Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Demonwarp (1988)

A minister (John Durbin) reads the Bible to his horse whilst trekking along a trail (his extremely clean “Old West” costume is the only indication we get that this is set before the turn of the Twentieth Century [okay, and the fact that he’s reading the Bible], because a subtitle would have been too tricky to put on screen, I suppose) when he catches sight of a “meteor” which crashes to earth nearby.   Cut to: a bright, sunny day, at a cabin in Demon Wood (duh duh DUUUHHHH!), where Bill (bulletproof check casher George Kennedy) and his doting daughter Julie (Jill Marin) are playing a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit™ when a Bigfoot-ian creature bursts through the door, roughs Bill up, and kills his daughter before dragging her corpse off into the unknown.  Cut to: a van full of idiots, including Jack (David Michael O’Neill), nephew of the owner of the aforementioned cabin, wending its way through the woods to investigate (unbeknownst to all but Jack and his girlfriend Carrie [Pamela Gilbert]) the expanding circle of weird goings-on in the forest (including the disappearance of said uncle).  Horror wants to ensue!

And so we come to Emmett Alston’s Demonwarp, an interesting premise in search of a good execution.  It’s set up initially as a slasher film with an animal (even though we can call the Bigfoot an alien, considering the prologue, but it still acts like an animal) as its villain (most precisely, the one we see the most).  It has the group of horny young people going out to a remote location to be killed in gory fashion.  It has bare female breasts galore (including two belonging to the lovely [and wasted, unless you count her boobs, though it could also be argued that they are the long and the short of her, if one were inclined to be a bit mean about it] Michelle Bauer).  It has a crazy old coot, trying in vain to warn the youths away from the area.  It has POV shots from the monster’s perspective (and I’ll get back to this later) as it stalks its prey.  And this got me thinking.  In many ways, a creature feature isn’t all that different from a slasher movie.  Both have antagonists who pop up at the worst possible times to dispose of irritating characters.  Both have antagonists who represent unknown quantities.  Both have antagonists who are non-verbal in the main (characters like Freddy Krueger and the more charismatic baddies notwithstanding), and in this way are even more inscrutable.  After all, if you don’t know why bad things are happening to you, they seem more tragic (this being based on the notion that most people believe that they are, at heart, good people).  The thing that should separate them is the human psyche, yet the way characters like these are regularly portrayed, there is little indication that such exists outside of the impetus for their individual geneses.  The Bigfoot in this film is not going to answer questions and develop a relationship with Jack like Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling.  The Bigfoot is irrational, animal, primal.  So, the Bigfoot (or something like the bear from Grizzly, let’s say) are essentially the same as Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, and both types can then be viewed as universal/natural forces.  They do what they do, they do it very well, and they are inescapable because their victims exist in the villains’ world.  

Another aspect that the film plays with is the concept of fanaticism.  Jack is fanatical about solving the mystery of Demon Wood.  Bill is fanatical about killing the Bigfoot.  The two characters are identical in this way, but they don’t trust one another, fanatics tending to be a bit paranoid.  This fanaticism reduces Jack and Bill to the goal of their myopic quest, and it removes them from the normal world.  They become loners, and, distanced from humanity, they become a bit deranged.  Of course, Kennedy is about ten times (maybe more) the actor that O’Neill is, so it’s possible that Alston and company were trying to delineate the interior conflict between Jack’s crusade into the Bigfoot’s world and his desire to escape from it with his friends and return to the ordinary one.  It doesn’t work, because O’Neill plays Jack as so intense and unlikable (he snaps at Carrie and Cindy [Colleen McDermott] no matter what they say, no matter how much sense or nonsense they talk) that not only do you not want to follow him to the culmination of his journey, but you kind of wish the monster would just appear and rip his head off so that the film would just end.  There is also the fanaticism of the minister, but his fanaticism is purely religious in nature, though, like Jack and Bill, his narrow world view allows him to be lulled in by what he believes to be an angel, though the alien villain (hint: not the Bigfoot) is in actuality a “devil.”  The zealotry of his believer’s mind ultimately makes the minister do evil, because he has essentially met God (to his mind), and since he was devoted to this deity before it asked him to sacrifice human beings (and, of course, there is at least one story with sacrifice at its center in the Bible), it is just a short trip from faithfulness to maleficence (a theme which feels all too easy to believe in the face of what we know about and learn more of in our non-cinematic reality).  All this said, that Jack is allowed to live, even though he doesn’t come to any revelation about his shortcomings, makes no attempt to change himself, and is still a grade-A peckerwood by the time the film ends, makes the film less satisfying than it was already.  His arc is a flatline.  

I’ve said often that POV handheld camera shots do not work all that well when used for an extended period of time (Dark Passage and The Lady in the Lake being the two notable exceptions that always spring to my mind).  In horror films, they tend to work even less, since we know that they are either going to be false (a cat jumps onto a character’s back or whatever) or exactly what they appear to be (yet still somehow unsatisfying in their predetermination).  The effectiveness of this technique varies by filmmaker, and I can confidently say that Emmett Alston is not a director who should employ POV very often, or even at all.  That’s the problem.  Just about every two minutes of Demonwarp, we get either shaky handheld POV shots or shaky handheld shots of legs running or walking (sometimes both).  You may think I’m exaggerating this.  I’m not.  In fact, I may be underestimating the frequency of these occurrences.  I’m guessing that the filmmakers thought this would keep pacing up and build some tension in the stalking scenes.  Instead, it becomes swiftly redundant to the point that I actually groaned every time I saw yet another of these shots (though it does give us Kennedy swinging an ax in direct address, so that’s one in the plus column).  This level of (what I can only surmise is) naiveté, which can be charming even in junk movies, is herein merely annoying, and worst of all, boring.  This is yet another example of a film that has everything I like (mashing up pulp horror and science fiction and revenge and survival genres, amongst other things), but is so breathtakingly dull, it’s a chore to sit through.

MVT:  The Bigfoot costume (and other creature effects), courtesy of John Carl Buechler, are solid fun.  Unfortunately, like a twig placed under a hunk of pig iron, it just can’t hold up enough of the picture to make any of it worth one’s time. 

Make or Break:  The scene where Tom (Billy Jayne of the late, lamented Parker Lewis Can’t Lose television series) goes full Jack Nicholson not only made the large vein in my forehead begin to throb, but it also made me want to grab my television and stomp it to death for showing me this travesty.  Thankfully, the latter never came to fruition.

Score:  3/10

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