Devil's Gate (2017)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-06-05 20:49

Written by: Peter Aperlo, Clay Staub
Directed by: Clay Staub
Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Schull, and Shawn Ashmore

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

Every family has its secrets.

Devilís Gate thrives on a bait-and-switch, but fret not: this is one case where a movie pivots in the right direction, and in doing so becomes far more interesting than it initially appears to be. For all the world, Clay Staubís film appears to be the latest hicksploitation riff, with backwoods psychos terrorizing oblivious interlopers who stumble upon their land. Itís something weíve seen literally dozens of times at this point, which doesnít exactly preclude a new stab from being good mind you, but the relief was very much real once I grasped the clever misdirection guiding Devilís Gate.

The prologue is pretty standard stuff: a lone travelerís car breaks down, prompting him to set out on foot into a dusty, desolate countryside of Devilís Gate, where he happens upon a decrepit farmhouse. His attempts to make to the front porch are met with a series of booby traps that leave him impaled and bleeding out, with no rescue in sight. Sometime later, the FBI dispatches Special Agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) to investigate the disappearance of a mother and son who live in the very same farmhouse. Patriarch Jackson Pritchard (Milo Ventimiglia) immediately comes under suspicion, though local deputy Salter (Shawn Ashmore) and sheriff Gruenwell (Jonathan Frakes) assure Francis that heís a godly man who would never do anything to harm his wife and child. A nearby relative suggests otherwise, though, noting Jacksonís recent change in behavior during an economic downturn. Viewers are also privy to the knowledge that this wild-eyed man has someone locked in his cellar, leading them to believe heís gone off the deep end.

However, when Francis and deputy Salter arrive at the Prichard farm, Devilís Gate quickly turns on its head, particularly once the duo discovers whatís actually in the cellar. Since much of the filmís effectiveness hinges on the scriptís reveals, Iíll tip-toe around the particular, but, suffice it to say, this one takes a hard left turn firmly away from backwoods psycho territory. Itís a refreshing change of pace, at least for me personally since it eventually careens directly into my wheelhouse after a series of twists and turns. Staub and co-writer Peter Aperloís script is a slippery little puzzle box that continually shifts and contorts: just when you think youíve pinned Devilís Gate down, it wriggles away to reveal another layer of depth to its tale. Well, ďdepthĒ might be overstating it a bit, but thereís an appreciable amount of wrinkles that keep this one from ever being boring.

Once it settlesóif it can even be said to settleóDevilís Gate is a solid little monster movie of sorts. The premise is familiar, as Francis, Salter, and Pritchard must trust each other to fend off a preternatural siege that grows in intrigue as the particulars come into focus. Again, viewers glean a lot of fun here from watching the script sort itself out through cryptic dialogue, strange symbols, and, eventually, an entire mythology that takes the film far away from its launching point. In between, though, it also boasts some impressive creature work courtesy of Javier Botet and a tremendous effects team that renders the being lurking in Pritchardís basement into a palpable threat. Staubís direction is steady, too, and consistently manages to exploit both the desolation and claustrophobia of the scenario: his lens captures both the expansive, barren countryside and the dank, dark interiors of the farmhouse.

Staub mostly stays within his means, too: so often, these things tend to spiral out of control when a directorís reach exceeds his or her grasp in terms of effects or tone. Devilís Gate maintains itself fairly well on both fronts: even though it sheds its grim, dour, psycho-movie posturing, it doesnít degenerate into an unbearable farce: Staub continues to treat each development as serious business, even if some of them are truly out there. Part and parcel with maintaining the tone are the largely solid effects: with the exception of a few CGI eyesores, Devilís Gate remains just grounded enough to be an effective creature feature. If anything, it needs to pack a little bit more of a gory punch: with the exception of one violent (and CGI-assisted) outburst, thereís not an abundance carnage here.

This is because Staub opts for suspense in favor of schlock, an admirable enough aim thatís also a bit misguided since the characters donít quite register like they need to. Most of them feel more like conduits for the story rather than actual characters with discernable arcs, save for Agent Francis, whoís haunted by a past case that went horribly wrong. Schull is solid in a role that finds her charactersí convictions questioned and tested throughout, and she ultimately shoulders the enormity of the tall tale that unfolds before her. For much of the film, Ventimiglia shoulders it alongside her, albeit in much different fashion: where Schullís turn is nicely restrained, his is southern-fried to the edge of parody, with a thick drawl that feels like itís been piped in from a different type of movie. To be fair, a late turn of events does pretty much excuse this, and Iím willing to allow that benefit of the doubt in this case, mostly because I respect this scriptís commitment to breathlessly pilin on more developments.

Thatís pretty much Devilís Gate in a nutshell: an admirable attempt at delivering a very specific strain of creature feature we donít see enough of. Not only is its creature fairly unique, but Staub also treats this material respectfully by allowing it to be fun without sacrificing the dramatic elements. Maybe the best compliment I can give it is that you could easily imagine it being reworked into an X-Files episode; granted, it eventually bumps into the type of stuff that would feel more at home in one of the increasingly convoluted ďmytharcĒ episodes, but itís my kind of thing all the same. Letís score Devilís Gate as a nice little surprise, a sort of seeing-eye single from a genre thatís struck out quite a bit in recent memory. Hereís hoping the tide is turning, though.

Devil's Gate is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory and IFC Midnight.

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