Saturday, 16 May 2015

Demonsoul

Director: Elisar Cabrera as ‘Elisar C Kennedy’
Writer: ‘Elisar C Kennedy’
Producer: ‘Elisar C Kennedy’, Daniel Figuero
Cast: Kerry Norton, Eileen Daly, Daniel Jordan
Country: UK
Year of release: 1995
Reviewed from: US DVD (Brentwood)

I suspect most horror fans would agree that the Golden Age of British Horror started in 1957 with the release of Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein (fortuitously synchronous, across the Atlantic, with AIP’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the release of the Shock Theatre package of old Universal movies to TV, and the launch of Famous Monsters of Filmland). That said, there is an argument for dating the Golden Age back a couple of years to The Quatermass Xperiment. If Curse marked the first page in the story – not just of Hammer but of classic British horror – then the first couple of Quatermasses (and, I guess, X the Unknown) are clearly a prologue of some sort.

By a similar token…

In Urban Terrors: New British Horror Cinema 1997-2008 I made it quite clear that, in my view, the British Horror Revival started in 1997 with Darklands, followed swiftly by Urban Ghost Story and I, Zombie. But there is an argument for dating this – shall we say? – Silver Age, back a couple of years. And the equivalent of The Quatermass Xperiment here would be Elisar Cabrera’s 1995 picture Demonsoul. Which, after only twenty years, I have finally got round to watching. Look, I’ve been busy, okay?

Demonsoul was not the only British horror film made in the mid-1990s, though there were certainly very few. And it doesn’t have the gritty social realism which would come to characterise the BHR (or at least, the early days thereof). What it does have is a solidly British aesthetic (despite its US funding, which we’ll come to) and a serious approach which marks it out from the more obviously commercial larks of near-contemporaries like Revenge of Billy the Kid or Funny Man. Largely unheralded at the time, Demonsoul showed that a serious horror film could be shot in the UK, on a tiny budget, with professional actors. It just took people a while to notice this.

Probably most importantly, this was shot on video for a straight-to-video release at a time when the prevalent attitude among both film-makers and fans was that all films were still expected to play cinemas, even if it was only one or two. If you've read Urban Terrors (come on, somebody must have...) you'll know that much of the text concerns changes in distribution models, and how those changes allowed the BHR to happen. Back in the 1990s ‘shot on video’ was synonymous with amateur, backyard shenanigans, certainly in this country. But Elisar’s adroit awareness of the US market - largely unknown to most Britons because the web was still so new, small and basic - was as prescient as it was innovative. In its own small way, Demonsoul was actually quite groundbreaking.

All the above notwithstanding, the film’s biggest significance in retrospect, certainly for most horror fans, is as the feature debut of Dame Eileen Daly, soon to establish herself as the Queen of Low Budget British Horror (and, as I type this, ensconced in the Big Brother House).

I also must be honest and say that, although few would argue that Demonsoul is a classic, it is nevertheless a well-made little picture and I have seen many, many subsequent films which were far, far worse. This is more than just a historical curio. I actually quite enjoyed watching it.

Kerry Norton stars as Erica Steele, a young woman with a cute ‘80s-style short-back-and-sides, who has been having recurring nightmares about a mysterious, long-haired woman named Selena (our Eileen). Norton is actually a real, respected actress now (which is not to imply anything against Eileen, whom we love). A former gymnast, she was also in Elisar-produced anthology Virtual Terror and oil rig horror The Devil’s Tattoo/Ghost Rig, which is presumably where she met hubby Jamie Bamber. He went on to play Apollo in the Battlestar Galactica remake, in which Norton also had a recurring role as a medic. More impressively for this reviewer, she was also in The Weird Al Show. Anyone who has been touched by the hand of Al is a legend in my book.

So anyway: seeking answers, Erica visits hypnotherapist Dr Bucher (sic – not ‘Butcher’ or 'Booker' as widely mislisted around the web) played by Daniel Jordan (later in Bane), who has thick lips and hair like a hat but, despite what the IMDB thinks, was definitely not born in Cuba in 1923! Bucher is actually a creep who likes to fondle his hypnotised patients, but he gets a surprise when Erica’s ‘past life’ turns out to be a vampire named Dana. Bucher tries to bargain with Dana – who sprouts fangs when she’s in control of Erica’s body – hoping to gain some of her supernatural power. I don't want to write spoilers but come on, that’s not likely to end up as a good thing, is it?

Meanwhile, Erica’s boyfriend Alex (Drew Rhys-Williams, also credited as fight co-ordinator, who went on to assorted theatre work but did crop up on screen again briefly in 28 Weeks Later) and her friend/colleague Rosemary (South Africa-born stage actress Janine Ulfane whose occasional mentions in Tatler etc indicate she has palatial homes on both sides of the Atlantic) are racing to try and save her - but some undead monks are trying to stop them.

It all culminates in an old church, on the steps of which Erica first met Selena when the former was a little girl (shown in sepia flashbacks). Inside this vast old building, Selena – who calls Dana ‘Mistress’ – and her acolytes plan to force Erica to drink blood from a sacrificial victim (Johnny Vercoutre, also credited as production manager and ‘additional make-up’) with a pentagon carved into his chest. A quartet of vampire babes in torn underwear show up to also feast on this lucky fella, and to feature in the marketing materials despite having neither character names nor any other plot function. A ‘twist’ epilogue features Dark Side editor Allan Bryce (credited as 'Allen') as a doctor and Canadian RJ Bell (Octopussy, Superman III, Morons from Outer Space, Haunted Honeymoon) as Erica’s father. (Johnny Vercoutre incidentally is a grand British eccentric who subsequently established a 1940s retro café in Shoreditch which was used as a location by numerous film and TV shows.)

None of this is played for laughs, despite the inherent cheesiness of such a storyline, and I think that is very much to the film’s credit. Elisar took the work seriously, and so did his cast and crew. That in itself was a departure for UK horror of the era. Also innovative is the fetish/sexual angle, exemplified in the scene of the four hot chicks in ripped black stockings orgasmically licking blood off a guy wearing only a leather posing pouch. And then there’s the sheer Britishness of it. With the exception of RJ Bell, most of the cast are British, using their own accents. The opening titles play over footage of UK iconography: double decker buses and red telephone boxes, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. American horror fans who bought this when it was released were under no illusions that what they were looking at was an import. And this was at a time when the few genre productions happening in the UK – for companies like Metrodome or Peakviewing Transatlantic – were desperate to try and pretend that they were American.

For all of these reasons and more, Demonsoul marked a watershed in the history of British horror: a complete break with the past. There is absolutely no discernible link from this back to Hammer or Amicus or Tigon or Pete Walker or Norman J Warren or anybody or anything. This was something completely new, something literally ahead of its time.

So no, it may not be the best British vampire film ever made, but it’s far from the worst and it is actually watchable: quite exciting in places, well-paced, with a cracking performance from Eileen and generally solid support. Yes, it has the flat image that was an unavoidable side-effect of shooting on 1990s-era video (specifically Hi-8) but Elisar, who was just 23 at the time, directed with skill and a professional eye. DoP Alvin Leong (who also shot parts of Breathe Safely; apparently now a professional photographer in Malaysia with his own photo academy) lit the interiors and exteriors well; there are no sodium-green skin shades here. The only real technical problem is the sound which is quite muffled in places, obscuring some of the dialogue. This is a shame as Elisar's script is well-written, reserving its most portentous, cod-religious lines for Eileen, one of the few actresses who can carry off that sort of thing,

Eileen had been acting for quite a few years when she made Demonsoul, though it was her first feature film. She had done a number of, ahem, adult videos - in fact, her first such works were distributed as 8mm 'loops' - but had also done a considerable amount of theatre as well as corporates and music videos (most famously Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love' for her boyfriend Tim Pope). In the early 1990s she was an item with Nigel Wingrove when he founded Redemption Video. Eileen posed for the company logo and also many of the early VHS sleeves, which eschewed garish original artwork in favour of a distinctive, black and white goth/fetish design. Eileen met Elisar on the set of a student film that both were helping out on, and a couple of years later he approached her to play Selena in his debut feature. (It's worth noting that Eileen wasn't proud of the film at the time and probably hasn't changed her view of it over the years. Personally I think she's underselling herself there: she's actually very good in this.)

As partly noted already, 'Elisar C Kennedy' assembled a remarkable cast around Eileen and Kerry Norton. For example Suzanne Ballantyne, senior programmer at the Raindance Film Festival, plays Erica’s psychiatrist (Raindance founder Elliot Grove can be spotted in the ‘special thanks’ list). The undead monks were Gavin Barnard (now director of something called Digital Entertainment Media), Ric Scadorwa and Mark Braby, who also plays a would-be rapist and now promotes experimental new music through a venue/organisation called The Orchestra Pit.

The closest that the film gets to light relief is Sue Scadding as Bucher’s secretary Marilyn, convinced that in her past life she was a certain famous actress. Former Playboy Bunny Scadding was also in Elisar’s second feature, Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft, then disappeared for a decade or so before reappearing in the noughties with roles in Jonathan Glendening’s 13hrs, Alex de la Iglesia’s Oxford Murders and a number of commercials.

Erich Redman, recently seen as a German general in Dominic Burns’ Allies and also in numerous other WW2 pictures (including Captain America: The First Avenger) is a colleague of Bucher’s. Russell Calbert (‘vision and sound engineer’ in the titles, ‘stills photographer’ and ‘ADR recording’ in the credits) is a customer in a comic shop which is, I think, Fantastic Store on Portobello Road. Erica goes into the shop because Alex works upstairs from it. One scene show an archway into a backroom sculpted like a giant set of vampire fangs, a spot of opportunistic mise-en-scene surprisingly underused by Elisar (or maybe he thought it was too obvious…).

The four vampire babes are Katherine Blick, Nikita Blum, Kira Hansen and Hepzibah Sessa. The first two ladies have left no trace but Sessa will be a recognisable name to some as she played keyboards and violin for classical/goth band Miranda Sex Garden. She married Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode and then collaborated with him on his Recoil project. I suspect Kira Hansen may be Danish film director Kira Richards Hansen as she was living in London in the 1990s taking part in ‘performance work’.

And it doesn’t stop there. The little girl playing young Erica in the flashbacks is Pixie Roscoe, now all grown up as author PJ Roscoe. And her two friends? Isabella ‘Izzy’ Hyams went on to be a production assistant on blockbusters including The Dark Knight, Interstellar and Prince of Persia following a spell as casting assistant on The Omen, Hannibal Rising and other big studio productions. Her brother Luke Hyams meanwhile wrote, produced and directed various web series before making his own British horror film with X Moor (on which his sister shot second unit). And he’s not the only future horror director in the cast; Erica and Rosemary’s boss is none other than Graham Fletcher-Cook, 20 years before he made Blood and Carpet.

Crikey!

Behind the camera we find Caroline Barnes handling hair and make-up; nowadays she makes up folk like Kylie, Cheryl Cole and David Beckham for photoshoots in magazines like Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire. ‘Special make-up FX’ are credited to Matt Rowe who now makes weapon props for Marvel blockbusters.

Someone named ‘D Kenrick’ is listed as editor, sound editor and ‘titles and optical effects’, a rather pointless semi-pseudonym as the ‘special thanks’ list clearly identifies him as Diggory Kenrick, who is probably the world’s only reggae flautist (seriously!). The actual score for Demonsoul is credited, according to the IMDB, to ‘Thomas Hamilton (as Thomas Frenzi)’ but in fact the on-screen credit is ‘Thomas Docherty’, though I think it’s the same guy. There’s also a couple of songs by a band called The Earth Babies. Alongside Kenrick, the other editor was Stuart Lansdowne, who now runs a web design company.

A cast and crew like that really underlines what a historically fascinating document this film is. But at the time its significance for Elisar was simply that he got to make a feature film (albeit under a partial pseudonym). He had spent a few years in LA, working his way up from being a runner to helping with production. Jerry Feifer of Vista Street Entertainment therefore knew Elisar and agreed to let him shoot a production for Vista Street in England, on a grand budget of $1,500! (Back in the 1970s Feifer had been Head of Television Research at 20th Century Fox; his sons were mates with a local kid named JJ Abrams!) Vista Street specialised in dirt-cheap ‘erotic horror’ films: a bit of action, a bit of blood and plenty of boobs. But hey, they at least got things made, and Elisar was savvy enough to spot an opportunity. Feifer shares story credit with Elisar and is one of two credited executive producers, the other being Matt Devlen (producer of such classics as The Invisible Maniac and Ozone! Attack of the Redneck Mutants). Elisar’s interview with Devlen from his short-lived trash cinema fanzine Bubblegum can be found online if you look.

After directing Witchcraft X and producing Virtual Terror, Elisar went on to a succession of jobs across all aspects of the film business, but away from any actual cameras: development and sales and that sort of thing, the stuff that doesn’t show up on the IMDB. Nowadays he’s a big name in web serials, and he’s involved with Raindance and MCM London Comic Con and suchlike. Last year he produced the documentary feature Who’s Changing and he’s currently producing Ibiza Undead through Capital City Film, the company he runs with his wife Lisa Gifford. He’s also developing a feature called Suckers, which has Owen Tooth (Devil’s Tower) attached to direct from a screenplay by James Moran (Cockneys vs Zombies, Severance).

The final credit to note is Elisar’s fellow producer Daniel Figuero, a reclusive but relevant name. Figuero produced Demonsoul the same year that he produced Edgar Wright’s first film, micro-budget British western A Fistful of Fingers. He then produced The Scarlet Tunic, arguably the world’s first crowd-funded movie. Though he hasn’t troubled the IMDB for over a decade, Figuero is still out there somewhere making deals.

The version of Demonsoul that I watched was part of a ten-film, five-disc box set released in July 2004 by Brentwood Entertainment called Scared Stiff, also featuring Evil Sister, Hellspawn, Stigma, Colinsville, Nightcrawler, The Screaming, Blood Revenge, Bloodbath and Malibu Beach Vampires. The film was also released in April 2008 in a box called Demons and Witches, alongside Witchcraft X, XI and XII, The Strangers and Crystal Force II, plus Bloodbath, Hellspawn, The Screaming and Evil Sister again. Before either of those there was a four-film pack entitled Too Hot for Hell in October 2003 which combined this film with Crystal Force II, Evil Sister and Bloodbath. Of course, when this first came out in February 1996 it was on VHS... (Demonsoul was also shown twice on the big(ish) screen: a cast and crew screening and - I'm fairly sure - a screening at the 1995 Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester. That's two more screenings than most Vista Street titles ever managed.)

I very much doubt that Elisar gets a cent from the sale of Demonsoul in any format but I’ve known him for 20 years and he can rest assured that, next time our paths cross, I shall buy him a drink as payment for a fascinating 80 minutes of viewing and an even more fascinating evening of research.

Demonsoul is a genuinely important film, yet almost nothing has been written about it. Harvey Fenton reviewed it at the time in Flesh and Blood (he hated it, mainly because it was shot on video, but was happy to put a photo of the vampire babes on the back cover). Michael J Weldon gave it a short, largely descriptive review in Psychotronic Video. Brycey's involvement suggests there was probably coverage in The Dark Side but evidently I don't have that issue as it's not in my index. Jonathan Rigby completely ignored it when he wrote English Gothic (presumably because he didn’t count DTV releases as real films). Online there’s a review on Taliesin Meets the Vampires, a couple of reviews on other sites which take some digging in Google to find plus a handful of user comments on Amazon and IMDB. (Oh, and it has a page on the Internet Movie Car Database with framegrabs of some of the 1980s/1990s vehicles on display. Wow, and I thought I didn't get out much...) I’m afraid that even in Urban Terrors Elisar's film only gets a passing mention: in the section on Razor Blade Smile, as an early Eileen Daly credit. I reckon the 3,300 words or so in this review is more than all the other coverage the film has had over the past two decades put together. Should I ever find myself writing a second edition of Urban Terrors, rest assured that I shall give Demonsoul more prominence and explain its historical importance.

I can't blame anyone for not noticing Demonsoul at the time. Jeez, it's taken me two decades. But I think it is significant: a break with the old and a pointer towards the new. It certainly didn't precipitate a seismic shift in British horror cinema the way that Darklands or The Curse of Frankenstein did. But then neither did The Quatermass Xperiment four decades before. In both cases, film historians can look back before the zero point - 1957 and 1997 - and find a precedent, unheralded at the time for its significance. That's the fun of cinematic research.

Which just leaves the question of a rating. For what it was, and what it did, and when it was made, and what it led to, and most especially for what it successfully cast aside - the cloying traditionalism and small-minded parochialism of British horror cinema (while at the same time, ironically, asserting a distinctive, proudly British identity) – then I’ve got to be reasonably generous. So:

MJS rating: B+

3 comments:

  1. Hi MJ,

    Cam across this review via Dark Side's Facebook page - sounds like a very interesting time capsule! I was an avid reader of Dark Side from around '93 onwards and this doesn't ring any bells at all, despite regular mentions of Eileen Daly (the first film I ever remember getting much press for her role was Razor Blade Smile...)

    Had no idea she was in the Soft Cell video, that's just nuts - off to check that out now :)

    Thanks for giving this film more attention!

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  2. Hi Mj,
    Great review of this. I'm Tom Hamilton (nee Frenzi / Docherty) and it was great to read such an unusually thoughtful review of Demon Soul) I knew Elisar & others through a film club we ran in the 90's Peeping Toms - and Elisar asked me to do the music sometime after he finished filming. It was a gig i thoroughly enjoyed and - yes - took seriously - and i did my damdest to come up with music that would power the film along. I was at screening one with the cast and still run into Elisar from time to time. Looling back i have a lot of affection for this one, and later tried my hand at a shot on video horror film myself (Fate) and more recently have turned to documentaries (leslie howard: the man who gave a damn) .

    anyway thanks for this - really enjoyed it.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment Tom. It's always a pleasure to hear from people whose work I have featured.

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