Friday, January 17, 2014

In the Old Scratch Way: Ordinary "Devil's Due" just doesn't deliver



Devil's Due (2014)
89 min., rated R.

"Rosemary's Baby" framed as a home movie with surveillance footage à la "Paranormal Activity," "Devil's Due" is surprisingly not terrible for a January dump-month release. It's just dull as hell. If Paramount Pictures could reach box-office success with hitherto five "Paranormal Activity" movies and 2012's "The Devil Inside," 20th Century Fox must have wanted a piece of the money-making pie. The studio certainly did their homework, seeking out fresh indie directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gilletttwo members of filmmaking quartet Radio Silence—who showed off their skills in the wildly creepy final segment of 2012's fun found-footage horror anthology "V/H/S." Unfortunately, this is the filmmakers' first rodeo (along with screenwriter Lindsay Devlin) at crafting a sustainable feature film and, aside from the conception of the antichrist being an interesting angle for the digital-camera approach, their efforts prove to be an ineffectual waste of time. Genuine scares just never arrive.

Having grown up as a foster child, Samantha (Allison Miller) is excited to become the wife to Zach McCall (Zach Gilford), who's shooting their life on a digital camera to "start their family history." They marry in a church, celebrate with their loving friends and family, and then they're off to Santa Domingo for their honeymoon. On their last night, Zach and Sam get lost in the streets on the way back to their hotel before a friendly cab driver picks them up and insists on taking the couple somewhere fun for "one drink." That hot spot turns out to be an underground rave. After a few too many shots, Sam and Zach black out and wake up in their hotel room the next morning, confused over how they got back. Back home in the states, Sam finds out she's seven weeks pregnant. The newlyweds' surprise pregnancy goes well for a bit, until Sam's abnormal strength, ravenous appetite for rare ground beef, and determination to carve an occult into the wood floor of the nursery go well past being chalked up to an expectant mother's symptoms. As soon as Sam's mood swings and catatonia worsen—and Zach spots mysterious men just staring at their house from across the street—the once-happy couple are already in a sinister hold that can't be undone. It all points to the birth of the antichrist.

If anything, "Devil's Due" does a fine job of setting up the seemingly rosy new life of Sam and Zach before being dealt an insidious curse. It helps that TV actors Miller and Gilford are so genial and earnestly likable, solidifying enough rooting interest, although one has to wonder how a college student and her husband, who has a job but is never seen working, can afford a "money pit" that is anything but. A new male obstetrician draws amniotic fluid from Sam's belly to squirmy effect and there's an eerie moment in an initially soothing lamaze class, where every woman (except for Sam) begins aching in pain, but it's on to the next scene before anything can come of that or anyone can question what's happening. Before the intensity gets ratcheted up for the bloody climax, more effective set-pieces involve a church communion being cut short and a teenage trio's footage catching Sam feasting on a deer carcass in the woods. 

Directors Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett mercifully don't rely on a stream of lazy jump scares or sneaky "did you see that?" found-footage tropes that one can set their watch to by now, but much of what they've come up with instead is largely uneventful, letting an hour pass without much tension but offering up plenty of impatient sighing. Redundantly redundant most of the time, even as everything is building to the antichrist's birth, the film occasionally keeps the viewer from nodding off with loud, sudden shrieks and overblown lo-fi effects. There's also the frustrating dramatic irony that the audience is already ahead of the couple as it would behoove them to check the footage of their lost time in the Dominican Republic; of course, Zach does do this, but by then, the gestation of their bundle of joy is already well on its way. Even a pointless wraparound device, with a bloodied Zach being interrogated by the police, could have been scrapped altogether as it gypps us of a more suspenseful resolution. Unless paying customers of the teenybopper crowd have yet to see a "real" horror film where characters record everything, there's really nothing to see here. To call "Devil's Due" impotent would accuse it of being badly made, however, within the guidelines of its genre, the assemblage of footage is more cleverly put-together and better framed than not, and the rationale to keep rolling is acceptable. Instead of the footage just being allegedly lost and then found to be shown to the world, the directors extend from one camera, pulling from grocery store and parking lot surveillance, an "adventure cam" pinned to Zach's shirt at chest-level and multiple hidden cameras planted inside the McCalls' home by occult members.

Save for the early new year already seeing the decent "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones," the snake that is the well-worn, ubiquitous found-footage format is slowly eating its own tail. These little items are modestly cheap to make, but they're not always easy to pull off, either. Succeeding treasure troves of other representatives that actually fry your nerves, "Devil's Due" isn't entirely worthless to be the death rattle of this increasingly clapped-out subgenre. (When it's all over and the title card comes up, the end credits do employ 1967's playful R&B hit "The Oogum Boogum Song" as a nervously amusing counterpoint to what has come before.) Never as frightening or as disturbing as a horror fan would hope, it just feels like an ordinary, shoulder-shrugging foregone conclusion. It does have a leg up on a former antichrist-related January release, the stupid "The Devil Inside," but is that the bar horror flicks should have to set? In one word, mediocre.

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