Writer-director-star Miles Doleac’s new horror drama, Demons, should not be taken as a remake of the 1985 cult movie of the same title. Nor is it the made-for-TV movie from just a few years ago, nor the almost decade-old mini-series. It is an exorcism movie focusing on the aftermath of one such failed ritual. Tracing the fragments of the family that broke apart from the events of the tragic night, and the faith they cling to in hope, they’ll be able to pick up the pieces.
Doleac gets points for creativity, as exorcism films are a dime a dozen. For every title that finds a new angle, there seems to be five more that offer up little in the way of originality. They go through the motions, hoping that merely having a demon, a priest, or viscera is enough to satiate the horror audience. Since it’s not, it’s always refreshing to watch an entry that does find an original way to tell these kinds of stories. As exciting as that can be, it is disheartening when that inventiveness gets jumbled and fails to deliver on the promise of its premise.
Demons is divided into one present-day section with periodic flashbacks to an eight years ago, which reveal the events leading up to the failed exorcism; there is a brief episode between that is fourteen months before the bulk of the present-day action. This is done to expose the layers of the characters, from how the audience is introduced to them, in the present, to how they were just before the death of the possessed girl. The flashbacks work in regards to the characters, but leave the plot in a state of disarray. It sets up the narrative as a quasi-mystery, as the audience doesn’t know if the girl is indeed possessed or not, nor why attempts to dispel the demon failed. But every main character was there that night, and they know exactly what happened, so there is little ambiguity.
“Tracing the fragments of the family that broke apart from the events of the tragic night…”
Exacerbating the flawed writing, only one of the two timeframes is suitably intriguing. The film’s present timeframe in Hollywood is dull and trudges along at a snail’s pace. Colin (Miles Doleac) was the priest that tried to save Jewel Grant (Jessica Harthcock) after her father Jasper (Andrew Divoff) became convinced her acting out was because a demon was possessing her. He left the priesthood behind after Jewel’s death, but during his time getting to know the family he and Kayleigh (Lindsay Anne Williams), Jewel’s older sister, fell in love. Now they are married, and in Hollywood, because Colin’s screenwriter friend Eddie (Steven Brand) is getting married to semi-nudist Lara (Kristina Emerson). Jewel shows up every once in awhile to haunt their memories, but nothing about this part of the movie is entertaining.
The audience barely knows Eddie, and his rant about the nature of modern movie storytelling is pretentious, making it hard to like or care about the character. Coming off even worse than that is Lara, whose nonsensical ramblings about why she doesn’t consider herself a nudist, and her refusal to label herself anything at all, are so irritating the audience is rooting for her to become possessed so she’ll stop talking.
The kicker here is that the exorcism, reasons behind it, and the Grant family dynamic are riveting. Colin, still a priest, doesn’t believe the girl is demonically possessed, rather that Jewel is rebelling against her overbearing father, and the abuse suffered at his hands. But because of how strict Jasper is, Colin agrees to an exorcism, hoping that maybe it will mean the father stops the beatings and rape. His frustrations and guilt over not having seen the signs of abuse earlier, as the family attends his church, is palatable. His discussions with Father Joseph (Gary Grubbs) about the correct path to take and the urgency with which to act have a weight and intensity that the wedding minutia of the present can’t hold a candle to.
“…so irritating the audience is rooting for her to become possessed so she’ll stop talking.”
As a director, Miles Doleac doesn’t have a visually active style, but he proves capable enough. Scenes flow together seamlessly and despite how boring it may be, the present day and flashbacks are easy to follow and place in proper chronological order. When the moment calls for it, an eerie atmosphere materializes, though only in the flashbacks.
Colin is just one of the primary ensemble, as everyone gets roughly equal screen time, and Doleac shines brightly as the guilt-ridden former priest. He brings gravitas and empathy to the role that immediately makes the audience care for him. His reservations about the exorcism and the way he handles the decision to leave the priesthood are believable. Andrew Divoff as the reprehensible Jasper is just as compelling. With every syllable he utters, the pious beliefs and vile attitude come to light, making for a fascinating villain (of sorts).
Harthcock has a very tricky role, in that she only has a small handful of scenes in which to make the audience understand her point-of-view. That she succeeds is a testament to her charisma and skill. Lindsay Anne Williams is astounding as Kayleigh and makes her fall for Colin quite believable, despite how rushed it is in the script. John Schneider has a small but memorable role as a doctor, and he turns in a solid performance.
“…fractured storytelling, plodding pace…”
Sadly, the rest of the cast isn’t that good. Grubbs is fine if forgettable in his minor part. Kristina Emerson is terrible as the pointless Lara, but some of that is due to the awkward writing of the character. But her stilted delivery doesn’t add anything, sounding inauthentic. However, the worst performance is by Steven Brand. He lacks the charm or wit to pull off the odd sense of humor the character is meant to have, meaning most of what is said fails from the get-go.
Demons has potential, but the fractured storytelling, plodding pace, and bad acting from half the cast thwart its ambitions. Originality does carry the movie, but only so far. If you love possession movies, worse have been released, better have been as well, but few are as frustrating.
Demons (2017) Written and directed by Miles Doleac. Starring Miles Doleac, Lindsay Anne Williams, Andrew Divoff, Steven Brand, Kristina Emerson, Jessica Harthcock.