Monday, March 18, 2013

Demonia (Italy, 1990)

Gory nunspliotation horror — and, despite what should be a great mixture (gore + nuns + horror, with a dash of boobage in one scene), a dull and scatter-shot movie that is less scary or dreamy and surreal than simply disjointed and oddly lacklustre in direction, narrative and acting. The strongest aspect of the film is the acting of Brett Halsey (of The Cry Baby Killer [1958 / trailer], Return of the Fly [1959 / trailer], Twice-Told Tales [1963 / trailer], When Alice Broke the Looking Glass [1988 / trailer], The Black Cat [1990 / trailer] and much, much more) as Professor Paul Evans, whose main duty seems to express concern or anxiety, though in all truth his facial expressions tend to convey extreme hemorrhoidal pain more than anything else.
Demonia is the third-to-last directorial effort of Lucio Fulci, made at a time when his health was as shaky as his career. Co-written with Pietro Regnoli (the scriptwriter of Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City [1980]) and based on a story Fulci fleshed out with Antonio Tentori (who scripted Bruno Mattei's Island of the Living Dead [2006]), the film is a return to the more gothic narratives of Fulci's better films, this time set under the sun of Sicily, Italy, where a group of archeologists go on an archeological dig and release the revengeful spirit of a demonic nun. Regrettably, much like the movie as a whole reveals a lack of budget or any true thespian talent, the script is both shoddy and episodic and thus comes across as underdeveloped and weak. And while an occasional gore scene does pop up to offer some visual excitement, the film never manages to come close to the quality of Fulci's best or even second-best films.
Not that the first scene would indicate the failure to come, as the movie opens with a well-shot opening sequence showing the crucifixion and killing of five murderous, demon-worshipping nuns. This scene, however, segues into a séance scene that is as obvious a nod to the similar scene in Fulci's film City of the Living Dead (1980) as it is relatively unnecessary, and from there the movie pretty much gets stuck in a rut of mediocrity or ill-conceived narrative decisions. Hell, even the connection between Liza Harris (a beautiful but vacuous and untalented Meg Register, who later appeared in the abysmal Boxing Helena [1993 / trailer]) and the nuns that the séance scene introduces could well have been integrated into the story much more effectively later in Sicily, as could her supposed involvement in archeology. "Supposed," we say, because throughout the film, despite the importance of the premise of archeology — they are all in Sicily, after all, on an archeological dig — we never actually see her or anyone else take part in any archeological activities after the singular stake is hammered into the ground. 
Indeed, the rest of the crew seem to drink and sing more than they do excavate, while Liza, when wandering through the ruins of a nunnery that loom above the archaeological site and confronted by an ancient fresco of a nun in white, does the archaeologically logical thing of destroying the fresco with a pick-axe. (OK, perhaps her action can be written off as a symptom of her mysterious connection with the dead demonic nuns, as her destructive fit uncovers the passageway to the entombed bodies of the crucified nuns.) From then on, even as she tries to undercover the mystery behind the nun's death, we know she is becoming possessed because she's silent and grumpy and wanders around with a (beautiful) face as expressive as a slate and covers her ears and rolls back and forth when her drunken colleagues sing crappy songs around the campfire. Scary! — about as much so as a legless kitten in heat.
In itself, the plot line is a good one and could well have made an engrossing film. Particularly the flashback scenes to the activities of the nuns are disquieting and effective, and they give a slight indication of what the film could have been had the script only been tighter, the acting better and the budget bigger. The contemporary scenes, however, are executed with a less sure hand, and as brutal and bloody as the gore sequences are, they are also often sloppy: when the butcher Turi DeSimone (Lino Salemme of Demons [1985]) gets his tongue hammered to the butcher block, for example, it looks less like he has a tongue long enough to tickle a woman's G-spot than as if he's sucking on a lamb tongue, and when John (Ettore Comi) gets pulled apart, you can literally see the bags containing the guts and gore under the shirt of the dummy being ripped in two.
And speaking of John, his death is a perfect example of the strangely incoherent editing of the film: one minute he's running through the forest searching for his son (Francesco Cusimano), and the next he's tied upside down between two trees. And, actually, up until he ran off looking for his son, it was hardly made clear that the kid was his son at all. The who and the why of most characters presented in Demonia are sorely lacking, thus most characters remain sketchy and flat and never register as a figure of identification; they are two-dimensional fodder and little more. 
And as fodder, they are chosen indiscriminately: the first to go, an archaeological colleague on a boat (Al Cliver of The Beyond [1981 / trailer] and Zombie [1979 / trailer]), has no real connection to the nuns or archaeological site, while the body count in the village — the actual descendants of those who killed the nuns — runs a low two, one of whom,  Lilla (Carla Cassola of La setta [1991 / Italo trailer] and Albert Pyun's Captain America [1990 / trailer]), is an outsider who risks local ostracism by giving Liza the information she wants. Other than the two drunkards that get spiked (effective effects) and the butcher (half-effective effects), the choice of victims seem less based on the decision of the demonic nuns than on a scriptwriter desperately wanting to finally interject another gore scene to enliven the dull events.
But even with the occasional gore highpoints, Demonia not only has somnambulant pacing but is also truly handicapped by its beautiful but untalented lead female who, by being such a walking personification of a Quaalude, thoroughly fails in engaging the viewer. One not only never really gives a flying fuck about what will happen to her, one even starts wishing something terrible finally would. Had she at least gotten naked on occasion she might have won over the male audience — going by the picture to the left from some other unknown film of hers, she's built, she's stacked, she's a brick house — but on the basis of her (blank) character alone, she wins the concern and sympathy of nary a viewer.
In short, Demonia is a meandering flick with an occasional highpoint that lacks élan of execution, is hampered by the notable lack of thespian skills of its lead, and is oddly sloppy technically. The aspects that should be plus points of the film — gore, the nun bits, a groovy dream sequence, a funny scene involving a blood-covered youth, an occasionally creepy atmosphere — do little to make it bearable or worth watching. Demonia remains an exasperating experience because it introduces so much that could be used and developed into something good, and then under-bakes everything. It is, in the end, a third-rate film worth watching only if you're a Fulci completist or, maybe, if you have nothing else around.

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