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Style Over Substance In 'Demons'

September 05, 1986|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

In "Demons" (citywide), a pretty music student (Natasha Hovey) aboard a West Berlin subway starts scurrying when a thin, leather-jacketed young man seems to be following her. No wonder: The left half of his scarred face is filled in with shiny metal, giving him a sinister Daliesque look. All the guy wants, when he catches up with her, is to give her a free ticket to a movie.

Joined by her friend (Paola Cozzo), she enters an immense cinema. A young woman, intrigued by a chrome mask of the devil on display in the lobby, tries it on, scratching her cheek in the process. The sneak preview turns out to be a horror picture in which a bunch of young people discover and open the tomb of Nostradamus, unleashing an evil force that turns them into hideous demons. At this moment, the woman with the scratched cheek turns into a demon herself. It's not long before a young man is exclaiming, "This is the last time I'll ever accept a complimentary ticket!"

That audience has about as much chance of escaping from the theater as those folks in "Night of the Living Dead" did from their western Pennsylvania farm house. Now "Demons" isn't half as scary or convincing as the George Romero classic, yet young Italian director Lamberto Bava shares with Romero--and also his late father, Mario Bava, and his mentor, Dario Argento--the gift of projecting a chilling apocalyptic vision with a terrific sense of style.

Would that Bava and his co-writers, Argento, Franco Ferrini and Dardano Sacchetti, working from an original story by Sacchetti, had thought of more things to happen, thus generating more suspense, while the people are desperately trying to figure a way to get out of the theater.

The bulk of the picture consists of the members of the audience turning, one by one, into demons, which means mainly that there's a great deal of green bile spewed, entrails gorged and claws and fangs extended. It's an orgy of gore, but it's presented as such obvious artifice and with such a humorous touch that it's not to be taken too seriously. Nevertheless, "Demons," which is unrated, is not for impressionable youngsters, for whom it is the stuff of nightmares.

If there's not much content--and even less logic--in "Demons," there is a helluva lot of form. With its stark modern architecture and neon glare, West Berlin has a cold, hard atmosphere that's just right for the film, and the city has been captured gloriously by cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia. (That's a name to remember, for Battaglia has what it takes to join the top rank of directors of photography.)

Production designer Davide Bassan put to good use the interior of a large, suburban Rome '50s-style movie theater that was scheduled for demolition, and Claudio Simonetti's driving score is appropriately heavy metal, incorporating songs from Motley Crue and numerous other groups. The principal actors seem to have mouthed their English dialogue, because the dubbing is better than usual for Italian horror pictures. "Demons" wears thin, but Lamberto Bava is a real discovery.

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