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Devil: A Throwback Horror Clinger
In one of cinema’s most ironic twists, Devil’s reason for existence turned out to be its own worst enemy. The blessing of M. Night Shyamalan, director of the brilliant The Sixth Sense and a whole bunch of other loathed films, puts Devil in the unfortunate position of having to overcome Shyamalan’s own baggage to earn viewers’ interest. This is a shame; as Devil is a truly gripping horror thriller free of Shyamalan’s usual off-putting pretences.
The premise is simple but quite effective: five sketchy individuals are trapped in an elevator, unaware that one of them may be the devil. There is the sleazy salesman who has screwed his fair share of innocent people out of their savings; a posh, good-looking lady that's also an unapologetic gold-digger; an unassuming old woman who is also a compulsive pocket thief; a brawny looking fellow with a criminal past, and last of all; a suspiciously coy man who has witnessed excessive brutality during his days in the military.
From this classical horror setup, Devil manages to deliver some interesting twists; keeping the mystery alive and present for the film’s entire 80 minutes, which fly by fast. The elevator scenes depict the claustrophobia of the situation well through cleaver camera angles, never exhausting the location’s confined space. However, Devil is most ingenious in its use of darkness as a means of generating fear, projecting pivotal scenes in the viewers’ imagination in their entirety– harrowing and unnerving.
Getting trapped with the Prince of Darkness is a horrific prospect in itself, but director Dowdle gives it a moody spin with his insular and bleak cinematography. There is a sense of vacancy in Devil’s open landscape scenery that contrasts with the confined setting of the elevator. Devil’s cast of unfamiliar actors add to the film’s mystique while delivering competent performances that ground the film’s sense of foreboding and hopelessness.
Devil’s religious themes are heavy-handed and the film often hammers home its point too blatantly. However, it’s not uncharacteristic or out of place for a film that carries such a bold title.
Unlike other horror affairs that opt for gore and blood to turn your stomach, Devil never feels exploitive or nihilistically ambivalent; if anything, the film leaves you with a renewed sense of hope.
You’ve got to feel sorry for Pierce Brosnan; it’s difficult to evaluate how good an actor he is because it’s impossible to picture him outside of his stint as James Bond and, for us at least, he will be most remembered for getting a antelope thrown at his head by Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire in that strangely satisfying pool scene.
In fact, these two roles have come to define his career and his roles often fit into one of two categories – smooth, charming Englishman, or slimy Casanova. His role as a Cambridge poetry professor in romantic comedy, Some Kind of Beautiful, straddles the line between both, but only serves to prove that this very particular 90s style of rom-com is becoming less and less relevant.
The story goes like this; womanising professor, Richard Haig, impregnates a student of his, Kate (Alba), and tries to do right by her, by putting a ring on it, so to speak, and moving from England to California. Their imposed married life soon comes crashing down when Kate falls for another man, but Richard stays close to his son. Down on his luck and facing possible deportation, Richard finds solace in Kate’s step-sister, Olivia, who comes to develop feelings for him.
Directed by Tom Vaughan, the film pieces together the most trite rom-com clichés to sickly effect and frames its interpretation of romance in the most clichéd, and outdated, of ways. Brosnan’s character is pushed as a sort of misunderstood here; a victim of his own overflowing charm, his magnetism being as much a burden as it is a way to lure his unsuspecting students and other similarly beset women. Subsequently, Alba is painted as boring and promiscuous woman and essentially plays a bit-part in the telling of this most unnecessary of narratives. This in turn characterises Olivia as the fire-cracker woman who tames Richard. Granted, Hayek does the whole fiery Latino sexpot thing pretty well, but the whole thing folds one cliché into another – something that extends to Malcol McDowell’s turn as a forcibly amusing, grumpy old man, while Richard’s son does little but force a generic and hollow sense of sentimentality into proceedings.
In the end, the most interesting thing about this production, as harsh as it may seem, is that it’s another plaque on the Vaughan rom-com wall of shame – see Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher in 2008 flop, What Happens in Vegas. A film like this essentially suffers from what one might call like the domino cliché effect. Once the first cliché hits, it’s impossible to stop the rest.
A truly original horror film isn’t easy to come by these days; even the likes of Paranormal Activity and, going further back, The Blair Witch Project don’t stand-up to second viewing after the dust has settled from the initial impact. Irish production, The Canal, isn’t the film that’s going to change that, but it does have its positives.
The story tells of a husband troubled by paranoia; film archivist, David (Evans), suspects that his wife, Alice (Hoekstra), is having an affair and his suspicions are proven right. Amidst the impending demise of his marriage, he also comes to discover that a gruesome murder was committed in his house some one hundred years ago and he becomes increasingly unstable when Alice goes missing and he becomes the number one suspect.
While it’s far from perfect, writer/director, Ivan Kavanagh, manages to create a sense of dread and anticipation throughout, all the while resisting the conventions that have come to define the modern horror genre. It wouldn’t be completely off-point to call The Canal a more traditional, old-school haunted-house horror, with the dreary Irish backdrop making for an apt setting.
The aesthetic seems to have seeped into the dialogue, however, and paints the script with dreary deadpan interactions. But what will keep you engaged most is David’s slow emotional descent; it gives the film a humanness that many modern horrors lack. But as we’ve mentioned, this is a film not cut from the same mould and European film continues to produce diverse and unique horror.
Again, this is far from perfect and there’s a Hollywood polish that moviegoers have become accustomed to that’s lacking and at times this is a film that will make you feel uncomfortable in the best of ways. It’s as much as psycho-thriller as a horror and despite an underwhelming conclusion, it’s indie horrors like this that will impact the genre in the decade to come.