This was originally posted on Swampflix.com as part of that site’s “Movie of the Month” feature, in which one contributor makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before, and the staff discusses it afterwards. For April 2016, I made Erin, Brandon, and Britnee watch My Demon Lover (1987).
Boomer: I think that this was bound to happen sometime, and I’m pretty sorry that it happened with regards to a Movie of the Month that was my suggestion: My Demon Lover is not as much fun as a rewatch as it was in my memory. The male love interest comes across much more low-key predatory than I remembered, and the love story overall suffers as a result. Still, the two lady leads are just as likable as I remembered, which helped make this a more tolerable experience than it otherwise could have been.
My Demon Lover tells the story of Denny (Michele Little), a perpetual loser who falls for crappy guys like her latest man, who leaves her on her birthday for having the audacity to want to throw a party for herself. How dare she?! Her best friend Sonia (Gina Gallego) is a modern woman with lots of lovers and no boyfriends, an occasional psychic who runs a new age store. After an encounter with lovelorn loser Charles (Xena alum Robert Trebor, virtually unrecognizable without his trademark beard), Denny is ready to give up on men, until she has a charisma-free meet cute with horndog Kaz (Scott Valentine), a homeless man that she immediately takes into her home. Although there are a lot of problems with this scenario, the narrative focuses on one in particular: Kaz was cursed by the mother of a girl with whom he was sexually experimenting in middle school. As a result, when he becomes aroused, he turns into a monster called a pazatzki, complete with scaly prosthetics and monstrous claws. As a series of murders of young women rack up and are attributed to a serial killer dubbed “The Mangler,” Kaz starts to wonder if he is the one at fault. Sonia has a vision that implies he is, and everything comes to a head in a random castle that appears to be smack in the middle of Central Park.
Debuting at number ten on the week of its release and then quickly falling off of the box office charts, My Demon Lover netted nearly two million dollars in its first week despite not being a particularly good movie. Part of the reason for this was that Valentine was a bit of a hot item at the time, having garnered attention for his portrayal of Nick Moore, the boyfriend of Justine Bateman’s character on eighties sitcom standard Family Ties, appearing in 44 episodes. The character was so well-received, in fact, that there were three separate attempts to spin him off into his own show, titled The Art of Being Nick. One script idea made it all the way to the pilot stage, where Nick’s new love interest was played by Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and his sister was played by future Buffy mom Kristine Sutherland. Nick’s grandfather in the pilot was portrayed by Herschel Bernardi; Bernardi’s sudden death, combined with NBC’s hesitation to let Valentine leave Family Ties, led to the series not being picked up.
Despite the fact that his character in the film commits lots of micro-and macro-aggressions (including grabbing women on the street like an eighties YouTube pickup artist), Valentine himself has a lot of charm. Little is also very likable as the put-upon Denny, even if the character reads as a parody of unlucky eighties leading ladies. Gallego’s Sonia stands out in her role as the unapologetically sexually liberated modern woman, bringing warmth and sincerity to a role that one would expect to see treated more critically in a film of this era. These are all characters that would have been more successful in a movie wherein the leading man didn’t start out as such an unrepentant creep, and it’s a testament to Valentine’s likability as an actor that Kaz seems at all redeemable, given the aggressions cited above. It’s too bad that what could have been his breakout performance ended up burying him and relegating him to guest appearances in things like Lois & Clark, JAG, and Walker, Texas Ranger.
What do you think, Brandon? Are the likable characters who populate this film charismatic enough to partially cover the more unlikable elements here, or are the performances just adhesive bandages on a fatal wound?
Brandon: I do think you’re being a little harsh on My Demon Lover as a whole, but I can also see how a rewatch could make you cringe pretty hard. The opening stretch of the film constantly, confrontationally raises the essential question “Aren’t you supposed to like the male lead in a romcom? Or at least be able to tolerate him?” The demon lover hobo at the film’s center is a walking, breathing personification of street harassment, the kind of scummy cretin who must’ve scattered & disappeared when Giuliani cleaned up Times Square in the 1990s. My Demon Lover presents the most salacious version of NYC we’ve covered since former Movie of the Month Crimes of Passion & its male romantic lead thrives in its grimy, sex-soaked environment, often as a deadly threat for women navigating the city alone at night. You’d think that a romcom that begins with a man who turns into literal demon when he gets aroused & puts the women around him at risk would have virtually no chance of bouncing back, but My Demon Lover somehow pulls it off. A lot of this has to do with, as Boomer points out, the lady schlub charms of Denny as the demon lover’s love interest, but I somehow was also won over by the demon lover himself before the end credits rolled, a completely unexpected turnaround.
I think I can pinpoint the exact moment my opinion changed on the demon lover Kaz. There’s a really sweet, impossibly vapid falling-in-love montage where the devilish sex fiend learns the meaning of intimacy over a series of Big City dates with Denny that include props like hotdogs, park benches, and balloons. At this point it becomes kind of tenderly sad that Kaz can never become aroused by a woman without becoming a physical threat. It’s an affliction that keeps him from knowing the simple pleasures of romance and helps to explain how his sexuality remains predatory & juvenile without any chance for positive growth. The movie later does a lot of damage control to further repair the demon lover’s character by making his demonic form sort of cartoonishly pathetic & also making it explicitly clear that (huge spoiler) the serial Mangler murders were not his doing. However, it’s silly moments in his getting-know-Denny stretches that first began to redeem the poor little devil in my eyes. In those moments Kaz’s behavior seemed less monstrously brutal & more in line with obnoxious, emotionally stunted, magical characters like Drop Dead Fred.
Erin, you & Britnee both called the narrative twist of the real Mangler’s identity long before the movie revealed the true killer. Do you think that the murder mystery aspect of this film was a mistake, delaying how long it would take to learn to love the demon beau as a cursed goofball? Or was the act of gradually changing your mind on Kaz’s merits as a love interest more entertaining than the film would’ve been as a straight romcom fantasy? What does the Mangler murder mystery add or take away from My Demon Lover’s campy charms?
Erin: You know, I think that the kitchen sink nature of My Demon Lover is part of its appeal. The movie would function without the mystery of The Mangler, and it would be a perfectly sweet monster-flavored romcom. I do think that including The Mangler allows for an edge – it gives Kaz’s initial characterization a tinge of danger. Though he is completely disgusting in his own right, the implication that he is murdering women in the streets makes his meet-cute (meet-gross?) with Denny so much more troubling. We as an audience already know that she has terrible luck with relationships, and even without being led to believe that he is a blood crazed slasher it seems like a terrible idea for her to keep speaking with him and letting him sleep on her sofa. Adding The Mangler’s subplot gives the redemption story a stronger and sharper flavor, as we end up having to cover so much more ground to see Kaz as a protagonist. Instead of zero to hero, it’s like he’s starting at -50.
On the other hand, starting the movie with the implication that Kaz is The Mangler makes the second act of My Demon Lover really jarring and awkward at times. It’s hard to enjoy sappy love montages and gratuitous makeouts when you have the unsettling feeling that an ingenue is going to be slaughtered in her sleep. The nightly murders and rising hysteria about The Mangler are also at odds with the main plot of two goofy kids falling in love. I’m not sure if the incongruity is intentional, or if watching My Demon Lover in 2016 increases the gap in mood. I think that audiences today might be more sensitive to the portrayal of violence towards women in cinema.
It’s hard to choose the strangest element of My Demon Lover, though. The magical rules seem inconsistent, with Kaz’s pazzazion manifesting in a thousand different ways. Denny’s friend Sonia is inexplicably the best character in the movie, and for some reason sleeping with the DA. The NYPD are following a procedure unknown to any police force in the world. The balloon budget is strangely high.
Britnee, what do you make of My Demon Lover? What aspect of the movie caught your attention, the romcom elements or the monster movie side? Do the production values of the movie detract from its charm or add to it?
Britnee: I honestly didn’t expect My Demon Lover to be much different than the other hundreds of campy 80s comedies out there, but it actually does a great job standing out on its own. At first, the film didn’t seem like it was going to be anything but a cheeseball comedy about a fruit burger-eating airhead that falls for a perverted homeless guy who may or may not be a killer demon. Thankfully, things become much more interesting as the film goes on.
The monster movie and romcom elements of My Demon Lover come together to create a rare combination that makes for one hell of a memorable flick. I think that the romcom features of the film stood out more for me than the monster movie elements. If all of that demon jazz was taken out of the film, I think it would still be just as wacky and entertaining. It seems as though we all agree that Kaz is not your average romcom heartthrob, and I think that’s what made this such an amusing experience. I actually found Kaz and Denny to be very annoying lead characters, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Their ridiculously irritating traits make them a hilarious, dynamic duo. Denny’s lack of self-respect and poor life choices mixed with Kaz’s disturbing mannerisms and erratic personality work very well together. I remember thinking, “God, these people suck, but is that why I’m laughing so hard right now?” while watching the film. This is the stuff that romcoms are made of.
As for the film’s production values, I would have to say that the film benefits from its cheap qualities. The poorly made demon costumes, Kaz’s limited wardrobe, and, as Erin previously mentioned, the large amount of balloons adds to the movie’s comical value. My Demon Lover wouldn’t have been half as much fun if it was some fancy schmancy high-quality production.
Boomer, of all the strange happenings that occur in My Demon Lover, the portion of the film that takes place in the Belvedere Castle in Central Park caught me off guard more than anything else. It seemed very displaced. Did you feel as though this part of the film seemed like a completely different movie? Also, if you had to choose a different location for The Mangler’s lair, where would it be?
Boomer: I have to admit that, up to this very moment when I looked up “Belvedere Castle,” I had no idea that there really was a castle in Central Park. I thought that the Central Park castle was a total fabrication! With that knowledge, I’m a little more forgiving of the film’s climax (sorry) for taking place there. It still doesn’t quite work for me, but I can see what the intent was. Just as the vaguely racist “Romanian curse” enacted on a modern man draws a line of connection between the sexpolitik of the Old World and the contemporary one of the film, so too does a climactic castle rooftop showdown with modern weapons (and a little shaggin’ to make the magic happen). Still, you’re absolutely correct, Britnee, in that it doesn’t feel quite right.
I think a more industrial or warehouse location showdown would have been better suited to the film’s aesthetic and its placement in then-modern New York. At the time of the film’s production, it would have been impossible to predict the rise of Giulianni and the Disneyfication of New York that would follow in his wake (Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel Delany is essential reading to understanding this dichotomy). My Demon Lover is like a time capsule from the real New York, and diverting the narrative to such an Old World location when the story could have had a meatpacking district fight sequence or a battle of wills at a dead subway stop (just think of the passing trains and the potential for interesting lighting schemes!) would have been more in line with the presentation of the city up to that point. There are arguments to be made for shooting in either atmosphere, but I really would have loved to see more of 1980s NYC and its eccentricities (Fruit burgers! Occult shops with weapons that can actually kill a demon!) rather than a locale that seems almost formulaic, even for such an oddball flick.
Brandon, raunchy comedies seem to be popular in brief cycles, with watershed sex flicks like Porky’s, American Pie, and Forty Year Old Virgin inspiring imitators and followers for a few years before the madness dies down and the fields of film are left fallow to allow the next hit to germinate. Do you think that, in the wake of the bro-aggrandizing movies of the past few years (like Neighbors), a modernized remake of My Demon Lover would have the chance to reach a wide audience in the way that the original did not? And, if you were drafting a script for it, would you keep Kaz’s street harassing ways intact (all the better to discuss the issue and create a stronger arc) or forego that character trait altogether (making him a more sympathetic lead from the outset)?
Brandon: It’d be interesting to see a script take a thoughtful, pointed jab at hyper-masculine sexuality through this film’s formula. It could maybe even update Kaz’s toxic sexual persona with recent targets of online feminist social commentary: “manspreading”, “negging”, commands like “You should smile more!”, etc. The truth is, though, that a satirical comedy with ambitions that high would have to toe a thin line to succeed.
A much easier way to update My Demon’s Lover‘s formula would be to swap the genders of its protagonists. My favorite raunchy sex comedies of the past few years have been the ones lead by women. Films like Appropriate Behavior, Wetlands, The Bronze, The To Do List, Bachelorette, and (to a lesser extent) Trainwreck have breathed fresh air into a stale format by making its overgrown, oversexed adult children women for a change, which has been an exciting development when it’s done right. I know it’s not a sex comedy, but consider, for instance, Paul Feig’s upcoming Ghostbusters reboot. In almost every scenario a new Ghostbusters film sounds entirely unnecessary & gratuitous, but with that cast of talented women on board, it actually sounds like it might be kind of worthwhile?
Erin, picture for a moment My Demon Lover with Denny & Kaz’s roles reversed. Kaz is a bumbling nerd who always seems to attract emotionally abusive women & Denny is an oddball love interest who turns into a literal monster every time she gets horny. Would this gender reversal change the film’s fabric in an essential way or would their dynamic remain just as off-putting?
Erin: Oh man. A gender flipped My Demon Lover might be a lot to process even for modern audiences. I have two thoughts on switching the genders of Kaz and Denny (could we keep the names? probably?). I’m also going to assume that you mean a full gender-flip, and that The Mangler is also going to be a female character.
First, I think that a gender flipped My Demon Lover would be a hard sell for the same reasons that other raunchy, female-led comedies seem to struggle. American audiences are still coming to terms with actresses having full comedy range – comediennes are criticized for being pretty, and therefore unable to be funny, or being funny because they are unattractive and have nothing else going for them, and who wants to watch or listen to an unattractive woman, or trying too hard to be “one of the boys” with gross-out humor, or being unrelatable because their humor is about female experiences, or just being unfunny because women obviously have no sense of humor. As difficult as it is for an audience to get behind Kaz as a protagonist (and he starts pretty freakin’ low), I think that it would even more difficult to make the turn around for a female character who’s meet cute involves digging through trash and spewing half-chewed food at their romantic lead. There’s also a lot more judgment leveled at women who are unabashed horn dogs.
Secondly, I think that it might be more difficult to hold the tension that My Demon Lover has with its Mangler plotline. We still have a hard time convincing the general public that men can be the victims of sexual or violent assault by women. I’m not sure that audiences will see a female Kaz’s butt-grabbing crawl through Manhattan as the same kind of inappropriate as the male Kaz’s. The only edge that My Demon Lover has is with the early implication that Kaz is The Mangler, and it could be very difficult to convince audiences that The Mangler’s brand of slash-and-dash is being performed on male victims by a woman, pazzazed or not.
That being said, I think that if the right director came along with the right vision, a gender flipped My Demon Lover would be interesting. I can’t imagine that it would be worse than the original. I’m actually pretty curious to see the redemption plot line work out with a gross-out, uber-horny lady lead and a thoughtful, cutie pie dude. I think that the only way to fix some of the issues that I list above is to push them in public arenas, to familiarize audiences with new concepts and characterizations. So throw in a few lessons with everything else in My Demon Lover, I’m not sure that you could possibly hurt it any more than it hurts itself.
I think my final assessment of My Demon Lover is that its goofiness makes it fun, but that some of the sexual politics are dated enough to make it uncomfortable to watch. What do you think, Britnee? Am I over analyzing a movie that’s intended to be funny and gross and inappropriate, or is there anything to be gained from talking about the parts that came across strangely when we watched the movie?
Britnee: I don’t think that you’re over analyzing this film at all. Yes, My Demon Lover is a total cheeseball of a movie, but the parts of the film that involve Kaz being a total perv are really obnoxious. Kaz’s inappropriate behavior towards women doesn’t add to the film’s comic value like I’m sure it was intended to, but being that this film was released in 1987, this wasn’t too much out of the norm. It’s interesting to think of what the response to the film would be like if it was a current release. I doubt that many viewers would walk out of theaters or pop the DVD out of their players, but I’m sure it would piss off a hell of a lot more people now that it did in ’87. It’s refreshing to know that we all felt discomfort in Kaz’s behavior in the film’s beginning. It’s a sign that the times are changing (though not quickly enough).
All that aside, My Demon Lover was a blast. Any time a film can make you laugh out loud as much as this flick made me, it must mean that something was done right.
Britnee: When I first heard the film’s title, I couldn’t help but think of how amazing Judas Priest’s “Turbo Lover” would be if “Turbo” was replaced with “Demon.” It would be a great song for the film’s credits.
Boomer: I’d like to voice my support for a gender flipped MDL, and nominate the following: Grant Gustin as Denny and Kat Dennings as Kaz. I’d like to vary up the whiteness of the original film, but putting a POC in either of these roles seems inappropriate (given the real historical and racist oversexualization of WOC in the West). I’ve voiced my general distaste for Emma Roberts in many of my writing projects, but I feel that she could pull off the role of The Mangler with more subtlety than Robert Trebor does here. I’d cast Michael B. Jordan as Sonia (Sonny?) and replace the irascible police chief with Michelle Rodriguez. Plus, because I seriously wish she was in everything I watched, Angela Bassett as Fixer.
Erin: It must have been a lot of fun to do the monster effects in My Demon Lover. It looks like the effects team had a pretty long leash and enjoyed every gross minute of it.
Brandon: I’m just going to piggyback on what Erin’s saying here. The visual effects in those demonic transformations are of the highest, almost Rick Baker-level quality. I was surprised to see Britnee call the demon designs “poorly made” since that’s just about the only thing on display not shoddily slapped together. I particularly like the detail of Kaz’s ears being sucked inside his skull in that first transformation. I might forget large chunks of My Demon Lover in the coming years, but those ears receding into his head will likely haunt me forever & they were the first thing that stuck out to us as a crew when we watched the film’s trailer (which is a work of art unto itself).