Monday, June 24, 2019

"Yes! But Not Really" - Necromancer (1988)

Having already sung the praises of Necromancy (1972), let us now turn to Necromancer (1988), directed by Dusty Nelson, who had made the Pittsburgh-based horror film Effects (1980) with Tom Savini and Joe Pilato before turning to martial arts films. Necromancer is a classic example of a colorful 1980s supernatural horror film, and it features the charming Russ Tamblyn.

Not everyone appreciates Necromancer, of course. Reviewer anxietyresister writes, with a measure of what might be called sexism, "a tedious affair, with fake blood & guts galore and far too many shots of blokes in their underpants." The famous reviewer Mike_T-Little_Mtn_Sound_Archive writes, "When it was released, it was pretty cheesy, but rewatching this movie 30+ years later, it just doesn't hold up." And reviewer BA_Harrison (a critic I am beginning to believe does not like any of the classics) writes that the film is "a fairly dreadful straight-to-video bottom shelf filler, with weak performances and woeful visual effects."

How dreadful is Necromancer? Not dreadful at all! Read on to see why...

The film begins with a quotation purportedly from the Dead Sea Scrolls: “And for revenge thou hast created this demon. Her domain is darkness - her purpose wickedness.”

A bespectacled man in a red shirt rides a bicycle along the street to a small house with a shed in the backyard. The shed, whose door is covered with a red curtain on which is partinted a symbol that might be Satanic, is used by a fortune teller/witch/necromancer; the bespectacled man witnesses the witch murder a woman by telekinetically chopping her up with an axe.

Elsewhere, at a university, theatre professor DeLonge (portrayed by Russ Tamblyn) flirts with his student Julie, whom he has cast in the lead of The Taming of the Shrew. After Mr. Tamblyn leaves, three young men in animal masks break into Mr. Tamblyn’s office to steal his test. In a sequence that can only be described as weirdly complex, Julie stumbles upon the men and identifies them, so they rape her while the security guard is occupied in the bathroom with an adult magazine he found in Mr. Tamblyn’s office. The disturbing rape occurs at knifepoint on the bed in a theatrical bedroom set underneath, for some reason, a disco ball.

Julie takes the traditional clothed shower next, then tells her friends about the rape, but she cannot call the police because the rapists found a letter proving Julie is having an affair with Mr. Tamblyn. Furthermore, the rapists have the law on their side: “It’s three people’s word against one. There’s a law about that, and the law will protect us.” The worst of the rapists adds cogently, “No insecure bitch can touch us, because we matter. She’s just a chick.”

Julie’s friend Freda sees a newspaper ad that catches her attention, and she shows it to Julie.

Julie and Freda visit the necromancer, who charges $20, in her shed.

The necromancer performs a quick ritual, beseeching Belial to send forth his angel of vengeance. Julie wants to stop, but of course it is too late. Horrifyingly, a vacuum cleaner rolls through the shed, a blender turns on, and a toy monkey starts banging cymbals together.

After the mystical ceremony is over, in another weirdly complex set of events, Julie and Freda go to the lead rapist’s house to see Julie’s boyfriend Eric’s band, named Trapper, playing at a party. When she sees all three rapists dancing, Julie runs to the lizard-skin-wallpapered bathroom to splash water on her face, unaware that the lead rapist is ready to abduct her again, this time with a handgun.

As a thrill-seeker, he allows Julie to shoot him, which, unexpectedly, she does, though only with a blank. “You really are sick,” she tells him.

Later, one of the rapists takes a shower, and the demon appears inside the shower in Julie’s form to seduce him, flash green eyes, and then grab his face with a big, clawed hand.

The demon next seduces and kills the main rapist in his bathroom.

Julie begins to feel guilty about the supernatural goings-on. She goes back to the main rapist’s house in the morning, but can’t get inside. The bespectacled man from the opening, Ernest, tells her that the necromancer is using the spirits of the dead to exact revenge on behalf of Julie.

Meanwhile, Russ Tamblyn, looking his Russ Tamblyn-est, aims to seduce another of his acting students.

Elsewhere, the demon visits Julie’s boyfriend Eric, appearing as Julie but fading into Eric’s bed before he can see her (and leaving a red light on the pillow).

Intercut with her visit to Eric is the demon’s visit, in the same body, to Allan, one of the rapists who stood by and did nothing. Using her big red demon hands, the demon castrates Allan.

In the morning, Julie goes to Allan’s house to see if he really was castrated, as in her dream. Ernest confronts her again, and for some reason he calls her “Lisa.” He admits to watching and tracking the necromancer. “You asked for her help. You wanted the revenge,” he says.

Julie replies, “Yes.”

“You wanted them to die.”

“Yes! But not really.”

She drives away.

Unwisely, she goes to Russ Tamblyn’s house in the evening, where she tries to break off her relationship with him. He threatens her by saying he will fail her and she will lose her scholarship and financial aid. “I can’t believe you’d do that to me,” she says.

“Believe it,” says Mr. Tamblyn. “I would.”

Julie escapes his house quietly but needs to return to retrieve her purse, only to find the demon in her body seducing Mr. Tamblyn, after having sprayed his shower with blood for no reason at all. The real Julie watches the demon in Julie’s form (a demon whose eyes move disconcertingly as if not attached to its face) kill Mr. Tamblyn.

We watch the desperate Julie finds Ernest, who shows her his magical knife (not a euphemism). But it is not really Julie; it is the necromancer/demon, and she forces Ernest to stab himself with his magical knife (again, not a euphemism).

The real Julie does go to find Ernest, where she finds his Satanic altar, but not his body. Somehow, she learns that the demon is after Eric, but instead of going directly to Eric she stops at her friend Freda’s house, and instead of driving to Eric’s house, the two of them run across campus to his dorm room. Julie walks in on the demon seducing Eric. “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Eric says, not unreasonably.

“Why are you doing this?” Julie asks the demon.

“You were angry and wanted revenge. I am the demon of vengeance.”

“Go away,” says Julie. “I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.” She begs for Eric’s life. Then she reaches out and strangles her doppelgänger. They push each other back and forth for several minutes while Freda knocks on the door from the hall and pleads, “You guys!”

In the end, one of the Julies is stabbed in the throat and head.

Most shockingly of all, Eric emerges from behind the wreckage of his bed in very short, very tight briefs. He embraces Julie on the floor and Freda walks in on them. “Did I just miss something?”

Julie grins and shrugs.

In the final shot, we hear a demonic laugh from outside the necromancer’s house, which might imply that it was the necromancer who survived and not Julie.

Or it might not.

Among its many fascinating qualities, Necromancer gives us scenes that we have never seen before, such as a beautiful woman with claws made of something like red jelly castrating a bystander who failed to stop a rape. The mythology of the demon of vengeance is likewise fascinating, all the more so because the film gives us only occasional glimpses of its story. For example, at the beginning, we believe the woman in the shed to be a necromancer who can summon demons, but we find out later that the woman is actually both the necromancer and the demon itself. Even more intriguing is the fact that the demon appears to travel exclusively through plumbing, appearing in showers and bathtubs before it takes its gruesome revenge. Why plumbing? Why bathrooms? We never find out, and of course this only further intrigues the audience. A sequel is necessary, but unfortunately has never been made.

The film also serves to demonstrate the flexibility of its director, Dusty Nelson. His first film, 1980's Effects, is a highly effective Cassavetes-esque suspense drama about a film shoot that is a cover for both pornography and snuff films; it features excellent acting and ingenious transitions between reality and illusions, and a startling ending. Necromancer could not be more different: It is a colorful exploitation fantasy with, it must be said, uneven acting and a much less artistic focus. That these films were directed by the same filmmaker is a testament to Dusty Nelson's skills--his ability to satisfy many different kinds of audiences with many different kinds of entertainment. This flexibility is further reinforced by Mr. Nelson's contributions to the television series Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in 1975. Dusty Nelson is truly a renaissance man, deserving of more widespread acclaim.