After the huge success of Italian splatter-fest “Demons”, it was inevitable that a sequel would quickly find its way to screen, and director Lamberto Bava, producer Dario Argento and screenwriter Franco Ferrini sure enough wasted little time reconvening to deliver what amounts to an interesting side riff on their former box office smash, rather than a direct sequel to it. Largely the same team are to be found behind the scenes, such as cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia and special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, returning once more to deliver some degree of consistency to the proceedings; but this film actually makes much more sophisticated use of its postmodern meta narrative structure than did the first. Before we get to the content though, let me lay my cards on the table to start with here: I like “Demons 2” better than I like “Demons”! … There. I’ve said it. Please don’t lynch or laugh at me! Conventional wisdom has it that while the first film may not exactly have been the most sophisticated iteration of the Italian horror sensibility, it was at least a good deal more bearable than its galumphing, awkwardly staged follow-up -- which swaps the last remaining vestiges of Italian Gothic atmosphere, as evoked by the first’s baroque theatrical setting and often flamboyantly colourful lighting schemes, for a sterile, Americanised sensibility that does little to alleviate the tedium induced by its unimaginative re-tread of the same basic series of events as we saw last time. For me though, “Demons” always seemed to fall between two stools, never quite being able to decide if it was aiming for pure crowd-pleasing escapism, for becoming a masterclass in gory Fulci-like nastiness, or whether it was merely attempting to deliver its own homage to the atmospheric visual aesthetics of classic Italian Gothic horror. There’s no reason why a film can’t be all these things of course, but for me “Demons” came over as being wildly uneven. There’s no confusion, on the other hand, about where “Demons 2” is at: it’s pure, cheesy, bad taste crowd-pleasing nonsense from beginning to end, which isn’t afraid to tip all the way over into outrageous, comical silliness but only becomes all the more entertaining for doing so. Also, the peculiarly sophisticated narrative-within-a-narrative set-up is much more cleverly utilised this time, in a way that often actually does feel quite eerie; and there are even a few sequences here that are weirdly unsettling despite the general air of crazed daffiness which hangs about the whole thing like a bad smell throughout.
The film starts with one of those strangely old-fashioned voice-over narratives Dario Argento always seemed to be drawn to, which delivers one completely superfluous paragraph of text in portentous tones and then is never heard from again. Within his own films, this technique was often a short cut for Argento, lending something of a fairy tale ambience to what was to come, but its use here is sometimes criticised for serving no real purpose, in that fairy tale ambience definitely isn’t on the agenda of what this film is about, to say the least! Actually though, it turns out to be a neat way of reminding us about the events of the first film, setting us up to expect a conventional, direct sequel to that movie and then undermining the expectation when it is revealed that the voice-over actually comes from a drama being screened on television, which various people who will become the film’s protagonists (and demonic antagonists), all of whom occupy a large luxury block of flats in Hamburg, are watching in their apartments.
This parallels the first film’s use of the movie-within-a-movie meta-narrative structure (way in advance of the “Scream” franchise) of course -- where the main characters were shown attending a theatre in which a horror film was being screened that ends up somehow influencing the spread of the demonic plague it depicts among the unsuspecting viewing audience. Here though, it is not at first apparent what relationship the events being reported in the TV show that the characters are watching share with their own reality. Gradually, it turns out that the show is the sequel to the film that was seen projected on the movie screen in the theatre in “Demons”, but which also includes the events seen by us in “Demons” as part of its own fictional narrative universe (stay with me!). The protagonists on the TV film all look like the characters in the movie being watched in “Demons”; they dress the same, and the TV drama is lit to look very similar in style to the film in that fictional theatrical screening. But as far as the characters in “Demons 2” are concerned “Demons” never happened for real. It was all part of the fictional background to the world depicted in the TV show that they’re now watching. (Got it?)
Once it’s established this quite complicated fictional-world-within-fictional-world with nested layers of unreality background, the film gets down to business. The tower block location is a gleaming testament to mid- to late-eighties aspirant yuppie greed and is full of frivolous rich people who wear their jacket sleeves rolled up to the elbow and white linen slacks. There’s medical student George (David Edwin Knight) and his pregnant wife Hannah (Nancy Brilli); little Tommy (Marco Vivio), who is home alone while his parents are out gallivanting on the town; a lonely school teacher who lives with her dog (Anita Bartolucci); a high class prostitute (Virginia Bryant) visiting the block for a rendezvous with a client (Michele Mirabella); little Ingrid Haller (Asia Argento) and her family; and Sally Day (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni), about to celebrate her 18th birthday with a loud party where the music supplies most of the soundtrack’s collection of British eighties art rock hits by the likes of The Smiths, The Cult and Dead Can Dance. Also, the basement gym is in session, peopled by a collection of laughably muscle-bound he-men and lithe young women in skin-tight leotards and run like an army barracks by overbearing instructor Hank (Bobby Rhodes – making a return visit after also appearing in “Demons” as the jive-talking, white-suit-wearing pimp). The security guard also casts a nod to the previous film, since the actor playing him appeared there as one of the punk gang who tried to hide in the demon-infested theatre.
The young protagonists on the TV film are shown visiting an area of the city called the Forbidden Zone, which is apparently the devastated ruin outside the theatre, left behind after the demon infestation seen breaking into the world at the end of “Demons”. The city of Berlin has since been surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire, and looks like it has been deserted for years; but the careless youngsters manage to accidentally revive the demon menace when one of their number scratches herself and drips her blood onto the shrivelled corpse of a long-dead creature. Unfortunately for Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni’s character Sally, who is watching all this on the TV in her bedroom while she waits for her party friends to invite her out to cut the cake for her Birthday celebrations, this demonic TV character forces his way out of her TV screen (in a sequence that is as clearly influenced by Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” as the luxury tower block setting is by his “Shivers”) and turns her into an absurd parody of the demons seen in the first film, concocted this time by Danilo Bollettini and Massimo Cristofanelli while Stivaletti stuck to the animatronic effects -- even more snaggle-of-tooth and boggle-of-eye than before -- and with even more green grue gushing from every orifice (or at least all the ones that can be seen).
I’ve always found Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni’s performances to be way over the top in the film’s she made with Argento, even when she’s not playing a drooling fanged monster; but she turns out to be ideally suited to the task of being lead demon in what soon becomes an insane collection of mad comic-horror set-pieces. She quickly infects all her dancing party attendees, who then exit her apartment-full of birthday balloons and streamers in a green-faced, demonic frenzy, rushing the corridors and stairwells looking for more victims, their numbers steadily increasing throughout the film until they’re a growling, frenzied glow-eyed mob of fanged demonic madness. To make matters worse, the blood of the demons now appears to be acid-like in the style of “Alien”, and continues to burn through floors and drip down from Sally’s apartment into the flats below, infecting anyone who gets splashed with it and knocking out the electrics, so that the lights go out and the automatic doors and reinforced double glazed windows seal everyone inside the building!
The death-trap apartment location helps manage the film’s content into discreet chunks of sub-story, as we get to visit each of the developing character situations set up at the start in turn. I find there’s much more investment to be had with the individual plight of each set of characters, here, than there was in the first film, and it’s much easier to keep straight in the mind who everyone is and to have sympathy with them. That also makes it all the more disturbing when each one eventually ‘turns’ and begins preying on the others -- even though the set-piece ‘horror’ sequences get more and more absurd as the movie goes along. Somehow, there are still some moments of real, genuine menace here: little scared Tommy, alone in the expansive, ill-lit carpeted corridors outside his apartment as demonic moaning and growling issues from darkened corners, looks down a spiral stairwell and sees a rampaging horde of demons sprinting up towards him; Hannah, left alone in her apartment while her husband is trapped in a lift after the electrics blow, is tempted to open the door to the plaintive cries of a young child in the corridor -- only to be attacked by a pint-sized demon (a reference to the Boris Karloff episode, The Wurdalak, from Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath”?); the eight-year-old Asia Argento, having first watched helplessly as her mother turns into a demon, now sees her father ripped apart by the slathering hordes, her screams only attracting their attention -- which then leads them to gather menacingly around the vehicle she’s trapped in. George’s efforts to get back to his flat and look after his pregnant wife after becoming trapped between floors in a lift with the call girl, also provides a suspenseful interlude, the irony being that they are actually in the safest position in the building until the demon plague inevitably gets inside the compartment and George is forced to make a daring escape attempt up the ropes of the lift shaft.
At the same time as playing host to a number of eerie sequences and well-orchestrated suspense scenes, the film is packed to the rafters with classic euro horror silliness and shameless plagiarising of all the most successful of the then-recent horror franchises. We’ve already mentioned the Cronenberg and “Alien” influence, but how Bava & co got away with their “Gremlins” material is anyone’s guess? Hannah’s battle with a demon Gremlin that bursts out of the stomach of the kiddie demon who earlier tricked its way into her flat, is wrung dry for bad taste laughs despite shamelessly playing on the threat to her unborn child while exploiting the woman’s mothering instincts (the demon gremlin’s eruption from a small child’s stomach is a cruel parody of the birth process, and it mewls like a new-born as it attacks and after it gets impaled on an umbrella!); and the entire section with the weight-lifters fleeing the gym (after it is suddenly invaded and overrun by unfeasibly acrobatic demonic ghouls) while still clutching their dumbbells, is priceless -- as is the eventual face-off between survivors and demons in the underground car park, in which the demons really do suddenly appear to have developed the skills of advanced circus performers! Stivaletti’s animatronics skills are perhaps pushed past their limits when he’s called upon to portray the transformation into a demon of a common house pooch, and the make-up here is generally even more cartoonish that it was in “Demons”, having something of a novelty-joke-store-at-Halloween look about it; yet Battaglia’s photography is excellent, perfectly capturing that eighties-style gloss which complements the production design’s portrayal of the tower block occupants and their modish furnishings; but the cool look doesn’t always show off the animatronic effects at their best in the way the garish lighting style of “Demons” seemed to. The only real gripe I have with the film is that it is slightly too long and wastes too much time with a number of threads that don’t go anywhere, namely Tommy’s parents driving home and some of Sally’s ‘cool’ uninvited friends who are on their way over by car. Neither of these two elements goes anywhere, and the latter only seems to have been included at all to provide another point of reference with the first film, which also cut away to minor characters driving through neon-lit city streets.
The final reel re-emphasises the theme of the corrupting influence of TV, as the last two survivors manage to abseil down the side of the tower block and make their way to an eerie, abandoned TV studio full of TV monitors that feature frozen images of the final frame of “Demons” and repeated images of the protagonists themselves as they explore the studio floor. The film finally takes its self-reflexivity to positively Dennis Potter levels of self-awareness when the two notice that they’re actually the subject of many of the cameras that are connected to the TV monitors, at which point one of them turns towards us, points out of the screen and declares ‘Look. That one’s filming us now!’
One particular plot strand seems set up at the very start to deliver a certain inevitable downbeat conclusion, but perhaps the film’s most surprising move comes when it declines to follow through with it and instead ends on an unlikely positive note -- with the banks of TV monitors displaying Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni’s lead demon sprinting towards the screen as though about to burst into the real world, while the hero challenges the hegemony of TV culture by smashing them up before she can do so and cast any further malign influence upon the world. It’s an unconvincing happy ending that leaves one thinking that there’s sure to be an after-the-credits sting in that tail which in fact never comes, but at least it bucks the trend for depressing pessimistic conclusions, and feels more in keeping with the general tone of over-the-top madness that’s just transpired.
Once again, “Demons 2”, restored by Cinetecca di Bologna, looks fantastic in HD, knocking spots of other DVD transfers and delivering a strong, vibrant transfer with lots of extra detail noticeable in the art design and costumes, and featuring the film’s original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The film starts with a warning that certain faults in the original film negative made it impossible to correct a sort of shimmering, blurry effect that appears briefly four times during the course of the movie. These were apparently due to a camera fault and have always been part of the film, even when it was screened in theatres. There is nothing that could be done to correct it so the restorers have left it as it was. The moments concerned are brief and unimportant and don’t detract from the rest of the film. English and Italian audio tracks are included (and English subtitles included for both) and once again they’re extremely loud and satisfyingly powerful.
The commentary once more features Lamberto Bava and Sergio Stivaletti talking in a mixture of broken English and Italian about the making of the film (Italian sections translated by Roy Bava) with Loris Curci moderating, and once again it takes a while to get going, but there are a few nuggets in there if you stick with it, about the metaphorical intentions of using TV as a theme, etc. Bava considers “Demons 2” a much more structured film than was the first in the series, which, he says, was mainly a result of the craft of editing while this one had a much more planned-out story. The director is extremely critical of the lead actor David Knight (his IMBd entry only lists one other movie), who he reckons didn’t put much effort into his role.
There are two featurettes included with this sequel. The first, “Creating Creature Carnage”, features mechanical effects artist Sergio Stivaletti in a 20 minute piece, talking about the development of his career, from his first film “Phenomena” right through to his directorial debut “Wax Mask”, where he credits Dario Argento for giving him good advice and helping him to avoid making too many mistakes with regard to the level of emphasis he put on filming the movie’s special effects. Stivaletti’s work on “Demons” and “Demons 2” off course takes up most of the featurette, with the effects man detailing how the work coming out of the US at the time by the likes of Tom Savini and Rick Baker was having a huge effect on the Italian approach, with directors and producers like Argento becoming more interested in depicting transformations on screen after the success of “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London”.
We also get a 17 minute history of Italian Horror from Luigi Cozzi, “Bava to Bava”, starting with Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava and working through to the highpoint, when Argento was at his most popular in the mid-seventies and early-eighties, and ending with a look at some of the up-and-coming names attempting to create a revival of the Horror genre in the Italian film industry in the years since “Demons” and “The Church” were the last major horror releases in the country.
As was the case for Arrow Video’s release of “Demons”, so is the case here: the Blu-ray package features a reversible sleeve with four artwork options, plus a fifth featuring all new artwork by artist Jeff Zornow. There’s a double-sided fold-out poster, a collectors booklet in which journo Calum Wadell waxes lyrical, and part two of that collectors comic, “Demons 3”, written by Stefan Hutchinson and Barry Keating, with artwork by Jeff Zornow and Peter Fielding. Both films are also available together in a Limited Edition Steelbook edition. Needless to say, both films are a must-have for any euro horror buff. Highly recommended.