Girl Meets Context: Directed by the son of legendary Italian horror auteur Mario Bava, Demons takes some of the giallo tradition’s stylish nonsense and blends in supernatural elements, over-the-top gore setpieces and a bleak dystopic worldview. Demons was stewarded and co-written by horror meastro Dario Argento, and may be the most celebrated of Lamberto Bava’s extensive filmography. Argento’s shadow looms large over the film (similarly to how Joss Whedon’s involvement in The Cabin in the Woods has distracted the public from director Drew Goddard’s efforts) and it is sometimes mis-remembered as being one of Argento’s directorial projects. The movie is set in Berlin, Germany, where a diverse cross-section of people show up for a midnight screening of a horror movie at a local theater. However, the line between fiction and reality soon blurs when the events depicted in the film start to occur to the patrons of the theater. A cursed mask serves as the conduit through which demonic forces begin to invade and take over the bodies of the moviegoers and soon everyone is fighting for their lives against the murderous demons. The plot somewhat centers on a vapid college student named Cheryl and her companions, a girlfriend and two male moviegoers named George and Ken. Soon Cheryl and George are the last ones standing, and they must try to battle their way out of the theater. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie and be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie and come back!
Sean: So Demons has grown on you since we watched it?
Kristine: Yes. I enjoyed it at the time but now I think it pulls off doing some pretty smart things while seeming to be about nothing but dumb fun.
Kristine: For example, I liked how it went from a micro-environment (the movie theatre) to a macro-environment (basically, the world ending according to a Nostradamus prediction). That radical shift in the movie’s sense of scale, in retrospect, is both bonkers and fabulous. And I liked how the movie played with the trope of the insta-relationship between Cheryl and George, and then unceremoniously dumped it. Nothing is treated preciously in this movie. It is actually pretty dark-hearted when you think about it.
Sean: The Italians just do what they want! But I think you’re right, that this movie is a little bit more overtly sadistic than it appears to be. It really enjoys inflicting pain on its characters and disposing of people that in a more traditional horror movie would be “safe.”
Sean: And of course, being an Italian movie, it doesn’t even PRETEND to care about coherence. It just throws everything at the wall and watches it splatter, literally.
Kristine: Speaking of splatter, I thought all the effects were really good, and some of the kills were amazing… I loved it when the canoodling couple were strangled together, so it looked like they were still making out when actually they were dying. Again, that’s one of those nasty bits of business that reveals what a mean-spirited movie it really is. What about the blind father getting his eyeholes gouged out and then acting as seer to the group? RIDICULOUS.
Sean: The daughter abandoning her blind father to fuck a stranger was ridiculous! That poor blind man really gets tormented and debased.
Kristine: Ha! Right?
Sean: But that’s a good example of how the film has no narrative coherence. Some people get injured by a demon and are immediately infected. Then the blind daddy has his eyes clawed out by a demon but he stays human for hours (and then finally turns into a demon himself).
Sean: There is no internal logic.
Kristine: Who cares! Demons = illogical! I also loved the transformation of Hooker No. 2 – especially when the demon teeth pushed out her normal teeth? That part made me squeal with delight. And of course I loved the punk rockers!
Sean: OMG – that girl punk was fucking Yolandi Visser!
Kristine: What is a Yolandi???
Kristine: OOOOOOOMMMMMGGGGGGGGGGGG. She is!!!
Kristine: I am dying!
Kristine: That punk girl… Oh, she made me so sad!
Sean: Nipples and razor blades and coke. So ‘80s.
Kristine: Another example of non-cohesiveness, though… I mean, the punks’ only role in the story is to release the demons from the theatre. All of those long scenes of them all roaming the city were weird and didn’t really pay off… except in cocaine-and-razor-blade-fueled fun!
Sean: There was something very potently sexual about all the punks. They made me want to have orgies but also want to scrub my skin off for wanting it.
Kristine: The boy punks were all incredibly beautiful with those pouty lips! Like, Bruce Weber’s idea of what punks look like.
Sean: The cocaine in the Coca-Cola can was a great product placement joke.
Kristine: I agree, the coke part was hilarious!
Sean: So can I tell you why I agree that the movie is smarter than it seems? I feel like this is a total meta-horror movie. It is a movie about watching horror movies. Carol Clover actually wrote a little about this movie in Men, Women and Chainsaws, about how the characters argue about what is causing the demonic plague. Some think it is the film. Some think it is the theater itself. But Clover argues that the horror is located in the spectators themselves, and thus that we bring the terror with us into the movie theater when we go to be “scared.” But so much of the movie’s first third is taken up by the parallels between the movie being shown and the people in the theater watching the movie. It literally is about spectatorship. I love how the first hooker’s transformation syncs up with the possession of the white guy in the film… Spectators are linked to their cinematic doppelgangers, and things like race and gender are immaterial. I like this idea that there is a primal connection between the viewer and a film. And Demons is interested in what it means to be a viewer of a horror film. Remember Kathy, the cunty best friend, is like, “Oh a horror movie! Ugh!” I like the postmodern layering of the viewing experience. We watch Demons in which the characters of Demons watch a horror movie and comment on the experience of doing so, as we are experiencing it. Kathy speaks our dread and resistance, other characters speak our fascination. The pimp and the two hookers speak our nonchalance, they reflect the horror movie as rollercoaster ride – fun, thrilling and ridiculous. But then this movie exterminates its audience. How sadistic can you get!?
Kristine: Well, I think that speaks to the movie’s fatalism – it doesn’t matter WHO you are, we are all fucked in the face of the apocalypse and there is no fighting fate!
Sean: Oh it’s a totally nihilistic movie! I mean, don’t you think there’s some significance to the idea that the movie can seep not just off of the screen and into the space of the theater, but also out of the theater and into the world? And it literally pollutes and unmakes the world! In some ways, this is a hilarious power fantasy on the part of the genre. It is “horror cinema” asserting its own destructive capabilities, and rejoicing in its own transgression.
Kristine: Right. I guess one thing that struck me was that the movie really lacks any Christian or Catholic iconography. I mean for a movie about “demons” running amok, it doesn’t really even engage the idea of religion, right? Instead, the monsters seem to be pre-Christian in some ways, but also totally modern. The cinematic experience is so modern and also something that complicates our understanding of reality, of what is “real” and what is “fictional.” So they’re born out of that. But the movie folds in all this Nostradamus mythology, which feels “old” but also not-Christian. It treats all that as pure occultism. It’s weird. The medieval and occult gets mixed up with the modern and the cinematic. I’m not sure what to say about it, but it’s pretty cool.
Sean: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean another thing about this movie that feels “old” is its unabashed misogyny. The lead girl, Cheryl, is a fucking useless crying heap!
Kristine: Oh God, she was such a problem.
Sean: The women are literally ALL worthless.
Kristine: Remember the scene when ALL the women are just completely freaking out and wailing like they are at a Sicilian funeral? Like, once the reality of their predicament hits them, they all lose control and start gyrating and screaming and panicking. And all the men are just trying to calm them down. It was BANANAS!
Sean: Oh my god, the depiction of female hysteria was off-the-charts ridiculousness. It was so offensive that it became amazing camp.
Kristine: I hate the trope that, when faced with adversity, women turn into quivering heaps whereas nerdy dudes in BENETTON shirts become motorcycle-riding samurais!!!
Sean: Hahahaha! This movie is ALL male fantasy.
Kristine: I mean, right??? You know what I liked? When they are first watching the movie, before it becomes clear that the movie is paralleling their experience, when it was just holding them transfixed… I like the idea of a movie casting a spell over a captive audience. For a bit I thought that the movie was going to exert some kind of groupthink/mindfuck over them and they would all start killing each other.
Sean: Yeah, I think that’s part of the phenomenon of spectatorship that this movie is interested in – the overwhelming, subsuming power of the cinematic experience. It is like brainwashing, or hypnosis. No wonder our most primal, beastly selves are “unlocked” by the movie!
Kristine: I could not stop thinking about the whole Dark Knight Rises shooting… Just the reality of how vulnerable people are at the movies. You willingly put yourself in a small dark room with strangers… You have no idea what you are going to be subjected to.
Sean: OMG I THOUGHT OF BATMAN TOO!
Sean: I was like, This movie is Aurora, Colorado! Where the narrative breaks through the fourth wall and invades the theater!
Kristine: Yeah, totally. Remember the Boyz in the Hood shootings? Some cinematic experiences are so immersive that they… I don’t know, they bend reality or something! It’s like, cinema as incantation. I mean, that’s exactly what happens in Demons. That a movie can be a piece of black magic that conjures something evil forth.
Sean: Right. I guess Carol Clover would argue, No, it has nothing to do with the movie. It is us. We bring the evil with us into the theater.
Kristine: This movie also reminded me of The Mist.
Sean: Yes. A bunch of people trapped in one location during an inexplicable apocalypse.
Kristine: Exactly. Another parallel that came to mind… the pimp in this movie played the “rational black man” role, sort of a ‘70s, post-blaxploitation version of Ben in Night of the Living Dead. What do you make of how race is handled in this movie? Were you offended by the pimp character?
Sean: I mean, he was a total caricature, right? It makes sense to me that, post-1960s, post-Civil Rights Era, movies would be grasping around, searching for new ways to represent blackness. I think the pimp character is one of the only ways popular culture could imagine representing a powerful black man. I get it, the pimp is a “fun” character. But the problem is that was often one of the only ways movies could imagine an assertive, powerful black man. And so black masculinity gets associated with all these negatives: sexist exploitation, poverty, crime, domestic violence. But also with all these positives: style, swagger, self-assuredness, street-smarts. But the pimp character in this movie was just… that. The only upside was his rapport with his two “girls” was pretty good – he wasn’t mean or brutal with them. They seemed like kind of a radical little alternative family unit…. I don’t know. It’s complicated.
Kristine: I was wondering if it was just yet another example of a powerful male accompanied by weaker females. Why were the hookers the first to be turned into demons?
Sean: I mean, the movie subverts some of the race stuff by the parallels between the movie-within-the-movie (black woman is paralleled with white man). But it is still problematic in how the two ethnic women “spread the disease” to everyone else. Also, since they’re prostitutes, there’s a social disease allegory there right? And also, as women of color, there’s this sense that they are spreading ethnicity, that “whiteness” is what’s under assault in the film. Aren’t they like the only three people of color in the theater?
Kristine: Demonism, it’s a social disease.
Sean: Ha! I know that this is pretentious, horror-nerd complaining, but I remember when Scream came out in the 1990s and I was so annoyed by everyone exclaiming how novel its postmodern sensibility was, when movies like Demons had already broken that ground a decade earlier.
Kristine: Yeah, so true. I thought of Scream as well, obviously (especially how the cold open of Scream 2 takes place in a theater, where the “fiction” of the movie invades the viewing space). So, the demons aren’t exactly zombies. They aren’t reanimated, they are just demonized, right?
Sean: Right. I mean, this movie is about polluted bodies.
Kristine: Oh, yeah, totally. What did you think of the giant neck zits?
Sean: Total body horror.
Kristine: Polluted bodies!
Sean: I mean, part of the horror is that the body is so susceptible. That’s what body horror movies really exploit – how permeable and invade-able our bodies are.
Kristine: I liked how the demons seemed to really delight in killing. They aren’t doing it to feed or any other “rational” reason. Just to… be demonic!
Sean: Hahaha! Agents of chaos! That link to Nostradamus was weird just in how it seemed to suggest that Nostradamus was party to some demonic shenanigans? It was so barely sketched out.
Kristine: You mean, Nostradamus the rap group?
Sean: Can you even believe that line!? Also, the girls in the movie-within-the-movie were useless, shrill and terrible. This movie hasn’t a single interesting female character. The two prostitutes came closest, and they immediately became pus-leaking, raving lunatics.
Kristine: What about… the SOUNDTRACK!
Sean: I WAS DYING. Billy Idol? Speed metal?
Sean: It was UGLY BOY ROCK.
Kristine: Like you said, total nerd boy fantasy complete with nerd boy “badass” score. So, you will be proud of me! I noticed that HANNAH was played by Fiore Argento…who was, as you pointed out to me, the first victim school girl in Phenomena!
Kristine: How many horror points do I get?
Sean: Well, she was the Scandinavian tourist, not a schoolgirl but yay! 1,000 points!
Kristine: She was a SCHOOL GIRL Tourist! What was the deal with the usherette?
Sean: Oh no, THE USHERETTE!
Kristine: THE UGH-SHERETTE. I hated her all striding around, casting significant LOOKS. HATED.
Sean: She was from that show Head of the Class.
Kristine: Ha ha, no she wasn’t, but she had the same mop of red curls.
Sean: I loved her ridiculous Italian haughtiness, and she made a terrifying demon.
Kristine: I didn’t get her. I mean, she was facilitating the whole thing, but then she was also terrorized and turned? I was confused.
Sean: I want to know if a boy scraping your nipple with a coke-encrusted razor blade is an actual girl turn-on or just a sick Italian male fantasy.
Kristine: I mean, I think there might be a mighty grey area between your two points of measurement there. But it does not turn me on. Poor Nina. By the way, I just looked it up and the punk boys’ names are: Tony, Tommy and… Hot Dog!
Sean: GROSS! SONORAN hot dog.
Kristine: Isn’t it gross when people call punks PUNKERS? I hate that!
Sean: I hate that too. Some freak on the radio did that just the other day. He said, “I was a total punk-ah.”
Kristine: QUIT IT. New Waver is wrong too. You can say, “He was New Wave.” Not, “He was a New Waver.” God, people.
Sean: What about “She’s such a gother”?
Kristine: No “GOTHER.”
Sean: I don’t understand the movie’s mythology of the man in the metal mask and the redhead all running the conspiracy. None of that makes a lick of sense. Just fyi, that Mask Man was played by another Italian horror director named Michele Soavi.
Kristine: Yeah, it made ZERO sense. I did think the Mask Man scene in the subway was good. Remember how there were all the “PUNKERS” on the subway? Like they standins for demons? I felt like the point of that scene was that Cheryl couldn’t tell the difference between someone meaning her harm (Mask Man) and the harmless aesthetics of rebellion (punkers).
Sean: Well, it’s weird because they set up the audience in the theater to be this total cross section of society right? The old asshole man and his Edith Bunker wife, the pimp and prostitues, the college kids, the young couple, etc.
Kristine: But the punkers are on the outside. They have to “break in.”
Sean: Was George hot?
Kristine: The male lead? No.
Sean: His boyfriend was Justin Long.
Kristine: Umm, just how many Demons sequels were there!? And how can there be a sequel?
Sean: There was only one real sequel. The Italians are notorious for naming unrelated movies as sequels to things. Like just making a random movie and naming it Silence of the Lambs 2.
Kristine: I have a question, though the answer might be irrelevant since it might be the Italian non-cohesiveness we already discussed… Is the idea that when the punks broke into the theatre the demons escaped and spread to the rest of the city, so that when George and Cheryl escaped, the city is already ravaged? Or is the idea that similar scenarios to the theatre were playing out all over the city simultaneously? I think the answer is, doesn’t matter, right? I’m just curious.
Sean: Uh, I think the blind man spread it out to the rest of the world. But no I don’t think it matters. It’s just… apocalypse! So I was wondering if you noticed any similarities between this movie and the Italian giallo films we watched. Or was this just a total bird of a different feather?
Kristine: I did in certain scenes: the aforementioned killing of the canoodling couple, for example. The usherette stalking around, the terrible speed metal. But all the giallos we watched had elaborate (if ridiculous) back stories that tied the whole thing together, right? “Well, I killed all those people because I was raped and I empathize with my rapist” (Bird with the Crystal Plumage). Or “I killed all those people because I am a pedo priest and my mongoloid sister saw it all” (Don’t Torture a Duckling). Etc. So this is different in it’s “fuck it, let’s go for it” attitude.
Sean: Right. Here there is no logic. Isn’t this movie all about spectacle? The transformation of the second hooker was like, a whole situation. That giant engorged tongue sticking out of her mouth like a big horse dick?
Kristine: Exactly, yes. I knew we were in for it when they first enter the theatre and that motorcycle is displayed in the lobby. I was all, mama mia here we go! I still am most upset by the teeth thing.
Sean: My favorite demon is that one who clawed his way out of Kathy’s back. That setpiece made no sense, but I loved it.
Kristine: The second hooker’s transformation reminded me of An American Werewolf in London. So many movies we’ve watched are so into these big spectacular transformation sequences. Horror seems to be obsessed with people turning into other things, with bodies morphing or changing. Is it a fantasy or a nightmare?
Sean: I’m not sure! Would we agree that this movie is more fascinated with the spectacle of unclean female bodies than male? It seems like all the big FX setpieces were female transformations.
Kristine: Yes, their transformations were dwelled upon more frequently.
Sean: So there’s just this intrinsic distrust of female bodies. Though there’s a great reversal of that when that (male) demon falls on Hannah and is spewing gore all over her body (like a big gushing menstrual explosion). It’s almost like when male bodies become polluted they become more female. But the female bodies just become more abject.
Kristine: “More” abject? Thanks.
Sean: That’s the Italian way! This movie thinks female bodies are already abject and suspect! Abjection is linked to the feminine here, right?
Kristine: I don’t really see evidence of that in this movie until the women start transforming into demons. I think they are portrayed as dumb asses, but not necessarily abject.
Sean: I guess I think that because the two prostitute’s bodies are the first ones infected. And so female bodies, by being “open” and more susceptible to invasion, are at fault for the spread of the plague.
Kristine: That I can cosign.
Sean: But what’s complicated about that is that in the movie-within-the-movie, the male is the one who gets infected. The thing that links them together is, they both dared to put on the mask and mock it.
Kristine: So, you know I saw a tribute to Demons at Dario Argento’s shop/museum in Rome, right?
Sean: What was the tribute?
Kristine: In the basement there are little vignettes from his movies. For example, there’s a diorama of Patau in his playroom (from Phenomena). The one for Demons was just a theatre with people running amok. Since I hadn’t seen the movie, I didn’t pay it too much attention. Now I wish I had studied it more!
Sean: Not to make too much of this, but I’m hung up on the symbolism of these two characters donning the mask and thus setting off the invasion. Is it like, a historical violation they’ve committed?
Kristine: Eh, I think it’s just cursed object plus human hubris = big trouble.
Sean: But I feel like the cursed object is meant to stand in for some kind of mythic, historical (and occult) past.
Kristine: Sure, maybe so. I do like how the mask strips them of race/gender/class, etc.
Sean: It is formulated as a problem that the modern people treat the mask with irreverence. Because in a way this movie is about a modern encounter with the primal, the mythic. Those punk characters are maybe the best representation of callow modernity in the movie. Like you said, they plague the subways, taking up space….
Kristine: That’s interesting. But again, these Italian movies are so ridiculous and nonsensical that it’s hard to make any decisions about if anything “means” anything, or if its just a bunch of insane bullshit.
Sean: Totally. What do you rate this movie?
Kristine: Batshit insanity + Mama Mia! And you?
Sean: Total trash… I loved it!
Kristine: Yay! I liked this one better than Dead Alive.
Sean: Interesting! Now you will never visit New Zealand.
Kristine: What a weird proclamation to make! What about you?
Kristine: We are in agreement.
Sean: We are.
The Girl’s Rating: Batshit insanity + Mama Mia!
The Freak’s Rating: Total trash… I loved it!