Monday, December 26, 2016

"This Must Look Like Witchcraft" - The Demon (1981) - Part 1 of 3

Our next classic is a gritty slasher movie from the early 1980s, The Demon. Even without seeing the film, it clearly has the markings of a high-quality cinematic experience. First, it has the word “demon” in the title, potentially putting it on the level of classics we have discussed such as Demon Wind, Demon Seed, and Night of the Demon. Second, it stars Cameron Mitchell, only one year after his groundbreaking performance in The Nightmare Never Ends.

Predictably, the respected critics of your universe regard The Demon as less than a classic. On IMDB, BillyBC writes, “The soundtrack is very loud and erratic and people are always screaming, which makes sleeping straight through this often-dull movie pretty difficult. It ends rather abruptly.” Also on IMDB, matoolz2 writes, “It quickly becomes a disjointed mess as it jumps completely away from it`s beginning plot. I kept getting the sense that they started a movie and after getting so far into it they decided the plot was`nt working so they scrapped their original idea and went for something else but left in the footage they had already shot.” On Rotten Tomatoes, Julian Toepfer writes, “Not only is it shot for cents on the dollar, uncreative, horribly scripted and acted, and ludicrously stupid, but its flat out boring.”

Contrary to these uninformed "opinions," with their inconsistent uses of the word "its," The Demon is  in fact a tightly scripted suspense film showcasing another brilliant Cameron Mitchell performance.

The film opens with a mundane nighttime scene, distinguished only by charming South African accents, that is suddenly punctuated by a shocking home invasion. A woman and her daughter are attacked in their home, the mother left with a plastic bag over her head and the daughter kidnapped and carried into the forest screaming. This is intercut with waves crashing against rocks. Back in the forest, we hear something ripping in the night.

Search parties accompanied by multiple helicopters fail to find the abducted daughter.

At night, a friendly man in a pickup truck stops to pick up a typical hitchhiker sitting alone in front of an abandoned gas station. The hitchhiker wears black leather, black gloves, and what appears to be a set of brass knuckles with sharp points. And he carries a heavy suitcase.

"You're lucky I came along," the friendly driver says in his charming South African accent to the shadowy hitchhiker. "Not much traffic along this road at night."

The hitchhiker says nothing. The driver, an actor, goes on and on about how verbose he tends to be while the hitchhiker adjusts his knife-edged brass knuckles.

In this tense driving sequence, the film astutely plays on our expectations, knowing we have seen many films in which hitchhiking scenarios turn out poorly. The audience wonders who is dangerous in this scenario, the whistling mustache-wearing driver or the black-clad hitchhiker with the deadly weapon? It is nearly impossible to guess.

We find out soon enough--the hitchhiker attacks the driver, forcing the pickup off the road. The hitchhiker wraps the man's head in clear plastic and steals his wallet.

Waves crash against rocks.

Back at the scene of the home invasion, we are introduced to Colonel Bill Carson, U.S. Marines, retired, played by the estimable Cameron Mitchell. The parents of the kidnapped girl are desperate. It has been over two months without a sign of their daughter. They have called Colonel Carson because, like most high-ranking military officers, he is also a skilled psychic.

"I'll give you everything I've got," says the father, "if you can find this monster."

"I'm not a kind of medicine man, a mystic," says Colonel Carson. "I'm just someone who's been gifted with ESP--extra...sensory perception."

As the girl's mother weeps, Colonel Carson grabs her head. It is a mark of Mr. Mitchell's skill as an actor that we cannot be certain whether he is using his ESP powers or simply holding her head more tightly, and for a longer span of time, than social convention would dictate.

Continuing to elaborate on his psychic powers, the colonel explains, "Sometimes I...just sniff around, sometimes I get pictures in my mind. Pictures of places, people." He asks to see the kidnapped girl Emily's room, but when the father begins to direct him, the colonel brushes him off, whispering simply, "I know."

Thus starts an acting tour de force, an extended scene of Mr. Mitchell investigating Emily's room in which he commands the screen for approximately 10 minutes all by himself, leaving the audience breathless.

In the girl's room, the colonel starts touching things, including an unusually large doll and a music box.

He takes a silver necklace from the music box and pockets it. Then he sits on the girl's bed, which apparently makes it difficult for him to breathe. He has a quick vision from the point of view of the abductor, but it unfortunately provides no clues.

The colonel then uses another tool in his arsenal of tricks, grabbing Emily's pillow and sniffing deeply. When he said he sniffs around, he clearly meant it literally.

When the parents enter the room to find the colonel sniffing and futilely ripping the pillowcase, Carson apologizes and feels the need to explain yet again his psychic methods. "This must look like witchcraft to you, but sometimes I get feelings. Vibes, as the kids would call them." He needs to absorb more of the environment before he can discern more useful information.

We cut to a preschool and meet the teacher Mary, who bears some resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, though perhaps more to the platinum-haired Ginger in the animated versions of Gilligan's Island. She is singing a charming South African children's song with the charming South African kids:

Fish and chips and vinegar,
Pepper, pepper, pepper, salt.
Don't throw your trash in my backyard
My backyard
My backyard.
Don't throw your trash in my backyard
My backyard
My backyard's full.
One bottle pop, two bottle pops, three bottle pops, four bottle pops, five bottle pops...

As she sings, Mary looks out the window to see the figure of a man that appears and disappears.

On a rocky beach, Colonel Carson has a vision about the kidnapper that revolves around a white mask, girly pictures from the 1950s, and pushups.

In the city, schoolteacher Mary makes a bee-line for a clothes shop, grabs a shirt without looking at it, and heads straight into a dressing room. Undressing, she sees the black-clad man in the mirror, but when she turns around nobody is there. The salesgirl slides open the curtain. Unapologetic about catching Mary topless, the salesgirl asks if she likes the dress.

After a fun-filled trip to Boobs Disco, Mary walks home with her friend.

After they separate, Mary's friend encounters the black-clad man, who now wears a bright white mask. Mary's friend runs awkwardly down the street. The black-clad man runs equally awkwardly after her. When he catches her, he picks her up and carries her back into the shadows, where he proceeds to tear off her clothes to the sound of paper being torn.

But it appears she is in luck. A motorcycle appears at the end of the alley and drives toward the scene of the crime. Unfortunately, the motorcyclist drives past the black-clad man, who knocks the rider off his bike with a quick swipe, causing the bike to explode.

The girl runs away and the motorcyclist grabs his helmet. The black-clad attacker is nowhere to be seen.

I don't believe my heart can take any more suspense at this time, so thus ends Part 1 of our discussion of The Demon. Stay tuned for Part 2.