The Demon Within
Director: Harold Gasnier
The Demon Within is a beautiful-looking film and thoroughly professional. It has simply stunning cinematography and a uniformly excellent cast whose acting talents are considerably greater than one normally sees in low-budget indies. The characters are well defined, the dialogue naturalistic. The whole film is very well directed and topped off with a sympathetic, unintrusive, attractive score and a highly commendable sound mix.
But (and there’s always a but) the story, after a great start, drags considerably through the middle act before being distracted into an unfathomable, half-formed side plot, the whole thing falling apart towards the end before finishing with the hoariest old cliché in fantasy (yes, you guessed right - who would have thought anyone would try and get away with it in this day and age?).
So some good points and some... less good points, as one might expect. But the good points are so good and the less good points so eminently fixable if applied to another film that I am happy to recommend The Demon Within (with caveats) and certainly look forward to seeing more work from Harold Gasnier.
Gasnier is best known as an actor in the indie horror films of James Eaves and/or Johannes Roberts. You may have caught him in Sanitarium (on which he was an executive producer), Hellbreeder, Darkhunters or The Witches Hammer and you might see him soon in Darren Ward’s A Day of Violence, plus he was production designer on Bane. Rather brilliantly, in his earlier career he appeared in sketches on Not the Nine O’Clock News, The Two Ronnies and The Kenny Everett Television Show and he was in episodes of Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who.
On this film Gasnier stays behind the camera, directing with a fine eye for imagery that is sometimes let down by his inexperience in construction.
Mitchell Powell (Deadly Pursuit, Ex-Cathedra) and Sophie Austin (who has a sideline as a jazz singer) play newlyweds Tom and Debbie, whose car breaks down inexplicably while they are driving away from the church. It’s an inauspicious start to a honeymoon as, there being no-one around and no mobile phone signal, the couple are forced to walk, still in wedding dress and morning suit.
The first house they find belongs to the enigmatic Lincoln (Robert Wainwright: Bloodmyth, Blood Wedding, The Adventures of a Plumber in Outer Space), who has neither car nor phone but offers them a meal and a bed for the night. Debbie accepts graciously but Tom is suspicious. Suave and charming, Lincoln seems to be modelled on Louis Jourdan’s performance in the BBC production of Count Dracula. Unfortunately he also bears a passing resemblance to - and sounds very much like - smug, unfunny comedian Jimmy Carr. Which is distracting.
Lincoln is, it transpires, some sort of demon and he wants Debbie to be his protégée, her first task being to prove Tom’s suspicions correct by murdering him, which she promptly does. Unfortunately the film then turns into a sequence of very long, very talky scenes in which Debbie comes on to, or repels (sometimes both) a bloke - on one occasion a woman - before killing them. Most of these scenes go on far too long (the one with the Scottish lawyer seems to last for weeks) before climaxing in a very brief moment of violence, after which the narrative effectively resets itself and we get a talkie scene between Debbie and Lincoln before moving onto the next victim. There is no real development from one victim to the next and we quickly gather that there is no point in paying much attention to what is going on because we know the scene will end just like the last one.
If you want to save yourself time, every one of the murders is included in the trailer.
The subplot concerns a journalist named Richard (Jim Sturgeon: Night People, Spare Change) who is introduced in a very odd way. As we’re following Debbie and Lincoln’s story, we suddenly cut to a small office where something strange and orange is flashing on a computer screen, The man sitting at the computer calls a woman (Tansy Adair) into the room, telling her that the page he was typing on screen was on fire or something similarly weird, but it all seems fine now.
Sorry, but this is completely mishandled. We should at least see Richard at work and have some idea who he is and what he’s doing before the odd screen thing happens. As it stands, this is too abrupt and, what is worse, neither explained nor referred to. Was something happening on Richard’s computer screen? Certainly looked like it but what it was and what significance it might have had is never touched upon. It smacks of an idea that got abandoned somewhere along the way but wasn’t completely removed.
There is also the matter of the location which confused me because it looks like a home office in a suburban house with other suburban houses clearly visible through the window. So I thought at first the woman must be Richard’s wife but the dialogue suggests she’s his editor, despite this not looking anything like a newspaper office (which are generally large, open-plan, full of people and not in suburban streets).
Anyway, Richard first sees Debbie as she walks past him with the Scottish lawyer, then he bumps into her again another day and introduces himself. He is investigating the spate of murders because “the police have drawn a blank” - a line of dialogue which atypically doesn’t ring true. The police don’t “draw a blank”, especially on murders with no obvious suspects. They continue their investigations until something turns up. Although Lincoln advises Debbie to vary her method of despatching the victims, you have to wonder about the social implications of a spate of unexplained murders in one location over a short time. (On the other hand, if this is all in Debbie’s head and not really happening then I suppose we can accept anything. Bit of a cop-out though, isn’t it?)
The last time that Richard sees Debbie is in the park but she runs off and is knocked down and killed by a car (a great special effect - and also in the trailer). There is no indication of why Richard is interested in talking to Debbie or why, given her propensity for killing people who come on to her, Debbie wants nothing to do with him.
Richard is rekindling a relationship with a bar owner named Maddie (Chloe Thomas, who was in a TV ad for Oyster card) but he is sure that he can find a lead on these multiple murders. Then Maddie receives a flier through the door about a local tarot reader and thinks this might be of some help although Richard remains sensibly sceptical about such nonsense. Maddie goes to see the tarot reader - who is actually Debbie.
Debbie, it seems, is trapped somewhere between life and death. Lincoln was apparently using her to take revenge on people who wronged him in his earlier life in the city (“I did a little insider trading,” confesses the demon in a line which is unintentionally funny) although this only seems to apply to the Scottish lawyer while the other murders are, I think, required for Debbie to progress to a demonic state. However, part of the mythology here is that to completely transform into a demon one must die a violent death
And apparently being thrown into the air by a Ford Focus before cracking your skull open on the tarmac isn’t considered violent enough.
The whole ‘becoming a demon’ thing is intriguing and has enormous potential but it doesn’t seem to have been clearly worked out beforehand. Even in a fantasy film, if there are going to be rules and consequences you must know what those rules and consequences are and establish them in your own head before you write the script.
Up to the second murder (a slimy, sexist garage mechanic played to unpleasant perfection by Paul Kelleher, a Russ Diaper regular who was the announcer in Bane) The Demon Within was majorly impressing me which made it all the more disappointing as the plot lost its way after that. There is a good film in here somewhere but it seems to lose interest halfway through and consequently so does the viewer.
Technically the film can’t be faulted. The lighting and camerawork by DP Alex Ryle (The Summer House, Church Going) is superb, especially in the atmospheric scenes with Lincoln. Interestingly, the similarities with Count Dracula may not be entirely coincidental as Ryle has actually worked with Philip Saville on some workshop stuff.
Also in the cast are Brandy Doubleday (who has twice played a rape victim in Crimewatch reconstructions) as the woman picked up in a bar, leading to a brief, very tasteful, non-nude lesbian lovemaking scene in the toilets; Matthew Newman, Jay Carrington (The BeHolder) and Howard Corlett (Man Who Sold the World) as victims; and Russ Diaper (director of Deadly Pursuit and Spirits of the Fall) as a policeman.
Harold Gasnier has previously directed the short film With Evil Intent and the feature Web of Deceit (which was shot as Gunner) and he has kept some of the crew from those productions including cinematographer Ryle and composer Daniel Selmon. Lara Duncan (Bane) handled make-up, James Hamilton provided the pretty decent special effects and the digital effects were courtesy of the folks at Dark Raven Digital (Kingdom, Ironwerkz, Warrior Sisters).
An ambitious and partially successful attempt to base a supernatural horror movie around atmosphere rather than effects, The Demon Within is an impressive indie feature that is very much worth catching if you can. I suspect the root of its problems is that it starts off as a terrific supernatural horror, gets distracted into being a serial killer picture (Sophie Austin’s seductive and sexy performance put me in mind of Wolfgang Buld’s films) and then suddenly remembers that it’s meant to be about demons near the end when it’s too late to tie everything up in a way that makes sense. But where it falls down in the planning it makes up for its deficiencies with the execution.
Not to be confused with The Demon Within, a 2005 UK horror short starring Zombie Diaries actress Anna Blades, Chris Manabe's 2001 animation The Demon Within or The Demon Within, a retitling of the Jeff Fahey-starring 2000 US thriller The Sculptress.
MJS rating: B