Celebrated fiction writer and former priest, Colin Hampstead, and his wife, Kayleigh, are tormented by the ghost of her late sister, as the details of her grisly death are slowly uncovered.
Demons, directed, written, produced by and starring Miles Doleac, is the story of the exorcism of a rural teenage girl. I know, I know we’ve been here before, but stay with me, there is actually a lot here to enjoy. If the well-worn plot doesn’t turn you away, though, the film’s catastrophic opening minutes surely will, as it jumps between time periods 5 times in the first 10 minutes. I love a good non-linear story and for the most part, Demons handles this structure admirably, but good god are they trying to give me whiplash at the start of this thing. We open on Colin (Miles Doleac), a Catholic priest kneeling before a statue of Jesus erected under a makeshift plywood arch out in the middle of the woods. What, you don’t have Jesuses in your woods? Sounds like you need to get some religion. So he gets to talking with a woman who assures him it’s not his fault that the exorcism didn’t go as planned (obviously it’s God’s fault. I think if anything we can blame him for botched exorcisms) and then he gets in his car before being jump scared by a demonic ghost girl (Jessica Harthcock) on the road. Cut to 14 months later (a very specific amount of time for a scene that lasts all of a minute) and apparently there are no hard feelings about the failed exorcism because Colin and Kayleigh (Lindsay Anne Williams), the sister of the girl he doomed to an eternity of hellfire as a result of his failure as a priest, are now together.
We can surmise at this point that the whole priest thing didn’t work out for Colin on account of the fact that he’s exercising Kayleigh in a way the pope would frown upon, but as I always say, when life gives you demons, have sex with their sister. Sadly, the night as ruined as Kayleigh’s sister interjects asking to join in on the fun, and Kayleigh, being the straight-laced country girl she is, reacts poorly to the prospect of an incestuous supernatural threesome. We then have another cut to 8 years in the future where Colin is a big-time writer living in a luxurious home when Kayleigh descends onto the scene in a rickety elevator (I know I said it’s a luxurious home, but do we really need an elevator? It’s like 2 stories) to show him the most recent review of the book he wrote about that time a demon killed her sister. I bet you thought we were done cutting to different time periods, didn’t you? Well you were wrong, because then we cut to when Colin initially arrived at the house to learn about the exorcism (you can tell right away because all of the scenes before the sister’s death are sepia-toned) where he meets her father, played by Andrew Divoff, (who you may know as the Djinn from Wishmaster)a tightly wound fire and brimstone fundamentalist who is convinced against the protests of the more grounded, skeptical Kayleigh, that there are dark forces afoot.
Finally, another minute passes and we are back in the present day where Kayleigh is teaching a psychology class and Colin is meeting with the director of an upcoming film based on his book, Eddie (Steven Brand), and his soon-to-be wife Lara (Kristina Emerson) who will be staying with them for their wedding. Thus concludes the story of the first 10 minutes of this film. At this point my head was spinning and I thought that surely this film must have so much ground to cover that this whirlwind phantasmagoria was but the start of our adventure, but no, not really. In fact, outside of a fairly by-the-books exorcism plot with a tinge of repressed sexual assault that is developed in the scenes taking place in the past, what follows is something of a slow burn supernatural drama that is centered on Colin and Kayleigh’s guilt and regret over past failures as they try to try to leave their shared trauma behind them.
Demons’ real strength lies in its performances. Colin is a troubled, yet likable and relatable character. He’s burdened by the weight of his responsibility, his wavering faith, and history of abuse that he uses to relate to Kayleigh, who also struggles under the weight of her overbearing, and at times, vindictive father. Kayleigh is similarly haunted by visions of her sister and the doubt as to whether she did all that she could to protect her. The development of these characters throughout the different time periods allows for the actors to really stretch their legs and explore different facets of their performances as they face both the immediate pressures of trying to save Kayleigh’s sister and later coming to terms with the fact that their relationship has been defined by the connection resulting from this tragedy. The supporting cast is just as strong, with Divoff delivering a bone-chilling performance as Jasper Grant, a man devoted to saving the soul of his daughter but so rigidly adherent to his beliefs and the idea that fear is the heart of love that he fails to have any real relationship to his daughters before it’s too late. Perhaps the most surprising characters, however, are Eddie and Lara, who receive end up receiving almost as much screen time as the film’s leads. Eddie is an aging playboy with a fiance 20 years his junior who could have easily come off as an insufferable douchebag, but thanks to writing that seems to be aware of the looming threat of falling into that trap and a lively, charismatic performance by Steven Brand, he is given a caring humanity that underlies his midlife crisis exterior, turning what could have been a groaner of a character into one that lights up the screen. If there was a risk of him being insufferable, then the risks are all the more palpable for Lara, the naturist, pagan, vaguely bisexual pixie girl he’s set to marry. But again, the film pulls through, giving Emerson enough space to develop this character into someone that tows the line of becoming a stereotype, but has enough layers and genuine heart to overcome the preconceptions that come with characters of this type.
Visually, the film has its ups and downs, with a strong contrast of set pieces from the rural, sepia-toned haze of its scenes set in the past to bright blues of the modern day, but it’s not all positive with the effects work generally being quite cheap and the film lacking variety in terms of sets, taking place almost entirely within the confines of a couple of different homes. It fares a bit better in the camerawork department utilizing some striking composition and a handful of novel transitions. Some might be turned off by the pacing, which takes its time getting where it’s going before culminating in a strong third act, but this is largely remedied by the fact that the non-linear narrative keeps things interesting and the lively performances keep things from getting too stale even as the plot plods along at times. Demons is at its core a fairly standard exorcism movie, but instead of relying on jump scares (though it has a few) and a teenage girl speaking with a spooky echoing demon voice (though it has that too) it provides an entertaining drama that should keep you from losing interest until it puts all of its pieces together.