Among vampires, zombies, and men who moonlight as wolves, the demon sometimes gets lost in the horror movie mix. Cinematic representations of demons have ranged from frothy (Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS), to Assyrian (e.g., Pazuzu in THE EXORCIST), and even windy (err… DEMON WIND). In his 1991 film, THE MASTER DEMON, director Samuel Oldham sought to expose a few of the traits absent from the demon’s cinematic resume, freakishly high cheekbones and levitating garden tools, among them.
Centuries ago, there existed the White Warrior (Eric Lee), a swordsman with an incredible mane of hair worthy of lead guitar duty in Motley Crue. His primary adversary was the Master Demon (Gerald Okamura), a hideous underworld martial artist with a mastery of black magic. During a bloody mano-a-mano confrontation as part of the “Dragon Wars,” the White Warrior severed the Master Demon’s hand, banishing him back to the world from which he came. Near-death from his battle wounds, the White Warrior brought the severed hand to a nearby monk, who performed protective incantations and placed it under lock and key in a wooden box. To ensure the Master Demon never regained his powers, the hand needed to be confined and hidden to prevent any chance of him regaining his whole form, and thus, his evil and demonic powers.
Centuries later, on the West Coast in the present-day, the White Warrior has been reincarnated as Tong Lee, a great martial artist but otherwise regular dude who digs mesh half-shirts and good Mexican food like any other righteous Californian. Similarly, the Demon Master now walks among the living as shipping magnate and art collector, Kwan Chang. After an unknown thief makes off with a certain ancient wooden box on exhibit in an art gallery, the two are drawn into conflict, seemingly unaware of the violent history between their past selves.
While reading from a sacred book, Chang inadvertently conjures up the powerful Medusa (Kay Baxter Young), another force from the underworld, who admonishes him for allowing the remains to be stolen before fatally breaking his neck. She tracks the wooden box back to a private investigator named Cameron Massey (Steve Nave) who randomly received it from a crooked art dealer with a knife lodged in his head. (Who put it there? Medusa, of course!) The resulting scrum at Cameron’s apartment draws the attention of not only Tong Lee, but also some bumbling cops! Investigating detective Wayne Besecker (Sid Campbell), Cameron, and Lee, are suddenly thrown together as humanity’s last hope against a revived Master Demon, Medusa, and an army of underworld fighters.
How Oldham pulled together this cast is a great mystery; it’s one of the more off-the-wall ensembles I’ve ever seen, even for a low-budget American martial arts film. Before he was a pro wrestler, ultra right-wing politician, and recording musical artist, Tony Halme was just a 300-pound guy from Finland trying to make his Hollywood dreams come true. He’s perfectly cast here as an imposing henchman who can’t really be trusted with any dialogue.
Ava Cadell — most famous for her work as a sex and love therapist — appeared in many bit parts in film and television in the 1970s and 80s. Here, she has a prominent role as Jan, Cameron’s secretary. (In her first scene, she quits her job as Cameron’s secretary). The eventual romantic pairing of Jan with Detective Besecker felt like an odd choice — their drawn-out love scene is a NIGHTBEAST-like record-needle scratch moment — but her quirky line delivery adds humor to the story.
Among all of these personalities, the most consistently imposing figure is cut not by the martial artist leads, but by female bodybuilding pioneer, Kay Baxter Young, who tragically died in a car accident in 1988. How her character of Medusa fits into the film’s mythos is never clearly explained, but when she can demolish an entire building with a single punch (this happened) do you really need any additional context?
The fight scenes are frequent and lively, but they feel a little undercooked, especially when Eric Lee or Gerald Okamura are off-screen. They’ve done more polished action film work elsewhere (look no further than BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) but their efforts add the necessary energy to complement a truly zany story. For instance, you’ve probably seen plenty of action scenes where a random dude gets kicked by the hero and subsequently goes crashing through a window. But have you ever seen the hero voluntarily crash through a window from the outside to jump-kick a guy in a living room? It’s this sort of unique approach to cinematic genre elements that help THE MASTER DEMON stand out from a crowded pack despite its lean budget.
The director made other compelling choices in this film, some probably influenced by budget, and others probably influenced by a lack of time. YouTube has become a not-exactly-legal sanctuary for direct-to-video productions, and it’s the easiest way to watch this particular one, but I’d like to see how the original home video release compares to what I watched there. In the version Oldham has made available on YouTube, the title credit graphics and even some of the special effects seem to reflect production technologies that appear a lot newer than the film’s 1991 release date (and its circa-1988 production). Specifically, there are odd effects on-screen when the Master Demon incurs a battle wound; instead of spurting blood or cutting to a gory close-up, laser-like tendons emerge from the injuries and they look like they came from some consumer-grade video editing program from the early 2000s. Curious choice, but perhaps the director felt a need to replace whatever in-camera effects had been originally filmed (if any).
Oldham’s other uses of horror elements are more effective than the digital touch-ups. Some are traditional, bordering on haunted house fare — think smoke machines and strobe lights — while others are garish, such as drill-torture and a jump-scare cutaway to a bloody, faceless, skull. A scene in which Lee encourages his comrades to drink his blood to gain some of his newfound powers features a convincing bloodletting effect not fit for the squeamish viewer. Also true to the genre formula are the make-up effects used on Gerald Okamura’s demon; they range from dark, grotesque blobs to strange facial protrusions that would look right at home on a villain from Big Boy’s crime syndicate in the 1990 DICK TRACY film. These visual touches fit the film’s vibe perfectly, and serve the director’s larger objective of achieving a fun genre mash-up.
If you were on board for 1985’s FURIOUS and enjoyed the weird mix of martial arts, low-budget fantasy, and “throw-everything-against-the-wall-until-the-wall-crumbles” technique, this film is a close cinematic cousin. The key difference is that THE MASTER DEMON occasionally flaunts genre elements and a try-hard comedic charm that won’t vibe with everyone. That said, I really dig it when young or first-time directors throw a lifetime of influences in the mix to blend it into a single film — especially when they include horror, action, and HIGHLANDER-esque story elements — and Oldham’s attempt sticks the landing.
— This content was originally published on Fist of B-List