Color, 2000, 86 mins.

Directed by Glenn Standring

Starring Karl Urban, Katie Wolfe, Sally Stockwell, Jonathon Hendry / Music by Victoria Kelly & Joost Langeveld / Produced by Dave Gibson / Cinematography by Simon Baumfeld

Format: DVD - City Heat

Full Frame / Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround

A slick but awkward post-punk updating of occult shockers like Curse of the Demon and The Devil Rides Out, this New Zealand production drops the hipster posturing of most recent horror in favor of an ominous study of one man's very long single night journey from doubting skeptic to... well, something else entirely. Sporting one of the more unwiedly titles in recent memory (shortened to The Truth about Demons only on the video art), this film became a mild horror community sensation a la The Blair Witch Project when it ignited a distributor buying frenzy, only to largely fade into video shelf oblivion. However, horror fans will find it well worth seeking out, to study its flaws as well as its achievements.

A haughty anthropology professor named Harry Ballard (Karl Urban) receives a sinister videotape showing a cult called the Black Lodge ranting about some kind of demonic plot. As it turns out, Harry's brother, Robert, killed himself a few months earlier under mysterious circumstances, possibly related to this cult; in any event, the loss has been preying on Harry's mind, sending his relationship with his girlfriend (Sally Stockwell) into a tailspin. Meanwhile a seemingly schizophrenic young woman named Bennie (Katie Wolfe), who has a penchant for lighting sparklers in alleyways for no good reason, follows Harry around and snatches him from the jaws of doom after he falls into the cult's hands. The devilish leader, Le Valliant (Jonathan Hendry), apparently has big plans in store for Harry, and soon our protagonist's grip on reality slips as the cult targets him for an upcoming ritual.

In many respects, Demons is a frustrating experience as it counters every misstep with an unexpected artistic flourish. The cult itself is an irritating conception, relying on prosaic goth cliches which are ultimately about as frightening as the Backstreet Boys, but the film's incidentals provide some real shocks. Harry's nocturnal bathtub encounter early in the film is a real showstopper, as is a cringe-inducing sequence in which Harry (poor Mr. Urban) is splashed across the face with real cockroaches. The film looks great and manages to stay on its feet most of the time, but ultimately its premise is too half-baked to carry it over all the way as a genuinely satisfying experience. The third act revelation of Harry's possession of some vaguely defined power seems thrown in more for plot convenience than anything else, leading to a frustrating epilogue that tries to pull a reality-spinning horror twist on the story straight out of a Jonathan Carroll novel, but not nearly as effective. More obviously confounding is director Glenn Standring's urge to defuse some of his best moments by having characters suddenly awake from a dream and gasp, "Jesus Christ!" (This happens more often than you can imagine.)

It's somehow ironic that Blockbuster, the most staunchly conservative and pro-censorship entertainment corporation in existence, would bother to obtain exclusive DVD rights to an unrated horror title that pours on the gore so heavily. In any case, this title wound up as part of the City Heat deal, which means you either have to rent it from BB or buy a used copy somewhere else. Apart from this film and The Misadventures of Margaret, the titles from this batch aren't worth mentioning and make one wonder what on earth the familiar video store empire was planning to do with them. In any case, the disc is a few notches above its companion releases, with a solid if not outstanding transfer. The compositions look open matte but may be slightly cropped from 1.66:1; either way, the framing appears just fine. The manipulative surround audio is well rendered and benefits from very loud playback on your home theater system. The disc also includes the flashy theatrical trailer and some rather bland press kit style interviews with Standring and four cast members. For some reason these talking head bits are referred to on the packaging as a "director's commentary," but don't be fooled.

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