I’ve been writing a lot of detective fiction in the past year, including even a Sherlock Holmes book, based on the new American TV series ELEMENTARY . . . and, as is often the standard occupational hazard in any job where you have too think way too much, my work has been following me home a lot. It’s probably a sign that you’re way up the creek when even a causal night of movie watching becomes an exercise in deductive reasoning. So I’m writing at all down, in the hope that my weird, nerdy experience in arcana will somehow be productive or amusing. Also, my allergies are killing me today because the pollen content in Austin is something outrageous and record-breaking, like ten zillion percent (or “count” or “points” or “thingies” or how ever they hell measure it), so I gotta do SOMETHING to get my mind off the searing, inescapable pain living in my eyes and nose . . . and no Sherlock Holmes today. It’s the fucking weekend, dammit.
And yet . . . sigh . . . here I sit, at my damn word machine, writing about deductive reasoning.
Anyway . . . I’ve been marginally obsessed recently with a little movie from 1981 called DEMONOID. Those of you who know anything about me know that I wouldn’t be able to imagine a world without movies from 1981 called DEMONOID. (Obsessing about stuff like this is what my cold black heart pretty much lives for when it’s not whoring itself out to the highest bidder. But I digress.) This was a film released on video in the mid-1980s, during the first explosion of home entertainment. I rented armloads of VHS tapes back then, duping them all into my private bootleg library, which eventually numbered over several thousand. I sometimes crammed more than five movies on a single tape at SLP, which was a recording setting that made the actual flick you watched later look pretty much like out-of-focus graffiti sprayed with video-static roadrash. I watched those tapes until my eyes bled. Literally.
The one film I always avoided in the rental shops was DEMONOID.
It was the box cover. Take a look:
Neat, looking huh? Well, you may say that now—in fact I damn well DO say that now—but an actual die-hard Tapehead washed in the blood of The Great Video Gods Of The 1980s developed a sort of sixth sense about the way things were back then. We could very often just tell when a VHS box cover was lying to us. I mean, most of them lied, sure—but in many cases, we didn’t mind the lie. We wanted to be fooled. The horror section of the store was always the place to be, because those box covers were the flashiest, dirtiest, rawest, most awesomest things on earth—it was like the Red Light District of home video. And did it matter that most of these films sucked? Yes and no. Part of the experience was being seduced by the dirty promise. Video stores smelled like dirty promises. And after ten of fifteen of these trashy low-rent affairs, you started developing a taste for them anyway. (Joe Lansdale says it’s like learning to like sauerkraut. But I digress again.) In this particular case, however, The Video Gods had been truly offended. The DEMONOID box was just too comic book, too busy, too over-the-top. The key art, combined with the elaborate title treatment somehow cancelled itself out, registering as little more than white noise amongst all the other flashy offerings in the store. Something spoke to me about the juxtaposition of the images, allowing me to see right through to the cold hard truth. There were other boxes that had a similar effect . . . but, for me, this one was the Holy Grail of STAY AWAY.
CUT TO: Just this past Christmas, I was given the original theatrical release poster for DEMONOID. It contains the exact same key art/logo image from the VHS box, and is one of the most beautiful goddamn things I have ever set my eyes upon. It’s up in my living room now in a place of honor. It also champions a film that can’t possibly live up to its own cartoonish boasts.
It’s so over-the-top it cancels itself out.
This became the logical jump-off point for a post-modern re-evaluation of the film itself—a film which, to this day, I know almost nothing about. I’m usually pretty knowledgeable about this stuff—the places these films occupy in history, production notes, key players and such—but DEMONOID has always been a mystery because of my refusal to assimilate it into my video library as a child.
But . . . using a chain of Sherlockian reasoning . . . we can actually learn much about the film, from just watching it carefully.
And, of course, from looking at the poster.
See if you can follow me here . . .
First of all, the poster features an epic image of some incredible demon creature with a really cool sword, standing in the flaming panorama of an ancient city, his long horned tail whipping around a couple of sultry fallen angels, who each grip his legs suggestively from each side. Just above the steely title treatment is a clutching hand with long cracked fingernails. Because I know this is a horror film and not a fantasy film, the possibility of this wild, busy image actually appearing at any point in the story is minimal at best—so it most likely would inform the back story. This kind of “sell the sizzle, not the steak” approach to exploitation advertising in the 70s and 80s was typical of producers and distributors looking to make a fast buck, driving asses into seats however they could. It is also another reason that—perhaps even subliminally—this art never appealed to me as a horror fan.
Watching the movie, my thesis bears out. I finally rent the tape from a local hipster hive that still does the VHS thing (DEMONOID has never been released on DVD), and discover a film so over-the-top in its sheer grindhouse beauty that I literally slap myself for passing over it so many times “back in the day.” But there is only one brief sequence at the start of the picture featuring anything resembling the epic grandeur suggested by the poster. It’s right at the start of the film, when a couple of druid priests (or something) beat up a woman who is possessed, chain her to a wall and rip her top off, revealing spectacular talents. Then they hack her left hand away from the wrist in gruesome close-up. But the hand is evil, and it lives on—only to be immediately ke-bobbed by one of the priests, who produces a handy dagger for the task. The skewered five-finger buddy goes into a metal box for demon hands and is sealed inside.
As this sequence progresses in intensity, we see almost subliminal flash cuts of a figure that looks basically like the big blue guy in the poster—he’s in the same pose, has the same sword, the same tail and is back lit with lots of groovy glowing fog—and they even throw in a nifty lightning effect. This figure never moves at all. It actually appears to be a cardboard cutout, or some other static image, of said demon—a gothic stage dressing that a band like Spinal Tap might perform in front of. This is one of the reasons why they only show it in such quick cuts. (More on this in a moment.) But the point of the sequence is not really the demon—it’s the hand, which is corralled and captured and imprisoned for all eternity. Or at least until present day, when the film proper begins. “Present Day,” being about 1979, when the film would most likely have been shot.
What’s left of the hand is discovered in an old mine, still entombed in the silver box. It’s long since turned to dust now, but quickly gets itself together and starts possessing other people, providing the essential thrust of the story. So what we end up watching is still not about the demon at all, but about the nasty hand, as it crawls around and causes creepy mayhem.
Um, yeah . . . like grabbing onto people’s legs and stuff.
Anyway, they remind us that the hand is possessed by the Big Blue Guy by continuing to flash those subliminal images of the cardboard cutout during the possession and/or kill scenes. Eventually, the hand influences a priest played (begrudgingly) by Stuart Whitman, who shoves his own possessed appendage through a glass window and uses a blowtorch to burn the evil out of it . . . or whatever happens. I’m still not exactly sure. Stuff like this in films made by whacky foreign fellows kind of stops being stupid and incoherent for me past a certain point and goes straight into some kind of surreal “art zone,” where you’re pretty sure the guys in charge probably know a lot more than you. (Just listen to the guy who directed TROLL 2 sometime—he’ll tell you it’s all clever metaphors and stuff. And who are we simpletons from Texas to argue otherwise? All we have is the film to guide us through the muck.) Co-star Samantha Eggar has to say something like “thank God, it’s all over” so we’re sure that was actually the ending . . . but the hand somehow gets delivered to her home in the epilogue, strangles her some, and then smashes her face through a plate glass coffee table in awesome, bloody slow motion. That’s the last shot of the film. It’s really kind of amazing.
As I mentioned before, I know virtually nothing regarding the actual production of this film. Yet, I am still able to deduce a great deal about how it was made and marketed, based on just the brief elements I have described to you.
First of all, the opening sequence seems tacked on, like an afterthought. It is tonally and visually different that most of the rest of the film. It’s staging of action and editing is equally clumsy, so it may have been directed by the same man who helmed the remainder of the film—but nonetheless, it is clear to me that this was never originally scripted, and was added later at the insistence of either the executive producers or the distributor, to better explain the origin of the killer hand and get a demon in the mix. Also, the sequence contains the only on-camera nudity, which was paraded shamelessly in the film’s U.S. theatrical trailer. (I know this because I collect film trailers.) This was probably also done at the instance of somebody important, who felt their product needed some extra “steak” to help sell the “sizzle.” The music is also markedly different that what is heard in the rest of the film. It’s cheaply produced synthesizer stuff, whereas the main body of the action is accompanied by orchestral cues. (And at least one needle-drop selection from the score of THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN.)
But the most telling sign that this sequence was a tack-on follows the scene’s fade to black, when the main titles begin, over a calm city background. After the names of the two lead actors appear, the screen cuts abruptly to a shimmering main title, IDing the film as DEMONOID—then cuts, just as abruptly, back to the rest of the title sequence. This crude paste-in is clear evidence that the original title was something else, and the producers and/or distributors insisted on enhancing the demon angle. Thus, the new title.
The characters later refer to the monster of the story as “The Devil’s Hand,” so that was obviously the original moniker.
(Later research on this subject proves me to be exactly right about that.)
Why the change?
Well, 1981 was also the year of Oliver Stone’s THE HAND, a film which didn’t do all that well. And Killer Hand Movies don’t exactly have a track record of box office brilliance in the first place. These people obviously wanted a DEMON in the title. My line of deductive reasoning tells me that there was never a demon in the movie at all . . . and no boobs, either . . . so the quick-and-dirty opening was cobbled-up, complete with cardboard demon. They also may have pre-sold the film in various US and International film markets using the poster featuring the big blue fella—which could also account for its oddly-inserted presence all throughout the final movie. Meaning, they made up a poster and fudged the film to match it. From the names in the credits, this was clearly some kind of Spanish/American co-production, and would have lived or died on foreign sales money.
It’s more likely, however, based on the crudely inserted new title shot in an already-completed opening credits sequence, that the film was considered finished at some point and just didn’t play when delivered to someone important . . . so it was time to get creative. Roger Corman used to do this sort of thing all the time. My favorite film of his in that vein is GALAXY OF TERROR, which was originally called MINDWARP: AN INFINITY OF TERROR. It also begins with a crudely re-inserted opening title shot, re-identifying the film. (If anyone is interested, he did this to MINDWARP, along with re-inventing the entire promotional campaign, to salve the incredibly bad advance press the film initially received.) This is why Corman usually never allowed what are called “presentation credits” at the start of most films he made in his New World Pictures days. Presentation credits are those things that say “So-And-So Presents A Film By So-And-So” and so on. When inserting a new title card, it’s a dead giveaway if you gotta cut to black in the middle of a completed credit sequence and paste the new title in, and Corman always wanted to leave his titling options open. (Quentin Tarantino took a jab at this in his film DEATH PROOF.) So that’s why you almost always never see “A film By” at the start of any movie made in-house at New World Pictures. Even the one directed by Martin Scorsese. So . . . umm . . . now you know that.
But I fucking DIGRESS.
It’s also possible that the final shot in DEMONOID of Samantha Eggar’s face going through the glass coffee table in slow motion was added as an additional shock tag to “save the picture.” Consider also that this is an auteur piece, written, produced and directed by the same man—a man named Alfred Zacharias who worked a lot in the Mexican exploitation ghetto, making more than 25 features—and you learn a lot, too. This was clearly a packaged deal, where two “name” stars, fresh from relatively successful turns in profitable exploitation films (Eggar in EXTERMINATOR and THE BROOD, Whitman in RUBY and LAS VEGAS LADY, among many others), were paired with a reliable, bondable helmer and stuck together in a film which would be very cheap to make, featuring lots of tried-and-true horror tropes: Demonic possession, the living dead, a priest performing an exorcism on his own hand at the climax—you know, all the cool stuff, man.
Though the film was obviously padded with a few fairly expensive scenes—a car chase, a full body burn, a stop motion sequence of the hand re-integrating—it was never intended to be anything all that epic. As often happens with these things, the shoot itself was clearly one of those by-hook-or-by-crook affairs where getting anything at all on film was a stroke of luck most of the time. Judging from Eggar’s rather committed performance, the director may have spent most of his time “working” with her, which also could mean he was trying to bed her more often that not, distracting his attentions from the rest of the film, which would account for many of its directorial lapses. Whether or not Samantha was actually sleeping with him is anybody’s guess. Most likely not. But Stuart Whitman seems really, really unhappy to be here for some reason. In fact, he plays most of his scenes in such a detached, angry gloom that one would not be surprised at any given moment if he were to turn to the camera and tell us all to get fucked. Is he pissed off that the director isn’t paying any attention to him? Jealous of an affair? Just plain drunk? The rest of the acting is uniformly bad (though wonderfully surreal and an absolute delight to guys like me), pointing towards much lack of focus on-set, and a strong desire to get something—anything—in the can by lunchtime and call it THE DEVIL’S HAND. As often also happens with these things, the footage was most likely culled through later and the “best” possible version was constructed from the miasma. It would have then been briefly examined by the people in charge, finished with contractually-mandated titles, scored and maybe even released in some foreign markets . . . before getting it’s DEMONOID makeover in the States.
Because the poster is so over-the-top and even features a WARNING that the film “may be too shocking for those who are not true believers in the devil,” it’s clear that somebody somewhere was really worried about the piece of shit they had on their hands . . . but if the historical precedents for demonic possession films are any indication, I’m sure their last-ditch plan worked and the movie did very well in theatrical release—enough to justify the re-shoots and the new cardboard demon at least.
Then it was bought by Media Home Video in 1983 and regurgitated into rental stores.
Where I never rented the son of a bitch.
I do not flatter myself that I have reached the total truth with any of the above. But I believe I’ve gotten within spitting distance. As I mentioned, a few of the details have been confirmed by a cursory glance across the internet. To really know what actually went down, you’d have to ask Stuart Whitman himself, a man who has been in damn-near 200 films and TV shows, and at age 85 would be less than likely to remember any of it. Same with Samantha Eggar. She is 72 and narrates audiobooks now. This is one of the tragic things about films like DEMONOID—much of their backstory, impact and even their very existence can be often lost to the four winds of time, technology and the indifference of those “winners” who tend to write the history books. But there are also a few losers who’ve spun some amazing stories. I’ve listened to them all my life. I’ve written entire books about what they’ve had to tell me. I’ve also had some truly horrifying experiences of my own, down in the bottomless trenches of horror film production. With all this perspective, I’d wager that the real story behind the making of DEMONOID could have been even wilder and more depraved than I’ve speculated here . . . but it could have also been just another day at the office for working stiffs. In my experience, however, the stranger the film, the more interesting its makers tend to be. Simple logic, really.
If you are interested in the most extreme manifestations of this, check out my book SHOCK FESTIVAL. It is a work of fiction, mind you . . . but is inspired by many true-life tales in the low budget film industry. This is where the possessed go to mingle. And where the Greatest Damn Movies In The History Of Movies get made.
Would I lie to you?