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Synapse Films // Unrated // November 11, 2014
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted November 9, 2014 | E-mail the Author
There are countless reasons for film fans to watch older movies, but chief among them is to see what's changed about the approach to films over time. Each generation of film has its own trends and tropes, and watching a movie made decades ago often helps clarify what it is that's gotten better or worse as the times have changed. Although it's kind of embarrassing to think of Demons as an "older" movie (I implore anyone who likes film to watch more movies made before 1970), it's no exception. Modern screenwriters and directors are obsessed with "world-building", insistently giving every concept and character an elaborate backstory. It's a tiring trend, one that shaves away the concept of magic and fantasy, especially as it grows in scope. Demons, directed by Mario Bava's son Lamberto and produced by Dario Argento, is a wonderful example of how little of that information is necessary for a rollicking good time: just get a bunch of distinct characters, add in some sort of evil, and go to town.

The shenanigans begin when Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) gets spooked on the subway by a man in a strange costume, who turns out to be giving away free tickets to a movie premiere at a new theater in town. Cheryl's there to meet her friend Kathy (Paola Cozzo) and go to class, but she convinces Kathy to go to the screening with her instead. There, a diverse crowd has gathered for the promise of a free movie: loudmouth pimp Tony (Bobby Rhodes) and two of his girls, Rosemary and Carmen (Geretta Geretta and Fabiola Toledo); blind man Werner (Alex Serra) and his assistant / daughter Liz (Bettina Ciampolini); Tommy and Hannah, a young couple on a date night (Guido Baldi and Fiore Argento, Dario's daughter); and George (Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Karl Zinny), a couple of handsome guys who notice Cheryl and Kathy right away, as well as many others. There's also a creepy-looking metal mask hanging on a motorcycle on display in the lobby. Turns out, it's the same one in the free movie, in which a bunch of kids dig it up in the tomb of Nostradamus. What the audience doesn't know is that the mask's demonic powers are real, and the nick on Rosemary's neck from trying it on is starting to make her feel strange...

The 1980s was a great time for horror, both in terms of more traditional slasher franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th, but also for "cult" horror: wild, freewheeling splatter pictures that emphasized over-the-top fun, the kind that genre fans would probably give part of their soul to see with an unsuspecting opening night audience. Demons belongs in the latter category, alongside Evil Dead II and The Return of the Living Dead, serving up plenty of dripping, oozing fluids and hilarious one-liners left and right. There's little to no plot, other than the fact that the terrified moviegoers rush to the front after first seeing a demon only to discover concrete walls behind the front doors. Bava, who co-wrote the script with Dario, Dardano Sacchetti, and Franco Ferrini, knows that all the audience needs is a wide range of enjoyable demon fodder and some spectacular effects, steamrolling through a crowd of victims before adding a few more.

By setting up so many victims in the audience, Bava creates a straightforward structure that simply involves cutting to any number of the fractured factions that spring up when chaos breaks loose. Each set of characters forms their own survival plan and all he has to do is flip between them to keep the energy up. Tommy and Hannah end up in the ventilation system, crawling through the ducts. Tony, ever delightful, loses track of his ladies and quickly adopts an extremely cautious attitude. Werner becomes separated from Liz when Liz sneaks away to make out with her secret boyfriend (Claudio Spadaro) right before everything goes to Hell. Cheryl and Kathy find themselves getting closer to George and Ken than they expect, banding together for safety. Bava even begins to cut outside, to a carload of cokehead punks (literally snorting it from a Coca-Cola can) trying to escape the police. Somehow, Bava convinces the viewer that it makes sense for the punks to enter while the theatergoers fail to get out.

The finishing touch is an awesome rock soundtrack featuring tunes by Rick Springfield, Motley Crue, Scorpions, and Billy Idol (among others), which really make Demons feel like the coolest party in town (it's both funny and unsurprising that the sequel is literally set at a party). As the film draws to a close, there are a few minutes where the limitations of being trapped in a building begin to wear on the movie, but Bava quickly finds a new level of craziness for the movie, ramping up from a contained chaos to widespread terror. It's a much bigger and more spectacular finish than one might expect from a film that spends most of its brief running time in a single location. A modern remake of Demons would no doubt waste time explaining the origins of the mask and whether or not it actually came out of Nostradamus' tomb, but the original Demons is too busy having a ball with green ooze, rock music, and samurai swords to notice. Hollywood, take note.

Demons has been released several times on DVD and Blu-ray, and most of the many versions have leaned the same way with the artwork: blue and yellow, glowing eyes, silhouettes. This new DVD by Synapse is no different, featuring a painted image of a scene in the film, where a crowd of demons rise up a darkened staircase, a light glowing from behind them, leaving their gleaming eyes as the only discernible facial feature. The English title logo in yellow is placed above it. It's an iconic image, and it works yet again on this new cover. The backside is mostly covered by a summary and the disc specs, although the text about the presentation was clearly lifted directly from the corresponding Blu-ray releases by Synapse, and mistakenly claim that the DVDs for Demons and Demons 2 offer "1080p transfers".

The Video and Audio
Then again, while the DVDs are presented in regular old 480p, the 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this disc was painstakingly perfected by the folks at Synapse, and goodness, their effort shows. Sometimes it's kind of stunning to reflect on how many DVD transfers of brand-new major studio blockbusters look okay at best, riddled as they are with banding, softness, and compression haloes. Synapse's presentation of Demons is the kind of DVD that puts them all to shame. Even with the knowledge that HD would add yet another layer of clarity to the image, this standard-definition disc looks incredibly film-like, with beautiful, impeccably saturated colors that pop off the screen. The color correction by Synapse is highlighted on the case, and it deserves to be; too few films look as vivid on home video as Demons does. Grain, something SD sometimes struggles to resolve without blockiness, is expertly managed, and I spotted no instances of compression issues. Two weeks before receiving this disc for review, I attended a mystery Italian horror festival, and saw Demons for the first time ever on 35mm. This disc reflects all the key characteristics of what I saw on the print, to a degree I was not expecting. (You can read more about Synapse's long road to releasing Demons here.)

Two English audio tracks are provided: an "International" Dolby 2.0 Stereo track, and the "US dub" in mono. Like the picture, both tracks are, at their core, representative of what I just saw on film a few days ago. Of course, the two mixes are also noticeably different, not just the format of the mix but they contain slightly different dialogue and sound effects. As someone who has only seen Demons twice, it's hard for more to keep track of all the minor changes involved, but it is fun to flip back and forth between the two mixes to try and spot some of the differences. In any case, both provide a satisfying viewing experience, and the disc includes separate English subtitle tracks for both mixes.

The Extras
None, other than an original US theatrical trailer. The alternate English mix could also be considered a bonus.

For those who haven't converted to Blu-ray, Synapse's new DVDs of Demons and Demons 2 are all one could want out of a pair of "movie only" releases. Stunning A/V for a release that most labels wouldn't spend 24 hours throwing together and an alternate audio track that gives fans an excuse to watch the disc again, paired with the fact that Demons is a blast? Highly recommended.

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