Written by: Daniel McDonald
Having just seen and (according to some) sorely underrated the brand new release Arrival, I first wanted a chance to defend my (apparently very much in the critical minority) thoughts and opinions. Many readers thought I was unnecessarily hard on a film that was unusually structured, highly cerebral that some fans felt was challenging, thought provoking, very well done high-minded cinema. I don’t think anywhere in my review I disagreed with any of that. The choice to tell an Alien Visitation (not Alien Invasion) tale in a nonlinear fashion, stressing character over action, was what was intended. The film achieved that quite effectively.
My main caveat was that, as usual, the studio promotional team was using a vague “Sci-Fi fan fill in the blanks” type of promotional campaign to allow viewers the chance to draw their own possibly incorrect conclusions regarding the type of film they were (again in my opinion) selling as something it simply was not. I’m seeing more of this type of smoke and mirrors misdirection in promotional efforts, to cash in by playing on fans’ devotion and expectation to certain genre traditions. This allows a perhaps “outside of the box” project to coast on the laurels of genre classics, until the ticket has been sold and the viewer in their seat. I reread the Arrival review and have to say, I stand by my thoughts (although a 3.5 score is more appropriate for what I genuinely enjoyed about Arrival).
Now onto todays offering. Since Arrival is brand new, I wanted to share with you an unknown (to me) little gem that happened to cross my path this week on Netflix: The Devil’s Rock, which is a 2011 New Zealand release that garnered positive press and award considerations ( and one win) on limited release and was quickly sold off to pay cable stations. The film must have been given only local promotion, I knew nothing of its existence whatsoever.
One of my very favorite parts of my job is discovering quality, highly entertaining projects that reveal new, passionate, visionary talents that are (hopefully) the future of my favorite genre in cinema. Director Paul Campion, working from a script by Paul Finch and himself (more on that in a moment) has delivered an original, highly styled horror film that exceeds all (if any, It was so “under the radar”) expectations.
The story of two soldiers in the pre WW2 Channel Islands where German invasion and occupation are imminent. These soldiers (a very well done semi comedic turn from Karlos Drinkwater and a masterful, star making turn from Craig Hall) have been sent to a German occupied island to destroy weaponry and gain a strong hold against the Germanic soldiers living there. A tense, witty, exposition filled beachhead arrival of these two polar opposite soldiers lets you know you’re in the hands of real talent. The superbly shot (extremely fine work from Rob Marsh) and edited (equally tension building, narrative driving cutting from A Jeffrey Hurrell) opening beach scene combined with Campion’s spot-on vision, leave you with a giddy security that this is not going to be a run of the mill “oh THAT’S why it got minimal promotion and release” diversion.
The fact that the main facility as well as the entire island is uninhabited (very well used external location atmospheric location shots, belying the film’s small budget in every way) adds to the unnervingly growing sense of vulnerability. As the two men encounter a terrified young German soldier threatened by something within the building (wonderfully textured, evocative production and art design from Mary Pike and Zoe Wilson). Thinking he is predatory, they kill him never finding out the reason for his terror. The soldiers enter into the catacomb – like tunnels under the facility, the duo continually is subjected to a combination of female screams and animalistic guttural noises coming from somewhere within the intimidatingly claustrophobic levels and hallways of the facility (which has a modern feel externally, and more old world look and feel internally – another subtle nod to the narrative.) At this point the soldiers are separated and the depth of Campion’s vision becomes clearer. One of the soldiers finds himself at the intersection of four darkly lit hallways, hearing the confusing but not clearly identifying sounds and screams (creatively designed and implemented by James West and Lloyd Young) constantly shifting his perception. The death of one of the soldiers at the hands of a Nazi scientist (an incredibly multi layered intense and commanding Matthew Sunderland) and the discovery of the gory half eaten remains of German soldiers leads to a tension and violence filled game of cat and mouse between soldier and scientist, fills us in on the information needed to point us in the needed direction to find the final surprise of this truly fun, extremely well done horror gem.
At this point I realized how much Campion is using all of the cinematic elements available to develop the narrative, show the feelings of its characters, and allude to possible outcome of the situation. Horror storytelling at its best and most powerful, audience involvement and expectations are EXACTLY where Campion and his team of magical technicians want and NEED them to be. The denouement, while still FUN and off the wall, feels it needs to depend on traditional horror tropes involving Witchcraft, demons as a secret weapon and Global domination leading to the end of civilization.
Without any spoiler damage, I need to say what has been a fascinatingly original and extremely tense “who, what where, how” experience is heading toward a third act payoff that, while excellently executed seems to have no choice but to embrace the more obvious horror film tropes that had been skillfully avoided thus far. Very effective (but, in my opinion far too identifiable and well lit) FX and makeup and graphic gore (which is too “expected” and conventional for such a terrific first two thirds of a mini- classic horror tail). It’s not so much that it’s a “bad” third act, it’s just that acts one and two are so imaginative, and use wonderfully cinematic tools to carry the narrative, that what would be “the big finish” of a lesser film, seems a bit less-than in this instance. An inevitable nihilistic finale adds a final attempt at a creative “button”, but by that point my response was “ehhh, yeah.” One wonders if a bit more effort on visually creating an ending, even with the same script, that has the cinematic joy of the first two thirds…could have resulted in a possibly Babadook quality MONSTER movie classic…I’m just saying…