On paper, director Bradley Parker’s and writers Stefan Jaworski and Eric Scherbarth’s The Devil Below sounds like the kind of movie I’d fantasize about...
...When a film contains cryptids, hauntings, or creepy folklore, I perk up like Anthony Perkins’ bird-like portrayal of Norman Bates. I can’t get enough of the stuff, even if more than half of the sightings and claims out there are fabricated nonsense. The search for the unknown is fascinating and it’s damn fun to fall into a deep YouTube rabbit hole of crazy cryptids. Parker’s film definitely got my attention with its premise, but execution is what matters most. Fortunately, despite a lukewarm first act, The Devil Below manages to do plenty right.
Abandoned and tucked away deep in Appalachian country lies a coal mine that, for unknown reasons, is constantly ablaze. Despite researchers and locals tirelessly trying to understand the fire’s origin, the mines have been lit for decades. A well-funded team embarks on an expedition to the mining town to discover what really lies at the bottom of the mines. Local legend states that it’s the “well to Hell”, though many of the team members don’t believe these superstitious tales. Town local and miner, Schuttmann (Will Patton) mysteriously lost his son near the mines and desperately wants to find out who, or what, took him. Leading the research expedition is Arianne, (Alicia Sanz) essentially the safety and travel coordinator for the group. Not expecting to encounter anything too threatening, Arianne and company have some sinister surprises waiting for them in the depths of the mines.
I was really having trouble with this one in the beginning. I wasn’t interested in the characters, the expedition set up seemed eerily familiar to the team in Paul W.S. Anderson’s Alien Vs. Predator (2004), and nothing about the film was particularly scary. Then I started to really warm up to Sanz’ character. She was hard to get a read on in the beginning and felt a bit too quiet for a lead protagonist, but as the film progressed and she was put in more dynamic situations, she felt more organic. She wasn’t overly expressive but based on her actions you start to see where her heart is and that she is an empathetic character who wants to do the right thing. She becomes someone you root for and I really liked the slow build to learning about her character. Sanz does an incredible job in the role and offers a kind of relatability that I personally don’t find in many horror/thriller films these days.
I was also concerned about the horror elements early on. The disposal of characters started out very by-the-numbers and the kills themselves weren’t all that satisfying. Arianne’s teammates are dull, so when they are inevitably killed, you don’t feel much of anything. I think the main problem is there are simply too many characters. A lot of films in the 1990s had large casts, and it doesn’t carry well to modern films. We don’t get enough time with any one character to get a sense of who they are and how they are dealing with their dangerous circumstances. I don’t think the additional team members are bad actors, they just feel poorly written. Fortunately, Sanz and Patton carry the film and make up for the lackluster supporting cast. I’ve been a fan of Will Patton since I first saw him in Armageddon (1998) and then in Gone in Sixty Seconds (1999). He’s a bit of a character actor and usually offers a very hardboiled but earnest performance. He doesn’t disappoint here; it’s clear he still has the ability to make any scene engrossing.
The second half of this film won me over in a big bad way. I’ll be careful to avoid spoilers, but the film evolves from being a PG version of Neil Marshall’s classic cavernous nightmare, The Descent (2005) to a very different kind of “scary”. It gets demonic and, dare I say, biblical. I won’t give any more away, but once the film fully commits to being the insane cryptid horror tale that it is, it becomes a very creepy, very unnerving film. There is imagery in here that could potentially give me severe night terrors. That’s an excellent way to discern whether something is good horror or not. The Devil Below gets weird fast in a way that’s almost jarring, and what it blossoms into is so cool that it’s almost completely forgivable. We eventually get a few good looks at the ominous species and their design and effects are top notch. It’s all stuff that, if in the wrong hands, could look incredibly goofy, but here the nightmarish creatures are truly terrifying.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still a messy film with a notably weak start. Most of the characters are uninteresting and there is a severe lack of lift with the first act. I wish there was more of a fun build up, because it starts off entirely too slow. But once the film delivers on its promises, it becomes something special. One of my biggest complaints in horror is the noncommittal delivery of its promised intrigue. The Devil Below doesn’t just hint at really creepy cryptids, it goes all the way, and for that I highly recommend it.
The Devil Below comes to select theaters, VOD and Digital from Vertical Entertainment March 5th.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth
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