Monday, August 14, 2017

"My Theory Is That Once You're Dead, You're Dead" - Demon Keeper (1994)

Let us move on to 1994 and a small but underrated film from Roger Corman's New Horizons Pictures, Demon Keeper. Directed by Joe Tornatore, who also directed Grotesque (1988), and starring big-name actors Edward Albert and Dirk  Benedict, Demon Keeper is an entertaining gem.

Again, your universe's most respected critics (i.e., those writing reviews on IMDB), disagree about the quality of the film. Backlash007 writes, "Demon Keeper is still a bad B-movie and nothing could have changed that." Nipperoshea, who reviewed the film years after viewing it, writes, "Although it has been several years, I still remember wondering how any film could be worse. My advice, DO NOT see this movie." And Brian Weimer writes, "Oh man, what a bad movie, in every sense of the word....To me, this movie has no redeeming values whatsoever....The acting in this movie is extremely bad, and the budget was most likely the lowest in cinematic history."

Perhaps the budget was the lowest in cinematic history. So what? It is again incumbent upon me to provide details about the film in order to rebut the critics' dubious claims.

The film begins in the Dark Ages with a somber witch-burning. The witch clutches a black magic book to her chest, so a white-cloaked witch-burner says, "You won't be needing this." He tosses the book aside, then he rips open her shirt.

The brief nudity appears to let loose the forces of the devil. Red flashes burst from the girl's mouth and fly through the air, chasing all the Puritans away.

We never see the fate of the young witch, as the movie cuts to a large mansion in the present. A mulletted Edward Albert plays a charming con man and pianist named Remy Grilland who, along with his wife, is setting up a fake seance to bilk an older woman out of her money.

The wealthy older woman in question, Isabelle, is anxious to speak to her dead husband Fred, but her nephew Howard is convinced that Remy Grilland is a charlatan. "You always were a skeptic, Howard," the woman says. "Even as a little boy. You didn't even believe in Santa Claus."

Howard, who looks like he is probably a few years older than his aunt, is only slightly chastened by this incisive argument against his skepticism.

The two are having breakfast with Alexander Harris, played by the almost unrecognizable Dirk Benedict, a chameleon of an actor. Mr. Benedict says he is a medium.

Howard the skeptic says, "My theory is that once you're dead, you're dead."

"I see," replies Mr. Benedict, who considers such a wild theory to be pure nonsense.

Howard reveals that he hired Mr. Benedict's medium character to expose Mr. Albert's psychic character as a fraud. "Fighting fire with fire?" asks Mr. Benedict.

Mr. Albert calls to invite Isabelle and Howard to a weekend psychic retreat, and Howard tells him that the English medium Alexander Harris will be joining them as a guest. (This is our first indication that the chameleon-like Mr. Benedict is supposed to be English, as he does not alter his American accent for this role.)

Howard hangs up the phone, and afterward says, "Goodbye, Mr. Grilland."

Later, we watch as a Howard is kidnapped while golfing by middle aged men wearing windbreakers and Dockers. They chase Howard off the golf course and onto the city streets. The kidnappers use the subtle tactic of driving on the sidewalk to chase down the old man.

Howard is brought to a man who is clearly a mobster because he is wearing a garish New York Yankees shirt. This mob boss is played by the film's director, Joe Tornatore. It seems Howard owes a large gambling debt to the New York mob, but he has a plan to pay them back. "There's a guy trying to fleece my aunt. I've got a dinner set up that's gonna expose him. Then instead of him getting the money, I get the money. You get yours."

"Everybody's conning everybody," says the mobster. "You got 24 hours, or the embalmer. It's your choice."

Edward Albert, worried he will be exposed by Dirk Benedict, consults an ancient book of magic given to him by his grandfather.

The retreat, actually a dinner party, begins.

Mr. Albert begins to play his hand almost immediately. "Mr. Harris, have you ever heard of a druid ritual called the Trabition Sabat?"

"It's not what I'd call a seance," says Mr. Benedict. "It's rather obscure."

"It deals with a god, or devil if you will, born of man from the seed of an angel," says Mr. Albert.

"Black magic, Mr. Grilland?"

"Psychic experimentation, Mr. Harris."

The two men share a wonderful chemistry, not to mention a burgeoning sense of sexual tension in the mode of the TV series Moonlighting.

Mr. Albert prepares for the obscure ceremony in his bedroom, with its tasteful moon-and-stars comforter and poster of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel above the bed.

The ceremony begins quickly. It consists of Mr. Albert repeating "in nomine" over and over as the guests sit at a round table with two attractive female models standing nearby.

The chanting summons lightning and tidal waves outside.

Howard's aunt Isabelle is impressed. "He's somehow generated enough energy to extinguish the lights." In turn, we are impressed by her command of the principles of physics.

We see a demonic hand at the far side of the room.

For no apparent reason, Howard and another man decide to check the fuses because of the loss of electricity. They need to leave the mansion and venture into the rain to check the fuses.

Without incident, the lights come back on and the men return to the house.

The group realizes they are trapped in the mansion. "It's like there's some kind of supreme force trying to keep us here," one of the men jokes.

The guests make their way to their rooms. We realize Howard has a wife who is disgusted how his aunt manipulates him with the promise of her fortune (charmingly, she pronounces the word "for-choon.") "Sometimes you disgust me, Howard," she says, giggling.

"Sometimes I disgust myself," he replies, kissing her.

Additionally, we realize that Mr. Albert and his wife have a dog named Loki, played very briefly, but ably, by a puppet.

Later, the two models massage each other topless, and one of them confesses she used to be a "massagist." They are observed by the demon that Mr. Albert conjured, though they do not see the creature standing there.

 The demon possesses one of the models and she chases the other one through the mansion.

They run outside into the rain and wrestle in a puddle for several minutes before they kill each other, and hence lose their souls to the demon.

Mr. Albert finds Howard and his wife dead in their bedroom, though we are unaware at this point how they were killed.

Mr. Benedict informs everyone that they must hold another seance.

Mr. Albert's wife responds, "Four people are dead in this house and you want to play psychic games?"

They immediately begin the seance.

A ghostly nude woman appears for a second in front of the table. "I can feel your presence, spirit guide," says Mr. Benedict.

The first order of business is to find out what happened to Howard and his wife. The seance provides a flashback to their room earlier in the evening, with a convenient voice-over narration by Howard.

In the flashback, Howard's wife confesses, "I hate the lightning, and the thunder is worse. It's as though it were aimed at me." While Howard showers, she takes off her robe and slips into bed, where she is visited by the demon.

"I am Asmodeus," it says. Helpfully, the demon explains its motivations to the woman. "I am here to conquer your mind and possess your body and soul. When I enter your body, it will cause your demise and you will belong to me forever. I will provide your body pleasure beyond your wildest dream."

Then the possessed wife kills Howard by having sex with him.

The flashback over, Mr. Benedict asks the spirit guide a question: who was responsible for their passing over? The spirit guide says she cannot say,  even though in the flashback we watched Asmodeus identify himself.

But Mr. Benedict demands that the spirit guide send the demon to him, so she does.

"You called me?" says the demon's floating head.

"Before I can sleep again," Asmodeus says, again being extremely helpful, "I must take all of you tonight by the break of dawn."

After the demon fades away, Mr. Benedict leads a discussion asking what the demon could possibly be, despite the fact the demon already introduced itself. "Whatever it is, it has the power to possess a human being," Mr. Benedict concludes. He also infers that the demon possesses people through their vices, so they should be passionless through the rest of the night.

Then the six remaining guests retire to their rooms.

"Damn it, dear," says one of the guests to his alcoholic wife, "you picked a hell of a night to get zonkered."

Not quite accurately, his wife responds, "There are monsters all over this house, everybody's killing everybody, and I'm scared!"

"The only monster in this house comes in a bottle," says her husband profoundly.

She tries to explain her alcoholism. "Maybe it's like a cancer. Nobody wants it, but you can get it."

But when her husband leaves the room to fetch a ginger ale for her, Asmodeus easily convinces the woman that her husband actually wants to kill her.

Instead of killing her husband, the woman wanders through the halls of the mansion, then wanders outside into the rain, where her throat is ripped out by the puppet dog Loki.

Mr. Benedict asks Mr. Albert to borrow the book that Mr. Albert used to summon the demon. Back in his room with Isabelle, Mr. Benedict finds out the book is not just a grimoire with spells and incantations, but also a history textbook. It says the last appearance of Asmodeus was in Connecticut in the 17th century. Crucially, he discovers that they can exile the demon to limbo if they use the secret text on the Ring of Solomon.

The Ring of Solomon is on a desk in the house.

Unfortunately for the guests, Isabelle is easily possessed through the promise of seeing her late husband Fred. Searching the house for Fred, she takes a swing at Mr. Albert with her cane, only to unceremoniously fall over a landing to her death.

After a moderately tense confrontation in the mansion that involves waving a shotgun around, Mr. Albert is possessed, though he showed no sign of passion or weakness. He goes after his wife with a sword, killing her as well as the other male guest.

Only Mr. Albert and Mr. Benedict remain. Mr. Benedict reads more from the book, learning that Asmodeus was imprisoned from century to century by generations of young women, most of them nude, who wore the Ring of Solomon. Asmodeus could only be imprisoned by the ring or by an incantation in the very book Mr. Benedict is holding.

Mr. Benedict continues to be puzzled. Asmodeus appears to him. "You will find nothing in the book, you fool!" says the demon. "You cannot defeat me!"

In the climactic sequence, the possessed Mr. Albert attacks the unpossessed Mr. Benedict with a sword, but just when Mr. Benedict is about to be skewered, lightning strikes his attacker.

The coda sees Mr. Benedict calling the police. Asmodeus appears before him, but Mr. Benedict has a trick up his sleeve. He lures the demon inside him, then puts on the ring. Despite not being a nude young woman, Mr. Benedict now serves as the sentinel protecting the world from the demon.

The End, except for a riveting two minutes and thirty-five seconds of credits.

One of the most entertaining treats of Demon Keeper is the interplay between the unfortunately late Edward Albert and the fortunately not late Dirk Benedict. The two veteran actors continually trade jabs and barbs. Even though both of their characters are dismissed at the beginning as charlatans, we eventually learn they have little in common. Mr. Albert's character, a true charlatan in over his head, even asks Mr. Benedict's character, the truly knowledgeable spiritualist, for help near the end. It is unfortunate for Mr. Albert's character that he is both possessed by a demon and struck by lightning in the climactic moments of the film. Perhaps this would go without saying, but such a fate may be described as excessive, even for a character with deceptive intentions such as Mr. Albert's.

As with most films with the word "demon" in the title (see also Demonwarp, The Demon, Night of the Demon, Demon Seed, and Demon Wind), Demon Keeper is an exceptional work of cinematic art, one of the finest films the mid-1990s had to offer. Unlike many films with the word "demon" in the title, however, Demon Keeper prominently features a demon. While some might say such correspondence between a film's title and its content betrays a lack of creativity, I salute the honesty on display. In Demon Keeper, there is in fact a demon and, by the end, a keeper. Could one ask for anything more from a Roger Corman-produced horror film shot in Zimbabwe in the mid 1990s? I think not. I think not.