Imagine finding that all your belongings in your bedroom have been moved out of place. It’s not as if anything has drastically changed, but now it feels deeply wrong somehow. Perhaps it’s even disorienting, like you’re in an alternate universe. British film company Zersetzung’s debut Demon evokes such a feeling. A self-proclaimed “Millennial Noir” (a term coined by one of its co-writers, Theo Macdonald), the film, created using a DIY approach, sings an ambitious ode to the classic post-war period of film noir.
Ralph Tennyson (Ryan Walker-Edwards) is our isolated noir anti-hero, a young black Brummie of Jamaican descent who lives in London. At the beginning of the film, he’s haunted by a train fine that has snowballed out of control and is being doggedly chased by bailiff “Mr. Kinny” (David Schaal). After unsuccessfully applying for an overdraft, Ralph decides his only option is to flee the city and lay low in the strange Forest Lodge Motel. He engineers this getaway with the help of his childhood best friend, Kent (Jacob Hawley). But Ralph’s stay at the motel is far from an easy ride. In a fall of character reminiscent of Joe Gillis from noir classic Sunset Boulevard (who’s also on the run because of debt), he has run-ins with several bizarre individuals. Each encounter propels the film further into surreal terrain, and forces Ralph further down a road of moral ambiguity and paranoia. He even ends up turning viciously on the loyal Kent, who’s concerned that Ralph is suicidal.
In a warm and self-conscious embrace of its cinematic heritage, Demon draws heavily from a checklist of noir conventions. The majority of the film is shot in high contrast black-and-white, while the foreboding, often cacophonous, background music nicely complements the muted greyscale visuals. The characters are often depicted on screen in claustrophobic close-up shots, taken from unusually high or low angles, as well as in mirror reflections. At one point, we even see 1945 cult noir film Detour playing on a TV screen.
But Demon is anything but a fusty rehashing of old cinema. Its exploration of themes such as debt woes and male mental health will be bitterly familiar to a modern audience. With this, it both brazenly holds a mirror up to the pressures that contemporary society places upon the younger generation, and carves out a space within the established genre. Its main subjects are not only relevant to modern society, however—they are also timeless and universal. Notably, the indelibility of the trauma of losing a parent (in this case, Ralph’s father) during childhood is granted central treatment, woven inextricably throughout the entire plot. Flashbacks of Ralph’s childhood reveal to us how in the present he still holds fiercely onto the memory of his father. For instance, he refuses to give up his father’s watch which was handed down to him, even when one mysterious individual he meets (David, played by Gary Beadle) demands he hands it over, threatening him with a dagger.
Yet the true innovation of Demon lies in its couching of these harsh realities in the manner of a fever dream, flirting with the territory of psychological horror. Admittedly, this unreal and somewhat absurd approach might have risked mitigating or even trivialising such serious subject matter, but director George Louis Bartlett rightly avoids this. Indeed, ‘nightmare’ rather than ‘dream’ feels more appropriate for the world constructed in the film. The unrelenting sense of hopelessness and steady decline of fortune will no doubt strike a chord with so many viewers who have actually experienced these issues—a chord that is painfully realistic. It’s telling that the nostalgic flashbacks of Ralph’s childhood are cast in technicolour, while his present plight is in black-and-white. This deliberate contrast confers not only a further sense of unreality on the present, but also one of despondency.
There are definitely drawbacks to the DIY approach, which might put some viewers off. Many are likely to be distracted at times by the amateurish feel to certain scenes, which almost makes Demon feel like a low-budget version of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. But given that this approach offers much more artistic freedom, the risk taken by the filmmakers ultimately pays off. Demon works best when it’s viewed as something greater than the sum of its parts, provided you are willing to do the legwork to fit those parts together and recognise the depth of its sophistication.
The film is best suited to cinephiles who are acquainted with the noir style, as many of the narrative and stylistic choices could easily be misconstrued or go unappreciated. This includes the significance of the old laundry woman in the motel (Carla, the faux femme fatale, who develops an intimate friendship with Ralph), the constant zigzagging between the present day and the flashbacks, and the film’s preference for allusions to violence over depictions (a fight between Ralph and Mr Kinny is shown as a video game cartoon). Demon also offers a treasure trove of opportunity for those who enjoy noticing subtle details, rewatching a film several times and observing how seemingly random points in the plot explain later points. For instance, brief and odd news reports on the TV and radio throughout the film, which at first appear meaningless, in fact foreshadow much of what’s to come. By the end, there still appear to be some loose, unexplained character development and plot strands, which might be frustrating to some. Others, however, will no doubt relish in decoding the chaos with their own interpretations.
Demon revamps the genre of noir in modern terms, exploring contemporary themes such as male mental health and debt. With bizarre characters and plot points, the film is memorable for its surreality. Its DIY approach at times falls flat and evokes an amateur production. Nonetheless, its ambition and sophistication is clear from its attention to detail and strong allusions to noir conventions.
Demon will premiere at Cinequest’s virtual festival Cinejoy from 20 to 30 March 2021.
Words by Reem Ahmed
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