TDR_final-croppedIn contemporary horror cinema, the term throwback gets tossed around all-too-frequently. A few titles succeed in recapturing the spirit of bygone eras but, often, modern films self-described as homage typically fall into the category of parody or satire. It’s rare that an earnest tribute penetrates this landscape of mockery, as Georgia filmmaker James Sizemore has attempted with his colorful and gory film The Demon’s Rook (available on iTunes and On Demand September 30). Shot on a shoestring budget, Sizemore’s film is an impressive feat that features plenty of demons, zombies, and gut-munching delivered with gusto. The film stands as testament to the spirit of do-it-yourself artistry that relies on the strength of the craft, not tired references to films of the past.

The Demon’s Rook is the story of Roscoe (Emmett Eckert), an artistic young boy who is coerced into a hellish underworld populated by demons. In this sinister place, referred to as the Womb of the Dark Mother, Roscoe is taught the dark arts by a surrogate elder demon called Dimwos (John Chatham). As an adult, Roscoe (James Sizemore) returns to our world, unwittingly unleashing a trio of angry demons to wreak havoc on earth. The demons pursue Roscoe and his childhood friend Eva (Ashleigh Jo Sizemore) with a plethora of zombies, man-beasts, and possessed townsfolk at their disposal. Roscoe’s only chance is to channel an immense power Dimwos cultivated in him during time as the demon’s pupil, as well as a powerful connection between him and Eva.

Sizemore channels a pedigree that includes Lucio Fulci, Sam Raimi, the creature features of Charles Band, and even Bob Clark’s oddity, Children Shouldnt Play with Dead Things. Here, however, the desired effect is not ironic parody of those icons and their work; Sizemore is more interested in building mythology, one that owes as much to dark fantasy and the occult as it does to the horror genre. Sizemore incorporates an ancient language spoken between the demons and the ‘chosen one’ Roscoe, used in communication (subtitled, of course) throughout the film. It’s a neat concept that may not wholly work, but keeps The Demons Rook interesting enough to prevent it from becoming just another cliche zombie/demon film. At the very least, it firmly ensconces Sizemore’s horrific fable in the fantasy world he painstakingly designed.

DemonsRookFilm_Still_-_Manbeast_Transformed

Sizemore is careful to keep things loose; The Demon’s Rook is peppered with a goofy sense of humor that refreshingly strays from referential trappings. The gore gags are cleverly orchestrated as wise-cracking good ole boys are dispatched with glee. Sizemore also manages to find a good balance between the humor and scenes requiring a semblance of gravity.  Any film that features a band called Bovine Fantasy Invasion serenading a splattery demonic massacre is interested foremost in entertaining its audience.

At the heart of the story lies a little boy who was taken from his family by forces much larger than himself. Roscoe is mislead to believe Dimwos’ mantras and meditations are beneficial, until he learns the ultimate truth about his placement in Dimwos’ world. Scenes of the younger Roscoe are particularly effective, and the film is never quite as compelling as the first ten minutes we spend learning about him and his family life. Roscoe’s own creativity has exposed him to demons who would exploit his talent; it’s a powerful statement about art that I hope Sizemore was making intentionally.

From a technical standpoint, The Demon’s Rook is a master class in practical monster and gore effects. Sizemore pulls double duty as director and head monster maker. The expertly sculpted creations are brilliantly realized, and look pretty damned nifty even in full daylight. Kudos to Sizemore and his team for getting the most bang for their buck in a plethora of frightening demons, appropriately decayed undead, gut-rippings, and head explosions. Certainly, Sizemore tackles his story as a sincere treatise on love and family, but he realizes his core audience is there for outrageous geysers of grue. If The Demons Rook is taken solely as a resume of his capability as an effects artist, then his phone should be buzzing non-stop.

Commendable, also, is the work of director-of-photography Tim Reis, whose inventive camerawork and color palette harken to those great 70’s and 80’s films while retaining its own unique style. Both Sizemore and Reis wore many hats on the production, and their love for the genre is evident in every odd note of music and splash of blood. It’s their care for the artistic details that really sets The Demons Rook apart from less successful offerings in independent horror.

Film_Still_-_Dimwos_Blue

One hopes Sizemore acquires resources as vast as his boundless creativity deserves, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for the future. His latest short film, Goat Witch, is making festival rounds at the moment, and gathering accolades for the same inventiveness he employed here in his feature debut. Filmmakers like Sizemore are the life’s blood of independent horror, and should be able to continue making their mark in the genre. Here there be monsters, and Sizemore delivers them in spades.

More on The Demon’s Rook thedemonsrook.com, https://tribecafilm.com/tribecafilm/filmguide/the-demons-rook