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Sunday, September 3, 2017

Italian Horror Week 2017 - A Night at the Metropol - Examining Demons 1 and 2 by Chris Beaumont



A Night at the Metropol - Examining Demons 1 and 2 - By Chris Beaumont



 Beware of spoilers…..

In 1985 a movie exploded out of Italy that provided genuine frights and genuine fun at the same time. It is that rare movie that succeeds at all turns. The sort of movie that you can watch over and over again and not get sick of. That movie is none other than Demons. It is a blend of action, horror, and (unintentional) comedy that just tantalizes the senses. It churns the stomach as it causes a giant grin on your face. Filled with memorable characters and some of the best practical gore effects this side of The Thing, it is easy to get into, yet it is not exactly a simple movie. Demons gives you the beginnings of a new world while not bogging you down in the details. It sets up a horrific world full of possibilities waiting to be filled in by your imagination.

A man with half his face covered in a metal mask (Michele Soavi of City of the Living Dead) haunts a subway station handing out free tickets to the Metropol to see a mysterious movie with no title. Who is this guy? What is his connection to the movie? This is one of the details left to the viewer’s imagination. The theater itself is also a mystery, no one seems to have heard of it before, despite its location right in the center of town. Add to that, the single solitary usherette who stands at the door collecting tickets and ensuring no one inside is breaking the rules. The theater is quite the mystery, one employee, no concession stand, and a mysterious dirt bike and mask on display in the lobby.



Once everyone is seated inside, the movie begins. The movie within the movie has a group of people exploring an old cemetery where they find a mysterious book and mask, not unlike the mask in the lobby. The book tells of the coming of demons and that whoever wears the mask will become a demon. Of course, that is exactly what happens, and as it does, the reality of those in the theater begin to mirror what is happening onscreen. A woman (Geretta Geretta from Rats: Nights of Terror), who cut her face earlier, transforms into a fanged, drooling, snarling creature, and with that, the movie is off to the races.

The bulk of the film has our slowly dwindling gaggle of survivors looking for a way out of the theater as they dodge roving gangs of nasty demons. We do get the side story of a group of punks driving around the city snorting coke from a can of Coke, this does pad the run time and add to the body count plus give us one of the oddest looking nipples in horror cinema. As time goes on, we get down to a just a couple survivors. As they run into the theater, a helicopter comes crashing through the roof, confirming that this demon infestation is not localized to the theater (we do see a demon escape when the punks get into the theater).



Our survivors finally escape the theater and find the city overrun by demons. There are fires everywhere, demons running around, and it looks like the apocalypse has arrived. Our surviving two are picked up by a father and his two kids on their way out of the city, heading towards an uncertain future. Now, be sure to watch the credits for a final little stinger (I missed this the first few times I saw the film).

Demons, directed by Lamberto Bava, is one those movies that is an absolute crowd pleaser. See it in a theater and you are sure to have a surreal experience. It is a fast paced and gory experience that uses each and every one of its 89 minutes. It skimps on the backstory and logic in favor of spilling blood and running. This is a good thing, keep it moving, keep it fun, and keep it scary.



Once it is over, it is time to consider what exactly did we see? Yes, we saw people turning into demons and killing people, that is all well and good, but did you stop and think about the hows or the whys? These are big questions to ask if you are to try to bring some logic to the where there is no logic. If you look at what is presented in the film, it makes no sense. Where did the movie come from? I mean, when you see the projection booth and there is no one there. How about the man in the mask? What is his connection? And why does the happening in the theater mirror the movie? It is enough to give you a headache if you think about it too long.

I think the man in the mask is an envoy from wherever the demons come, working to open the gateway to our world. The theater is that gateway, sort of like the basement of the hotel in Fulci’s The Beyond. The audience is trapped and set to become vessels or victims of the demons coming through the portal of the theater screen. This is why no one knows what the Metropol is and also why the doors are sealed once the movie begins. It is not a theater, but a portal to hell.



Now, the door that opens, allowing the punks inside, was not to let them in, but to let a demon out. While the fight rages inside the theater, the demon is let out to begin the invasion of the city, a scout. The demon possession spreads like a virus and it moves quickly. This is why once our survivors get outside, everything looks so bad, as the demons are radiating out into the population giving the city the look of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Demons is truly an apocalyptic film that makes you think it is just an invasion of the theater, but then expands your vision to a much larger scale. It is dark, it is cynical, it seems utterly hopeless. Even as the survivors are driving away, there is that stinger that signifies that no one is safe and they are driving into an unknown, unforgiving, likely unsurvivable future. It is always fun to end your fun and frightening film with a side of bleakness. It opens your eyes to the big picture, a “Holy Sh*t!” moment, if you will.  



Still, it makes you wonder about the origin of the envoy, was that a mask? Was it part of his face? Was he even human? I suspect he encountered a previous attempt of the demon world to infiltrate Earth, and was left damaged by the encounter. Broken in a way that left him mute and in a mental state where he wanted to see this world come to an end, so he set about opening a new portal, the Metropol. I don’t know, but he has to fit in there somewhere. Still, that leaves the usherette, she does not seem to be involved, as she becomes a victim, screaming with the rest of the survivors. Perhaps an unwitting pawn of the envoy? It makes one wonder, but in the end she is dead too.

It would have been nice to have had a direct sequel to this. Treat it like the Resident Evil films, each successive outing getting worse and worse (in terms of the spreading infection/apocalypse). Pick up with the survivors driving away and what they experience, or perhaps picking up at some point a little further down the road and seeing how they are dealing with the demonic outbreak. Unfortunately, that did not happen.



On the other hand, perhaps it is better that it happened the way it did. The direct sequel would require bringing too much logic in and trying to make sense of this world. I think it may be better to leave it in the realm of the free-wheeling, what the f**k just happened, utter lack of logic way. Sometimes it is better to leave it to the audience to apply logic retroactively rather than force it into place. Don’t you think it is better to leave some of that to the audience?

On that note we got Demons 2 in 1986. They wasted no time giving us another entry in the Demons universe. Once again directed by Lamberto Bava and written by the team of Dardano Sacchetti, Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini, and Bava, we are taken into the world of unearthly demonic forces attempting to break through into this world. It is the same world, but different, the rules have changed but the result is the same, demons, gore, running, screaming, and Bobby Rhodes (Lino Salemme also appears in both, Ripper in the first and a security guard in the second).



Demons 2 starts with a narration informing us that the events of the first film did, indeed, happen. The demonic infestation was not just a movie, hallucination, or scam, in this world. It was very real, but it does not appear to have spread past the city they were in. As the film opens, we learn that the city where the outbreak occurred has been walled off and left for dead. As they said in the first film, “..and the cities shall be your tombs.” So far as that city is concerned, that is the truth.

Rather than set up some contrivance to get people back into a movie theater, this film is set inside an apartment building. This is an easy way to get an eclectic assortment of victims without having to figure out why they would be together. We have a man and his pregnant wife, a little boy home alone, a birthday party, and a group of weightlifters in a basement gym (led by Bobby Rhodes, who played Tony the Pimp is now Hank the Body Builder). Plenty of people to get bit by the demon bug.



As the people go about their business, a number of them have their televisions on the same program. A group of twenty-somethings are going to the walled in city in search of evidence of demons. They scale the wall and start looking around. Lo and behold, they find the dusty corpse of a demon. Of course, one of them gets cut, bleeds on the thing only to see it revive and start killing them. What is odd here is that I am unsure if what we are watching is supposed to be live, fiction, or documentary. There are hints that could point in any direction. In any case, the demon is alive, killing people and the fun has only just begun.

The birthday girl, Sally (Coralina Castaldi Tassoni from Opera), has locked herself in her room, upset about not having the perfect outfit and her ex-boyfriend being given the go ahead to come to the party, however inadvertently. Lucky for Sally, she happens to be watching the program about the Demons city, and this is how these demons are able to get into our world. The program seems to be the equivalent of the movie in the first one, the gateway from the demon world to ours, they just need an audience, a captive audience.



The demon that was revived by the dopes in the dead city, looks directly at Sally through the television screen. It ultimately comes out of the television and makes Sally the first of a new wave of demons, with a great transformation sequence. If there is one thing they did not lose between movies, it is gloriously gruesome practical effects. Sally eventually gets out of her room and proceeds to attack the party goers, resulting in more demons.

Additionally, this time around demon blood is acidic. It drips off of Sally as she turns and begins to eat through to the floors below, infecting more people, and even a dog, along the way. This is about where the movie gets into full on survival mode. Party demons are running around making more apartment residents into slobbering creatures. This is fun when the horde reaches the gym and runs into the gang led by Hank, shouting orders incessantly, just as he did as Tony. Seriously, anyone who doesn’t like Bobby Rhodes, well, you know where to go.



There is something about watching these things screech and run around killing that is just incredibly entertaining. While the demons are similar to the first film, a few new wrinkles are tossed into the mix. A kid gets turned and then he in turn has this nasty, clawed demon thing rip out of him and attack a pregnant woman, this is quite the battle as she is confronted with killing a newborn demon, as she carries her first child. The act of killing takes on another dimension, when you are carrying a new life, even if it is a demon, not to mention the desire to protect your unborn child.

There are moments where the victim can feel the change and cries out for help, as is the case as a daughter (Asia Argento in her first role) is torn away from her mother as she changes and is in turn shot by Hank the Body Builder. Still other times, the demon attempts to trick someone into coming closer. It is clear that while their goal appears the same, they have picked up new tricks along the way.



The survivors group is slowly whittled down, as happened in the first, until the final two make a similar escape from the building that ended the first film. Of course, the pregnant woman escapes just in time to give birth. The tricky part is, Sally has followed them out of the building and into a neighboring television studio. Here is how they get rid of her, it appears the demons have a weakness, or at least the Sally demon does, the cameras in the studio transport her back to the demon world. The survivors then smash the monitors she appears on to, I don’t know, kill her? Perhaps just trap temporarily. Our heroes walk out into the world of an uncertain future.

Demons 2 definitely has the feel of being in the same universe, but it is decidedly different as well. The demons act a little differently, they enter our world differently, but in the end it is demons running around killing people. It still has that bleakness that the first one had, but it is also similarly fun and scary. It expands the world introduced in the first, but does not manage to answer any questions, it does manage to ask more questions and cloud the assumptions made about the original.



This film confirms that the demons exist in this reality and they are constantly attempting an assault on said reality. Again, I am attempting to bring some logic to where there should be none and wondering what happened to repel the outbreak the first time around. It is kind of fascinating how it seems they beat the demons and just abandoned a city, just walling it off. Could that work? I am curious about that.

It does appear that the rest of world is aware that this happened, sort of shown by the existence of the show/documentary they are all watching. It also explains why everyone is scared of the demons, but not particularly shocked that there are demons, this shows they know of what happened and the danger it brings. I enjoy how no one really steps up to be a hero other than Hank, who is just trying to rally the troops.



There is a darkness to the proceedings. It does not quite reach the level of the first, particularly the ending. This sequel has an ending that is more open to interpretation. The heroes and the newborn baby leave the studio, walk out into the city, and end on freeze frame. This could be seen as them having won and they are standing triumphant ready to recover and move forward. I, however, look at it differently. Their faces seem to express concern, not immediate, but they see something that we do not. I believe they are seeing fires and destruction, signifying the demon virus spreading. There was no way all the demons were dead in the apartment, and if Sally can get out, others can too, and we don’t know, maybe one already did. This world is meant to be entertaining for 90 minutes at a clip and leave you wondering about anyones survival. Fun, scary, with a side of bleak hopelessness.

Demons 2 is not as universally liked as the first one is, but I believe it deserves to be reassessed. No, I do not like it as much as the first, but it is definitely a fun ride. I think we were expecting something closer to the original, but when this came, it just did not live up to its predecessor. It is a sentiment I understand, as I used to not care for it that much. I came around over time and see the positive in it. I am not seeking to change anyones mind, I just think that if you haven’t watched it for a long time, it may be worth revisiting.



Both of these films are good examples of what has attracted me to Italian horror cinema over the years. There is legitimate fun and frights all rolled up in a gooey, gory pile of nonsense. I say nonsense in the best possible sense. There is just something that, in a lot of the films I like, is just off. Logic and sense take a backseat to atmosphere and tone. Despite the lack of plot, per se, there is a flow, a logic in the image. It is like persistence of vision, you are carried through with the succession of images with your brain filling in the lack of logic using clues given throughout.

I am reminded of this quote, supposedly by Lucio Fulci but I cannot locate the source:
" . . . my idea was to make an absolute film . . . there's no logic to it, just a succession of images. The Sea of Darkness (from the final scene in The Beyond), for instance, is an absolute world, an immobile world where every horizon is similar . . . Both films [here Fulci is comparing the Beyond with Inferno] have no structure. We tried in Italy to make films based on pure themes, without a plot, and The Beyond, like Inferno, refuses conventions and traditional structures . . . People who blame The Beyond for its lack of story have no understood that it's a film of images, which must be received without reflection . . ."



The Demons duo present a compelling, effects driven visceral experience with just enough plot detail to kickstart the engine, from the the visuals and energy take over and run over an audience like a locomotive. When it is all over you’re left wondering what just happened. Both films are easy to pull apart and criticize, but there is a stronger force at work here, something intangible. They are just so much fun to watch, the effects are amazing, and they do legitimately frighten you.

There are a number of other films that have been renamed to take advantage of the Demons legacy, but none of them offer up what these two do. A couple of them are classics in their own right, namely The Church (1989 d. Michele Soavi) and Dellamorte Dellamore (aka Cemetery Man, 1994 d. Michele Soavi). Both of those are worthy of their reputations, but neither is a true Demons film. Others have had the name tacked on to them, but are just not that good. Of those I have seen Demons 3: The Ogre (or simply The Ogre, 1988 d. Lamberto Bava) and Black Demons (retitled Demons 3 for its video release, 1988 d. Umberto Lenzi). It is not unlike the Zombi series, unrelated films retitled to take advantage of past success.



In closing, I will always love Demons, that movie is nothing but fun, and if you can see it in a theater with an audience, you will be treated to an amazing and surreal experience. Demons 2 has won me over to the point that I question why I didn’t like it before. I chalk that up to expecting something closer to what Demons provided and not accepting it on its own terms. I do not expect to change anyone’s mind, but maybe I can inspire a revisit with an open mind?


I do like the world these movies have created, even with the inconsistency of the rules, lack of logic, and the problems that go with them. It is interesting to watch them back to back and try to apply some logic to the facts that are presented in both of them, there is definitely something compelling wrapped in the visceral nonsense.  


You can find more of Chris Beaumont's writing at CriticalOutcast.com

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