Demons Never Die (2011)

Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, December 2011

Synopsis: Amber scribbles ‘MURDER’ in her notebook and, upset, phones her ex-boyfriend Sachin. Minutes later, she is found with her throat slit. Police officers Bates and Mason address Amber’s classmates about the demons that drive young people to suicide, urging them not to follow Amber’s example. Eight pupils, each with their own problems, agree to commit suicide together at Ashleigh’s coming party. Just after bulimic model Samantha videos a suicide message for her family, a masked ‘demon’ stabs her. Publicity-seeking Kenny recruits outsider Davey secretly to film the group suicide. Drawn together by their imminent death, scarred Archie and gothgirl Jasmine fall in love. Sachin reveals his girlfriend ‘lost’ their baby. Flirty Ashleigh invites Bates and Mason to the party. A ‘demon’ attacks Jasmine, but flees as Archie arrives. Bates and teacher Hudson discredit Jasmine’s story because she may have dissociative personality disorder. Archie promises Jasmine he won’t let anybody hurt her. As all the others bond and decide to go on living, Kenny plots to shoot everybody at the party while being filmed.

After phoning an unseen fellow ‘demon’ to say he wants out, Hudson is murdered along with his wife. Sachin is tormented with a recording of Amber’s final phone call, and then murdered. Everyone comes to Ashleigh’s party, where there is more killing. Bates arrests Kenny before he can get inside. Mason finds Davey’s hidden camera monitor. Bullied, overweight James is killed after his first sexual experience. The lights go out, and in the chaos that follows, Ashleigh, Davey and Archie are stabbed. Jasmine flees the house. As Bates heads in to look for survivors, Jasmine finds Mason and Kenny dead in Bates’ car. Bates reveals he is one of many ‘demons’ who prey on the weak. Archie recovers and shoots him – but Bates is not dead.

Review: Written, directed and co-produced by new kid on the block Arjun Rose, Demons Never Die is a peculiar beast of a film whose name is legion. On the one hand, it is another British urban ‘yoof’ flick, featuring a fresh-faced cast of actors (and some musicians) whose collective filmography (including Kidulthood, Adulthood, Anuvahood, This Is England, Bullet Boy, Cherry Tree Lane and television’s Misfits) helps position the film in its gritty if stylised cinematic milieu. On the other hand, the London teenagers whose emotional ups and downs the plot traces seem less intent on outmanoeuvring others in the ‘hood than on harming themselves, as their different problems unite them in a shared desire to shuffle off this mortal coil – at least until they start enjoying one another’s company and having second thoughts. It is as though John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club had collided with Sono Sion’s Suicide Club, by way of television’s Skins.

Yet as fame-hungry would-be mass murderer Kenny (Jason Maza) puts it, “When you make a deal with the fucking devil, you don’t change your mind at the gates of hell” – and so it is that, just as these emo kids start abandoning their plans for group suicide and consider wanting to live again, the film’s genre mash-up really begins, with its characters being murdered one after the other by a masked assailant (or is it assailants?) straight out of a giallo. Where, viewed in isolation, the film’s ensemble teen drama or slasher material would have been entirely hackneyed, together they make for an interesting and occasionally uncanny mix. Through a series of hints, clues and red herrings, the film encourages us to unmask its villain(s), but leaves us uncertain, both up to and even beyond the film’s final revelation, just how much we should distinguish the diabolical killer from the psychological demons that pursue these damaged characters. Here, as in Philip Ridleys recent Heartless, the devil seems, at least in part, to be a metaphor for internal conflicts and broader societal ills – although as metaphors go, this demon manages to accumulate a rather high body count.

Rose clearly intends his debut also to be his calling card, and although, with the range of youth issues that his film raises (teen abortion, childhood trauma, bullying, mental illness, eating disorders, family abandonment, school pressures, homosexuality etc.), breadth comes at the expense of any real depth, at least a series of stylistic tics keeps everything visually (and sonically) arresting. Rose is confident enough to leave some of his film’s loose ends hanging (such as the questions of why overweight James fails entirely to notice the existence of one major character, or of just how many ‘demons’ there are), so that their implications can only be unpicked later by the viewer. It is the sort of enduring ambiguity that almost makes up for what might otherwise at times seem a messily overdetermined look at the horrors of adolescence.

Anton Bitel