20 January 2014

STRIFE BEGINS AT CONCEPTION

There have been a fair number of reviewers comparing Devil's Due with Rosemary's Baby, which is fair on the grounds that none of the glut of "pregnant with Satan's baby" movies made in the intervening 46 years have penetrated remotely as far into the cultural consciousness; but subgenre is absolutely the only the thing that the two have in common, and trying to use the one as a measuring stick for the other is gravely insulting. Rosemary's Baby, one of the great horror films of the 1960s, is above and beyond all its paranormal activity, a psychological portrait of a pregnant woman terrified by the strange and unpleasant changes her body is undergoing. It is terrifying not because of devil worshipers and demonic rape, but because of the realisation that something foreign is growing and thriving within one's own body, and all the people who should be there to help provide stability and support - spouses, kindly old friends and neighbors, doctors - are either indifferent or part of the problem. It is a film about Rosemary. Whereas Devil's Due spends virtually its entire running time alienating and Othering its pregnant woman, and if the 1968 film has frequently been described as a metaphor for depression and resentment during a rough pregnancy, the new movie is almost its polar opposite: a metaphor for young husbands finding their pregnant wives' bodies to be disturbing and unknowable and gross.

That's only one of the three big symbolic takeaways I get from the movie, which also presents the arguments that white newlyweds should stay the hell out of the Dominican Republic, where everybody is out to get you; and that vegetarians shouldn't get pregnant. Maybe not seriously that last one, but it's definitely on the table. Anyway, the movie opens with the marriage of Zach (Zach Gilford*) and Samantha (Allison Miller), whose ages aren't entirely clear, though they're both probably just on the frontside of 30. Their honeymoon is in Santo Domingo; here, they take the advice of a sinisterly friendly cabbie (Roger Payano) about this fun underground club to go to, and it is at this point that they are drugged and Sam is subjected to some manner of ritual. Back in the States, they find out that she's pregnant, and are all prepared to celebrate (even though Sam's very first reaction is confusion why her birth control failed), but they didn't see that ritual footage that we did, and they don't know that Sam's pregnancy is not at all something to be excited for, and it's a long time until Zach finally decides to go back and look at is his home movies to start putting the pieces together, to figure out why his wife is getting so weird.

*Sigh* yes, the home movies. Devil's Due, as a horror film released in January, is naturally a camcorder-type movie, though not since Chronicle in 2012 has any such first-person movie suffered so badly for its style. I will not say "found footage", since Devil's Due plainly isn't: the "cops found this footage" conceit that allows movies like The Blair Witch Project and the first Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield to sell the idea that we're watching the real footage of something that actually happened has been treated with increasingly less rigor through the passing years, but few movies scuttle it so thoroughly as this. It's explicitly the case that the footage could never be found - the penultimate scene clarifies in dialogue that much of the footage we've just been watching was taken without a trace. The only people who'd be likely to see the movie we just saw would be the Satanists themselves, and if I thought that directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett had that kind of sneaky audience-implicating in mind, I'd be dazzled by the bravura of it, but that is so clearly not the case - just like Chronicle, the camera-eye view is treated more as an obstacle to be overcome than a tool for storytelling, raising the question of why not just scrap it altogether, cut out the three scenes whose single function was to explain why cameras ended up where they did, and just make a damn normal Satan baby movie.

It's not like realism, the only plausible justification for found footage movies in the first place, can be at play. Unlike virtually everything else in the subgenre, Devil's Due includes not one but two fairly recognisable actors from TV, Friday Night Lights's Gilford and Lost's Sam Anderson as a priest, and the successful construction of a faked reality through found footage cannot survive the slightest possibility that the audience is going to recognise the actor. Movies that openly proclaim their fictionhood don't have a similar limitation. And that, coupled with the torturous need to justify the cameras, makes Devil's Due as complete a conceptual wreck as any film in its style has been yet.

But that's not even what ruins it. It's lousy horror, wrapped around a pair of utterly banal characters played by actors who can't between the two of them muster up more than one scene that makes them feel like interesting humans whose travails are worthy of our time and attention. And for as much time as the movie takes to pay off its early Satanic ritual (it's over an hour through the 89-minute film until anything meaningfully tense happens), we spent a lot of time with Zach and Sam, going through the business of being young, married, and expecting. I cannot imagine anyone finding this to be anything but the most tooth-grinding tedium unless they were themselves in the exact same situation, and of course people expecting their first child are close to the last natural audience for a film built on this premise.

Eventually, a decent scene crops up (the couple are confused by the secretive, dismissive behavior of their new obstetrician), and by virtue of copying the basic "stalking through an underlit building with evil silhouettes" structure of other movies, the finale has some kind of energy to it, though I cannot imagine any horror lover ever being hungry enough that it would be worth the wait to get to this middling climax. Which is, besides, terribly busy and chaotic and difficult to parse, visually, much as was the case with the directors' concluding segment in the anthology film V/H/S. The whole thing is a glacial, visually illiterate slog, and as reward for making it through, the film just sets up a totally unnecessary sequel. Which, I hope and pray, will be called Devil's Deux, or else it will be an even more complete waste.

2/10

7 comments:

Jeremy said...

January, huh

"Devil's Due" though? C'mon man

TheConciseStatement said...

'Devil's Deux'

The whole endeavour will be worth it for that pun alone, Tim. Sadly, I think you're ascribing them with more wit and satire than they're deux. It'll be called something far more pedestrian and po-faced like 'Devil's Due COLON Progeny'.

Brian Malbon said...

Shame it sucked. " a metaphor for young husbands finding their pregnant wives' bodies to be disturbing and unknowable and gross" could have been an excellent topic to explore and could have given a decent film a unique perspective. Certainly every expecting father has felt that way at some point, and been confused and angry at himself for feeling it. Maybe there's a germ of a better idea lurking in there somewhere.

Not Fenimore said...

@Brian Malbon: Eraserhead, maybe? Don't think it's quite that, but closeish. More cynically: I really don't think our culture needs another "wimmin, amirite?" movie. :S

zimnomel said...

"if I thought that directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett had that kind of sneaky audience-implicating in mind, I'd be dazzled by the bravura of it, but that is so clearly not the case"

Just out of curiosity: do you know about any movie that managed to pull off such a trick?

Tim said...

Not precisely the way I described it, but there are plenty of films to to play the "You are the voyeur" card well. Psycho and Rear Window, for sure. Caché particularly, but its something Michael Haneke is prone to do in general.

If you buy the argument that "Killer's POV" shots invariably make us identify with the killer, than lots and lots of slasher movies have done it. But I don't buy that argument.

zimnomel said...

Thank you - I've seen both Hitchcock movies, although it was a long while ago, so I have to re-watch them with this in mind. I'd also like to see Caché, but my first contact with Haneke was Funny Games, and I'm still sick from it.
About the killer POV: maybe I've just seen the wrong films (with the exception of Halloween) but I generally feel that most of these tracking shots are just a cheap gimmick. They definitely don't make me identify with someone I don't even know.