Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Demoniacs (1973)

The Movie: Just before the credits, in a fashion that recalls the old swash-buckling movies, we are introduced to our villains. They are wreckers, a kind of pirate that preyed on sailing ships by luring them into dangerous waters and looting the wreck. Here we have a particularly bloodthirsty bunch.

The nominal leader is the Captain (John Rico), a vicious brute who is slowly but surely being overcome by guilt over his evil deeds, past and present. This makes him increasingly unstable. Next is Bosco (Willy Braque), who we are told intends to replace the Captain as the group’s boss. Then there is Paul (Paul Bisciglia), the cowardly drunk of the group. As the voiceover cleverly puts it “he is the most powerful, because all of the other three think he is on their side.”

Finally we have Tina (the gorgeous Joëlle Coeur), the Captain’s girlfriend and true boss of the wreckers. I would like to describe Tina as a sadistic bitch; but that would be both a gross understatement and a mean-spirited insult to sadistic bitches everywhere. Tina is behind all of the band’s worst atrocities; whether she is ordering the other wreckers to commit them, or demanding to commit them herself. The worse the deeds she is witness to (or involved in), the more turned on she gets. In short, Tina is a very nasty piece of work.

The story itself is simple; the wreckers’ latest atrocity brings unintended consequences. There are two survivors of their latest wreck (Lieva Lone and Patricia Hermenier, in their only film, and I have no idea which is which); but upon reaching shore they are brutally raped, beaten and left for dead by the pirates. However, they manage to elude their tormenters and escape to a mysterious ruin near the local village.

The ruin’s two inhabitants, a priest (I think [Ben Zimet]) and a woman dressed as a clown (Mireille Dargent, who also starred in Rollin’s Requiem for a Vampire) guard a demon who has been trapped in the ruins for centuries. Through his two servants the demon (Miletic Zivomir) offers the girls a deal; in return for freeing him (and sex, naturally) he will grant them the power to get their revenge. The consequences bring about tragedy, and the downfall of the wreckers.

The Review: In the past two or so years I have become familiar with the works of Jean Rollin; and he has rapidly become one of my favorite directors. However, I am always hesitant to suggest his movies to others. Rollin is a director who, whenever he can, goes his own way in his movies and tries to create his own unique visions. Even for fans such as myself, he is very hit or miss. When he misses, he can come across as incomprehensible and pretentious in the worst ways. However, whenever he’s successful, even if it’s only a partial success; Rollin creates experiences that are all the more wonderful for being so unique.

I have found that it helps to think of Rollin’s movies much in the way that one would think of a dream. Judged externally, they make little or no sense. But when taken on their own terms, they have their own internal logic. Indeed, one of the things Rollin is most noted for is his ability to create a sleepy, dreamlike atmosphere over the most bizarre, and sometimes brutal, happenings. Who knows, maybe that’s the man’s intention in the first place.

Demoniacs is one of Rollin’s better known films, and it certainly is a good reflection of his quirks and idiosyncrasies. While there are male characters, it is the females who are the most developed and the most important part of the story. There is gratuitous nudity; odd, and often irrelevant philosophical tangents; some really bad dialogue and parts of the plot that really don’t make sense. There are gorgeous camera shots, a woman dressed like a clown (Rollin seems to have a thing for women dressed like clowns in his movies), and an overall dreamlike, otherworldly atmosphere hanging over everything. In short, except for the lack of vampirism, Demoniacs has pretty much everything one can expect from a Rollin movie.

The very best part of the film would have to be Joëlle Coeur as Tina the wrecker. Coeur was a French actress who did sexploitation and B-movies for eight years during the 1970s. According to Rollin in an interview, she left the movie scene entirely when hardcore came along; apparently not wanting anything to do with it. It’s a shame that she had so few movies, and so few of those are unavailable today, because Coeur was truly a good actress.

For one thing, Coeur had a marvelous command of the physical side of acting. No, not in the way you’re thinking; I mean that she had an amazing knack for conveying emotion using just her body and facial expressions. She’s probably the best actor in this movie (maybe the only real actor) and she dominates and steals every scene she’s in. All the male wreckers, as presented, are two-dimensional cartoon characters. The role of Tina could have been as well, but Coeur’s presence and charisma and physical acting lift it far above that level. She’s believable, she’s sexy, she’s entertaining in a way none of the other parts or actors in the movie can hope to match. She’s also scary as all hell.

The others do their parts. The two girls playing the victims/avenging ghosts do alright; if nothing else they look eerie sometimes. Since they’re mute throughout nearly the entire movie, just looking eerie works. Apparently Rollin wanted the Castel Twins for the part, but he couldn’t get them. It’s a real shame, the Castel Twins would have been wonderful; but the available actresses do an adequate job.

So the big question; why do I like the movie? I’ve been trying to come up with an answer the whole time I’ve been writing this, and still nothing. Admittedly, just looking at Demoniacs’ individual parts is a mixed bag. On the one hand you have some truly beautiful, haunting shots; Joëlle Coeur’s phenomenal talent (and she’s also nude a lot, if you’re into that sort of thing); an engrossing atmosphere and a somewhat intriguing storyline. On the other hand you have an obvious low budget, bad dialogue, some meandering plotwise, and a good deal of confusion if you’re looking for anything like a conventional movie. That said, I’m still not sure what the spark is that raises the whole above the sum of its parts. Maybe it’s just Joëlle Coeur. But then, as per usual, I am a bit taken with her.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for something different and you don’t mind copious nudity, mildly graphic sex and a few fairly brutal scenes; you should definitely check out Demoniacs. If those things put you off, or if you want anything like a conventional movie, story or plot; then avoid this one.

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