Sunday, February 9, 2014

Devil's Due: Motion Sickness Overshadows a Compelling Plot and Characters

Now three weeks into its theatrical run, it's safe to say that the feature film debut of Internet wunderkinds Radio Silence (the Los Angeles collective formerly known as Chad, Matt & Rob) has proven a critical and box office flop. The film currently holds a 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Fandango's review aggregator tells us that both fans and critics say "NO!" Despite the abysmal reviews describing Devil's Due as derivative, a complete ripoff of Roman Polanski's classic Rosemary's Baby, and no more than another cash-in on the found footage craze reinvigorated by the Paranormal Activity franchise, I went to see this one in theaters because as a horror fan, I learned long ago not to trust the critics to understand or appreciate a good entry into the genre. My verdict? Radio Silence are a talented and insightful group of filmmakers, and Devil's Due had great potential to launch them into the mainstream for good. However, the found footage shooting style was an albatross around their necks, and if the intensely shaky camera movements that rarely let up throughout the film's 89-minute runtime made me physically ill, I'm sure I was not the only viewer who found it hard to sit through Devil's Due to the end.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to add my voice to those of the writers at FearNet and Bloody Disgusting, as well as Eli Roth, in defense of this film. As off-putting as the shooting style was (and don't get me wrong, I experienced motion sickness so bad at points in this film that I had to look down from the screen to calm the nausea), Devil's Due demonstrates some real originality in a sub-genre that has become completely over-saturated in the last decade. To make a new film dealing with demon possession or the Antichrist at this point in time is to attempt to reinvent the wheel, but this film used some very creative devices to set itself apart. Though the plot arc is familiar, the characters are fresh and real, and there are moments of genuine shock as the predictable set of events unfolds. The same was true of the segment Radio Silence produced for V/H/S, '10/31/98,' which focuses on a group of friends who go in search of a Halloween party and find that much more sinister activities are afoot at the given address. '10/31/98' shone as one of the most disturbing segments in the film, and demonstrated an effective use of the found footage style that makes Devil's Due all the more disappointing.

Devil's Due takes viewers off guard in the first five minutes, as an anonymous cameraman breaks into the second floor of a house filled with laughing young women. However, far from a malicious intruder, our cameraman is revealed to be doting groom Zach McCall (Zach Gilford), surprising bride-to-be Samantha McCall (Allison Miller) on the eve of their wedding. The early scenes of the film unfold like a typical romance, as the pair go through their dream wedding and travel to the Dominican Republic on honeymoon, up until the moment he carries her over the threshold into their marital home. One of the great strengths of Devil's Due is Gilford and Miller's compelling portrayal of a young couple very much in love, which makes it difficult to watch the physical and psychological torment they endure as the film progresses. Their romance also provides the narrative framework for the found footage filming style used throughout the film, as Zach documents every moment of their relationship on a handheld camera.

Viewers are taken along for the ride as Zach and Samantha explore the Dominican Republic together, sightseeing, laughing, and falling deeper in love as they share the experience of traveling a new country. However, their shared sense of adventure turns out to be their undoing, when they accept a suspiciously friendly taxi driver's offer to take them to an underground party for a taste of the local nightlife. It is there that Zach's camera captures the unsettling progression of events from a party curiously populated by English-speaking newlyweds, to a strange and supernatural ceremony that neither Zach nor Samantha will remember upon waking, extremely hungover, at their hotel the next morning. At this point in the film, viewers will relish the sense of knowing what's ahead for Zach and Samantha, which is part of the fun of watching a film that uses such a tried-and-true subject matter. In their naivete, the young couple return to the U.S. and are overjoyed when Samantha immediately becomes pregnant, despite being on the Pill. 

Things turn ugly quickly, from the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of Samantha's obstetrician, to a really uncomfortable scene in which an amniocentesis is administered to rule out complications with the pregnancy. But the most ominous changes are in Samantha herself, who goes from devouring raw meat in the supermarket despite being vegetarian to punching out car windows with superhuman strength and speed. At her niece's first communion ceremony, the same priest who performed their marriage rites falls suddenly and violently ill under suspicious circumstances. And all the while, the audience knows that the young couple is under surveillance, after a team of Spanish-speaking men comes into their house to install hidden cameras one afternoon while they are out.

Everything comes to a head on Samantha's due date, when Zach steps outside to find small piles of ash placed all over their front porch and windowsills. Disturbed, he calls the local police, who prove as unhelpful as police typically do in the horror genre. When he leaves Samantha alone with his sister to go out and find the people harassing them, things escalate quickly to a bloody climax that is guaranteed to satisfy gore lovers. Miller gives a harrowing performance throughout the final scenes, and viewers are truly made to feel for Gilford's character as he suffers undeserved tragedy.

I believe that the commercial and critical failure of Devil's Due can be attributed almost solely to the found footage shooting style, and the intensity of camera motion that made viewers feel physically ill. The Paranormal Activity films in particular avoid this pitfall by including plenty of steady shots - cameras mounted on tripods, stationary security cameras, and so forth. It's really a shame, because there is a lot to love here, from the likeable characterizations of the leading roles, to the fact that Radio Silence made a concerted effort to stick to practical effects almost entirely, only using CGI for a key physical scene and to touch things up in post-production. Sadly, by starting from a script that was written to ride on the wave of found footage's popularity with today's audiences, all of that has been overshadowed, rendering Devil's Due almost impossible for the motion sick to watch. Here's hoping that 20th Century Fox gives Radio Silence another shot, because I, for one, feel that these guys have the vision and the potential to create some amazing films.

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