Tuesday, October 9, 2018

HubrisWeen 2018, Day 4: Demonoid: Messenger of Death (1980)

I'm going to level with you, dear readers: I chose to review this flick at least partially because it has one of the most bitchin' posters I have ever seen. I mean, just look at that amazing work of art that ought to be adoring the side of a van! You just know that there is no way the movie within can have anything at all to do with it!

However, I also chose this film because I have been aware of its basic plot every since I read Jeff Rovin's Encyclopedia of Monsters. Mr. Rovin did not think much of this film, but somehow its premise stuck with me and I knew that some day I would have to see it for myself. Finding out that it had gotten a Blu-ray release was wonderful news, even if I did not get my hands on it until this year.

Unfortunately for my poor wife, she was along for the ride when I gleefully popped Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray into the player.

We begin in the past, though it won't be until later in the film that we find out for sure that this is supposed to have been 300 years earlier. All we know at this point is that there are a bunch of people running around inside a cave in hooded robes that look suspiciously like Klan robes. Some have torches and a few have axes and swords, but one of the figures is clearly not with the others--as every time they encounter the rest of the group, this rogue figure backhands the others with their left hand.

That mysterious figure's hood soon slips off to reveal a blonde woman underneath. Because this film is very efficient in its exploitative elements, her robe is also quickly torn open to reveal her bare breasts as the other hooded figures manage to force her up against a wall and lock her left hand in a shackle hanging there. (Just don't expect any nudity after this point,: this all you're getting, bub) The man with the axe then moves forward--and chops her chained hand off at the wrist.

I'm not sure what's more hilarious: the severed hang dangling in the cuff, or the woman collapsing in a heap with a left arm that is suddenly close to a foot longer to accommodate the bleeding stump prop.

The other figures then take the hand and carefully lock it into a hand-shaped silver coffin. Frankly, it looks like the kind of a muffin pan you'd buy to make Halloween treats. Because the filmmakers have seen The Exorcist, this is immediately followed by a seemingly unrelated shot of a devil statue with a missing left hand and a sword held aloft in its right hand. This time the statue also starts billowing smoke from the base and shoots lightning from the sword. I say this time, because "subliminal" shots of this statue will be flashing at us throughout the entire film.

On the other hand, this means that poster isn't quite as dishonest as it seems.
In the present of 1980, we join Jennifer Baines (Samantha Eggar) as she arrives in Guanajato, Mexico to help her husband, Mark Baines (Roy Jenson) to oversee the silver mine they have apparently purchased and re-opened. As usual, opening a closed silver mine will prove to be a terrible idea.

The first issue arises when Jennifer decides to surprise her husband by walking into the mine--in heels, but with a hard hat so that she manages to look sensible and moronic. She also manages to cause a minor cave-in when she brushes a wall, and this results in her screaming when a skeleton falls on her.

After briefly comforting his wife, Mark is ecstatic to find that the dead man has a bag of silver, which proves there is still something to be found in the mine. The foreman points out that the guy who found it is dead, and then the other miners freak out because the skeleton is missing its left hand. When Mark and Jennifer follow up this incident by visiting a museum full of local mummies (!), Jennifer notices many of them are missing their left hands, too.

Here the foreman, who joined them on this little trip, reveals that there is a local legend about the hand of the devil. It is connected to evil rites that were conducted in the mine, hence the local miners' reluctance to dig too deep in said mine.

Well, the next day Jennifer reveals her grand plan to Mark. She is going to go with him into the deepest part of the mine and when she comes back out safely, the miners will be so humiliated that a woman was brave enough to do that that they will agree to keep working.

I'm all for exploiting toxic masculinity and all, but that doesn't sound like a slam dunk to me.

Indeed, we'll soon see it isn't. For in the deepest part of the mine, Mark manages to fall into a sand trap. Hilariously, you can see the actor deliberately getting himself more stuck because he is trying to find the opening in the (bouncing) cover beneath that sand that will allow him to sink and get his legs through it. Luckily for him, the sand leads to a hidden chamber full of cobwebs. After Jennifer joins him, they realize that this chamber must have belonged to a Satanic cult--what with the demon statues, fancy daggers, and infant mummies on an altar.

However, when Mark finds the hand coffin in a sort of display case, he decides that this is what the miners were all afraid of and that by bringing it back out he will alleviate their fears. That turns out to not be the case at all, and seeing their boss waving it around just leads the miners to straight GTFO.

Mark decides to sulk that evening, musing on how he feels like a gambler who blew all his savings in Vegas and then blew his brains out. Believe it or not, this is clumsy foreshadowing. Jennifer tries to cheer him up with champagne, but when she goes to bed, Mark drunkenly decides to open the hand coffin. Naturally, there is nothing inside but dust--but once he goes to bed, too, that dust reforms into a severed hand through the magic of dissolves.

The hand makes its presence known by climbing up Jennifer's leg like a nightmare spider. Her scream wakes up Mark, who grabs the hand with his--which turns out to be the worst possible move, as it suddenly turns into ash again and Mark begins acting strangely. It's not immediately clear to anyone not familiar with the central conceit, but the hand has just possessed him.

Look, for being 300 years old, he sure is handsome.
Jennifer is a bit distressed when Mark abruptly gets fed up with her attempts to make sure he's okay and then just leaves. However, she still takes it a bit too much in stride, since she just casually goes to look for him at the mine the next morning.

Once there, the horrified foreman tells her that her husband has forced the miners all into the mine. Unfortunately, when she sees her husband readying a dynamite plunger it's too late for her to do anything but scream at him to stop before he pushes it down. The mine blows up, killing all the miners inside. Some other explosions go off above ground, which the small dog wandering into the shot behind Jennifer and the foreman was not prepared for.

Naturally, it's an incredibly jarring tone shift to cut from the aftermath of that explosion to--the exterior of a casino in Las Vegas. However, it turns out that when you're possessed by an ancient demonic hand, your first move after murdering dozens of miners is to hit the craps table to use your infernal luck to win lots of money.

You'd think the Mexican  authorities would have been after Mark for mass murder, but it turns out that he has been cleaning out the casinos under his actual name. I say that because we see he has made the front page of the paper for his winnings (!) and Jennifer is easily able to find the hotel he has been staying at. Sure, the clerk is dismissive because lots of women have been claiming to be Mrs. Baines, but she still has zero trouble getting his room information.

Sadly for Jennifer, there is to be no happy reunion. For Mark has caught the eye of a criminal who wants to learn how Mark is surely cheating the system, and he uses his attractive partner to lure Mark out to the parking lot so they can knock him out and take him to a shack in the desert to torture it out of him. So Mark wakes up with his hands tied to a table and a goon threatening to cut his hands off if Mark doesn't share his secrets.

That is a bad idea. Mark hulks out of his restraints and kills both of his captors--and even Mark seems horrified when he kills the seductress by crushing her face with his left hand. Unfortunately for Mark, the hand has apparently gotten all it wants out of him because it manages to douse him in gasoline and set him on fire. The neat part of this--and something that stuck with me when I first read about the film--is that the hand escapes being burned with the rest of him by burying itself in the sand.

Now, even in 1980 there surely should have been dental records to accurately identify Mark's burnt corpse (or fingerprints, given the unharmed left hand). Apparently that is not the case, however, since Jennifer learns from the local police that his body has been identified as someone else and shipped to Los Angeles for burial.

This brings Jennifer to Father Cunningham (Stuart Whitman), who belongs to the church where Mark is buried. Cunningham is our resident conflicted priest with an Irish accent that randomly fades in and out. When Jennifer tells him she believes her husband was possessed by a demonic left hand--and she has brought the hand coffin along with her--you can imagine that even Cunningham is doubtful of her story. When she advises she wants her husband dug up, he points out that there are a lot of steps involved in that process and generally "demonic possession" is not a legally accepted justification for disturbing as grave.

Still, he is willing to at least show her the currently unmarked grave that evening. Hilariously, they just miss Mark's charred corpse exploding out of its grave, and they somehow mange to avoid encountering the stumbling zombie on their way. Jennifer realizes the grave was disturbed from within, but Cunningham chalks it up to sickos playing jokes and calls the police.

Sgt. Leo Matson (Lew Saunders) is the one who answers the call, and it seems that he and Cunningham know each other. While Cunningham and Jennifer discuss her story further, Matson goes to investigate the grave site--which leaves his patrol car unguarded. Mark's corpse crawls over and proceeds to slam the driver's side door on his left wrist until finally his hand is severed and lands perfectly on the driver's seat. Matson hears the racket and comes to investigate, but when he opens his door to get to his radio the hand leaps at him.

Somehow Matson manages to fire off a shot, which brings Jennifer and Cunningham running in time to see Matson speeding off in his patrol car. Jennifer spots her husband's corpse by the side of the road and notes that his hand is now missing.

The film eats up some running time when Cunningham goes to see Matson at the gym they both belong to, in order to find out what happened last night. This leads eventually to them boxing each other, complete with several slow-motion shots of Matson using his left hand to punch Cunningham. However, the film never gives any indication that these seemingly significant hits have harmed Cunningham even in the slightest. Finally, Cunningham's cross necklace slips out of his sweatshirt and Matson just casually leaves the ring at the sight of it.

However, it's now time for the film to get bonkers for a little while. Matson arrests Jennifer under plainly false pretenses as she is leaving Cunningham's church--but he takes her to a plastic surgery clinic. This is apparently not a very busy clinic, because Matson barges in on the doctor making out with his nurse beneath a huge copy of "The Creation of Adam" in their waiting room. Sidearm drawn, Matson tells the surprised surgeon that he will either cut off Matson's left hand or Matson will kill him.

Matson handcuffs Jennifer to a chair in the operating room as the surgeon prepares to cut his hand off with some kind of saw that he says will cauterize as it cuts. Matson explains to Jennifer that he is doing the will of evil, and it wants her as its next host. He then refuses any anesthesia as the surgeon begins slicing into his wrist--which leads to the actor revealing his limits, as his "pained" reaction looks like he is enjoying the amputation instead.

This just adds to the odd feeling that Matson and Jennifer just interrupted a sexy nurse porn scene before it could get dirty.

Luckily, by this time Cunningham has realized that Jennifer never made it back to her hotel and has reached out to the police. Well, it will be lucky for Jennifer, anyway, since everyone else in the clinic will not be so lucky. Matson gleefully presents the severed hand to Jennifer on a tray, but when the nurse realizes it is moving she screams and tries to run for the door--so the hand leaps onto the gurney where Matson left his gun and shoots her!

"Do you have a moment? I could really use a hand over here."
Matson then decides to wrestle with his own hand. However, it latches onto his face and--in one of the film's more effective gore sequences, although it is very brief--the surgeon trying to remove it just ends up taking part of Matson's face with it. The hand then possesses the surgeon, but Cunningham and the police have seen Matson's cruiser parked outside. The surgeon flees when Cunningham walks into the operating room. I guess because he's scared of the priest but I honestly could not tell you.

Thus follows an actually entertaining car chase, in that it wrecks several random cars who have to dodge the surgeon's car and the police chasing him. The chase ends at a train yard, where the surgeon grabs onto a train car--and then brains himself on something next to the track. I don't know if that part was intentional, but it's definitely deliberate when the surgeon sticks his left hand under the train wheels. The freed hand then, hilariously, grabs hold of the train undercarriage and makes its getaway.

Jennifer's reaction to this development is...bizarre. First, she tells Cunningham that the hand will inevitably come to her in order to possess her because she owns the mine it came from and is thus just as responsible for its freedom as her husband. This is a pretty huge leap in logic, but okay. Second, she seems incredibly blase about whether or not it finds her--and indeed she suddenly talks about belief in a higher power in a very agnostic way, despite earlier telling Cunningham that if he believes in God he must believe in the Devil.

Well, naturally the hand shows up in her hotel room that evening--including a shot of it crawling on the hideous carpet--and she is saved only by Cunningham arriving then. Let me tell you, for someone who still wasn't fully convinced of Jennifer's story, he really takes the sight a severed hand crawling towards him with clear intent in stride. Unfortunately, when they make their escape in his car, the hand leaps from her hotel room window and lands on his car's trunk to hitch a ride.

This begins the film's endgame, of course, but it sure takes its time. For one thing, when Cunningham and Jennifer go inside the church, the camera slowly pans all over the exterior. This doesn't build the suspense it is supposed to, but rather feels like the cameraman forgot where the hand was supposed to be.

Poor Jennifer was in a nightgown when Cunningham rescued her, so he offers her some of his clothes. This means that she will spend the rest of the film in trousers and suspenders, which will especially delight any bisexual women and lesbians who watch this.

Brings a whole other meaning to the old "something for the ladies" joke.
The hand sneaks into the basement and somehow cuts the phone lines and the power. I am left to picture it doing this by pinching wires between its thumb and forefinger and trying to saw through them with its fingernails. As Cunningham and Jennifer wander through the church's sanctuary in the dark and start lighting candles, the film seems to completely lose track of its own spatial setup--as I would swear they were both in the same large room, but then it seems like they are in totally separate rooms.

For some reason, the church has a bearded mannequin in monk's robes in the sanctuary. To my utter delight, Cunningham finds the mannequin's left hand on the floor--because the demonic hand has taken up a hiding spot pretending to be the mannequin's hand! Sadly this bit of hilarity is over far too quickly as it attacks Cunningham. The priest, as you would expect, risks his own soul to try and save Jennifer and makes the hand possess him.

This is a terrible idea, of course, because that just makes him a vessel for the hand so it can hunt Jennifer down. Jennifer desperately hides herself in the room where Cunningham makes stained glass because he is a priest with a hobby, apparently. Luckily, the demonic force controlling Cunningham is not the brightest. First it punches through a stained glass window on rollers just so it can menace Jennifer, and then it sees nothing odd about how she willingly hands Cunningham a chisel before she lays her head on his left palm to accept her death.

Yeah, it was a trick. Jennifer dodges at the last second and Cunningham stabs through his own wrist, trapping the evil hand. He has Jennifer hand him a blowtorch and then he burns his own hand to ash. Cunningham then rather calmly quotes the passage that I had to Google in order to confirm is Matthew 5:30, about cutting your own hand off if it offends thee.

Of course, this is a horror movie from the 1980s so you know we can't leave it there. Since the hand destroyed the coffin before it ambushed Jennifer in her hotel room, Cunningham and Jennifer decide the best course of action is to dump the ashes in the ocean.

Look, stop objecting to the obvious idiocy of this plan, they can't hear you.

Indeed, we get a truly hilarious and drawn out stinger ending, which generates way more questions than it answers. Jennifer is at home when there is a knock at the door and a deliveryman nearly grabs her with his left hand because she opened the spy hole as he was knocking on it. She signs for the hand-sized package and then notices that water and seaweed have been tracked all through her house. Inside the package is more seaweed and then a black candle in a weird glass holder.

And then the hand appears in her sink! It leaps up, grabs her by the hair, and after a lengthy struggle it slams her face-first through her glass coffee table. The End!

Seriously, though, I cannot stop trying to imagine how the hand managed to mail her the package on its way back from the ocean. I am very, very sad we were robbed of seeing how that went down because it would have been the best part of the movie.

This demon does not give up. You really gotta hand it to him.
The effects in this film are a mixed bag. As a bit of an artist myself, I can attest that hands are one of the hardest parts of the human body to replicate. It isn't shocking that many of the fake hands in this film look less convincing that the actual mannequin hand that the demon hand replaces. However, there are a pleasantly surprising number of genuinely effective set pieces with the crawling appendage. To be fair, most seem to have been done using real hands sticking through hidden holes in the set, but that doesn't make it less impressive.

The rest of the gore, when it happens, is mostly just fake blood. However, the charred corpse of Mark is a pretty decent bit of makeup work.

The acting (and dubbing, such as in the Mexico scenes) ranges from competent to "random person who was near the set that day." Everyone in the plastic surgeon's office sequence, aside from Samantha Eggar, is a prime example of the latter.

So it's not shocking that the general consensus on this film is not positive. It only runs around 78 minutes in the cut I watched, but there are long stretches where very little of interest happens and its attempts to generate suspense usually just drag long past the point where they should have ended. The plot also makes very little sense, as it often feels like we missed a scene somewhere that included some kind of explanation.

To be fair, the film has a longer cut called Macabra, and Vinegar Syndrome did include that on this Blu-ray. However, knowing that that version excises a lot of the exploitation elements made it not terribly appealing--so I honestly can't say if the missing scenes offer any clarification at all. Personally, I doubt it.

So taken just on the basis of the Demonoid cut of this film, it's safe to say this film is not very good. My wife ended up watching this with me and outright hated it, but naturally just because a film is no damn good doesn't mean that I'm going to hate it. This film was exactly what I expected it to be, which means that it was a bad movie that I found very entertaining.

Unfortunately, that isn't a recommendation because there are definitely points where it drags way more than a film with such a loony premise has any right to.

When this flick moves it is a thing of stumbling beauty. It is both unashamed of being a movie about a killer hand that possesses people and also utterly unsure of what to do with this concept. This results in a serious film that tends to be funnier than most of the intentional jokes in Idle Hands, which clearly owes almost as much to this film as it does to Evil Dead 2. And it does have a couple of genuinely unique kills and sequences that I wish belonged to a better movie so they could be more likely to be appreciated.

Like many of the films I review, Demonoid is best watched by a group and riffed. Even my wife enjoyed parts of it in that spirit. Watch it alone, however, and you're likely to find the dull parts insufferable.

This has concluded Day 4 of HubrisWeen 2018! To see what the other Celluloid Zeroes chose for D, click the banner above!

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