High-school teens stage a Halloween party in an abandoned funeral home only to fall prey to demons who murder them and possess their corpses. Remind you of anything?
I never would have believed director Kevin Tenney had it in him. Nothing in his prior film, Witchboard, hinted at the formal rigour on display here. He proffers hand-held shots, a 360 degree rotating shot, an Evil Dead style POV shot, and a memorable shot where the characters are all reflected in individual shards of a shattered mirror.
The house proves dark enough to evoke a haunting atmosphere, but bright enough to follow the action. Dust motes swirl, and the amber light stays true to the candle source.
The demon make up proves effective, transforming the teens into horrific demons reminiscent of The Exorcist.
Indeed, it’s a well-directed and well-produced film. But in service of an underwhelming script. The three-and-a-half minute opening credit sequence, followed by a disconnected wrap-around sequence, offer the first hints the film is padding its running time.
The demon action doesn’t ramp up until almost an hour into the film’s ninety minute running time. Consider Lamberto Bava’s Demons, which sports a similar premise of demons taking over patrons of a Berlin movie theater. Both films sport similar running times, but at this point in Bava’s film, the demons had been running rampant for half-an-hour, reducing the packed theater to a small cluster of survivors scurrying for their lives.
One could criticize Demons for its lack of characterization, but this film proves no better. Its characters are also one-dimensional stereotypes. The hosts are generic bad girls. The guests include Judy, the judgemental good girl, her lecherous rich-kid boyfriend who just wants to “make it” with her, an overweight misogynistic punk who calls every girl bitch and utters the choice line “Eat a bowl of fuck!, and a sniveling coward who spends most of his time huddled in a corner.
All prove unlikeable, including the lone character with any nuance, Sal who stalks Judy, looks like a 50s greaser, and spouts dialog out of a 40s noir like, “Come on, ace… spill the beans. Here’s a nice chunk of change to loosen your lips a little.”
Who are we expected to root for? Given these protagonists, I found myself opting for the demons.
The other three characters, Helen, Max, and Frannie, lack motivation or personality, prove interchangeable. They exist to either to provide a reason for other characters to talk or to spout exposition themselves.
And we get a lot of exposition. Scenes disguised as the characters talking to each other but act as the script talking to us. “For centuries the Indian tribes that lived around here would never set foot on this side of the underground creek,” says one character during such a scene. “Even way back then they claimed this land was unclean.”
Then later, during the climax, our final girl says, “Tonight is a special night of evil when all things unclean are free to roam among us. If we can just hold out in here til dawn, then I think we’ll be alright.” Again, it’s not her talking to another character, but the writer explaining the movie to us. Such is the exposition that we get one teen exclaiming, “Thank heaven for water pipes,” as he climbs back into the house.
Lazy writing like this robs the film of any authority and chaotic tension.
But perhaps worst of all, once the horror gets underway, it disappoints. Sure, the makeup shines, and we get a memorable scene involving one girl’s breast and an tube of lipstick, but much of the action involves the possessed teens stumbling about the house looking for the unpossessed ones. Given the house seems both haunted and sentient, you’d think finding them wouldn’t be so hard, or at least once found, keeping track of them.
Instead, the pattern sees a possessed teen shamble down a hallway. An unpossessed teen avoids noticing the danger until the last minute, when they scream and run away. There’s no sense of escalating stakes as more kids turn to demons, nor any culminating set piece.
Again, contrast this with Demons, which proffers an unrelenting tidal wave of graphic violence, engendering a claustrophobic sense of dread, building to a crescendo that sees a motorcycle tearing through possessed patrons before a helicopter crashes into the roof. This film ends with our characters trying to climb a wall.
Disappointing, given the craft exercised in the production and direction. Producer Joe Augustyn also wrote the script, which goes a long way towards explaining the gap. He stretches a killer short film to double its sustainable runtime.
Genre fans will appreciate the makeup and production, as well as scream queen Linnea Quigley as one of the bad girl hostesses, but Demons executes a similar premise with superior results on every front, making this entry hard to recommend except as a watered-down suburban version. But sometimes, that’s all you want.