A few years back – perchance when all of the brutal SAW films and pale imitators emerged – horror flicks seemed to take a decidedly nihilistic diversion. Specifically, storytelling grew a bit lazy, often times reducing characters to impulse-driven sadists or masochists. Maybe players had a puzzle to solve or some bizarre riddle to answer in order to save themselves, but, visually, the films became nothing more than a seemingly endless quest to provide greater reason for more blood or increased torture. Gone was the story, and, in its place, were a macabre assortment of villains with no purpose other than dispensing revenge for what amounted to little more than one’s comeuppance for schoolyard bullying.
THE DEVIL’S ROCK – a smart little independent feature out of New Zealand – has renewed my faith in plot-driven horror. Maybe it ain’t the smartest. Maybe it doesn’t spill the most blood. Maybe it doesn’t manufacture the most intricate series of brainteasers or dispense the best torture, but it necessarily trims the best elements of horror back to its ‘haunted house’ roots and deliver TWILIGHT ZONE-ish entertainment on a modest budget with excellent direction and terrific acting.
Plus, it’s got a killer story!
The day before the D-Day invasion, Allied commandos Grogan and Tane (played respectively by Craig Hall and Karlos Drinkwater) have been given a mission to destroy a secret cannon in Vichy (French) territory in the Channel Islands. However, once they’ve arrived, a young German officer covered in blood – their sworn enemy – almost greets them with open arms, asking in his native tongue, “Have you come to save us?” (or something thereabout, as it’s been many years since I studied the language!) Now you know you’ve entered a bizarre world, and that which waits for them deep inside the hidden bunker will rock them to their core!
In particular, Mr. Hall is winning as Grogan. Haunted by the wartime loss of his young wife, he finds himself lost in the art of being a soldier. Always committed to the mission, he refuses the chance to take liberties with other willing women the way Tane, his partner, does. At this point, all he desires to do is continue the fight against the Nazi villains who were responsible for the bombing that killed his wife. Now, it would seem that the same villains have inadvertently and unwittingly returned his wife to him, and Hall plays the confusion at seeing her returned with great frustration. He nearly succumbs to her wishes, and, when you think he almost has, he manages to prove himself an unflinching hero ready to live to fight another day.
Also, has there been a better Nazi baddie than Colonel Klaus Meyer? Certainly, not in any recent horror film, there hasn’t! Granted, Quentin Tarantino managed to tweak some terrific performances out of several key actors in his recent INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, but I’d put up the acting chops of Matthew Sunderland against any of them! The guy manages to breath amazing range into the several layers of Meyer, an accomplished Occultist serving the grand master (Hitler!) himself . Sunderland – as Meyer – vacillates so effortlessly between just-plain-evil and really-really-evil – between casual-Nazi-interrogator and brutal-heartless-Nazi-assailant – that the guy deserves some richly twisted metal. In fact, there’s no way to know which way the man will turn up until the last moments when, sure, maybe just a hint of Nazi predictability enters the fray (he is a Nazi, after all). It’s still a rich performance handled by a craftsman at his arts.
Still, how can you go wrong when you’re given a third terrific performance by Gina Varela? To be fair, she plays three roles here – doting wife, evil temptress, and demon – and she manages to bring a little bit of spark to each of them. Granted, some of it is obviously influenced by make-up and various prosthetics, but Varela manages to breathe life into three distinct personalities in a very short period of time (she’s only in the last 60 of a 90-minute film). Her work here – like that of her partners – truly gives the film the grounding required for a story rich with dark, otherworldly elements.
And all of it is to the credit of some quality storytelling. The script – by Paul Finch, Paul Campion (director), and Brett Ihaka – is tight, and it’s all composed around an atmosphere heavy with claustrophobia. It’s set on an island (a small part of a larger world); much of the action takes place inside a bunker (a darkly photographed interior of winding tunnels); and much of the story unfolds in a single room (set inside a much larger building). As a consequence, Director Campion films much of it in stark close-ups – a technique that could be distracting with a lesser story. It works brilliantly here, and THE DEVIL’S ROCK is a stronger film thanks to its dedication to p-l-o-t, something sorely missing from most horror films as of late. It’s one part THE X-FILES added to one part THE GUNS OF NAVARONE mixed with a hint of NIGHT GALLERY, and you’re left with a winning formula to produce some solid scares while it digests.
If there’s any weakness here, I’d have to say it falls apart just a bit with the climax – which feels mildly anti-climatic. I think that there’s a tendency in some pictures – particularly horror pictures – to keep the book open, so to speak … to disallow the story’s main villain (the aforementioned demon) get a final denouement because maybe – just maybe – there’d be a demand for a sequel (?). Why not let the devil live so that the battle can be carried on another day? It’s hard to say that it’s definitively what the creators wanted here (there’s clearly a hint of things to come because, after the initial credits roll, there’s yet one more scene of promised evil-to-come). Is a follow-up necessary? Absolutely not. THE DEVIL’S ROCK has a somewhat characteristic ending to its distinctive story. Could there be one if the economics demanded it? Certainly … because they left a suitable ‘out.’ While I’d rather see the evil spirit vanquished back to the netherworlds, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be in a picture of this variety.
The DVD is exceptional, complete with behind-the-scenes features, extended scenes, and alternate takes. There are a series of outtakes, but, sadly, most of it is a couple of blokes monkeying around on the set; while it doesn’t mean much to the viewers, I’m sure their antics were of great comic relief to those on the set. Also, Campion has provided a strong commentary track, touching on such topics as script evolution during the production process, the mechanics of preparing to shoot particular sequences, and the pitfalls of not having enough buckets of blood available for set dressing. It’s rich with personal anecdotes, as well, and it serves as a delightful counterpart to the human element that goes into making such an ‘inhuman’ production. Well done to all involved!
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to share that the kind folks at Entertainment One provided me with a screener copy for the purposes of completing this review.
What did you think of this review?