Judge Bill Gibron champions independent horror like it's an Olympic skeet shooting champion.
As the temperature rises…the bodies fall.
Louisville, Ohio has only one eerie legend, a campfire saga about Crazy Old Bob, his girlfriend, and a strange book of demonic incantations. They say that after reading the rituals in that strange demonology book, Bob went bonkers and beheaded his babe. Rumor now has it that this homeless bum still possesses that terrifying tome. When a couple of punks stumble across the text, they decide to explore its possibilities. Suddenly the small town is overrun with random killings, bodies viciously eviscerated.
While all this is happening, two high school stooges, nerdy Johnny and loutish Louie, vie for the seemingly unobtainable affections of cold Catholic schoolgirl Eva. While Eva is smitten with John, Lou just won't take no for an answer. When Johnny tries to halt Louie's harassment, the bully vows revenge. One dark night, he kidnaps the couple and forces them into the forest. He hopes to scare them silly, since most of the killings have occurred between the flora and fauna of the tree-filled park. But what they all fail to grasp is that evil has no understanding of such teenage taunts. In the hot, humid nights of June or July, a soulless assassin is seeking souls to feed upon. That's because the season now belongs to the Devil, and it's time for a Demon Summer.
Demon Summer, the latest homemade horror homage from the gang over at Speed Freak Productions, marks a decided departure from the group's usual (or is that, unusual) operating ideal. Yes, there is still the Andy Hardy "let's get the gang together and make a motion picture" mentality that peppered such peppy previous efforts as the wildly inventive Midnight Skater (one of the best low-budget terror tributes of all time) and the hyper-bizarre sports parody Splatter Rampage Wrestling. But now a more focused fury is at work.
In this latest production, a Slacker meets slasher, Dazed and Confused with Evil Dead-like demonology, the portrait of small town America is far more polished and professional than in most second-tier scare stuff. Indeed, while Skater was a celebration of the barf bag variety (a goreathon of epic, enjoyable proportions), Demon Summer strives to capture that lost and lonely feeling of being stuck in a one-horse hovel in the deadly dull middle of America's heartland, with nothing better to do on a warm weekend evening but cruise the strip mall parking lot and drink Near Beer. Yes, there is bloodletting and body carving in this well-crafted, crackerjack thriller, but the emphasis is on stylized, not non-stop, vein draining. In reality, several of the attack aftermaths are downright artistic in their gruesome tableau temperaments. Unlike most of their independent brethren, the gang over at Speed Freak hopes to flesh out both divergent elements of their title with strong narratives that satisfy both as cinema and as entertainment. And for the most part, they succeed.
Demon Summer is not perfect, however. It does tend to drag when the horror is highlighted, a strange circumstance considering how professional Speed Freak's past pandemonium was in Skater. Perhaps it's the reincarnated demon direction the film takes, instantly recalling other directors who've handled interlopers from Hell with much more expert dexterity. Or maybe it's the subtle approach to the skin peeling that grounds the greatness. We do get a couple of moments when guts and grue fly, but for the most part, attacks are off-camera, or seen only once the bedlam has ended. While there are many moments where the menace really works, we sometimes feel that the suspense and build-up of dread deliver a less than powerhouse pay-off.
Thankfully, other elements reinvigorate the narrative, keeping Demon Summer from drowning in its own dark drone. The trademark brand of pop-culture-referential humor is ever present, but instead of being a non-stop stand-up routine, the use is more pointed and powerful. And the Breakfast Club convolutions, drawing on the well-observed torments and problems of disaffected youth, are amazing to examine. Along with the marathon-session-in-front-of-the-VCR detail in their diorama referencing, to the rock-steady sense of subject, it's the almost faultless filmmaking that is one of the main reasons why films like Demon Summer and Midnight Skater work. The Speed Freak team makes actual movies, secure cinema that is imminently watchable. They draw you in and make you anxious for what's about to come onscreen next. Characters and their concerns stay with you long after the last reel has ended and you anticipate the next nugget of nirvana from these Ohio picta' playas.
Any slight shortcomings aside, Andy and Luke Campbell (the brothers share directing credit here, as well as co-creating the screenplay with Corey Maidens) produce a well crafted, expertly scripted film featuring likeable, authentic performances from a mostly non-professional cast. Someone really needs to raid the ranks of this company ASAP to enliven their derivative mainstream dung. Stacey Silvers and Ed Bishop blow away the lame-ass lewd antics of Jay and Silent Bob as a couple of apparently connected-at-the-hip hoodlums. Silvers especially should have every casting director enlisting him to play bewildered badasses—he does it so well. Corey Maidens, the jabbering-joke serial killer in Midnight Skater, finds a pitch-perfect tone between juvenile delinquent and craven crybaby with his portrayal of Louie. All the young ladies here, from Ashleigh Holman's dark dream girl Eva to the unrequited resolve of Laura Robbins's Jamie, overcome gloomy Goth gal leanings to create sturdy, insightful women. Let's not forget the "thinks he's clever" assclown Kurt. As the supreme total tool, Bob Hawkins transforms the art of the line reading into something surreal. And then there is Andy Campbell himself, looking like a scarecrow lost in the wilderness, an uncomfortable geek who always manages to rise above the fray by sheer stubborn luck.
Together with the newfound maturity and control behind the lens, as well as the broader canvas and scope, Demon Summer represents the best of completely independent cinema. It may not crackle with the same old court jester junk (who could ever forget Ezra Haidet's lunatic turn as Skater's sissified savant, Alvin), but it announces a new level of accomplishment for these fiendish fright fans.
In another first for fans of Speed Freak's films, the transfer of Demon Summer onto DVD is near perfect. With previous titles from Tempe, the movies of this macabre media member were riddled with grain, compression artifacts, slipshod lighting, and sequences so dark you'd swear they were filmed in Calcutta's famous black hole. But Demon Summer looks exceptional, color correct and clear in a nicely contrasted 1.33:1 full screen image. Aside from a couple of quick moments where the voices drop out and suddenly switch channels (perhaps a hackneyed attempt at Dolby Digital Stereo Surround?), the aural attributes of this disc are head and shoulders above other Speed Freak / Tempe titles. The keyboard-heavy soundtrack is effective (if just the slightest bit cheesy), and the dialogue is upfront and completely comprehensible. Again, in the sound and vision department, you'd never guess this was a low-budget production.
Tempe always does a terrific job in the bonus features arena, and Demon Summer is no exception. We are treated to a wonderful reel of bloopers, several showing how hard it is to capture the proper nuances of Speed Freak's patented humor. The makeup featurette is very funny, as disgruntled cast members sit still while amateur Savinis savage their faces and bodies. But the best extras on this disc are the commentary from the cast and crew, and a documentary of a tour of Horror Conventions. On the alternate narrative side, Andy and Luke are the moderators as a literal mob of individuals take their turn on the microphones. We learn a great many important pieces of information during this instructive exercise. Perhaps the most perplexing news is the discussion of the original ideas for Demon Summer—weird concepts that ran the gamut from bad taste comedy (Hitler returning as a zombie, Vietnam vets being chased by miniature Asian soldiers) to a direct sequel to Skater. Though sometimes sounding like a game of comic one-upmanship, this fun, freestylin' track is a definite delight that makes Demon Summer a sensational digital item.
As for the travelogue of convention footage, it's eye-opening to see the lengths to which these moviemakers must go to get their product to the people. In between strange stares and glances of recognition, they have to field foolish questions, keep a sharp eye on the sales figures, and put up with all manner of insane fanboy foolishness (the "confrontation" with the "white spirit" Carpathian is as funny as Triumph the Insult Comic's trip to a Star Wars lineup). Combined together, Demon Summer is yet another DVD instruction guide on how a group of friends and hangers-on make marvelous monster movies.
A few years from now, when the history of Speed Freak and the Campbells is written by some starstruck simp who wants to make the newest moviemaking superstars seem invincible, the Midnight Skater / Demon Summer phase of their career will be dismissed as a building / road block to their ultimate "professional" film piloting. Oddly, the truth is much more amazing. With this one-two punch of perfectly realized no-budget moviemaking, the Campbells have already arrived, ready to take their place in front of hundreds of hired hacks churning out chum for the film schools of sharks ready to ingest anything as long as it's trite and clichéd. Demon Summer shows that, while their hearts may be in horror, their skills are more multifaceted and fascinating. Genre be damned, Demon Summer is a great little film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tempe Video
• Audio Commentary by Directors Andy and Luke Campbell and the Cast
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