Before I take you to your regularly scheduled post, I have to give a major shout-out to the excellent and encyclopedic Bleeding Skull (http://www.bleedingskull.com). After an absence of too many months, those guys are finally updating again, bringing hungry fans like me more entertaining and informative reviews of the most obscure and awesome trash cinema you could imagine. That site was and continues to be a huge inspiration to me in my movie reviewing efforts, which is to say I shamelessly rip them off at every opportunity. Imitation, flattery, etc...
Today I'm ripping them off even more brazenly than usual, as their post on the first movie under discussion and excellent article on the second were the direct cause of my seeking said movies out. I'm so glad I did, and I hope you will be too.
The Demon Lover (1977, aka The Devil Master) is the kind of big-dreaming, gloriously inept movie that always makes me smile, sometimes with but mostly at the bravely deluded people involved. A standard "hippie devil-cult leader summons a demon for revenge on the Judases in his flock" tale, it was supposed to be the filmmakers' ticket out of their car parts factory jobs and into the Dream Factory of Hollywood movie-making. Unfortunately a lack of funds, resources, and basic talent prevented it from becoming the "masterpiece" director Donald G. Jackson and producer Jerry Younkins envisioned.
But fortunately for trash movie fans and serious film students alike, documentary filmmaker Joel DeMott brought her camera along when she and her cinematographer boyfriend Jeff Kreines traveled to Michigan for the shoot, for which Kreines had agreed to serve as DP. The resulting film, Demon Lover Diary (1980), records the sometimes hilarious, sometimes depressing, and often even frightening ways in which production on The Demon Lover went wrong, and is itself a priceless document of the pitfalls of independent movie-making.
First, our feature presentation:
We open at the estate of cult leader Laval Blessing (Christmas Robbins, actually producer Younkins in a long flowing wig), where a bunch of wacked out hippies are gathered to get their kicks with the help of booze and devil worship. Upstairs Laval tries to convince a young cult member to participate in an orgy in order to "release energy" in order to summon a demon to do their bidding. When the nubile acolyte refuses and calls the other cult members to her aid, the whole occult study group falls apart, leaving Laval with one drugged-out Devilbabe with whom to work his magic. Turns out that's enough, as he's able to summon the demon anyway, which he then sets loose to get revenge on his former followers.
As the bodies start to pile up, a local police detective starts looking into the cult in an attempt to get to the bottom of these strange, savage murders. He gleans some information from a "white magic" cult with whom his wife has some ties, and then gets a hot tip from Damien, a disgruntled former cultist who is convinced Laval is behind it all. It comes to a head with a few former cult dudes and the detective descending on Laval's rural hideaway, only to fall victim to the Devil Master's mind-control powers in a (sort of) shocking bloodbath of horror. But when the demon demands his due, Laval finds out that Demonic forces are (surprisingly) not to be trusted.
The Demon Lover is an out-and-out mess. The intrusive synth-heavy score was either composed by one of the filmmakers or by his 10-year-old Casio-addled brother. It's shot poorly, the sets are badly lit and laughably dressed, and the cast full of non-actors have exactly two modes of expression: either deadpan cue-card reading or top-of-your-lungs shouting. The script doesn't do them any favors either, as it's hard to imagine even Laurence Olivier or Christopher Lee being able to make anything out of the howlers they're given to recite. A few of my favorite examples:
The flick also suffers from some pretty obvious padding, as when we get 10 minutes of Laval sparring with his Karate class and thereafter engaging in a barroom brawl with his dojo-mates, in a laughably-choreographed scene that has fuck-all to do with the plot. The only slightly redeeming thing about the movie are a few almost-effective effects scenes, as when one victim gets splattered over the hood of a car (driven by a friend who's either controlled by the devil or having a wild epileptic seizure) or the bloody aftermath of the dudes' self destruction. Also, the Demon costume is pretty fun in a Halloween Express kinda way, though the heavily distorted voice they use sounds more like Mel Blanc than Mephistopheles.
"No thanks, I've already had a Bloody Pamela, a Bloody Elaine, AND a Bloody Janice!"
On the other hand, Joel DeMott's Demon Lover Diary succeeds, both as a piece of filmmaking and as a sort of horror movie. In fact it starts out almost exactly like The Blair Witch Project, as we watch Joel and dumpy lover Jeff Kreines packing up for the trip to Michigan to shoot the flick. We seldom see Joel herself on camera, but she narrates for us, both through the film itself and periodically through a conversational and effective voice-over. They seem like enthusiastic, slightly pretentious kids, excited to be getting out of the city for a while and having the opportunity to work on a real-live feature film. Their friend Mark accompanies them to donate his talents as sound man.
What's also clear is that Donald Jackson is a grade-A creep of the "might in fact be a serial killer" kind. Laying out the plans for the production, Jackson never misses an opportunity to make Jeff feel uncomfortable and Joel unwelcome, and his odd way of speaking is frankly unsettling. Here we also meet Younkins, who we learn has helped finance the film by purposefully cutting off one of his fingers for the $8000 insurance money! The group argues for a while about whether Joel should stay at the house to answer phones while they pick up the rented filming equipment, ramping up the tension even more.
The equipment rented and everyone finally ready to start shooting the next day, Jackson takes the three kids to his parents' house, where they'll be staying while they work on the film. Jackson's mother is a sweet-talking country lady, but also a devout Christian--therefore Jackson forbids them to talk about the movie's plot, which his mother would strongly disapprove of. Also, he tells Ma that Joel and Jeff are married, another deception to smooth things over, and one which Joel is vocally uncomfortable with.
Once production starts, thinks go south with alarming speed. Jackson has drastically overestimated their shooting efficiency, and they quickly fall behind schedule. Younkins takes over directing the cast while Jackson concentrates on shot framing. Distractions abound, as the director takes off seemingly every other day to talk with local press about the "masterpiece" they're filming, pushing them further off schedule. Filming goes disastrously, with an improvised whipped cream fight threatening to destroy their rented camera, Younkins voicing loud disapproval over Kiernes' lighting set-ups, and the actors betraying their astonishing lack of skill at every turn. Jackson's sweet-talking mother shows her mean streak, blowing a gasket about the mess in the lodger's room and complaining about the noise they're making when they come in late. The tension, already palpable, becomes nearly unbearable.
Of the small number of people who have seen Demon Lover Diary, many compare it to the 1999 documentary American Movie, and there are certain similarities. However, where Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank come off as lovable idealists pushing toward success, Younkins and Jackson seem more like deluded sociopaths spiralling toward failure, and taking everyone around them along for the ride. Jeff quickly sees that the movie is going to be a disaster, and contemplates leaving before Jackson offers them $1000 to stay and finish (they'd originally agreed to work for free). Worse, when news gets back to the factory that Jackson is filming a movie and not on sick leave, he runs the risk of losing his job. Totally obsessed with the movie, though, he bets all his chips on it, mortgaging his house and risking the welfare of his wife and three kids; Joel worries aloud for the children's future.
As in American Movie they meet some other eccentric characters along the way, such as the make-up man/actor who alternates living with his wife and one of his three girlfriends. There are long talks about marriage, about poverty, about lack of sleep, as the whole crew quiclkly succumbs to exhaustion. Jackson's megalomania runs unchecked, and the already troubled production suffers more for it. Eventually they find themselves--rather incredibly--at the home of rock legend Ted Nugent (!), where they borrow some of the rocker's arsenal of firearms for a climactic scene. Jackson's insistence on using live ammunition worries the crew, and rightly so.
As I said earlier, the movie starts out like Blair Witch Project, and by the time things started to go wrong, I found myself thinking that, if it were a fiction film, by the end of the movie these protagonists would be running for their lives from their crazy director. It turns out I wasn't far off--when Joel and Jeff try to get Jackson to sign a contract promising their cut of any profits, you can almost feel the curtain of coldness drop between them, and this is soon followed by a genuinely surprising and chilling climax.
Demon Lover Diary is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at an ill-fated production, and at the personalities and problems involved in any creative project. Joel DeMott's narration and editing move the story along very skillfully and briskly, in sharp contrast to the haphazard editing and pacing of Demon Lover. She also betrays some East Coast condescension fo the Midwesterners with whom they're working, which comes through as a kind of warts-and-all veracity. While I did wonder if some of the scenes were restaged, in the end it didn't really matter--perhaps they achieve through a little fudging what Werner Herzog has called "ecstatic truth." Even if not, they've made a gripping documentary.
Demon Lover is a 1.25 Thumb-worthy failure, but the documentary of its making is something else entirely. If you've ever wondered what kind of person makes movies like Demon Lover, this is the answer, and it's more entertaining and frightening than the movie itself. Picture American Movie as directed by Andy Milligan, and you're close. Demon Lover Diary is an unknown documentary classic. 2.75 thumbs.
Nota bene: while DeMott went on to make only one other movie, the 1983 documentary Seventeen, Donald G. Jackson actually had a little better luck as a director. There are 33 credits on his imdb page, including the Troma sequel Class of Nuke 'Em High Part II: Subhumanoid Meltdown (1991), the tantalizingly titled Lingerie Kickboxer (1991), and Roddy Piper-starring cult classic Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988) and its sequels. Dreams do come true?
Bleeding Skull review of Devil Master (Demon Lover)
Bleeding Skull's excellent feature article on Demon Lover Diary
Bleeding Skull's review of Joel DeMott's second feature, Seventeen (1983).
Also, thanks to Kitty of Killer Kittens from Beyond, from whose March 2009 review I shamelessly stole the excellent poster graphic. ;)
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
"Hey guys, can you tell me how to get to the Dio concert?"
In short, The Demon Lover has all the trash-movie qualities you love to laugh at, and almost none of the flashes of inspiration that sometimes make such efforts viewable. Despite the obvious ambitions of the filmmakers, at the end of the day it's embarassing as a piece of filmmaking and a complete failure as a horror movie.
A little something for the ladies
Their enthusiasm is short-lived, however. As soon as they roll into Michigan they call director Donald Jackson, who expected them to arrive days earlier. After a terse phone conversation (we only hear Jeff's side, of course), Jackson fires Jeff and hangs up. Clearly baffled, the couple continue to Younkin's house, which is to double as production headquarters. The director has calmed down a bit, but the tension is still palpable, and it's clear that things have got off to a rotten start.