It is fairly clear, to my mind, that when most people live long enough, they have moments that they wish they could change. It can be something that they did, or something that they did not, in fact, manage to do so long ago. In the end, even if this isn’t true for all people, everyone definitely reaches a point where they want to let the pain of their trauma, and sometimes even their mistakes, go. But really, what it all comes down to, are the power of memories and ideas within the framework of these mindsets, and sometimes even beyond them into a whole other form of space entirely. This is the space-time, the psychic and psychedelic place, that film director and writer Patrick Meaney explores in his first full-length fictional cinematic narrative House of Demons.
Patrick Meaney is no stranger to film itself, though mostly in the form of the documentary: as the editor and producer of She Makes Comics, the director of Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods, and other works executive produced with Sequart itself. What is interesting is looking at this transition from his background in documentaries into the horror genre of which House of Demons is a part.
While he credits the film Magnolia and the cinematography of David Lynch as being some of the creative inspirations for the multiple character arcs converging together into a shared experience in his own movie in his interviews with both ScareTissue and AmberBenson.Tv, you can get a sense of how his previous work might affect his narrative sensibilities through his quick transitional scenes, the interactions between the characters themselves, the juxtapositions of very different scenes with varying moods and tones, and a considerable amount of expositional dialogue and selective character voice-over. At times, the quality of the film seems grainy as well, particularly some of the flashbacks, that feels reminiscent of a documentary aesthetic. Even the film begins with a quote from what seems to be a book that leads into something of an in media res situation.
These elements transfer over to his working of the horror genre in a few ways. The in media res sequence leaves the audience with the question of what has happened to the woman who has ingested the pill that is supposed to release her of her pain. Meaney utilizes various surreal and almost hallucinogenic sensibilities into parts of the film as well, some of which not making initial sense to the audience, or seeming to be one thing when it is really another as you begin to piece the sequences of events together such as with the status of Dave, one of the group of friends who gets injured in a car accident about seven or eight years ago in 2010. There is of course the other major flashbacks of 1969 with the “Manson-like” Hippie or New Age cult whose actions precipitate the overarching plot of the film as well as some of the abstract and surreal elements of the “monster” — the “daemon” as he is called in the end credits – who echoes and repeats a lot of what the other characters say, when he isn’t moving backwards, or in bizarre movements that are not particularly human even for his humanoid form.
What really strikes me, however, is how Meaney’s sequential arcs converge: in both the characters meeting, separating, and reuniting, and space-time itself also uniting into a whole other shape. There are many sequential elements that, along with the transitions, move fast and it can be easy with the psychedelic aesthetics and scenes to lose sight of a lot of what is going on. House of Demons seems to be all about altered perceptions and drawing from pain – and trauma – to find and traverse a place beyond space and time where most memories and strong feelings dwell.
The plot seems straightforward enough, at first. A group of friends meet at a bar to celebrate the upcoming wedding of one of their other friends. They plan to go to a cottage for the night so that they can be in the area where the nuptials will commence. The characters themselves are played much in the way that many horror characters are portrayed: as stilted, even awkward caricatures of what seems to pass as “normal humans” in an uncomfortable social situation. In fact, initially, I wondered if this was done on purpose, if this how this group of friends had always acted around each other, or if they just possessed wooden personalities in lieu of trying to act normal and mundane.
But the juxtaposition of the present to the flashback, recorded by a shaky camera in a car, in 2010 changes all of that, and makes you realize just how much has changed. It has this almost found footage resonance to it as you watch these friends, a bit younger, goofing off, making out, and laughing before disaster strikes, and their lives are changed forever: as we see by comparison to the sombre way they drive together in one car to the cottage years later.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that every character in this film finds themselves, in the words of the film’s official site synopsis, in a state of “arrested development” due to their pain as a group, and as individuals. We find out that their friend Dave – played by Taliesin Jaffe of Critical Role – who on first glance seems to have been killed in their car accident back in 2010, didn’t die as the zoom-in white fade out scene after the fact seemed to indicate, but became trapped in a state of paralysis.
Spencer, acted by Morgan Peter Brown of XX, is off to the side from the rest of his friends. It turns out, and it took me some time to realize, that Spencer was the responsible driver the night that they all got into that car accident. He appears to be a straight-laced character: someone who has recently become a medical doctor, and only believes – or tries to believe – in the rational and empirical around him. The film makes an especial point of stating through a personal flashback scene that Spencer’s family raised him not to believe in anything that cannot be “proven” such as God or Santa Claus. There is an emptiness inside of him, and a particular loneliness that can be contributed to someone extremely intelligent, studious, and guilt-ridden from feeling responsible for Dave’s injury. And on some level you can even see the others blaming him for this, not so much through what they say, but through how they act around him, or even talk to him.
Katrina, played by actress Whitney Moore, seems to be this light and bubbly woman who has forsaken drugs and alcohol all for the sake of embracing a New Age lifestyle of spirituality. There is so much life to this character, who is well-meaning but also hurting. After the accident she had found herself pregnant by her boyfriend at the time Matthew, played by Jeff Torres, only to apparently miscarry and then break up with him not long afterwards. She attempts to piece her life together, and even tries to counsel Spencer on the spiritual before he rudely rebukes her: projecting the scorn of belief that his family has passed on so thoroughly to him.
Matthew himself is an interesting character, in that when the film first begins he seems like a pushy, almost aggressive man. It also becomes clear that he is something of a drug dealer. But it is merely the drink, and you begin to realize that he is a lot more sensitive and vulnerable than he appears. It turns out, years ago, in the heat of the tragedy of Dave’s accident, when he found out that Katrina was pregnant he proposed marriage to her: something she initially accepted before the revelation of her miscarriage and her calling off their relationship. It becomes apparent that this boisterous, seemingly easy-going man is actually incredibly broken, and dwelling on the past and life that he wishes he had.
And finally, among the protagonists, you have Gwen: as portrayed by Kaytlin Borgen: a depressed aspiring writer who fights for the approval and against the oppression of her father’s scholastic opinion of her work, while struggling in the shadow of her mother’s perceived physical and emotional perfection to which she always feels unfairly compared, as well as some unresolved psychosexual fears and fantasies of her own. Furthermore, it transpires that Gwen has unrequited feelings for the group’s friend who is to be married – namely the groom – and she deeply mourns an opportunity for a relationship with him that never happened. You also get the feeling that Gwen is extremely sensitive to at the least some of the dynamic of her friends as well: given that the novel she’s writing is about how families “screw up” each successive generation. At this point in the game, despite her chronological age Gwen feels like someone who is still in the process of growing up, and even the way she pitches her story comes across as immature: even, as it turns out, her insights form the soul of this film.
None of these characters will face their pain, and the emotional baggage they hold onto, on their own initiative. This is where the events of 1969, in the cottage that they rented from their friend’s uncle, comes into play. We’re always told that the 1960s and 70s were filled with dreams of the space age, peace, and free love: with a rebellion against authority and the old established order of things. But this time period had also been filled with violence, and suffering, upheaval, and cults looking for those were desperate to believe.
Frazer, as played by Dove Meir, is a charismatic former scientist turned New Age cult leader. Imagine a combination of L. Ron Hubbard and his Dianetics philosophy and Charles Manson with his “family,” and you pretty much get Frazer. At the same time, however, Meir manages to portray an actual sense of greatness to Frazer: even something that emulates the compassion that the man once possessed. The fact is, you get this idea that Frazer wasn’t a snake oil salesman that began the commune with his friends to gain more power for himself. You find out, gradually, that Frazer feels responsible for the death of his younger brother years ago: and that he is undertaking experiments in an attempt to, not bring him back from the dead, but to make sure he never died at all.
There is where things get interesting and it takes the viewer, the audience, to put some of these pieces together. Frazer realizes something akin to Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace, or perhaps a combination of a space made up of the collective unconscious and Charles Howard Hinton’s idea of the fourth dimension. Particular chemical substances can make one break down the barriers against understanding and pain within a person’s mind. Doing this allows them, through “the release of their pain” to access this “outer space” beyond time – making a wound or a portal – that they can use to potentially travel throughout time itself. Frazer and his commune experiment with this through ingestion of drugs, possibly those of his own creation, and utilizing psychological experiments and cutting to focus their released pain into the space around them. They attempt to use the pain of childbirth at one point to do so, negating Frazer’s insistence to the poor woman in question that “gods feel no pain.” Of course, this might be Frazer’s sense of his end goal: which is to purge pain by facing the inner demon of that pain by going back in time – or flowing into this other world – to either change a mistake of the past, or destroy the idealized representation of that mistake.
But it is fairly clear that Frazer has lost his way a long time ago. He still deludes himself into thinking that he is seeking to release his pain, and those of others, but he has become addicted to the power of the lives of his commune. In the end, physical pain and even that of childbirth and life isn’t enough. He begins convincing his followers to kill each other, and others: to use the powers of death and belief to create a wound in time and space for him to utilize for his own expressed purpose of going back to save his brother. Only Maya, his long time companion and co-founder of the commune, portrayed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran Amber Benson, calls him on his hypocrisy and tries to remind him and the others that they were once founded by love: to be able to help people transition away from pain, or through it, and embrace inherent love of one’s self and others.
Perhaps Frazer and the others rented the cottage years ago because of its connection to nature or due to the power of leylines in that area. But past is present as Frazer’s experiments literally spill over from 1969 into 2018: linked to the trauma and pain of Katrina, Matthew, Spencer, and Gwen who stay in that place. It is also possible that the cottage, having been owned by Frazer, could have had more of his drug in existence: perhaps in the wine that all the friends shared before bed that they thought came from their friend’s uncle. It all links up to a quote presented at the very beginning of the film: “Time doesn’t heal our wounds. It numbs them. Outside time, those wounds still bleed, and all our demons wait for us.”
Furthermore, there is another element to consider. If the collective unconscious is another world that links and is outside of space and time, then there are archetypes – aforementioned embodiments of personal pain and trauma – with which one must contend. Frazer is the antagonist of the film for the most part, but the monster is something called “the Daemon” in the film’s credits. It is a bizarre, twisted almost vampiric creature played by Paradox Pollack and everyone that encounters it, including Frazer, does their damnedest to avoid it. But while he is the most visible monster, he is not the only daemon: not even close.
Daemons in Greco-Roman mythology, also called daimons or genii, are spirits that inspire or link a person to the other world: or perhaps their own subconscious. Whereas in modern times people credit themselves with the development of ideas, in ancient Greco-Roman culture inspiration came from the passing and embrace of these spiritual entities. It is also fascinating to note that the word “daimon” itself is a root word for “angel” and “devil.”
For Matthew and Katrina, their daemons are their past selves: Matthew seeing himself and Katrina with the latter giving birth, Katrina dealing with the memory of the truth behind why she didn’t really have Matthew’s baby through the advice of her mother, Gwen’s vision of her ever-youthful mother played by Chloe Dykstra as something of a Lilith-like red-headed figure always threatening to consume her dark-haired daughter’s space and existence, and Spencer seeing the broken form of Dave and then his own impeding, nihilistic death.
The psychic and psychedelic metaphysics of House of Demons is utterly fascinating to consider. Even Frazer has learned to navigate this world and its metaphorical language, possibly by utilizing a drug in others, but also learning the language of these daemons, of these wounds. For instance, when he communicates and interacts with Gwen, travelling forward in time instead of back as he originally planned, he gets her to “release her pain” after interacting with her in a psychosexual manner, by getting her to kill the daemon of her Lilith mother. As such, when he makes her embrace the identity of “Siren,” she takes on the seductive, life-sealing qualities of the thing she hates to attempt to kill her friend Spencer so Frazer can use that energy and move on.
Even Matthew, when he strangles the daemon version of “his perfect, idealized Katrina” after the real one reveals the truth about her pregnancy, seems to release himself from its power once the essence of Dave – presumably trapped in this psychic limbo due to his paralysis – snaps him out of his anger and self-loathing. His words to get him to act again are something along the lines of “And I thought I was paralyzed” — an insight that applies to everyone equally in this film, and cementing in my mind just how poignant a character Dave is for having been an all but silent character in House of Demons.
It also illustrates that this psychic world is not all evil, or monstrous. There are other archetypes and potentially beneficial effects in releasing one’s pain: especially if someone is there to guide you. In the case of Spencer, he represents what Frazer used to be, or how he began. It is no coincidence that Spencer – a doctor, a scientist and a rationalist – is called “Frazer” by Maya in her own drug haze when he is sent back and kidnapped by Frazer’s cult members in 1969. It is Maya, after Spencer is physically wounded by one of Frazer’s followers, who guides him – along side Dave’s spirit – to finding enlightenment and going beyond the fear or spectre of his own meaningless death to figuratively gain a present from Santa Claus: to heal himself, and even figure out how to help Dave in the real world. Maya manages to be the guide for Spencer, the angel for him, that she initially wasn’t for Frazer. She steers him into embracing the positive healing power, of actually healing one’s emotional wounds that he will utilize combined with his own scientific knowledge.
In fact, all of the characters towards the end of the film end up facing their daemons in an act of Nietzschean overcoming: with Katrina realizing she should have told Matthew the truth about her pregnancy and their relationship, and Gwen becoming grounded in the reality of her real mother and father’s love to rid herself of Frazer’s attempts at brainwashing. Even Frazer gains a form of redemption as Spencer and Maya come to his side. You realize that the Daemon, the monster throughout the entire film, is actually a distortion of Frazer’s deceased brother Bobby, his deformations an exaggeration of his sickness from polio, his raspy voice a parody of his brother dying in an iron lung. In Frazer’s attempts to reach his brother through feeding the wounds of the world the pain and trauma of others, all he has done is make this Daemon – his Daemon – more powerful. The Daemon isn’t Bobby as he claims, but rather Frazer’s idealization of Bobby: of his poor lost brother that he wants to save, his good intentions turned rotten with his hubris and personal atrocities.
Katrina, through her own spiritual training learns to face this Daemon down and realize it is not her responsibility, saving the life of Matthew in the process, though not the lives of all the others the Daemon has killed. The Daemon is a part of Frazer himself, in a way his brother. This is clear when Frazer stabs the Daemon and the wound forms on his own body instead. But it is Maya who actually comes to his side, and makes him realize what he has done, what he has become, and what he has to do. In this sense, it is no coincidence that Maya is portrayed in something of a psychedelic fever dream as an angel in the heavens: the other side of the daimon. Once Frazer attacks his Daemon one last time, he and Maya disappear: either back to their own time, or past the limits of death itself.
It is no coincidence that House of Demons was originally called “Trip House” given its aesthetics and content, and I have to say watching it is quite the journey. Patrick Meaney manages to take some expectations and through gradual sequences, subvert them while telling his story. At the same time, I do ponder over the ending. It isn’t unusual for the protagonists of a horror film to all survive at the end, or even for an antagonist to redeem themselves in a film in general, but sometimes I felt as though the momentum meandered a bit.
However, I think House of Demons is not merely a horror film, but something of a psychodrama – a fantasy – that figures itself out as it goes along, much like the characters themselves experience individuation, and eventual growth. The style itself reminds me of some of what I’ve been reading about Alan Moore’s own attempts at cinematography with similar ideas, and as Meaney’s first fictional cinematic story – especially with regards to how he constructs his world and plays with symbolism – I definitely want to see his film-making and creative cinematic sensibilities develop even further in the near future.
You can order House of Demons as a DVD and digitally through Amazon, as well Video on Demand and other avenues that can be found through House of Demons’ official film site.