Friday, January 17, 2014

DEVIL'S DUE review

Let's get this out of the way for anyone not in the know who didn't read my interview this week with Radio Silence's Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: I have known the guys from Radio Silence for a long time now.  They're good friends of mine. We hang out rather frequently. I've helped them on a few of their shoots and we have spent many hours debating movies over the years.  So I wouldn't blame you if you want to keep those details in mind as you read my praise of their film, DEVIL'S DUE, opening today.

Then again, if I hated the film, I wouldn't lie about it. I simply would have side-stepped writing a review in the first place.

In an era where the success of found-footage horror like Paranormal Activity has lead to an explosion of found-footage projects, it would be easy to be weary of what many see as a gimmick.  In the wrong hands, that cinematic approach could be a cheat, a short-cut done to hide the lack of budget, resources and artistry on the part of the filmmakers.  Worse, it's leading to a number of projects being turned into found-footage movies just because producers are looking for quick and cheap ways to shoot a film.  A writer friend of mine tells of passing on a prospective rep when the manager kept pushing him to turn his scripts into found-footage stories, paying little mind to the fact that would not have been good for the story.

Fortunately, Radio Silence (directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett, executive producer Chad Villella and executive producer/cinematographer/visual effects supervisor Justin Martinez) are smarter than most who take a stab at the genre.  In doing so, they not only refresh the genre, but also what could have been an uninspired retake at the concept of Rosemary's Baby.  (Lindsay Devlin wrote the script.)

Character development can be a hard thing to achieve in found footage (To date, Chronicle probabaly is the genre's best achievement on that front), and horror films in general often have trouble hitting those heights.  What was the last horror film where you really cared about the victims?  Right from the start, Devil's Due sets out to do what every script should - get the audience invested in its leads.

This would be a far lesser movie without the adorable chemistry of Zach Gilford and Allison Miller.  They play a young newlywed couple named Zach and Sam who end up in the wrong club during the final night of their honeymoon in the Dominican Republic.  Thanks to Zach's determination to capture much of their lives on film, the camera is left running through some of this and we catch glimpses of a satanic ritual the two are participants in while drugged and unconscious. Upon their return home, the two discover that Sam is pregnant.  While at first it's a happy moment, Sam's behavior becomes increasingly odd and disturbing.

The first fifteen minutes of the film lets us experience the two young lovers' wedding and honeymoon.  It's enough time to make them really feel like a couple.  They're cute in a way that doesn't feel forced and there's an intimacy to their reactions.  These two feel comfortable and goofy with each other and the genius of this is that it gives the horror something to threaten later on. You might find yourself rooting harder for a happy ending for Zach and Sam here than you have in a number of romantic comedies.

I can't help but contrast that with Paranormal Activity, where not only was it hard to buy the two leads as a couple, but the male lead was incredibly unsympathetic in how he ignored his girlfriend's terror and continued antagonizing the demon.  It didn't take long until you were just waiting to see this idiot push things too far and get maimed for it.

Zach is the complete opposite of that character.  Gilford brings a great everyman energy to the role and his empathic eyes sell both his deep love for Sam, but the total impotence he feels in the face of her strange behavior.  Without spoiling too much, Sam becomes more and more withdrawn even as she's prone to strange outbursts.  A nice touch is that it's hinted not all of her moodiness is the result of possession.  Sam hadn't planned on being pregnant for a while and one tense scene shows her frustrated with how this has upended all her life plans.  It's a credible way to increase the tension between her and Zach.

Miller does a great job playing the two sides to Sam.  Regular Sam is so goofy and adorable that you might develop a crush on her immediately.  As the transformation progresses and Sam becomes someone more unfamiliar to us, we're right there with Zach in wanting the old Sam back.

Radio Silence delivers on a number of scares, even while playing with familiar staples like nightvision and hidden cameras.  In most cases, our foreknowledge of how those tools are applied only increases the dread.  (When the nightvision comes out, you know it's for a reason. The only question is how long the suspense will be drawn out before the film plays its cards.)  There are a couple sequences here that are definitely in the mold of their V/H/S segment, but for my money, the most unsettling and uncomfortable sequence is one that has no supernatural aspects at all, and actually calls to mind a sequence in The Exorcist.

The film manages to avoid most of the found-footage pitfalls.  Since Zach never started filming with the intent to capture a ghost or haunting on film, we avoid the moments in all the Paranormal films where the characters apparently - and conveniently - miss playing back the footage with the most unsettling haunting footage (PA4 was especially sloppy in this regard.)  Still there is a point where Zach begins editing the footage and stumbles on to some shots he never expected to find.  This is one area where a little more follow-up might have been warranted.  Fortunately the film amps up the pace soon after this.

Aside from a welcome appearance from Sam Anderson, known to genre TV fans from Lost and Angel (and to TGIF fans from Perfect Strangers and Growing Pains), Gilford and Miller are left to carry most of the film on their own.  They rise to the challenge so well that there's little doubt they both have long careers ahead of them.  It's remarkable how much better a found footage film can be when the creators aren't afraid to cast familiar faces just because viewers won't believe it's "real."

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