Friday, August 6, 2021

Demons 5: The Devil's Veil / La maschera del demonio (1989)

Lamberto Bava’s made for television Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil really took me by surprise when I first saw it. Historically, it’s been pretty rare, so, years ago, when a friend pointed out to me that the film had been uploaded to their YouTube page, I initially watched it as a curiosity (always going the extra mile when it comes to Italian horror). Being somewhat forgotten and without much praise and recommendation to go off of, I was expecting a mediocre ‘80s horror film, but the experience was really quite technically impressive and entertaining, with several memorable horror sequences. Story wise, I’ll admit, it was a little hard to stay invested the entire time, but I loved Sergio Stivaletti’s creature effects, and I really appreciated the sometimes subtle and sometimes startling approach the movie took to demonic possession. There’s just a number of really nice touches in how peculiar the characters act when it’s apparent some kind of demonic force is acting on them, a similar kind of peculiarity that I appreciated in The Church (1989) from Michele Soavi, who also stars in this.

Like many other unofficial entries after Demons 2 (1986), this film is not officially a Demons film, but I’ve always thought of it as Demons 5, so that’s what I’ve decided to call it here. 

In the lineup of Demons movies, official or not, this one is the ice level. Set in what I’m assuming to be the Italian alps in Northern Italy, a group of pro skiers are dropped off from a helicopter to beguile us with their ski moves, stylishly making their way down a long slope (the intro skiing scene reminds me of those extreme Juicy Fruit commercials from the ‘80s but with more ominous music by Simon Boswell). No one notices the crevasse slowly opening to swallow them, as the ski action is eventually halted by everyone falling in to a fissure, one after the other, like lemmings. They find themselves trapped in a sort of icy Mephistophelian rabbit hole, plagued by the evil spirit of a witch named Anibas (Eva Grimaldi).

The stage is set when one of them pulls a spiked mask off of a frozen corpse: the centuries old preserved body of an executed witch (one of several slick references Lamberto makes in this film to his father’s Black Sunday (1960)). A curse is unsealed resulting in an underground avalanche that kills one of them and forces the rest to flee and stumble upon an ancient looking underground church/monastery that leads outside to a seemingly empty snowy village. They run into a hostile dog and a blind reclusive priest (the only person there), played by Stanko Molnar (seeing Stanko Molnar, who I fondly remembered playing another blind character from Bava Jr.’s Macabro (1980), was the first of several surprises). From here on out, it’s a glorious mess of peculiar demonic possession, hyper-hedonism, and memorable horror scenes, not to mention a BDSM exorcism and what feels like a love story between man and demoness.

The characters in this film seemed a little on the one-dimensional side at first until the actors had more of a chance to shine with the possessed side of the characters. They become more cartoonish with interchanging shifts in behavior that’s a lot more fun and even kind of menacing to the viewer at times. I can’t help thinking most of the cast had a blast in this, acting like evil children.

The peculiar duality of the possessed in this film is illustrated remarkably in a brief moment when one of the characters, Nora (Laura Devoti), is by herself and scared, calling out to her boyfriend Andrea (Ron Williams), while travelling down a dark passage (pretty typical at first). But when she briefly pushes her hair back with one hand and mischievously grins into the camera before reverting back into her timid, frightened state, it was like her inner femme fatale came out for just a second before hiding away again. Perhaps the characters are not being possessed by demons, but rather the witch’s curse is causing them to get more in touch with their dark sides. I’m not sure why, but moments like this, and several others, make me feel that, while the story is so-so, the movie is composed of so many unique parts, like a treasure chest of special horror sequences.

One of my favorite segments that might be a little overdrawn is the set piece involving the demonic chain around the confessional booth, where they try to overpower the priest inside. The filmic magic is in how the actors lose themselves to the possessed counterparts of their characters and the roaming camera that travels around, and around, the confessional booth in a kind of unison, with the characters swaying and convulsing as they hold hands in a spiritual chain while chanting “Anibas.” It’s technically impressive, spine-chilling, and, yes, maybe even kind of cringe with how long the scene runs, but this was when I first realized that I was really loving this movie. Honestly, I could watch this sequence forever. It’s hypnotizing, but it ends up shattered when the priest’s dog comes to the rescue and breaks the trance the movie kind of puts you in here.

Stanko Molnar returns to play another blind character for Lamberto Bava. He’s an enigmatic, nameless priest who seems to exist as a failsafe in case the witch ever tries to come back. He’s the only person in this realm aside from the trapped skiers who he kindly takes in to his church, a setting that makes up a large portion of the movie. It makes for a suitably dark and creepy set that the filmmakers get a lot of use out of, particularly an epic religious alter with celestial lighting, fog, and icy wind. Molnar’s priest character is quite an innovative exorcist in that his methods include stuffing frozen holy water in to the mouths of the possessed (I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before).

So, while most of the trapped skiers are losing their minds to the unseen influence that makes them act like mischievous, giggling imps, the lead Davide (Giovanni Guidelli) seems to be immune to the personality changing influence of the witch’s curse. This is perhaps because the witch Anibas seems to want to get close to him through his girlfriend Sabina (Debora Caprioglio) (both of whose names hopefully end up tickling Nilbog fans a little). It might also be because Davide is the only one who is legitimately kind, without a dark side for the witch to exploit, so she instead attacks him through his love. Sabina, claiming that it could be their last chance, wants to get away from everyone so she and Davide can make love in a barn outside of the church. This is where the witch really fucks with him, causing Sabina to transform into this really cool looking monster in the middle of their lovemaking, much to Davide’s eventual horror.

The buildup goes full melodramatic tragic love story that feels like a good stage play but also drags a bit, with Davide being driven slightly mad due to this perceived ambiguity between Sabina and Anibas that’s also disorienting to the narrative. Davide ends up conflicted in a heartbroken way, in that he sees his girlfriend Sabina but also knows that she could also be the evil Witch Anibas. He’s not sure if she’s the woman he loves or a monster he has to destroy. Can he save her, or will he have to destroy her to end the curse?

Given some of the film’s Evil Dead influences and the way Davide goes over the top, gets splattered in the face with demonic body fluids, and becomes a demon killer of sorts with a torn-up shirt towards the end, I have to admit that I was starting to see Davide, a little, as the Italian Ash. 

I admit to underestimating Demons 5 going in. It exceeded my expectations and entertained and impressed me more than I thought it would. It does have plenty of campy B-grade horror elements, but there are a number of cool freak-out, disturbing, and scary sequences; the part where the figures in the church paintings come alive and emerge mirrors a childhood nightmare of mine. I also thought the tracking shots from behind of the cackling group of demons as they traveled through the dynamic corridors of the underground monastery set were amusing and a lot of fun. 

Demons 5 felt like an interesting evolution of ‘80s Italian horror that I fear not enough fans have seen. Anyone who’s been sleeping on this one might be pleasantly surprised by it. 

© At the Mansion of Madness


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Zeder / Revenge of the Dead (1983)

Pupi Avati’s Zeder has been an odd enigma of an Italian horror film to me. I’m not really sure what it is trying to do, but its mystique and mismatched place in the genre are part of what make it special. While watching it, I usually wonder what it is we are looking for or what the lead character is so obsessed and serious about, and yet I can't help always feeling drawn in. It’s a movie searching for something deep and menacing, and it does eventually find it, but the journey along the way is a challenging, unsettling, and memorable one with an impressively creepy payoff and a serious lead performance from Deep Red’s (1975) Gabriele Lavia. I also like the way it alludes to a kind of sinister underbelly to the city in a way that is similar to Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974). 

What I buy most about Zeder is the academic and research side, fixating on knowing and overcoming death. The scientific field approach, with shady occultist researchers and their cameras and experimental equipment is pivotal to one of the best scenes. 

Stefano’s (Lavia) investigations become a paranoid obsession that he never really lets up on once he starts on it. Being a writer and a college student (overdue for graduation it seems), his focus feels like a thesis from hell.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

There’s no other experience quite like Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, or even the alternate clothed Spanish version Las Vampiras. I recall coming across the DVD of this film on the shelf in the foreign-film section at (the now defunct) Hastings Entertainment, and, being a newborn Jess Franco fan at the time, I knew I wanted it. I had just come off of Jess Franco’s Macumba Sexual (1983) and was ready for more. Only problem was I remembered being a little too self-conscientious about looking like a weirdo bringing a film called Vampyros Lesbos up to checkout, but I bit-the-bullet and proudly made my purchase. 

To tell you the truth, I’d like to relate my first-time experience watching Vampyros Lesbos, but I honestly cannot seem to remember a lot about it, other than that I noticed some similarities to Macumba Sexual. I do remember that afterwards, I quickly picked up Jess Franco’s She Killed in Ecstasy (1971), which was made around the same time and also starred the sultry Spanish beauty Soledad Miranda in another arousing but also sympathetic role. 

While re-watching Vampyros Lesbos more recently, despite seeing it several times before, I noticed that I had forgotten a lot of specifics to the storyline, but I still remembered my favorite parts quite well while also realizing new favorite parts. It just seems to become more enriching upon each viewing, opening itself up further each time I revisit it. It never feels old, overwatched, or stale. Basically, it’s a real keeper that should be kept close and revisited at least once a year. Every scene is worth savoring.