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An Exercise in Poor Taste - Demonicus
Posted by Edward Robins on May 30, 2002, 02:56
Hey, howís everyone doing this week? My apologies for not having this done a few days earlier, as I was away with my family for Memorial Day weekend and had to fill out financial aid and housing forms that are just a teensy bit more important than writing a column for the site. To make up for it, Iíve decided to spruce up the column a bit by adding two new sections: Body Count (because every good movie has at least one death in it) and Wrestling Moves/References (because in the end, this IS a wrestling site).
Now that thatís out of the way, letís get to the movie! I first rented Demonicus upon its initial week of release on VHS in June of 2001. I wrote a review of it on IMDb immediately afterward (for an extra dose of Ed, you can read some of my other reviews on IMDb, take note of the date, and compare it to my more recent reviewsÖ itís hours of fun for the whole family!). Much to my surprise, a few days later, the director, Jay Woelfel, personally messaged me on IMDb, thanking me for reviewing the film, commenting on my review, and letting me know that the VHS release I saw was actually a cut version. After some correspondence, I found out that a DVD release would eventually come, and that it would contain the directorís cut. I re-read my original review on IMDb, and I actually feel a little bad about it, because I hadnít given it much thought at the time, and even though I liked it (and still do!), it still made it sound like I was making fun of the film and being sarcastic. So, if youíre reading this Jay, I still like the film, and hopefully I donít come off as such a jack-ass this time!
Full Moon Pictures / Cult Video
Film (complete with minor plot spoilers!):
Italy, 2001 AD. A group of friends are hiking across the Italian Alps. They wanted camp, what they got, was EEEEVIL~! (INDEEEED!)
More accurately, the story opens with James (Gregory Lee Kenyon) hurrying his girlfriend along a hike. Theyíre hiking in the Italian Alps with a group of their friends, and are racing to the top because theyíre college boys, and everyone knows college boys love stupid competitions to prove their manliness. Along the way, James stops in a cave and finds the mummified body of a gladiator. He is compelled to try on the gladiatorís helmet, and is possessed by the spirit of the gladiator, Tyrannus, also known as Demonicus (as if Tyrannus werenít menacing enough!). After spending some time ďgladiator-ing upĒ (at least heís not ďhulking upĒ), the possessed James is out for blood, killing his friends to resurrect the real Tyrannus.
Shot with one of Full Moonís lowest budgets ever over a course of 8 and a half days, Demonicus is no Hollywood masterpiece, but a lot better than a first impression would have you believe. The majority of the film was shot outside in the mountains of Los Angeles National Park, using a lot of dolly shots and even a few crane shots. Beautiful shots of the area filmed act as "good filler", in the sense that they serve no purpose in regards to the plot, but effectively reinforce the setting and usually serve as transition shots that denote "movie time" passing. Other scenes in the introduction and climax are shot indoors on a simple, but fitting set. The majority of the film is shot in close-ups with many zooms, both because of budget constraints preventing many wide shots, and because director Jay Woelfel wanted to pay tribute to Italian horror/slasher films of the Ď70s and Ď80s that often had unnecessary, poor zoom shots just because it was new at the time and directors wanted to play with it (Woelfel likens it to how CGI is used/misused in many films now). Woelfel also included several shots that seem more suited to older drive-in films, where blood or water is tossed or streaked onto a camera during a killing scene. All in all, unlike what I originally said in my IMDb review, the editing and direction are not only present and equivalent to a "real" higher-budget film, but the scenes created in tribute to older styles of genre films push the film way above its "decent low budget flick" status, if only for a short while.
Demonicus is Full Moonís first slasher film (or closest thing to it, at least), and although I generally donít like slasher films, I enjoyed this one because of the characters. The majority of the slasher films of any time period have mainly cookie-cutter caricatures, there is at least some depth to a few of the Demonicus characters. While there are still characters such as Jamesí girlfriend, who arenít given a proper introduction or any real details about them, and just serve as fodder for demon-possessed college students, the "main characters" of Joe, Dino, Maria, and even James show character development over the course of the film. For example, when all goes wrong, loving boyfriend Joe starts to lose it, and itís up to Dino to keep a cool head so they both stay alive. Unlike many other slasher films, you really donít want them to die, because they seem more "real" than any of the sex-crazed, screaming, stupid walking carcasses that populate other films of the genre. As for those who like to root for the "bad guy", Gregory Lee Kenyon gives an awesome performance as James/Tyrannus, especially during "re-possession" scenes, where James reverts back to his normal self with a lost look on his face and confused tone in his voice for a few seconds, only to put the cursed helmet back on and immediately stiffen his brow and speak in a loud, "epic warrior"-style voice. Like the rest of the film, it would all seem silly and best suited for unintentional comedy (which it still does to a degree) if it didnít actually work.
For all the stuff that does work though, there are still several things that donít. A decapitation death scene, for instance, looks like something that came out of Monty Python, with a single gushing "fountain" of blood, and just looks really silly. Also, the majority of the weapons in the film, although constructed of real metal, look a little too shiny and new to be convincing as old artifacts from a couple thousand years ago. Finally, the scenes with weapons, although choreographed to a degree, just arenít as cool as they should be due to the shooting time and budget; most of the fights are one-sided affairs, with James swinging and Joe or Dino barely blocking it. It just dawned on me that this is more realistic (after all, James is possessed by a gladiator, so he would know how to use the weapons), but itís still not as fun to watch as an epic back-and-forth weapons fight.
Body Count (because every good movie has at least one death in it):
Nine touring college students, one demonic gladiator (from hell!)
Wrestling Moves/References (because in the end, this IS a wrestling site):
Most of the fighting in this movie was a SLOBBERKNOCKER BY GAWD~!, with lots of right hands and forearms (which looked convincing from Kenyon because heís actually really buff, or at least looks that way in his gladiator get-up). James one-ups Regalís Power of the Punch by using not brass knuckles, but spiked gladiator knuckles (ouch!). Not only that, but amongst his other gladiator weapons James uses a net, which brought back memories of Austin and Nash with the net gun. In more obvious wrestling maneuvers used, Dino used what looked like a kind of arm-wrench on Joe, and James reversed an attempted naked choke hold by Dino into a backdrop. In the final altercation with the gladiator Tyrannus, he also uses what looks like a sleeper or choke-hold while attempting to remove Tyrannusí helmet.
Kenyonís lines as James in gladiator mode are at the same time menacing and laughably over the top when taken out of context. Who better than Kenyon? Although the Monty Pyton-esque gushing decapitation scene I mentioned earlier does detract from the film, it detracts by being pretty funny and extra-enjoyable in contrast to the serious nature of the rest of the film (which is just as enjoyable, but for a different reason; it's nice to have a little fun thrown into a low budget picture every now and then, even if it is unintentional). The DVD release also has a really good new score and sound mix that werenít on the original VHS cut. There is also some historical basis to the plot, which is always kind of cool, if nothing else, so that when you watch Discovery Channel and see a documentary on gladiators you can proudly proclaim, "I saw that in a movie once!" Plus, can you really resist the tagline, "Demon Gladiator From Hell..."? Didnít think so.
The film is in widescreen, but no specific aspect ratio is given (the black bars arenít very big though, if that can help anyone whoís into this stuff). Likewise, no specific information is given on the audio mix on the disc, and I know itís no Dolby 5.1 Surround, but whatever it is, itís certainly enough for the disc, as there are no drop-outs or inaudible lines or anything like that (and since I lack fancy Surround Sound equipment anyway, thatís all I care about anyway).
Alas, this is no Limited Special Edition Tempe release, or even a Lunar Edition. It is, however, the directorís cut, with 5-6 minutes of added footage cut from the VHS release and an awesome new score and sound mix. Proper special features include a commentary with Woelfel, in which he talks about, among other things, the differences between the directorís cut and the original release, and the rushed nature of filming and editing a Full Moon project, as well as how he came to be involved in it. He also comments on the script at a few points (proving to smart-aleck critics that someone is, in fact, paid to write this stuff), and not only was it originally intended to be even gorier, its original title was "Kriksus the Slayer" (I know I butchered the spelling on that one). Besides Woelfelís commentary, there is also a behind-the-scenes featurette, "Of Swords and Slaughter: the making of Demonicus". Itís about ten minutes long, and features nothing terribly revealing or important, but is worth a watch. The only other special features are trailers for Demonicus, Horrorvision, Killjoy (a bad-ass mofo clown from the horror hood!), and The Vault.
As expected, all other reviews of this film Iíve run into online (all two of them) have totally panned this. One of them called it a rip-off of The Blair Witch Project, which is totally baseless, except for maybe the rare shaky camera that canít be helped and the stock used (yes, I realize I joked about it being "The Gladiator Witch Project" in my IMDb review, but that wasn't intended as serious criticism), and the other said it didnít work because it took itself seriously. I disagree with both, and although this film is far from perfect, itís not only watchable, but has a low-budget charm to it. Otherwise, Iíd have gone insane by now after watching it four times. The film was never intended on being a big disc, so even though Iíve been spoiled recently by Tempeís lavish, loaded special editions of their last two Full Moon collaborations, the fact that the directorís cut is available on DVD at all (there were several months between the VHS and DVD release, where Full Moon was off and on about releasing it; Iíd like to think my letter to them in support of a release helped, even though I know it didnít) should be applauded, and itís under $20 too ($15 for me direct from Tempe), which is always a plus. You could do a lot better, but you could also do worse. Call it a guilty pleasure, but I just really like this film (although at least a little of that has to do with how stoked I was that the director personally messaged me), and it seems Iím the only one that does.
Being that Iím a narcissistic person (at least when it concerns my writing), be sure to write me and tell me how you much you loved my column (or how much you hated it, my inbox is lonely). Being that Iím also an Amazon.com wish list-whore at heart (due to my limited finances), if you really loved my column, you can always buy me something. Call it a really late birthday present. If you do buy me something, not only will I review it ASAP if itís a movie, but Iíll also fulfill any sadistic movie-watching request of yours, and post a review on this very site! Try and make sure itís a movie I can actually find though...
"To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all aboutÖ [just] remember there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste." Ė John Waters