There’s a phrase that I often think of while writing: Keep it simple, stupid. The words may not always keep me from veering off into some weird tangent while you sit there wondering where the hell I’m going with this, but they’re words to live by when developing any sort of creative project. The intention is to remind us that simpler is always better, especially in storytelling, because when you cram in too much, the core theme of the tale is almost always lost. Apparently, The Demonologist didn’t get the memo.
Written/directed by J.M. Stelly (Abacus), The Demonologist follows Damian (Brian Krause), a detective investigating a string of ritualistic murders. Turns out, these murders connect to a cult hell-bent on bringing forth the four King Demons of Hell, and Damian discovers he is far more connected to these murders than he ever would have guessed.
The reason I should be saying keep it simple, demon, with The Demonologist is that the film is way more ambitious than the budget clearly allowed, and hellishly complicated to boot. In The Demonologist, we have a guy, Damian, with a mysterious backstory, a series of murders being investigated, a rogue cultist (Jared Bankens) committing murders while a resurrected demon in the form of a woman named Meredith (Manon Pages) also slices her way through the occasional, unrelated victim, possessions, exorcisms, super hell-powers, and demon battle royales in the coliseum of the mind. There, I think that’s everything. Suffice to say, without much of a budget to speak of, The Demonologist may look good on paper, but might’ve been better off as a graphic novel, where Stelly would have had the freedom to explore the concept without the hindrance of that green piece of paper we all blindly worship called money.
A comic would also ease the pain of the abundant exposition. While excessive exposition isn’t preferred in any type of story-telling, it can sometimes be a necessary evil, and is easier to swallow in a medium that is less visually oriented than film. In The Demonologist, whenever Damian isn’t investigating a new murder, or we’re not watching the rogue cultist, Ian, torture someone, we’re being forced into long-winded scenes of exposition trying to explain away every last drop of backstory so that we know what’s going on (I was never a hundred percent certain). This continues throughout the entire film, all the way up until what I’m calling The Ghost of Demon’s Past, which takes Damian through a short trip along the timeline of his family history. Of course, this is all so Damian can have a better understanding of who and what he is, but the audience certainly doesn’t, because there is so much information, most of it vague, that I doubt there are many who will be able to easily follow along on a first viewing.
It’s as if the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Is this a demonic murder mystery in the vein of Fallen? Or perhaps an action-horror story similar to Constantine? Hell, there’s even a slight resemblance to Hellraiser: Bloodline at times, with the interactions between Meredith aka Abatu (guessing on spelling there) and her/his fellow servants. Lackluster editing and cinematography don’t help establish much of an identity, either. While the script screams for tons of sinister imagery and “hero” shots, we’re instead given lots of basic setups that don’t lend to creating much of an emotional connection to the story. Making matters worse, in the few moments where The Demonologist does take a more stylish turn, the audience views the scene through the sort of fisheye lens which has driven fans mad while watching Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
The cast does their best to pull the puzzling script together through engaging performances, but these efforts are mostly lost without much for them to pull from. Unfortunately, Krause isn’t that believable as Damian, which causes an already disconnected audience to take another step back. Pages delivers a raw, sensual performance that steals all of the few scenes she’s actually in, but her character isn’t given nearly enough to do, spending most of her time taking Elizabathorian bloodbaths or threatening servants not to disobey her. I mean, why would anyone follow someone who’s constantly reminding them not to disobey her/him? Paranoid, much? Thomas Francis Murphy puts forth the most believable portrayal as a priest who knows more than he’s saying, and Rebecca Chapman deserves a nod as the “Exorcism Girl” for a genuinely chilling contortionist act that is easily the most shocking moment in the entire film. But the real star of the show is costume designer Heather Rae Miller, who provides an erotic sense of mystery to the cultists and their leader, Meredith, using the typical dress of robes, but coupling them with strange masquerade wear reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut, which is perfect considering the erotic nature of Meredith’s captivating character.
There is also some impressive, though underused, makeup work done for the creatures in their demonic form, including one which I’ve dubbed the Yoda Demon. It’s just part of the reason why I would’ve loved to have seen what Stelly could do with more cash at his disposal. Stelly clearly prefers to use practical makeup when possible, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had hoped to do more with the look of the Demonologist’s powers. But just like Satan can never seem to get both feet through the door to earth, Stelly and the audience is held captive by budgetary restraints once again, limiting our full-on demon exposure to a few brief moments. And I don’t care who it is, there isn’t a demon powerful enough that could make Windows Movie Maker quality CGI look good.
On paper, The Demonologist has potential as a badass hero with traits of John Constantine and The Punisher, but there are too many limitations keeping this baby from sprouting wings and soaring like a bat out of hell. Audiences won’t have an easy time following along the various plot threads, and at about 100 minutes, you might be better off saving yourself the confusion.
The Demonologist rises on VOD January 1st, 2019, via Uncork’d Entertainment.