Judge Gordon Sullivan is loaning his personal demons out for demon fights.
Much of what we call the Inquisition was concerned with the fate of Jews and Muslims in various European regions. The Inquisition often existed in those places to root out non-Christians and either force them to convert or leave. That's not terribly salacious, so the way the Inquisition gets portrayed in popular culture focuses on the other aspects of the Inquisition, namely the attempt to uncover heretics and witchcraft. There's some historical justice, then, in the fact that the Inquisition gets used to show otherwise forbidden activity (nudity, torture) in movies in the same way that Christianity was used as an excuse to commit those same acts on (supposed) unbelievers. Consequently, as the boundaries of acceptable cinematic content were becoming increasingly elastic in the '60s and '70s, pictures could gain a small measure of respectability by cloaking their more salacious aspects in the garb of historical accuracy, most famously with films like Witchfinder General and The Devils. Obviously in the same vein, Jess Franco's The Demons is another tale of lust and torture told by a master of the form. Perhaps it's the historical bits that rein in the more tedious aspects of Franco's films, as this one proves to be one of the maestro's more engaging films.
Facts of the Case
The Demons opens with a "witch" being convicted by the Inquisition, but before she can be burned at the stake, she curses those responsible, saying her descendents will wreak her revenge. Sometime later, the action moves to a convent, where a pair of orphan sisters ignite interest (and more than a bit of lust) from both the Mother Superior and the local authorities. Is the sisters' burgeoning sexuality just healthy adolescence, or are these orphans the embodiment of revenge?
The Demons is a Jess Franco picture much like other Franco pictures. That means if you come for his usual trappings, you won't be disappointed. There's more than a bit of nudity, and the plot revolves around the sexuality of a young woman. These should be no surprise to the Franco faithful, and the convent setting allows for a touch of nunsploitation as well. The actresses at the center of the film are young and beautiful, not at all shy when it comes to shucking their duds. The historical setting also allows for Franco's obsession with more Gothic elements, including the setting of the convent. It's not the most period-accurate rendition (What Franco film is?), but his obsession with beautiful buildings continues here. Finally, Franco has never liked his sexuality pure, and in most cases, he likes to mix it with a bit of torture or degradation—The Demons is no exception. The Inquisition plot gives him plenty of reasons to put young women in jeopardy, and he does so with aplomb.
What's missing from the usual Franco repertoire is more significant: the nonsensical plot. So many Franco films are either terrible or charming (take your pick) because the plot doesn't try to make much sense. In most cases, the plot is only a suggestion or outline that provides the minimal justification for nudity and nastiness. It also cuts down on the number of dialogue scenes, and therefore lowers the budget significantly. The Demons, however, doesn't shy away from offering a largely coherent, justifiable plot filled with characters that are both sympathetic and dynamic. No, this isn't an awards contender or anything, but it demonstrates that when he wants to, Franco can tell a story that makes sense and exists for more than nudity and bloodletting.
The folks at Redemption continue their commitment to bringing Franco films out in style. The Demons (Blu-ray) offers a 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer that looks amazing all things considered. The biggest problem might be that the film elements haven't undergone extensive restoration, so expect a bit of print damage in the form of speckling, etc. The film also looks a touch soft in places, but that's as likely to be the production as this transfer. Otherwise, when the film isn't soft detail is strong and grain is abundant and well-rendered. Colors are subdued overall, but flesh tones look great. Black levels stay pretty deep and consistent, and there are no compression artifacts to speak of. The film's audio comes in the form of an LPCM mono track in the film's "original" French language. I say "original" because the film is obviously dubbed in places and intended for international distribution. The track is as good as can be expected from the period; it all sounds a bit flat and the dubbing is obvious, but overall it's a listenable track that balances dialogue and music well.
Extras start with an interview featuring Franco himself. He's his usual gregarious, outrageous self, spending about 15 minutes talking about the film and his recollections of it several decades on. We also get about 10 minutes of deleted/alternate scenes, though they don't include audio. The disc also includes a pair of trailers for the film, and it's fun to see how the narrative was packaged for different viewers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though The Demons is one of the better Franco productions, it's still a Franco production. Those who don't want the rampant nudity, sexual degradation, and violence won't be persuaded, no matter how much characterization Franco brings to it. The film is also 103 minutes long, which is a touch excessive for this narrative. Franco operates best in the 80-90 minute range, and 10 or 15 minutes could probably be cut without losing too much of the story or the action.
The Demons belongs in the upper echelon of director Jess Franco's work. It's got all his usual trappings, from the isolated convent to the nudity and torture, all the hallmarks are there. To those usual features, Franco has grafted a decent story with surprisingly dynamic characters, and the result is better than his usual quickie features. Add to that an excellent Blu-ray presentation from Redemption and a handful of extras, and you've got a release that's a must-buy for fans of Franco. Though there are better places to start in his catalog (like Vampyros Lesbos), The Demons is in the Top Five of Franco's films that I would recommend to someone new to his work.
Guilty, but that's the point.
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