Producer: ‘Elisar C Kennedy’, Daniel Figuero
Cast: Kerry Norton, Eileen Daly, Daniel Jordan
Year of release: 1995
Reviewed from: US DVD (Brentwood)
I suspect most horror fans would agree that the Golden Age of British Horror started in 1957 with the release of Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein (fortuitously synchronous, across the Atlantic, with AIP’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the release of the Shock Theatre package of old Universal movies to TV, and the launch of Famous Monsters of Filmland). That said, there is an argument for dating the Golden Age back a couple of years to The Quatermass Xperiment. If Curse marked the first page in the story – not just of Hammer but of classic British horror – then the first couple of Quatermasses (and, I guess, X the Unknown) are clearly a prologue of some sort.
By a similar token…
In Urban Terrors: New British Horror Cinema 1997-2008 I made it quite clear that, in my view, the British Horror Revival started in 1997 with Darklands, followed swiftly by Urban Ghost Story and I, Zombie. But there is an argument for dating this – shall we say? – Silver Age, back a couple of years. And the equivalent of The Quatermass Xperiment here would be Elisar Cabrera’s 1995 picture Demonsoul. Which, after only twenty years, I have finally got round to watching. Look, I’ve been busy, okay?
Probably most importantly, this was shot on video for a straight-to-video release at a time when the prevalent attitude among both film-makers and fans was that all films were still expected to play cinemas, even if it was only one or two. If you've read Urban Terrors (come on, somebody must have...) you'll know that much of the text concerns changes in distribution models, and how those changes allowed the BHR to happen. Back in the 1990s ‘shot on video’ was synonymous with amateur, backyard shenanigans, certainly in this country. But Elisar’s adroit awareness of the US market - largely unknown to most Britons because the web was still so new, small and basic - was as prescient as it was innovative. In its own small way, Demonsoul was actually quite groundbreaking.
All the above notwithstanding, the film’s biggest significance in retrospect, certainly for most horror fans, is as the feature debut of Dame Eileen Daly, soon to establish herself as the Queen of Low Budget British Horror (and, as I type this, ensconced in the Big Brother House).
Kerry Norton stars as Erica Steele, a young woman with a cute ‘80s-style short-back-and-sides, who has been having recurring nightmares about a mysterious, long-haired woman named Selena (our Eileen). Norton is actually a real, respected actress now (which is not to imply anything against Eileen, whom we love). A former gymnast, she was also in Elisar-produced anthology Virtual Terror and oil rig horror The Devil’s Tattoo/Ghost Rig, which is presumably where she met hubby Jamie Bamber. He went on to play Apollo in the Battlestar Galactica remake, in which Norton also had a recurring role as a medic. More impressively for this reviewer, she was also in The Weird Al Show. Anyone who has been touched by the hand of Al is a legend in my book.
So anyway: seeking answers, Erica visits hypnotherapist Dr Bucher (sic – not ‘Butcher’ or 'Booker' as widely mislisted around the web) played by Daniel Jordan (later in Bane), who has thick lips and hair like a hat but, despite what the IMDB thinks, was definitely not born in Cuba in 1923! Bucher is actually a creep who likes to fondle his hypnotised patients, but he gets a surprise when Erica’s ‘past life’ turns out to be a vampire named Dana. Bucher tries to bargain with Dana – who sprouts fangs when she’s in control of Erica’s body – hoping to gain some of her supernatural power. I don't want to write spoilers but come on, that’s not likely to end up as a good thing, is it?
Meanwhile, Erica’s boyfriend Alex (Drew Rhys-Williams, also credited as fight co-ordinator, who went on to assorted theatre work but did crop up on screen again briefly in 28 Weeks Later) and her friend/colleague Rosemary (South Africa-born stage actress Janine Ulfane whose occasional mentions in Tatler etc indicate she has palatial homes on both sides of the Atlantic) are racing to try and save her - but some undead monks are trying to stop them.
None of this is played for laughs, despite the inherent cheesiness of such a storyline, and I think that is very much to the film’s credit. Elisar took the work seriously, and so did his cast and crew. That in itself was a departure for UK horror of the era. Also innovative is the fetish/sexual angle, exemplified in the scene of the four hot chicks in ripped black stockings orgasmically licking blood off a guy wearing only a leather posing pouch. And then there’s the sheer Britishness of it. With the exception of RJ Bell, most of the cast are British, using their own accents. The opening titles play over footage of UK iconography: double decker buses and red telephone boxes, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. American horror fans who bought this when it was released were under no illusions that what they were looking at was an import. And this was at a time when the few genre productions happening in the UK – for companies like Metrodome or Peakviewing Transatlantic – were desperate to try and pretend that they were American.
So no, it may not be the best British vampire film ever made, but it’s far from the worst and it is actually watchable: quite exciting in places, well-paced, with a cracking performance from Eileen and generally solid support. Yes, it has the flat image that was an unavoidable side-effect of shooting on 1990s-era video (specifically Hi-8) but Elisar, who was just 23 at the time, directed with skill and a professional eye. DoP Alvin Leong (who also shot parts of Breathe Safely; apparently now a professional photographer in Malaysia with his own photo academy) lit the interiors and exteriors well; there are no sodium-green skin shades here. The only real technical problem is the sound which is quite muffled in places, obscuring some of the dialogue. This is a shame as Elisar's script is well-written, reserving its most portentous, cod-religious lines for Eileen, one of the few actresses who can carry off that sort of thing,
Eileen had been acting for quite a few years when she made Demonsoul, though it was her first feature film. She had done a number of, ahem, adult videos - in fact, her first such works were distributed as 8mm 'loops' - but had also done a considerable amount of theatre as well as corporates and music videos (most famously Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love' for her boyfriend Tim Pope). In the early 1990s she was an item with Nigel Wingrove when he founded Redemption Video. Eileen posed for the company logo and also many of the early VHS sleeves, which eschewed garish original artwork in favour of a distinctive, black and white goth/fetish design. Eileen met Elisar on the set of a student film that both were helping out on, and a couple of years later he approached her to play Selena in his debut feature. (It's worth noting that Eileen wasn't proud of the film at the time and probably hasn't changed her view of it over the years. Personally I think she's underselling herself there: she's actually very good in this.)
The closest that the film gets to light relief is Sue Scadding as Bucher’s secretary Marilyn, convinced that in her past life she was a certain famous actress. Former Playboy Bunny Scadding was also in Elisar’s second feature, Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft, then disappeared for a decade or so before reappearing in the noughties with roles in Jonathan Glendening’s 13hrs, Alex de la Iglesia’s Oxford Murders and a number of commercials.
Erich Redman, recently seen as a German general in Dominic Burns’ Allies and also in numerous other WW2 pictures (including Captain America: The First Avenger) is a colleague of Bucher’s. Russell Calbert (‘vision and sound engineer’ in the titles, ‘stills photographer’ and ‘ADR recording’ in the credits) is a customer in a comic shop which is, I think, Fantastic Store on Portobello Road. Erica goes into the shop because Alex works upstairs from it. One scene show an archway into a backroom sculpted like a giant set of vampire fangs, a spot of opportunistic mise-en-scene surprisingly underused by Elisar (or maybe he thought it was too obvious…).
And it doesn’t stop there. The little girl playing young Erica in the flashbacks is Pixie Roscoe, now all grown up as author PJ Roscoe. And her two friends? Isabella ‘Izzy’ Hyams went on to be a production assistant on blockbusters including The Dark Knight, Interstellar and Prince of Persia following a spell as casting assistant on The Omen, Hannibal Rising and other big studio productions. Her brother Luke Hyams meanwhile wrote, produced and directed various web series before making his own British horror film with X Moor (on which his sister shot second unit). And he’s not the only future horror director in the cast; Erica and Rosemary’s boss is none other than Graham Fletcher-Cook, 20 years before he made Blood and Carpet.
Behind the camera we find Caroline Barnes handling hair and make-up; nowadays she makes up folk like Kylie, Cheryl Cole and David Beckham for photoshoots in magazines like Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire. ‘Special make-up FX’ are credited to Matt Rowe who now makes weapon props for Marvel blockbusters.
A cast and crew like that really underlines what a historically fascinating document this film is. But at the time its significance for Elisar was simply that he got to make a feature film (albeit under a partial pseudonym). He had spent a few years in LA, working his way up from being a runner to helping with production. Jerry Feifer of Vista Street Entertainment therefore knew Elisar and agreed to let him shoot a production for Vista Street in England, on a grand budget of $1,500! (Back in the 1970s Feifer had been Head of Television Research at 20th Century Fox; his sons were mates with a local kid named JJ Abrams!) Vista Street specialised in dirt-cheap ‘erotic horror’ films: a bit of action, a bit of blood and plenty of boobs. But hey, they at least got things made, and Elisar was savvy enough to spot an opportunity. Feifer shares story credit with Elisar and is one of two credited executive producers, the other being Matt Devlen (producer of such classics as The Invisible Maniac and Ozone! Attack of the Redneck Mutants). Elisar’s interview with Devlen from his short-lived trash cinema fanzine Bubblegum can be found online if you look.
Who’s Changing and he’s currently producing Ibiza Undead through Capital City Film, the company he runs with his wife Lisa Gifford. He’s also developing a feature called Suckers, which has Owen Tooth (Devil’s Tower) attached to direct from a screenplay by James Moran (Cockneys vs Zombies, Severance).
The final credit to note is Elisar’s fellow producer Daniel Figuero, a reclusive but relevant name. Figuero produced Demonsoul the same year that he produced Edgar Wright’s first film, micro-budget British western A Fistful of Fingers. He then produced The Scarlet Tunic, arguably the world’s first crowd-funded movie. Though he hasn’t troubled the IMDB for over a decade, Figuero is still out there somewhere making deals.
The version of Demonsoul that I watched was part of a ten-film, five-disc box set released in July 2004 by Brentwood Entertainment called Scared Stiff, also featuring Evil Sister, Hellspawn, Stigma, Colinsville, Nightcrawler, The Screaming, Blood Revenge, Bloodbath and Malibu Beach Vampires. The film was also released in April 2008 in a box called Demons and Witches, alongside Witchcraft X, XI and XII, The Strangers and Crystal Force II, plus Bloodbath, Hellspawn, The Screaming and Evil Sister again. Before either of those there was a four-film pack entitled Too Hot for Hell in October 2003 which combined this film with Crystal Force II, Evil Sister and Bloodbath. Of course, when this first came out in February 1996 it was on VHS... (Demonsoul was also shown twice on the big(ish) screen: a cast and crew screening and - I'm fairly sure - a screening at the 1995 Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester. That's two more screenings than most Vista Street titles ever managed.)
I very much doubt that Elisar gets a cent from the sale of Demonsoul in any format but I’ve known him for 20 years and he can rest assured that, next time our paths cross, I shall buy him a drink as payment for a fascinating 80 minutes of viewing and an even more fascinating evening of research.
Demonsoul is a genuinely important film, yet almost nothing has been written about it. Harvey Fenton reviewed it at the time in Flesh and Blood (he hated it, mainly because it was shot on video, but was happy to put a photo of the vampire babes on the back cover). Michael J Weldon gave it a short, largely descriptive review in Psychotronic Video. Brycey's involvement suggests there was probably coverage in The Dark Side but evidently I don't have that issue as it's not in my index. Jonathan Rigby completely ignored it when he wrote English Gothic (presumably because he didn’t count DTV releases as real films). Online there’s a review on Taliesin Meets the Vampires, a couple of reviews on other sites which take some digging in Google to find plus a handful of user comments on Amazon and IMDB. (Oh, and it has a page on the Internet Movie Car Database with framegrabs of some of the 1980s/1990s vehicles on display. Wow, and I thought I didn't get out much...) I’m afraid that even in Urban Terrors Elisar's film only gets a passing mention: in the section on Razor Blade Smile, as an early Eileen Daly credit. I reckon the 3,300 words or so in this review is more than all the other coverage the film has had over the past two decades put together. Should I ever find myself writing a second edition of Urban Terrors, rest assured that I shall give Demonsoul more prominence and explain its historical importance.
I can't blame anyone for not noticing Demonsoul at the time. Jeez, it's taken me two decades. But I think it is significant: a break with the old and a pointer towards the new. It certainly didn't precipitate a seismic shift in British horror cinema the way that Darklands or The Curse of Frankenstein did. But then neither did The Quatermass Xperiment four decades before. In both cases, film historians can look back before the zero point - 1957 and 1997 - and find a precedent, unheralded at the time for its significance. That's the fun of cinematic research.
MJS rating: B+