It seems like every week we’re either getting a found footage horror movie or one in which some unsuspecting young woman is possessed by demonic forces. So it makes sense that the two tropes should be swirled together, like chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and served to the masses. The resulting confection, this week’s not-screened-for-critics horror romp “Devil’s Due,” does its best to inject some freshness into a scenario that seems to blanket movie screens week in, week out. Sadly, it comes up hard against the limitations of both the format and the genre, and can’t ever overcome them.
“Devil’s Due” starts out well enough, with a creepy POV shot that appropriates the menace of countless eighties slasher movies (and the wonderful opening of Brian De Palma‘s “Blow Out“), before the scene reveals itself to be a cutesy romantic interlude. Zach (Zach Gilford, from “Friday Night Lights“) is set to marry his sweetie Samantha (Allison Miller) the next day; the pretense for the ever-present camera is that he wants to capture every moment of their new life together. Okay. After some wedding reception footage and good-natured honeymoon goofing around (in the exotic Dominican Republic), the spookiness starts to transpire after the couple is whisked away by a local taxi driver. Ominous symbols, like the logo for some evil demonic corporation, start to pop up, along with sinister chanting.
These early sequences are effective, thanks largely to the fact that they prey upon American’s built in xenophobia, a tried-and-true route to horror employed by everything from John Landis‘ “American Werewolf in London” to Eli Roth‘s “Hostel.” When our darling young couple return stateside, Samantha makes a startling discovery: she’s pregnant. Spoiler alert, her human husband isn’t the father. Keeping with the oddly pro-life slant of these movies, the couple doesn’t discuss terminating the pregnancy, even though she appears to be a grad student and earlier in the movie they casually remark that it’ll be at least a year before they start a family. You’d think they’d at least talk about it. It is 2014, after all.
The midsection of the movie rests in an area of familiarity, since as an audience member you’ve come to expect and memorize the tropes of both the found footage horror movie and the demonic possession story. So of course there will be a shadowy figure in a doorway in the blurry part of the frame, and of course something creepy will happen when he puts down the camera and walks away. When a robotic white guy replaces the couple’s friendly female doctor, it elicits a giggle because it’s so obvious that he’s part of a weird satanic cult.
“Devil’s Due” was crafted by a filmmaking collective known as Radio Silence, comprised of directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, cinematographer Justin Martinez, and visual effects supervisor Chad Villella. The team was responsible for a segment in 2012’s low budget horror anthology “V/H/S” called “10/31/98” that had a playfulness and whimsy that the other sections of the movie lacked. It was like an R-rated version of Disneyland’s the Haunted Mansion, with all the effects cranked up to 11.
There are a number of stylistic embellishments and out-of-control moments in “Devil’s Due” that feel like they’re part of that same spirit. One of the very best additions they bring to the found footage genre is that, for much of the movie, we’re watching the characters’ lives play out via the cameras that the weird satanic cult have installed in their home. It adds an additional level of skin-crawling creepiness, and allows for gags like the slow pan of a hidden camera as Samantha gets into the bathtub.
The best sequence in the whole movie, too, comes from this restless, let’s-put-on-a-show spirit that made their “V/H/S” segment such a hoot. Without warning, the movie switches away from the main narrative and picks up the footage of a trio of kids jack-assing around the woods. They come upon Samantha, who is up to some not-so-nice things, and the movie becomes viewed, for a few minutes, through their camcorders. It’s like the moment has been spliced in from an entirely different movie, and for all we know it could have been a last minute addition to juice up the scares. But man does it work.
If there’s a problem that gets in the way of some genuinely scary moments, it’s that the filmmakers (all four of them) don’t ever give you enough information to invest in the characters. There’s hardly a moment to pause and take stock of what these people’s lives actually are. Without that, it negates both the scariness and the metaphoric value of the demonic baby subgenre, since its power lies in the wild analogy of how much you are transformed by having a child (physiologically, socially, romantically). The couple seems incredibly well off but she’s apparently a student and his job is never discussed, apart from the amount of “time off” he’s had to take for the wedding/honeymoon/baby. While there are party sequences intermittently sprinkled throughout the film, neither one of them appears to have much of a social life, let alone friends, which cuts down on the drama and doesn’t allow for the always-fun possibility that their lifelong chums are actually devil worshippers in disguise. The “Rosemary’s Baby” for the Snapchat generation conceit is neat; we just wish it had more follow through.
It’s also telling that a few years ago, a found footage horror movie called “The Last Exorcism” came out, about a potentially fraudulent exorcist. It felt like a huge let down because, at the end of what was a fairly disturbing and reality-based horror movie, a gooey goblin came out of a woman’s vagina, like an unused prop from an early Peter Jackson movie. Now “Devil’s Due” feels like a similar disappointment, entirely because there’s no gooey goblin at the end of it. Considering how the movie ends, said goblin might appear in the inevitable sequel. Here’s hoping the Radio Silence crew is busy tackling something worthy of their considerable talents. [B-]