Demons 2 / Dèmoni 2… l’incubo ritorna (Lamberto Bava, 1986)

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A virtual remake posing as a sequel, Demons 2 is plot-wise almost a twin brother to Demons. Yet plot isn’t really the thing to focus on when talking about Italian horror. These films are rich in atmosphere, visual inventiveness and often esoteric subtext – a combination which makes them such a delight to watch. Both Demons films, scripted by the tireless Dardano Sacchetti, are of course complete failures from narrative standpoint. They present us with cardboard characters behaving irrationally, story lines leading nowhere and riddled with countless plot holes. None of these shortcomings stop the two Demons films and other similar Italian horror classics from being enjoyable films that withstand and improve on repeat viewings, though. Cinema cannot be reduced to just linear storytelling, character arks and three-act structure. Those things pertain to drama and literature, and while cinema has adopted them, it also has other means of keeping the viewer watching, otherwise such frankly badly-written films as the Demons would  never have become the worldwide cult favourites they are today. Nor would the many arthouse films which deviate from straightforward storytelling tropes have their audiences. So, what is it that makes Demons 2 and others of its ilk so special?

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The answer is simple: Demons 2 is cinema (Soderberg has made a nice comment on cinema/movies distinction in his San Francisco festival speech). Cinema at its most sincere and unadulterated. Heavy on atmosphere and offering the viewer a blood-splattered spectacle, without trying to be meaningful beyond the required minimum. Demons 2 has a unique, recognisable style and a look to die for.

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Coming from Lamberto Bava (one of Italian genre cinema’s less-esteemed filmmakers) whose films somehow manage to be incredibly visionary and utterly boneheaded at the same time, Demons 2 has its fair share of problems.  Apart from loose plot threads, Demons 2 also features a very crappy mini-demon stalking Nancy Brilli around her apartment. Presumably imitating Gremlins, Lamberto Bava dedicates lengthy screen time to a fake-looking monster puppet that’s supposed to project menace but barely manages to totter around the set instead. DoP Gianlorenzo Battaglia uses heavy strobe lighting to obscure the crappy effects work during this drawn-out, seizure-iducing sequence. These quibbles aside, Demons 2 is still a must-see, with its many demon attacks and grotesque make-up and effects work from Sergio Stivaletti. After the initial box-office failure of his subtle and studied debut feature Macabro, Lamberto Bava would embark on making small films quickly and efficiently, often for TV and invariably from terrible screenplays. To many viewers the two Demons films represent the pinnacle of Lamberto Bava’s film career, due to  Dario Argento lending them his then-marketable name and providing substantial budgets to film gory mayhem and violent ‘humans vs. demons’ confrontations.

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Filmed in the summer of 1986, Demons 2 retains the German setting (the demons outbreak takes place inside an apartment block in Hamburg) and some of the cast from the first film. Lino Salemme (Demonia, Delirium), who played the coke-head punk Ripper comes back as a security officer and Bobby Rhodes (The Last Hunter), famous for playing Tony the Pimp, takes on the role of Hank the gym instructor. Simon Boswell picked the bands for Demons 2 soundtrack and he’s signed up some legends: The Smiths, Gene Loves Jezebel, The Cult and other amazing acts, as well as contributing some excellent tunes himself. The new wave/alternative selection of songs is worth the price of admission alone.

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Stylish, violent, illogical, visually splendid/sonorously mind-blowing, crafted with a lot of skill and featuring a young Asia Argento in one of her very first screen roles, Demons 2 is prime slice of 80’s eurohorror.

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House of 1000 Corpses ( Rob Zombie, 2003)

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Colourful epileptic gory carnival that is Rob Zombie’s feature debut has been around for close to fifteen years now. A lot has changed in the meantime – Rob Zombie has made a career in the genre, including two atrocious Halloween films and an ambitious, if uneven, The Lords of Salem, the whole torture porn genre has bloomed in  the years following the original Saw and Hostel films. Now that the dust has settled, it’s easier to see the virtues of House of 1000 Corpses.

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There’s no denying that Rob Zombie has a pretty fertile imagination. Sick as his visions may be, there’s a lucidity and vividness to them which marks him as one to look out for in the future. And yet these visions stay on the somewhat abstract, artistic plane – too refined to be just spontaneous, inarticulate trash which the filmmaker clearly draws his inspiration from.

The beautiful electric blues and neon greens of Captain Spaulding’s roadside establishment are captured beautifully by cinematographers Alex Poppas and Tom Richmond. Rob Zombie’s own hand-held grainy insert shots are also effective in their deliberately crude, low-tech fashion.

While the passing of the years may have placed House of 1000 Corpses in a more advantageous light, it could do little to ameliorate Sheri Moon’s performance, which remains just as fake and annoying now as it did back in around 2003. It’s nice to spot Michael J. Pollard (Lucio Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse) in a bit part. Rob Zombie’s subsequent films would be studded with genre icons in cameo appearances, from Ken Foree to Richard Lynch, Udo Kier and beyond.

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There’s something endearing in Rob Zombie’s earnest attempt at all-out transgression, his appetite for the bizarre and the grotesque. Even at its most meaningless, monotonous, confusing and crazy the film retains a visionary quality and unfaltering enthusiam which renders it likeable. Maybe it’s the excellent cinematography or the brilliance of Bill Moseley and Sid Haig as the sickos. Maybe it’s the over-indulgent, messy editing. The charm that would be missing from the 2005 sequel  the Devil’s Rejects which is more dry, often visually ugly and leaves an sickly aftertaste, despite retaining cult film heavyweights Moseley and Haig and having a superior narrative structure to House of 1000 Corpses.

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It is of course an abomination to think that it took a whole $ 7 million to make a movie that’s inspired by cheapo exploitation films. Transgress all you want, but had it not been for Rob Zombie’s working relationship with Universal, no way would he have got House of 1000 Corpses made with this high level of production values. The sound mix is amazing and the film is edited with great precision (I’m referring to purely technical quality of the execution, which is a separate thing and doesn’t affect the resulting film’s coherence or pacing).

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When House of 1000 Corpses first came out it felt weird, incoherent, hyperactive, bloody and disgusting yet lacking genuine thrills or tension. It still is all of these things. What’s changed? The whole horror film panorama has shifted. Today, seen in the context of Rob Zombie films that were to follow and in wider perspective of horror genre development, House of 1000 Corpses looks considerably more attractive. Too slick and well-connected to pass for a real grindhouse film, House of 1000 corpses nevertheless has its heart in the right place. And what a dark, perverse bastard of a heart it is!

Monster Dog (Claudio Fragasso, 1984)

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If genre films were all about good cinematography and atmospheric music, Italian cinema of the 1970s and the 1980s would be the most popular in the world, for even the dreariest Italian genre films from the era can offer some great visuals and a decent score (and often also impressive gore and some over-the-top stunts). Yet to make a quality film you also need a screenplay, and this is where the spaghetti horror’s weak spot has always lain.

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The majority of Italian independent genre films we’re pre-sold on the strength of a catchy title and a hyperbolic poster, and once the producers secured a sale, the film would have to be delivered in a matter of weeks, which left no room for finer aspects of storytelling. Prolific scriptwriters – Ernesto Gastaldi (mainly known for penning scores of giallo films), Dardano Sacchetti (every genre under the sun, wrote for Bava, Argento, Margheriti but is best known for his works on Lucio Fulci’s zombie films), Piero Regnoli (everything from early Renato Polselli films to Fulci’s swan song Voices from Beyond, not forgetting Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City and Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground) would be called in to deliver scripts to impossibly tight deadlines. Unsurprisingly, the storylines they came up with would often involuntarily take on surreal dimensions, with the characters behaving in a decidedly casual manner in the freakiest of situations or, on the contrary, bursting into fits of near-homicidal rage with no apparent motive.

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Gigantic plot holes notwithstanding, a good number of these hastily written scripts, when given to a skilled director and with at least some financing, would result in genre classics.  It was not uncommon to have a feature written in the course of a single weekend – no wonder that even the finest examples of Italian genre cinema are woefully lacking in the dialogue department. The 1984 horror Monster Dog is no exception. This small-scale horror film from the director of Zombie 4: After Death oscillates between entertaining stalking scenes and agonizingly bad dialogue interludes.

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Written by Claudio Fragasso (Bruno Mattei’s partner in crime throughout the ’80s), Monster Dog was made around the same time as Rats: Night of Terror, a post-nuke exploitation rehash of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Set in the US but shot in Spain, Monster Dog is the only feature film to have the legendary shock rocker Alice Cooper in the lead role. Cooper has appeared in supporting parts in a good few films (John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness among them). Cult actor Ricardo Palacios (Blood of Fu Manchu, The Ark of the Sun God) appears as the sheriff.

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Monster Dog boasts some half-decent bloody scenes, with clunky animated monster head popping out of the bush or bursting through doors at pleasantly brief intervals, plus two exclusive Alice Cooper songs (Identity Crisis is a personal favourite). For such a low-budget film, the cinematography is well-executed (and highly reliant on blue-tinted lighting, so popular in ’80s horror), with an occasional shot looking like it could belong in a more upmarket production. When the monster dog attacks, Fragasso treats us to some moist closeups of gore, something the director would later perfect in Zombie 4:After Death. Had it not been for such head-achingly bad dialogue, Monster Dog could have been a minor classic. As it stands, the film is enjoyable enough, but its daftness is likely to make you cringe now and then.

P.S. some trivia: Monster Dog was produced by Carlos Aured, responsible for an over-the-top 1973 horror film Horror Rises from the Tomb starring Paul Naschy.

Killer Barbys vs. Dracula ( Jess Franco, 2002 )

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version under review is the English-dubbed cut

When a coffin containing the corpse of Count Dracula is brought to Spain, the vampire is woken up by a Killer Barbys song and goes about murdering various colourful characters in a vast amusement park.

With some hilarious dialogues, energetic pacing and a healthy pisstake spirit, Killer Barbys vs. Dracula is Jess Franco’s funniest film and may actually be superior to the slightly more upmarket original Killer Barbys.

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Several generations of Jess Franco actors cross paths in Killer Barbys vs. Dracula: Katja Bienert from Lilian and Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, Fata Morgana and Carmen Montes who would come to be the faces of Franco’s final ‘abstract erotic video art’ phase, with Paul Lapidus of One Shot Productions and Franco muse Lina Romay also at hand. Spanish genre cinema icon Also Sambrell and Italian cult actor Pietro Martellanza aka Peter Martell round out the busy cast. Silvia Superstar does what she does best: looking absolutely gorgeous and singing with the Killer Barbys.

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Dan Van Husen (Der Todesrächer von Soho) turns in a great comic performance as Dr. Seward, a talkative blind man accompanied everywhere by his trusted assistant wielding and enormous wooden stake. He’s like a cross between Dr. Orloff from Female Vampire and blind beggar helping the police in Jack the Ripper. Lina Romay dons a Soviet-style outfit as Comrade Irina, a Romanian communist responsible for bringing Dracula to Spain. Cult italian actor Peter Martell (French Sex Murders) appears as the impostor Dracula, convinced he’s the real deal until the original count doesn’t prove the opposite. Sadly, Lina Romay is dubbed by someone else in the English language version.

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Jess Franco’s direction is focused and energetic with a lot of attention to detail. Cinematography (by Emilio Schargorodsky who went on to direct the excellent Dracula 0.9) is surprisingly well-executed and is handled with more inventiveness than one might have expected.

A wonderful episode shows Dracula stalking his descendant Bela Balasz through a sun-drenched cemetery. It’s blatantly midday yet we see fog roll among the tombstones, which, coupled with Dutch angles, adds to the film’s strange ambience. Aldo Sambrell’s picturesque residence in Killer Barbys vs. Dracula was previously used by Jess Franco as one of the locations of his surreal low-key gem Mil Sexos Tiene la Noche.

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The scene of Dracula seeing his old castle again while on the run from the cops – appropriately scored with the magnificent organ theme from El Sadico de Notre Dame is absolutely amazing. The legendary monster sobs at the sight of his old dwelling, and cries himself to slip in his coffin. Killer Barbys vs. Dracula peakes during this episode, and it might as well have been the final one for nothing that follows can match its combination of camp and genuine melancholy.

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Possibly the last fully fledged ensemble cast film before Franco moved on to making small-scale films for Kevin Collins, Killer Barbys vs. Dracula is a lot of fun for Jess Franco and trash cinema fans. Why the Killer Barbys films weren’t received with more enthusiasm is beyond me, as Jess was giving the fans plenty of action, laughs, gorgeous scenery, in-jokes and allusions. Scored with tracks from German cult band Die Ärzte, Killer Barbys vs. Dracula is inspired cinematic hooliganism from Tio Jess, brimming with inventiveness and belying the sometimes shoddy production values.