Monday, August 1, 2011

Satanic Panic: THE DEMON LOVER (1977)

Tell me if this sounds familiar.  A group of working class types from Michigan combine their resources to make a low budget horror film about a summoned demonic presence that slowly kills off a group of young friends.  Am I talking about THE EVIL DEAD (1981)?  Hell no!  I’m talking about Jerry Younkins and Donald Jackson’s film debut THE DEMON LOVER.  Sam Raimi and friends often said they studied the stuff playing at drive-ins on how to make and how not to make a horror film and I have to wonder if they caught this low budget affair when it premiered in Detroit.  I’m sure if they did that lots of “okay, we can totally make a movie” were heard that screening.

The plot of THE DEMON LOVER is pretty standard stuff. A coven led by Laval Blessing (co-director/producer Younkins, under the delightful pseudonym Christmas Robbins) sits around in his pseudo castle partying.  You know these guys are hardcore partying types as the Frank Zappa look-a-like of the group wears a top hat.  As anyone who has seen the band Sorcery in the classic STUNT ROCK (1980) knows, a top hat shows you mean business when it comes to serious partying. Anyway, things turn sour when young convert Pamela refuses to get nude for Laval and Damian (Val Mayerik, comic illustrator and co-creator of Howard the Duck) tells everyone this groovy scene is now totally bogus.  Well now they done pissed Laval off and, with help of a random naked chick, he summons up a demon to do his bidding.  At least I think that is what the demon is going to do because when it is onscreen the echo effect on its voice is so bad that you can’t understand what it is saying.

The kids start getting killed off (oddly, the murder of Pamela is the first thing shown in the movie, even though she shows up in the very next coven scene).  On the case is Det. Tom Frazetta (Tom Hutton) who quickly learns about this ragtag cult. Frazetta’s methods are unique as displayed by his visit to Elaine at the donut shop where she works.  He asks her about the cult and she just blows him off. His response isn’t to drag her downtown for more questions, but to shoot her with a rubber band and say, “The devil made me do it.” Freaked out by the visit from the cop, Elaine and her friend decide to ride down to Ann Arbor, but Laval possesses them both on their way down there and kills them.  Frazetta is at a loss with three unexplained deaths on his hands, so he goes with his wife to a party of mystic types to hopefully get some info from Prof. Peckinpah (Gunnar Hansen, in a thankless 2-minute role).  Peckinpah offers wisdom like “my fear is that for every group like ours that meets to study the positive side of the occult, who knows how many others meet in secret to practice the evil side of psychic phenomenon.” Amazingly, Damian calls Frazetta at this spiritual house party (apparently the station house knew exactly where he would be) and tells him to check out Laval Blessing.

At roughly the 45-minute mark, Frazetta visits Laval and the film goes into legendary status with one small line of dialog.  Blessing is outside throwing knives when Frazetta comes up to question him.  I kid you not, Laval says, “If there’s no hassle, let’s go inside the castle.” After that, we get this amazing Mamet-esque exchange that pre-dates the quick delivery and shaky cam of every CSI-wannabe today.

Pushing that black belt to the max!
After that we get two of the most amazing scenes featuring Laval back-to-back.  First, we see him at a karate school throwing down.  Wait a second…this pudgy guy with Robert Plant circa 1973 poufy hair is into black magic, nude rituals and martial arts?  He is the id of every 14 year old boy!  After we see him get his ass kicked in class (odd), Laval is shown in a bar where he proceeds to get into a huge fight and kick some ass (odder). Okay, I’m rambling at this point so I’ll wrap this up by saying Laval uses is demon to kill the three remaining girls of the group.  Hmmm, why is he always killing the girls?  Four of the male members head to his castle and Laval kills them too.  Damian and Frazetta show up to save the day and the demon attacks them with some sai weapons (wtf?) before disappearing in a fog.  No doubt the demon was scared when it saw Frazetta’s plaid pants.  The end.

Running just over 75 minutes, THE DEMON LOVER is pretty much what you would expect from first-time, low budget filmmakers.  The plot is barely existent and the acting is bad. If the film does have anything going for it, there are a couple of cool attack scenes. Also, there is some nice photography in some spots. Perhaps the best thing about the film is its unintentional comedy factor.  From the aforementioned garbled demon voice to the goofy possession scenes, THE DEMON LOVER reminds me of the films I shot as a teen, but with adults in the lead roles and decent special effects.  I’m still trying to figure out that title.  There is no demon love scene, so is Laval a lover of demons?   The alternate title of THE DEVIL MASTER is better and much more apt.

Surprisingly, quite a few of the folks behind the camera went on to do more stuff.  Jackson moved to California and had a prolific career in low, low budget cinema, much to my chagrin. When it comes to Jackson’s subsequent filmography, this might be his second best film behind HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN (1987).  I mean, at least it is short and shot on film.  It isn’t the pure torture of something like LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT (1995).  The most famous graduates are Dennis and Robert Skotak.  Both guys eventually worked for Roger Corman’s New World in the effects department and eventually won Academy Awards for their FX efforts with buddy James Cameron on ALIENS (1986) and TERMINATOR 2 (1991).  Perhaps the most notorious reason THE DEMON LOVER is known is because of the chaotic behind-the-scenes documentary DEMON LOVER DIARY (1980) shot by the girlfriend of cinematographer Jeff Kreines.  We’ll be reviewing that one next time because, eh, the demon lover made us do it.

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