turn, of course, into more demons. The Evil Dead is almost certainly an inspiration, which reflects a cyclical payback of sorts, as Sam Raimi was clearly indebted to Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and Argento, an executive producer and co-writer of this film, borrowed back on his initial loan, upping the ante even further on the gore and fabulously bladdery effects. This self-referential sense of the narrative eating its own tale is intentional and essential to Demons’s claustrophobically narcissistic sense of terror, which director Lamberto Bava exacerbates with a gift for color coordination that would’ve made his legendary father, Mario, proud.
Demons is predominantly a monument to the horror genre’s potential for offering images of irrational Grand Guignol beauty, though that beauty is often purposefully compromised and disrupted by the gore of the prolonged killing scenes. Bava shares his father’s talent for conveying danger spatially, almost subliminally: The vast half-emptiness of the theater setting chillingly evokes the goose bumps one may get while watching a movie alone in an auditorium late in the night. The screening room is cast in hues of disturbingly vibrant blood red that explicitly connote carnage long before anything actually happens. The reds of the seats and aisles are complemented by the ray of blue light that shoots out of the projector in the background, playing the possession film that’s to authentically seize ahold of its viewers. Contrasting these reds and blues are yellows which suggest fluorescent urine, which is appropriate as the yellow shade is most prominently seen in a bathroom as a woman flees to a stall to suffer a transformation into the film’s first demon. Later on, yellow even emanates from the aisles themselves, from no discernably logical light source, though the effect serves to lend the reds an almost three-dimensional feel that intensifies the sense of potential, looming invasion as the survivors of the initial demon assault huddle together to discuss defense tactics.
These painterly primal color flourishes, which are heavily indebted to Argento and the elder Bava, are intensified by the further contrast of a metallic sheen that’s probably reflective of Lamberto’s influence, though it also ineffably belongs to the tradition of the defiantly trashy portions of American horror cinema, particularly slasher movies. The demon mask that sets the story in motion is steel-gray, and a sword, a knight statue, and a switchblade, not to mention an ominous character made up to resemble the Terminator, are also cast in chilly metallic hues that fuse with the aggressive soundtrack (including songs by Billy Idol, AC/DC, and Mötley Crüe) to create an angry, hopeless, nihilistic atmosphere of contemptuous, impersonally objectified decay. The film’s emphasis on neon deco style, and nearly style alone, at the expense of all subtext or character development, achieves an ironically subtextual effect: Bava, particularly through the meta use of the horror film within the film, conjures a doomsday born of emotional indifference. Viewers watch the surprisingly violent movie within Demons, which isn’t predictably played for self-parody, and are brought down to its level of self-annihilating engagement. This inciting incident could be a parody of what parental watchdogs say can become of kids beholden to horror movies and heavy metal.
This pointed refusal to coax any kind of faux-sentimental attachment to the characters emboldens Demons with a level of blunt honesty that lingers. Another subtext could be best summed up as this is what you came for. Bava and Argento get away with this haughtiness because of the sheer reliable awesomeness of their images; this film earns its feelings of superiority over many other movies that traffic in comparatively banal butchery. Demons is a coffee-table book of a horror movie, reveling in a purity of transcendent revulsion that marks it as something that’s really only suitable for the truest and most devoted of aficionados. It’s a snob’s objet d’art, disguised as a blood offering.
Flesh tones are sometimes waxy, and exterior scenes are inconsistently grainy, but the colors of the interior scenes that dominate the film are appropriately bold and beautiful, particularly the reds and yellows and velvety deep blacks. Grain remains even in these sequences, but that’s preferable to a weird polish that might lose the tactile textures of the effects and the vividly tangible scenery. There are two Master Audio soundtracks, an International English 2.0 Stereo and a U.S. English 2.0 Mono. The former is richer and more immersive, most notably in presentation of the score and the other non-diegetic effects, though the mono track is clean and well-mixed on its own terms. No real reason not to stick with the international mix though.
Just the theatrical trailer.
Some extras would be nice, particularly considering the legends who had their hands in this vibrantly cynical rock horror film, but the lively transfer makes a good case for Demons’s gloriously unhinged beauty.