31 Days of Gore: The Demons series

It’s Halloween. I’ve reviewed more than thirty movies this month. This year’s 31 Days of Gore comes to an end with three Italian horror films. Do they bring the gore? Read on to find out!

Demons (1985)

A bunch of strangers mysteriously receive tickets to the screening of an untitled movie. Shortly before it begins, a woman finds a mask in the lobby and tries it on, goofing around with her friends. When she takes it off she discovers the mask somehow cut her cheek. As we all know from watching too many movies like this, wounds are never so minor, especially in a film co-written by Dario Argento and directed by Mario Bava’s son, Lamberto.
Later, one of the characters in the movie-within-the-movie finds a suspiciously familiar mask, puts it on, and cuts his cheek. It’s not long before he turns into a demon, much to the disgust of the overly squeamish audience. Meanwhile, the woman who cut her cheek “in real life” goes to the theater’s bathroom where she secretly begins to transform. Some time later her friend goes to check on her, discovers the woman is now a demon, gets chased into the off-limits area behind the theater’s screen, and ends up getting herself brutally murdered. The demon tosses the body through the screen and—as so often happens in horror movies set inside theaters—the real horror comes tearing through the movie itself.
So meta.
a well-made but slightly overreaching analysis on movies within movies
The man who’s apparently the boyfriend of both women (or a pimp… probably a pimp) doesn’t seem too heartbroken when he discovers they’ve both turned into demons. In fact, he’s the first person to announce, “Don’t touch her!” and “We’ve gotta get outta here!” And guess what… he’s the best character in the entire movie. Played by Bobby Rhodes, he’s like the black Hugo Stiglitz (the real one from Nightmare City as opposed to the fictional one in Inglourious Basterds), kicking and switchblading his way through each obstacle the filmmakers throw at him. 
When the survivors are trapped on the balcony, Rhodes commands them to rip up the seats and use them to barricade the doors. When they find dead bodies among them, which can turn into demons at any minute, he forces his impromptu army to toss them over the side. Someone says some nonsense about respecting the dead, but Rhodes isn’t fucking around. He’s too experienced, too crafty for that. Do what he says and you just might survive the night.

A character like this should make it to the end of the picture, but… well, these movies don’t always make sense. 

There’s a reason the About Me section on this blog mentions my affinity for “characters who punch their problems in the face.” Yes, I understand the appeal of realistically examining death and those it affects in slower paced media like Fear the Walking Dead and so on, but honestly, haven’t we had enough of that lately? And is it ever as entertaining as a film like Demons? Isn’t inconsequential violence just as artistically valid as the consequential stuff? I mean, for fuck’s sake, where’s the fantasy in having characters moping around funerals all the time?

Even before the trend to make genre fiction more like real life, most characters just didn’t have a satisfying sense of agency. In horror films they’d almost always make one boneheaded decision after another while screaming their heads off. In Demons there are a few characters who’d be perfectly willing to do just that, but then there’s always another character, like Rhodes, who’s willing to step up, slap ’em across the face, and keep the pace of the movie moving.

And what a movie it is. The camera never cuts away from the good stuff, there are plenty of killings (and victims) to go around, and music from the likes of Billy Idol, Go West, and Mötley Crüe gives it all a fun yet aggressive tone. The climax is splatter-filled and frantic, and the glowing eyes of the demons are used to great effect throughout.
you have to love any movie which combines samurai swords with motorbikes
Movies like this are why so many horror hounds would sit through one crappy VHS after another: hoping to find a gem like this one. I was getting a little burnt out this month. This one made it worthwhile.

Click the “Read more” link below to read about the sequel.

Demons 2 (1986)

Major spoilers for the first film follow….

I hoped (but did not expect) Demons 2 would pick up exactly where the original left off. The sword-wielding survivor of the first film was just becoming interesting by the time the credits rolled: last time we saw him he’d slayed a theater full of demons with the help of an unlikely helicopter. Although Demons 2 technically takes place after the events of the first film, it’s little more than a redo.

What worked well for Evil Dead 2 doesn’t work as well here, but it’s a pleasant surprise that Lamberto Bava cast some familiar faces, particularly Bobby Rhodes who stole the original picture. Although his new character lasts a little longer than his pimp counterpart in the other film, Rhodes isn’t quite as intense as he was the last time we saw him. Why they didn’t just make him the main character beats the shit out of me. Maybe because it’d be so awesome our puny little eyeballs would explode?

those eyes are spoo-ooo-ooky

This time Bava trades the movie theater location for a high-rise apartment building in which everyone seems to be watching the same horror film on television. A narrator informs us the events of the first film “convinced the world that demons can exist.” And you think to yourself, “Hey, a world in which everybody believes in demons sounds like a pretty interesting setting for a horror movie! I wonder how they contained the outbreak from the first film…”

And you’ll keep wondering because they never explain what stopped the seemingly unstoppable spread of demons. Yeah, I know there was a lot that wasn’t explained by the first film either (Chrome-Face’s motivation, the motorcycle, the fact the owner had no idea her theater was haunted even though—literally—a blind man figured it out), but the difference is the first film was riotous good fun. When you make a movie with that level of crazy entertainment, you earn the right to take a few liberties. I don’t feel like Bava completely earned that right with this film, which is not to say it’s a bad movie, just a retread with a lot less energy.

The original film managed to set up its large cast of victims in the first thirty minutes or so. This one takes something like forty and then some. Whereas the movie playing in the predecessor’s theater had a little bit of plot and a whole lot of gore, the movie-within-the-movie here has little more to add than background noise. The characters are a little dumber, the glowing eyes of the first film aren’t as effective, and—for reasons incomprehensible to me—the demons are as scared of fire as Frankenstein’s monster, even though they, uh, presumably come from hell.

Again, it’s not a bad horror movie when you consider it on its own merit, but it’s impossible not to compare it to the original because they’re too much alike.

The Church (1989)

No spoilers for the first two films from here on out.

So here the pedigree of the series becomes a little complicated as it so often does in the world of Italian horror movies. Lamberto Bava went on to direct The Ogre, which Italian distributors tried to pass off as a sequel to Demons 2 even though it wasn’t. Meanwhile, Umberto Lenzi also made an unofficial entry to the series called Black Demons.

Dario Argento, on the other hand, intended to produce an official Demons 3, but that movie became The Church, starring Argento’s daughter, Asia. (Asia Argento briefly appeared as a child in Demons 2 during the parking lot scenes, while her older sister had a bigger role in Demons 1.) Although it shares some similarities with the first two films, The Church is such a radical departure in terms of tone you can’t even compare it to the previous entries.

That’s not a bad thing. Like I said, Demons 2 kind of disappoints because it hits so many of the same notes as the original. The Church succeeds because it takes the original premise (that demons can spread like a zombie outbreak) and scraps almost everything else, including the stale movie-within-a-movie angle. The Church is a much slower movie than its predecessors, but the film’s atmosphere keeps it captivating. The Philip Glass and Goblin music doesn’t hurt the mood, either.

In the opening act, Teutonic Knights massacre a village of cursed people, bury them in a mass grave, and build a church over it. The church’s architect installed some secret features straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, which will activate only in the event the seal to the secret tomb is broken. Fast forward to modern times and even the current clergymen are unaware of what took place on the site so many years ago.

I probably don’t even need to tell you they’re about to find out.

Par for the course, there’s a lot of stilted dialogue and nonsensical “what the fuck?” moments. The beautiful leading woman, pursued by a grotesque demon in her own home, calls the cops, dives through a window, runs across her yard, and gets trapped in a flannel blanket. Initially you think she ran through a clothesline or something, but it turns out the cops—who she called about twenty seconds ago—have already shown up to throw a blanket over her head. You couldn’t even get that kind of speedy service if you lived inside a police station.

Those kind of flaws are inherent in a movie like this. Everything else—and I really do mean everything—is practically flawless.

The Church is one of the most flavorful horror films I’ve ever seen. I know I said it can’t be compared to the original, but I’ll be damned it if I didn’t like this one a lot better. Which is saying a lot considering how good the first one is.

That’s all for 31 Days of Gore this year, but don’t wait eleven months to come back! Since I had such a blast featuring movies this month, I’m planning a similar, but not strictly horror, feature for every Monday! Stay tuned for more details, and don’t forget to watch Ash Vs. The Evil Dead tonight!

31 Days of Gore: Tales of Halloween (2015)

It’s October. Time to talk horror. This year I’m reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

With Adrienne Barbeau, Lisa Marie, Stuart Gordon, Lin Shaye, Barbara Crampton, John Landis, Joe Dante, and a couple of Troma regulars, the cast of Tales of Halloween reads like the guest list at a mega-sized horror convention. Hell, that’s not even everybody you’ll recognize. My only complaint about the casting? Nobody gets any more screen-time than a handful of minutes.

Barbeau, riffing on her role in The Fog, probably gets the most time in this anthology. Her narration serves as the glue for the ten stories, the subject matter of which ranges from aliens to demons and psychopathic children. At worst, the stories in Tales of Halloween are pointless, but more often than not they’re gleefully entertaining, not to mention funny. Even when the stories are pointless, they’re never boring.

In the first segment, a child wonders why his joyless parents confiscate his candy haul every year. When he’s supposed to be in bed, he sneaks out of his bedroom and discovers his parents perversely pigging out on the treats while he sleeps. That’s when he decides to carve them up with a meat cleaver. In another segment, a couple of idiotic criminals kidnap the son of a wealthy man. When they call to make their demands, the father says, “Not interested,” and hangs up on them.

What’s admirable about Tales of Halloween is how seamless it all is. While I liked The ABC’s of Death just a little bit more, that series was a quilted showcase for twenty-six different filmmakers whose wildly varying styles sometimes clashed with one another. Tales of Halloween, on the other hand, is a true collaboration, having actors from one segment walking through the background of the next.

If it’s cartoonish black comedy you’re looking for, Tales of Halloween brings it. It’s already one of my favorite anthology films of all time. You could do a lot worse on a Friday night.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next (and last!) movie.

31 Days of Gore: Head of the Family (1996)

It’s October. Time to talk horror. This year I’m reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

So if there’s anything 31 Days of Gore taught me, it’s this: I’m a much bigger fan of Full Moon movies than I was when I was a kid. Sure, I said I disliked Seedpeople when I saw it a couple weeks ago, but I somehow don’t regret watching it, either, probably because it gave me exactly what I expected. And hell, maybe that’s why I like Full Moon movies more often than not: I’m never expecting much from them.

Like I said when I reviewed Shrunken Heads, I had no intention of featuring any Full Moon movies this month, but once the seal was broken, I kept getting drawn back to a poster I had seen for Head of the Family. Just look at how awesome the title character is:

Tom Wilkerson really let himself go

I went into Head of the Family without the faintest clue as to what it was about, other than the knowledge the title was literal. I suggest you do the same if you’re no stranger to Charles Band films, but I admit it’s probably a harder sale for most viewers. Allow me to entice you…

Lance is the redneck owner of a small town cafe who’s fallen in love with the beautiful wife of the meanest biker in town. Her name is Loretta and, in perfect B-movie dialogue, Lance describes his love for her like so: “It’s like fucking a firecracker whenever I’m with her.” Lance isn’t very bright, Loretta isn’t either, and her criminal husband is probably dumber than the both of them combined.

All this is to say nothing about the Stackpools, an alien-like family of weirdos. They consist of a giant man-child, a freak with bulging eyes, and an unnaturally endowed woman played by a real-life pornstar. Later in the film Lance stumbles upon the family’s secret: the Stackpools actually include a fourth sibling, Myron, who’s little more than an over-sized head in a wheelchair. Stranger still, Myron controls his quadruplet siblings with his telepathic mind.

Myron’s also a mad scientist who longs to find a proportionate human body that can support his excess brain power. Like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon, the Stackpools barricade the highway with a sign that detours motorists directly to the front door of their mansion. Once there, the brute of the family knocks them out so that Myron can run human experiments in his basement.

So when Lance stumbles upon the family’s dark secret, he decides to blackmail them. The deal is this: he won’t turn them into the authorities as long as the family offs Loretta’s husband. The head of the family reluctantly agrees. When Loretta’s husband turns up missing as promised, she and Lance could live together happily ever after… or at least until Loretta tires of Lance and his cheating ways. Unfortunately, Lance gets greedy and tries to blackmail even more out of the Stackpools: an allowance of two thousand bucks a week.

This stuff isn’t Shakespeare, but compared to a lot of the movies I’ve watched this month, the dialogue goes above and beyond bare minimum and the acting is as good as it has to be in a B movie… and maybe a little better at times. It’s just a fun movie that I can only recommend to people who smile when they see a giant head rather than roll their eyes.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.

31 Days of Gore: Tormented (2015)

It’s October. Time to talk horror. This year I’m reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

In Tormented (aka Berkshire County) a teenage girl named Kylie goes to school one day to discover the chad she reluctantly went down on at a costume party not only video taped the entire thing, but shared the video with all of her classmates. Although the boy said he and his girlfriend had broken up, it turns out they haven’t (shocking, right?) and the girlfriend’s more pissed at Kylie than her douchebag boyfriend.

The bullying doesn’t stop at school. When Kylie gets home, it turns out even her mother blames Kylie for the video leaking. After all, this is a fairly generic horror movie: parents just don’t understand.

So what does this subplot have to do with the rest of the movie? I’m not entirely sure. I guess it’s about a bullied young girl having to choose between facing her fears or dying horribly, but Kylie’s already been through too much by the time the movie brings in its horror elements. Having a family of masked psychos break into the house where she’s babysitting a couple of kids seems needlessly cruel here. Maybe they were trying to make some kind of statement, but if that’s the case it’s little more than an after-school special tacked onto the beginning of a slasher film.

And I know teenagers are dumb (and even dumber in movies than they are in real life), but there’s a part where Kylie gets a chance to get away. She’s sitting behind the wheel of her car, keys in the ignition, when the 911 dispatcher tells her, “You’re better off staying where you are.” Kylie agrees before getting out of her car and going back into the house that’s under assault by masked maniacs.

I’m not saying I was a smart teenager (I wasn’t), but I know for a fact I would have groaned at that scene just as loudly as I did as an adult.

I think that’s the biggest problem with Tormented: you’ve got fine direction, a really good actress, and competent filmmaking, but a silly script. This is basically You’re Next Lite. There are a few surprises, a lot of boneheaded decisions, stupidly incompetent cops, and a twist ending which will surprise no one who’s ever seen a slasher film before. Even so, I’d be interested to see what the director and some of the on-screen talent could do with a better story.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.

31 Days of Gore: Dead Heat (1988)

It’s October. Time to talk horror. This year I’m reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

Yeah, I know. Dead Heat probably doesn’t belong in 31 Days of Gore, but I felt like I hadn’t featured enough movies with Vincent Price. And honestly, how bad could it be?

Dead Heat, which stars Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo, opens like any other 80s action-comedy which attempted to cash in on the success of 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon. The problem with all the copycats is they could never quite strike the balance between action and well-written humor that the real deals had. Despite this, Dead Heat attempts to throw another genre into the mix: horror.

You’d look just as bored if you were sharing a car ride with Joe Piscopo.

As goofy and clichéd as it is, Dead Heat opens with a fun energy that immediately drew me in… to an arm’s distance, anyway. Williams and Piscopo are an odd couple of cops who can’t seem to get fired even though they’re constantly reprimanded for their “crazy stunts.” In the beginning of the film they have a shootout with a couple of jewel thieves who just won’t die until one steps on a grenade and Williams rams the other one with an unmarked car.

When Williams and Piscopo visit the bodies in an autopsy room, the medical examiner says the bodies have been on her table before. When the cops ask what she means by this, she replies, “They’ve already had autopsies.” Their investigation leads the duo to a chemical plant, which is hiding a three-faced troll. The troll proves just as hard to kill as the jewel thieves in the earlier part of the movie.

Dana Carvey is looking pretty bad these days.

You know what? The makeup effects aren’t bad. The movie itself is, and maybe this goes without saying, but it’s a good bad movie as long as you like dumb action and terrible one-liners. Just be warned the filmmakers seem to think Joe Piscopo is a decent substitute for Eddie Murphy, but he’s not… obviously.

Anyway, Treat Williams is gently killed and the medical examiner figures out how to resurrect him, Frankenstein-style. They soon discover Williams doesn’t have a heartbeat and can’t breathe although he appears to be in perfect health. Worse, Williams only has twelve hours to nail the bad guys, at which point he will decompose completely. Halfway through the movie a woman says, “You’re hurt!” To which Williams deadpans, “Lady, I’m dead.

Just when you thought the jokes couldn’t get any lower.

I don’t hate Piscopo, even though he’s not a very good actor, and I’ve always wondered why Treat Williams (playing a character named Roger Mortis… hardy-har-har) wasn’t a bigger star than he was. So I’m not going to mark off points for the miscast leads, even if they do have the chemistry of video game NPCs. Vincent Price isn’t in the film long, which is disappointing, but I suspect he was pretty unenthusiastic about horror movies considering this was his last one.

Dead Heat? More like Dead Meat!

So is Dead Heat worth a watch? Let’s assume you’re really hung over and you want to be entertained, but don’t want to do too much thinking… if so, then Dead Heat is the film for you.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.

31 Days of Gore: Feast (2005)

It’s October. Time to talk horror. This year I’m reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

I don’t know why I followed the development of Feast on Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Project Greenlight, but never actually watched the movie until now. In case you’re unfamiliar with Project Greenlight, it was a reality TV show in which the contest-winners got to make a movie in the Hollywood system. The first two movies produced by Project Greenlight sucked so the producers decided to go for broke and make the third a horror film.

Feast would be great if the shots were a little longer and the director didn’t try to be so damn cute. There’s a lot of exhausting wink-wink, nudge-nudge bullshit in the beginning of the movie, in which the filmmakers flat-out warn you they’re going to give you the unexpected. Unfortunately, when you’re expecting the unexpected, and you get the unexpected, then you were expecting it all along, weren’t you? If the film had lured us into believing it was a by-the-numbers horror film (You’re Next comes to mind), the unexpected stuff would have been much sweeter, not to mention a lot less self-congratulatory.

Never mind all that. Everything else about this movie is great.

Here’s the setup: there’s a bar in the middle of nowhere. There’s a ton of potential victims in said bar. It’s just an average night until a blood-drenched man with a shotgun bursts through the door and warns the patrons they had better fortify the bar on the double.

It’s not long before monsters arrive, draped in roadkill coats and cattle-skull masks. They’re gnarly-lookin’ beasts who’d just as soon yank your body through the slats in the window. In a misguided act of desperation, the characters attempt to stand their ground by dangling the monsters’ dead baby from a stick. This, as it turns out, only angers the monsters further. Henry Rollins’ character, who’s described as “a poor man’s Tony Robbins,” later admits: “Yeah, that was a bad idea.”

Most of these actors you’ll either know by name or recognize from other movies. Not only is this the second movie I’ve written about in a row which features Clu Gulager, it was directed by his son, John Gulager. After a success like Feast, John might be relegated to horror productions for the rest of his life. I hope he’s comfortable with that, because it’s clear he was born to make films like this and I’m interested in what else he has up his sleeves.

Feast is a helluva ride. It was obviously inspired by only the best kinds of movies I wanted to feature in 31 Days of Gore. I’m glad I’ve finally seen it. I’m not sure I’m ready for the sequel, though, because it’s a pretty exhausting movie.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.

31 Days of Gore: From a Whisper to a Scream (1987)

It’s October. Time to talk horror. This year I’m reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

When a movie has Vincent Price, Clu Gulager, and Rosalind Cash, you don’t need to do much deliberating. Just rent the damn thing. That’s what I did.

Then I groaned when I realized it was an anthology film.

I’m not saying all anthology films suck, I’m just saying even the best ones tend to have at least one shitty entry. The first segment in From a Whisper to a Scream is pretty weak, and it cops out by cutting away seconds before showing us what we all really wanted to see. Nevertheless, the second story tops it. Of course, that’s not exactly hard to do when you set the bar so low right out the gate.

These stories mostly adhere to the EC comics’ rule: something terrible must happen to an innocent person, and by the end the instigator must get what they deserve, usually in some grand, ironic manner. It’s a classic type of horror story, but there’s not much room for suspense. From a Whisper to a Scream tries to deviate from the pattern every once and a while, but when it does the outcome just seems needlessly cruel.

The container story begins with the lethal injection of a deranged woman. A reporter who witnesses the execution later ends up at an old library cared for by Vincent Price. Price tells the reporter the town’s haunted and he presents his case by showing the reporter four stories from various points in the town’s history.

In the first story, Clu Gulager plays the part of a hallucinogenic old man who falls for an uninterested younger woman. In the second story, a gunshot victim played by Terry Kiser (Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s) ends up betraying the swamp-dwelling man who nursed him back to help. The third story is about a woman who falls in love with a glass-eating circus freak who’s bound by voodoo to remain in the carnival for the rest of his life. Pretty standard stuff.

Then there’s the fourth story. Like I said above, it’s hard to play around with such a simple formula, but when you have a real piece of work like the evil protagonist in this story, you’ve got yourself a good throwback to Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt. This one reminds me of John Landis’s entry to The Twilight Zone movie and that episode of Star Trek where they find a bunch of kids running everything.

In it, the insanely prolific actor Cameron Mitchell plays a Union sergeant who doesn’t mind gunning down Confederates (or his own soldiers) even after he’s learned the war’s ended. He and his group of asshole soldiers end up captive in a town run by children. It’s later explained—and this is kind of spoilerish—that the children’s parents were massacred in the war so the kids decided to keep running things themselves and avenging their parents along the way. And when the children reveal the oft-discussed “magistrate” towards the end of the picture, it’s wonderfully bizarre.

As a whole, From a Whisper to a Scream is a pretty solid rental, even if some of its elements are structurally weak. Vincent Price doesn’t seem particularly enthused to be in it and three of the five stories aren’t exactly good. But the story in the swamp and the one towards the end are technical and creative achievements.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.