Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Demons (1985)

During the horror boom of the 1980's, many film makers and producers tried to out-do each other by coming up with the most interesting and original concepts to present to the movie-going public. Because of this, there are many different sub-classes in the horror genre, ranging from the basic slasher, to the zombie epic, to the holiday-themed scare fest. All in all, the 80's produced some of the strangest, best, and worst films that to this day, cannot be matched.

This first time I heard of this film, it was 1985. I was running around in my parent's living room playing with my brother and the advert for this suddenly appears on the television screen. I instantly stop in my tracks and become glued to the set, unbeknown st to what was to follow. I can still remember it clearly, the scene with the helicopter, the scene with Rosemary in the bathroom, and the announcer's stern warning that no one under 17 will be admitted! I'd heard that warning before, but this time, it sounded real. There was a real tone in the announcer's voice that was pleading with me to heed the words coming through the television set. I stood there for a few seconds after the screen faded out to black. My heart was racing. Those mere 30 seconds had infiltrated my mind more than I would have ever imagined. It took a few days, but I got it out of my system and forgot about it.

That was, until 2002 when I rented this from a small mom and pop store in Knob Noster, Missouri one day and snuck it home to my sister's house. I put it on when everyone was finally down for the night and sat down with a couple of Pepsi's and a plate of barbecue chicken in front of me and proceeded, with caution, mind you. I remembered that TV commercial as the opening scene began and I'll be honest and say that I was a bit nervous. First I have to say that this ended up being one the most entertaining horror films I'd ever set eyes on. Sure, I was frightened and even shocked by some of the fantastic gore scenes, but I loved every second of it. The plot is one of the most simple and straight-forward in the Italian-Shock group: A mysterious man in a silver mask approaches a young girl named Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) and silently slips her a pass for the local movie theater, she convinces her best friend Kathy (Paola Cozzo) to ditch that day's classes and sneak off to the Metropol. Let me stop and say that the building that houses the Metropol is just phenomenal to look at and it was photographed in such a loving way that I'm surprised no one has written a book on just the theater itself. It stands hovering above the Berlin skyline and its blue neon letters are so beautifully painted across the face of the building that you have to pause the film and just marvel for a while at this piece of architecture. Inside, the white fluorescent-lights hum as the poster for Dario Argento's "Four Flies on Grey Velvet" hangs in the lobby (which was a hilarious tongue-in-cheek reference as he is the producer of this entry) while a silver demon mask dangles from a strategically placed (and very much random) motorcycle. In the group of patrons all there to see the film's premiere is a group of three street-savvy individuals: Ruth (Nicole Tessier), the rebel and free spirit Rosemary (Geretta Giancarlo), both led by the ultra-smooth talking Tony (Bobby Rhodes). Horse playing in the foyer, Rosemary picks up the mask and tries it on for shits and gigs and cuts her face in the process. Exasperated, Tony takes the girls and leads them into the theater.

A word on the inside of the theatre: If you've read my review of Nightmare, I mention how I imagined the grindhouses and theatres of Monterrey, Mexico would have maybe looked back in the 80's and the images of the inside of the Metropol gives life to those musings. The concrete floors, the wooden seats in rows of ten or twenty, the dirty and simple lavatories with cinder block as partitions, the dark corridors and stairways. It gives me chills just thinking about it.

As Cheryl and Kathy try to grab a quick snack from a non-functioning vending machine, they are approached by a pair of friends, George (the ultra-gorgeous Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Karl Zinny) who try to swoop in and woo the girls. The lights go down and the film begins, which, much to Kathy's vocal disapproval, ends up being a horror film about a group of kids who stumble upon the tomb of Nostrodamous. As this happens, Tony and his girls come walking in and sit toward the back of the theater, lighting cigarettes and causing trouble. As the movie continues and the boys try to put the move on the now-vulnerable girls, one of the guys on-screen finds a silver mask in the tomb much resembling both the one in the lobby and the one worn by the mysterious ticket-man (who, by the way is played by Argento protege and future Stage Fright director Michele Soavi). When the guy tries to scare the others, he, too, cuts his face on the mask, just as Rosemary had before. She immediately notices that her wound is still bleeding and excuses herself to the ladies room.
I don't want to give the entire plot away but all I will say is that as the guy on screen begins to turn into a demon, so does poor Rosemary. And when Ruth goes looking for her, the spreading of the evil begins. And so does the action! 

This film is so dated, it's almost laughable but, surprisingly, that's one of its charms. The decor, the set pieces, the soundtrack, the costumes, it all screams, no, it howls mid 1980's. The gore is amazing and it's no wonder this film is so held and cherished by horror fans all over the world. And when you really focus on the center core of the plot, that it's a horror film within a horror film and you imagine yourself in that scenario, it's quite terrifying. Take just one quick moment and close your eyes. Imagine yourself at your local movie theater and you're sitting with your boy/girlfriend and the most recent horror film is playing in front of you. Now, imagine that someone in the theater with you is actually possessed and you are trapped in the theater with no way out. How would you react? How would you really handle a situation like that? Imagine what you would hear, what you'd feel, and the thoughts that would be running through your mind. If you think about it long enough, it should run a chill up and down your spine. That's something that this film portrays, although in a very hyperbolic fashion, but it's something to think about. Imagine having to kill your own best friend because they were slowly becoming one of them? Imagine your past, everything you've been through, every moment you've ever shared and having to end their lives. It's pretty macabre, but hey, if there is one thing I've learned in this life is that anything can happen.

With that said, this film is a fun entry in the list of films from Italy and Europe. It seriously provided an entertaining look at a concept that has never been duplicated since. It is as original today as it was when it premiered and it still packs the horror punch the film makers wanted to present. Anchor Bay just re-released this on DVD and I've seen it for a really good price. I own the special edition double-bill set of Demons and Demons 2 released as an entry in the "Dario Argento Collection" series from AB and from what I hear, the set is now really hard to come by. It sill remains in my top 5 only because I can't resist a film that reeks of 80's like this one does. From the outright gorgeous camera shots of downtown Berlin to the fantastic make up, this is one you can't pass up. You'll thank me the first time Bobby Rhodes screams out, "What the hell happened to Rosemary?!" and you'll watch it again and again.

P.S. Did I mention that I'm completely head-over-heels for Urbano Barberini? 

Sunday, January 18, 2009

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

In every horror fan's life, there are those select films that give us, to this day, those butterflies deep within. Butterflies like when you first meet that special boy or girl and you're trying to get them to notice you. Then there's that tingly feeling you get all over when he walks into the room. I mean, she. Sorry. There are those films that you end up, without expecting, having an unmistakable love affair with throughout the years and no matter what anyone says about said film, you stand by it as if it were the dreamy captain of the varsity football team. Wait, head cheerleader! Dammit!

This, for me, is that film. I can still remember that winter night in 1984 when I woke up one night with the urge to use the restroom. We had just moved onto a small humble ranch in Texas and we siblings all had to sleep in the same room. I noticed how late it was and I found it strange that the television in the living room was on. I walked in on my father watching a film showing on KGBT and suddenly, the image of a miner's mask came onto the screen. I was terrified, I crouched behind the couch and looked over at the television again and I saw the image of a man in a miner's outfit chasing a girl with a pick axe. Scared out of my mind, I remember quietly sneaking back to my room, getting into bed, and not being able to sleep the rest of the night. The image of the eyes behind that mask was something I never forgot.

Several years later, I was wandering though Weslaco's Valley Mart and browsing - again - through the horror section of the video rentals, I stumbled upon the box for this beloved ditty and my heart stopped out of pure fear at the sight of the miner's mask emblazoned across the front. It was something that had secretly invaded my dreams at night. That mask. That light. Yet I couldn't stop myself from picking the box up and meeting it face to face for the first time. There was something about the picture on the front that was captivating me slowly. There was a charm to the way Paramount was presenting this picture to me and I knew that I would fall victim to it someday. Unfortunately, that wasn't the day. Over the years, I'd see this on and off again at mom and pops and local grocery outlets and I'd always have fights within myself as to rent it or not. For reasons that I, at the time, would understand, I just felt that it would be best to just wait. One day, in 1999, fed up, I walked into the local H-E-B Video Central, picked this up off the shelf, and took it home. I popped it into the VCR and told myself that I had to face my fear and this image that had been haunting me for the past decade. This wasn't like Jason or Freddy, this was different. I turned off the phone, turned off all the lights and locked my front door. I didn't want to be bothered. This was going to be a sort of mind-cleansing for me and I had to be completely alone for it to work. When the film ended and the credits rolled, something wasn't right. I'd expected to be curled up in the fetal position in the corner of the living room, thumb in my mouth, calling out for my mother. I expected this whole thing to backfire in my face and leave me even more traumatized than before. To my own surprise, and without wanting, I had fallen in love with this little Canadian film and just like that, I became it's number one fan. For the next nine months, I rented this film every weekend. There was something about it that pulled me into its gaping jaws. And there was no turning back.

The plot is actually very simple: When several supervisors leave their post to attend the annual Valentine's Day dance, miner Harry Warden and several mining colleagues become trapped underground after an explosion. Being the only survivor, he is placed in a mental institution and escapes, coming back on the one-year anniversary of the accident to the small town of Valentine Bluffs to off some of the locals. Flash forward to the present where the local kids are planning a Valentine's Day Dance on the 20th anniversary of the disaster. When the sheriff of the town receives a box of candy, or what he thinks is a box of candy with an ominous warning, fear of Harry Warden's return fill the air. The news is passed on to the kids and the dance is cancelled. But do the kids listen? Of course not! So here comes Harry to get his revenge! But, look a little bit deeper at this beloved piece of horror history. There's a a lot more going on than you see on the surface.

This is one of those films that has a complete love/hate relationship among horror fans. Some, including yours truly, savor this each time we watch it and hold it close to our hearts. Others pass this off as a holiday-themed Friday The 13th knock-off. And why wouldn't they? I mean, the film clearly states at the beginning that the story takes place on Thursday, February 12th. You do the math. Coincidence? I don't think Paramount did that completely by accident. Some argue that the MPAA's slicing and dicing of the film back before its release hurt the overall potential and punch the film really could have had. And though I agree with that statement at some point, we all have to remember that it wasn't the film maker's fault that 9 minutes of the film had to be cut to avoid the cutthroat "X" rating. But you have to look at the story the film is trying to tell, the sub-plot of the complicated love triangle going on between T.J. (Paul Kelman), Sara (Lori Hallier), and Axel (Neil Affleck). Take a step back and take away the gore, the special effects, and the main villain and you get an honest, all-American (well, Canadian) love story between a grown man, the woman he left behind, and the new beau, who happens to be one of his dearest friends, that has taken his place. There is a frank maturity portrayed in this film between the cast that you don't see at all in slashers from this time period. From the story itself, to the people playing each part, to the reasons why the killer is motivated to terrorize the town. These folks aren't your run-of-the-mill group of horny teenagers at a campsite taking a summer vacation. These are mature, working-class adults who hold pretty blue collar jobs and the women who stand behind them. I think that's one of the things that grabbed me about this film: the honest portrayal of adults in a horror setting. You don't see any of them committing any of the horror cliches that you normally see and it presents itself as a strong, mature piece of film making. Sure, some of the scenes run slow, but they all have their purpose within the story. I think it was wise of director George Mihalka, for example, to have Sara explain her back story regarding T.J. and what pushed her to be with Axel. All of it ties itself together at the end.

The gore in this film is rather tame, but again, blame this one on the MPAA. This is one of those few films that received a massive chopping from the ratings board - along with Friday the 13th part 2 that same year - and its full version intact has been on the "holy grail" lists of horror collectors since the film was released. I've even been on one particular horror site where a guy devotes a huge article to the uncut footage, the "does it exist or not" theory, and his push for Paramount to finally release it altogether. Impressive, seeing that it's 9 minutes of missing footage we all want to see. When Paramount released this DVD for the first time back in 2002, lack of the film's original poster art and the piece of shit sleeve they put together made me totally pass on buying it. And I'm being dead serious. Then, to see absolutely no special features? Give us a break, Paramount! It wasn't until the re-release in 2006 with a new cover bearing the likes of Harry Warden that I finally decided to pick this up, again, sans special features. How hard is it to put the trailer on there for this one? I mean, I can go to YouTube and download it in the snap of a finger. So really, what was the big deal?

Luckily, Lionsgate heard our plea and bought the rights to the original film along with rights to remake it. They've just released a special edition DVD of this with all 9 minutes of lost footage put back in thanks to original producer John Dunning. As of this posting, I haven't picked it up only because I've been sick in bed with the flu. Though, in my opinion, I would have rather seen the proposed sequel, My Bloody Valentine 2: Return of the Miner instead of a remake, which, at the time of this posting, I've already seen it an advance 3D screening. In all fairness, I gave the updated film a chance and though Jensen Ackles makes my butter melt, the film wasn't good enough to say that it trumps the original as the definitive version. Sorry, Lionsgate, I'm just being honest. I am forever grateful, though, that you brought us, after many years of patient waiting, the restored uncut print of the film. I would have really loved to have seen Lionsgate release the original in its restored form as a double-billing with the 3D remake. That would have been something to marvel. So, the hunt for the complete version is film is over. We can all sit back, relax and enjoy this often-overlooked but much-beloved 80's slasher flick and breathe easy.

If you're reading this, you've either seen this several times and/or have this in your collection. I own the original Paramount VHS and the 2006 DVD re-release. I think I've seen this on a Paramount double-bill DVD with April Fool's Day for about $9 and just for this film itself it's worth the price. If you've never seen this, get it and watch it with an open mind. I think you'll find there's more than just an angry miner offing kids on Valentine's Day. One of my all-time top five, and for good reason.