Written and Directed by: Jean Rollin
Starring: JoŽlle Coeur, John Rico and Willy Braque
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
It goes without saying that The Demoniacs is a little weird. Convention wasnít something that Jean Rollin was fond of, so it follows that his take on the 70s rape/revenge cycle would be a thoroughly offbeat excursion into guilt, vengeance, and sacrifice. The film is called The Demoniacs, which could refer to either the literal demons at the center of the film or to those who are haunted by them, as Rollin slyly subverts the typical path of this sort of film and instead takes the material into an ethereal and expressionist realm thatís more of a dark gospel than a straight horror film.
The filmís chief protagonists (or antagonists depending on how you look at it) are introduced via sitcom style cameos that come complete with narration. Theyíre a quartet of pirates who cause shipwrecks and plunder their targets; during one of their conquests, a pair of young sisters (Lieva Lone and Patricia Hermenier) stumble onto the scene and are raped and killed for their intrusion. However, upon entering the nearby town, these wreckers hear whispers that the natives have seen the ghosts of two young girls wandering about. These rumors are confirmed when the sisters do re-emerge, aided by the power of the Devil himself (Miletic Zivomir), who is locked away in a nearby dungeon.
The Demoniacs is certainly a clunky and uneven affair, especially early on. Some scenes are lugubrious and even rather gratuitous; for example, thereís a sequence where the pirates revisit the scene of their crime to find the girls waiting there, which leads to another violent encounter before the film eventually shifts gears to focus on these two victimized sisters. Itís at this point the film becomes increasingly strange, as they encounter a clown (Mireille Dargent) and an exorcist (Ben Zimet), both of whom are guarding the Zivomirís devil. A lot of this is mystifying and vague, but thereís a bizarre eeriness to the scene, which feels like something out of a surreal morality play where everyone represents a certain type. The girls are innocence personified, corrupted by The Captain (John Rico) and his vulgar crew, their revenge aided by an even more unholy Mephistopheles-like figure.
Of course, these two girls have to also give their bodies over to this devil thatís been done up to resemble the lead singer of a 70s funk band in order to avenge a rape, which certainly muddles the thematic waters here. There is certainly something on Rollinís mind here, though, as the film really takes some interesting turns that keeps it from adhering to the usual track for this sort of thing. Unlike many of its brethren, The Demoniacs doesnít wallow in revenge; itís certainly something that hovers over and drives the film, but Rollin defers the satisfaction of the revenge act and substitutes sacrifice in its place. Amidst this story of resurrected demons, a statute of Christ itself--while being used in an attempt to crush one of the pirates to death, mind you--foreshadows the filmís final act that plays out like a disturbing, perverse passion play that finds both of the sisters nude and prostrated in the same figure as Christ on the cross.
That all of this is being done at the service of the Devil himself renders The Demoniacs a little confusing. Christ died for the sins of humanity, but these two girls find themselves in a world so corrupt that even the Devil casts a harsh judgment on the pirates, an odd and unexpected turn that kind of makes him the hero. Like many of Rollinís films, this thematic nonsense doesnít really matter a whole lot since his artistic vision is forceful enough to pull the film through. His trademark dreamlike fusion of eroticism and violence is once again on display; Rollin himself called the film ďan expression,Ē and he almost certainly meant it in a lyrical sense. Whatever he might be literally expressing about the nature of revenge and humanity may be muddy, but his artistic, visual expression is clearly represented in this gothic gospel whose mood is palpable. The gestalt of The Demoniacs largely overcomes its logical and thematic deficiencies, as Rollin transports us to a seedy enclave where sex hangs in the air above the deviant barflies that the pirates hang around. The more rural landscapes, such as the beaches and the devilís dungeon, are similarly overpowering in their atmosphere.
Perhaps the only thing more powerful in the film is JoŽlle Coeur, the female wrecker who lords over the film as its most twisted and alluring presence. She seems to be constantly on the verge of orgasm, her every movie seemingly driven by a pent up sexuality thatís turned her into a ravenous she-wolf hellbent on instigating and reveling in violence. And does she ever revel in the heinous final acts of her compatriots, which compel her to masturbation right there in front of god, the devil, and his emissaries. Rollinís camera always loved dark, foreboding women, and Coeur is no exception from this. Neither are Lone and Hermenier, the spectral, mute twins who contradictorily represent innocence and perversion; however, Rollinís sympathies are clearly with them. The director often cast a cold, almost distrustful gaze on his women, but these two are downright angelic compared to those who surround them.
The Demoniacs is a film of tones and moods; like convention, narrative was rarely a major concern for Rollin, who prefers creepy imagery (like the captain being haunted by his victimsí corpses) to relate a heightened, melodramatic atmosphere thatís more sad than scary. Whereas many of his contemporaries either demonized or sensationalized revenge, Rollin seems coolly ambivalent towards it and its purposes. Itís one of the directorís most intriguing films, and Redemption has released its unrated extended cut (which is arguably too long by about ten minutes) onto Blu-ray, where they have once again done a magnificent job restoring Rollinís work to pristine condition. Theyíve also provided a wealth of extras, including a introduction from the director, some deleted footage, two deleted sex scenes that add up to 10 minutes, interviews with Jean Bouyxou and Natalie Perry, a trailers, and a 16 page booklet with commentary from Tim Lucas. A must-have for Rollin fans and Euro-horror enthusiasts in general. Buy it!
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