MINE YOUR OWN BUSINESS
The Devil Below (15)
Review: RJ Bland
Subterranean horror movies tap into some of our most primitive fears; small spaces, the dark, being trapped underground, nature itself. Over the years, numerous genre flicks have attempted to exploit these anxieties. You can see this way back in the early days of horror in features such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Although the protagonists never venture below ground, the Phantom spends a lot of his time navigating the tunnels and cellars beneath the opera house. There were a few notable features in the 70s and 80s (Death Line and My Bloody Valentine perhaps being the pick of the bunch) but we've seen a glut of movies since the turn of the century. Perhaps the best of the bunch is Neil Marshall's The Descent; a terrifying film that did for sperlunking what Jaws did for swimming in the sea. Other decent titles include Aussie horror The Tunnel (2011), As Above So Below (2014) and Creep (2004). Underground horror is something audiences for some reason keep returning to and Brad Parker's sophomore feature The Devil Below is the latest to try and scare the bejesus out of us under Terra Firma.
The film opens sometime in the 1960s with a father (played by Will Patton) and his son leaving the a mine in the Appalachian mountains after a hard days graft. However, the son is snatched by something that moves with lightning speed that drags him down into the mineshaft. The father is knocked unconscious during the encounter and we leave him unsure as to his fate. But you know, it's Will Patton – so he's not going to be killed off yet surely?! Fast forward to the present day and a group of scientists head out to the aptly named Shookum Hills settlement to find out why the settlement and neighbouring mine it was built around (which we saw at the start) were abandoned over 50 years ago. Apparently a mysterious fire released a tonne of toxic gas and that's why everyone left. But those fires are still burning and the group intend to find out what caused them. They are lead by wilderness expert Arianne (played by Alicia Sanz) who is hired to keep them safe and help locate the mine, which has essentially been erased from the map. Arianne manages to locate the abandoned settlement and mine – but their initial delight soon turns into panic when they realise that there's a reason why the locals have tried to make it impossible for anyone to find it...
The Devil Below takes its time before its central characters descend into the mine. There is a lot of debate and exposition and talking. However, although it manages to conjure up a bit of compelling conjecture (government conspiracies, gateway to hell etc) and a little bit of apprehension, it doesn't really do much in the way of character building. Well, not successful character building at least. It's not fair to compare every subterranean horror with The Descent, but one of the reasons Marshall's film worked so well was not only because it was bloody scary, but because we cared about the characters and we felt as if we had some idea of who they were. That isn't the case here, which wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the human characters were just there to act as fodder. However the fact we spend so long in their company before anything really happens, indicates otherwise. Alicia Sanz does her best and Will Patton is always good value (although he's underused here somewhat) but the script doesn't really give them much to work with. The rest are a white noise of genericness.
A ponderous first act and forgettable characters would be more forgivable if The Devil Below delivered in terms of actual horror. But it manages to never really create any real sense of suspense or tension. It's not even that gory either, with most of the kills happening off-screen. It's all a bit tame. What makes it especially frustrating is that all the ingredients are there for this to be a solid monster movie. The monsters themselves, whilst nothing we haven't seen before, are perfectly fine. There's almost a Lovecraftian feel about them and their methods that works quite well. However, Parker shoots and edits the action scenes in such a way that makes it quite difficult to work out what is actually happening. There is also an issue with the lighting too – with many night-time set pieces that are underlit which result in more confusion and frustration. The scenes that take place underground are actually quite underwhelming – and there aren't many of them either. For a film that sets itself up as a hypogean horror, it spends the vast majority of its running time in the Appalachian forest above. It's a shame because Parker's first movie, Chernobyl Dairies (2012), whilst rather formulaic, at least managed to evoke some competent scares. Alas, there are hardly any to be found here. The closing act is predictably unremarkable too. There is scope for a sequel, however I'm not sure there will much appetite for one. There is something of a dearth of old school monster horror flicks nowadays. They're not the easiest types of horror to make for low budget film-makers, but with a special effects guru at the helm, you'd have expected more from this.