Hell is hungry.
Nostalgia is a funny thing in horror. On the one hand, many horror fans want something new from their scary films. It’s almost a requirement of terror that it be somehow new, whether in concept or presentation. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. On the other hand, however, lots of horror fans get a kick out of looking back at the horror of yesteryear, especially if it relates to their youth. This is why we have the current vogue for VHS-styled horror. The Demon’s Rook falls into that camp, with a particular affection for those 80s-era features like Demons and other creature-oriented films from the heyday before CGI dominated the monster movie. However, unlike most nostalgic horror films that expect viewers to sit through a painfully low-budget film for that frisson of recognition, The Demon’s Rook does its best to one-up its predecessors with excellent effects and a new story. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but The Demon’s Rook won’t disappoint fans of 80s-era creature features.
As a young boy, Roscoe claims to be visited by a demon friend, one he can draw pretty realistically. Then one day he’s taken from his family into the demon underground, where Dimwos tutors him in the ways of magic. Several year later, Roscoe (now played by writer/director James Sizemore) emerges from the underground and discovers that we’re all under threat from invading demons who turn people into zombies (among other nasty side effects), and only Roscoe can stop them. Once he hooks up with his childhood pal Eva (Ashleigh Jo Sizemore, wife of the writer/director), Roscoe has to save the world.
One of the tragedies of low-budget films that try to recall 70s and 80s horror is that they use the previous era’s lower budget and so-so effects as license to not have to put in much effort. Since Evil Dead 2 used a bunch of Karo syrup, that’s all many filmmakers think they have to do to make a horror film. What they forget is that the folks behind Evil Dead (and many other horror touchstones) were actively trying to innovate. Sure they were strapped for cash and relying on ingenuity, but it wasn’t a case of settling for good enough. So when many filmmakers go back to the well to revive VHS-era horror, the now-corny looking effects justify filmmakers going for the cheapest looking effects.
The Demon’s Rook goes the opposite direction. Its demonic effects are shockingly well-handled. It’s all rubber-masked based, but instead of looking like a Big-Box-Store Halloween cast-off, these masks are pretty terrifying. They look as convincing as you could expect a big-budget, CGI-based film to look (and quite a bit better than a lot of TV shows in the last couple of years). The gore is also startlingly well-executed. Both clever, slasher-style kills and zombie gore effects look surprisingly realistic for a low budget throwback film. The rest of the filmmaking is just as good … cuts happen quickly and appropriately to seamlessly tie the effects together.
That’s what really matters here … there’s not a lot of plot development or sense to be made of the characters. But that only helps the film maintain a slightly hallucinatory, dream-like atmosphere that ties it even more firmly to its Italian predecessors (which, I would suspect, seemed hallucinatory because of the added language barrier, as well). The gore and demon effects keep the film moving from scene to scene, as the weird story creates a solid atmosphere.
Of course The Demon’s Rook isn’t quite perfect. The first 20 or so minutes feel totally unnecessary. In some ways they set up essential plot points, but while they’re unspooling they feel really, really terrible. I can see a lot of people turning the film off at the 20 minute mark out of frustration and missing all the good stuff after that. The film doesn’t really get going until a trio of rural types are having a beer and a chat. A demon emerges and shows us that this is going to be a wild ride from here on out, completely with nasty gore and lots of killing. Before that moment (which happens around the 24 minute mark), the film gives the impression that it’s going have some good ideas (like the demon faces), but be unable to show us much due to budget constraints. All that changes after minute 24, but that first act is pretty excruciating to sit through.
And of course these kinds of films aren’t for everybody. Hallucinatory creature-features with strong 80s vibes are not going to keep all viewers happy, and the gore/violence quotient is high enough to turn other viewers off as well.
The DVD is pretty great as well. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is sharp and detailed, especially for a low budget effort. Colors are perfectly saturated, particularly the reds. Black levels are consistent and deep, with no significant noise. Overall, the film looks great. The film’s stereo track keeps dialogue audible and well balanced with the score and effects. The score itself deserves recognition for suggesting some of those great Italian scores by Goblin without self-consciously aping their conventions.
Extras are surprisingly extensive. They start with a commentary by Sizemore, co-writer/producer Akom Tidwell and editor/producer/DP Tim Rice. It’s a friendly chat over a few drinks, and the trio discuss everything from the project’s inception to their admiration for the actors. Then we get a five minute featurette that gives us a fast-motion overview of the creation of the demon heads. Deleted scenes (four minutes) and a gag reel (also four minutes) are also available. The short film “Goat Witch” is a goofy and fun inclusion that shows Sizemore working on a smaller scale to perfect the kinds of effects he needs for bigger features.
The Demon’s Rook is by far one of the most well-executed low budget horror films to cross my screen in a long while. It’s got great gore, a decent story, and if you get past the first 20 minutes, a great atmosphere.