OCTOBER 13, 2013
I recently read an article about people who accidentally leave their babies in the car, how they're not bad people or whatever, but victims of a strange tic in the way that our brains work when working through a routine. One likened it to driving to work (it's the most easily identifiable example) - you can get in your car and get all the way to work without actively thinking about any of it, because you've done it so many times. And that's part of the problem I had with horror movies after a while and also part of why I quit doing this every day: there were too many of those "drive to work" movies, where I could watch the whole thing and retain absolutely nothing about the experience, making writing a review next to impossible. Happily, there are movies like The Demon's Rook that, while imperfect, at least know enough to make an impression.
The coolest thing about the movie is how damn WEIRD it is, and also how it seems to be that way by careful(ish) design and not just a bunch of dudes making shit up as they go along and throwing things in at random. On the surface, it's not particularly complicated or unique: a guy comes back to his hometown and must battle an evil demon that has been wiping out the town - could be any random Stephen King novel, right? But when you add in the specifics, it truly forges its own identity, and the script by Akom Tidwell and James Sizemore (who also directs, stars, and performs a half dozen other crew positions) adds flavor at every turn - a mouse running over a piano, a kid asking a demon for pancakes, a guy performing an impromptu hoe-down with his friends because he's so excited about getting married... all these things keep the movie from ever being the slightest bit boring, a HUGE achievement when you consider it runs 105 minutes (longest movie I saw at the festival) and is the first film from just about everyone involved.
But the weird thing is, it's not very funny. In fact, no matter how ostensibly goofy the narrative gets at times, everyone plays it straight, never going for laughs or (worse) campy "so bad it's good" attitude. They're all fully committed to this odd little tale, and that's what makes it work as well as it does - nothing can kill a low budget movie like this quicker than everyone thinking they're comic geniuses, or having the attitude that if they laugh at themselves on camera, the audience will too. This also allowed me to forgive some of its missteps, such as seemingly going out of their way to find a kid who looked absolutely nothing like Sizemore to play his younger self, or curiously having nearly every character be an artist of some sort (there's like 9 scenes of people drawing before being distracted by demon carnage in some form or another).
Another thing I really appreciated was the FX work (also by Sizemore, who taught himself). Not only is it all practical (I will never, ever, EVER get tired of seeing an actor get squirted with real blood - and in this day and age, it's even more admirable and awesome), but there's an impressive variety to all of the demons, including the tree-like head demon villain and the one sort-of good one, who looks a bit like the freak from The Funhouse. It's like an indie Nightbreed - every demon/monster gets its own unique design even if they're not featured very prominently.
In fact, my only real gripe was the ending, which was more of a downer than it needed to be, and abrupt to boot. I understand that this was one of those productions where cast members would constantly drop out and the movie was shot entirely on weekends over a long period, so perhaps something happened and they had to come up with a new ending or something, but either way it just feels tacked on and unnecessarily grim. At 105 minutes I don't think it needed to be LONGER, but if that's what they indeed wanted to go with, I wish it could have all ended at the big massacre that we know has been coming throughout the film (we keep seeing posters for a big concert - no horror movie has such an event unless something big and violent is going to happen there). That sequence ends and then we go to the next morning, with some shuffling about before the action kicks in again, briefly, before just ending like a Hammer movie. Throughout the movie I was impressed by the first-timer's better than average direction and editing, so it's a bummer that it gets kind of clunky in its final moments.
On the other hand, they did such a great job of telling their story visually that we (meaning me and the folks I watched it with) didn't even realize that the theater had fucked up and cropped out a small portion of the top and bottom of the frame - including the subtitles for the demon language. There's a 10 minute sequence at the halfway point, where hero Roscoe reveals how he was taken by the demons, taught their ways, and managed to escape - all of which told in the gibberish demon language. We could always tell what was happening, and assumed that it was a creative decision to keep the audience from understanding exactly what was being said the whole time. It wasn't until the end credits that we realized the framing was off, as there was a still frame credit for all of the executive producers and the title "executive producers" was missing. So we got to see a scope version of the movie thanks to the Laemmle Noho 7 staff not understanding how to frame things properly (this is why being a projectionist isn't something just anyone should be doing without proper training). Luckily, the film showed twice and they got it right the other time, so it was just our crowd that got this unusual version, one that just sort of added to the weirdness (thanks to one of the producers I got to see the subtitled version later - it was mostly gibberish even in English, so if you were also at that screening, it wasn't exactly a huge revelation).
In short, this is the sort of indie horror I wish I saw more often - it's not trying to fit into any particular hot sub-genre (it feels a bit zombie movie-ish at times, but it's a very small element), it's competently (and CONFIDENTLY) made, and doesn't try to make up for its shortcomings with horrible attempts at humor. It may run a little long, but ultimately I'd rather watch something like this for 9 straight hours before enduring another 80 minute Saw or Paranormal Activity wannabe.
What say you?