If the proliferation of the found footage conceit in horror movies was ever in doubt, let January 2014 stand as proof. Not one but two found footage horror movies are currently in wide release across America. While it doesn’t solve every issue that plagues the vast majority of films in this particular sub-genre, Devil’s Due fixes enough of them while also managing to be a breezy, enjoyable film in its own right.
The film opens with a quote from the Bible emphasizing a line about many antichrists coming during the end times. We then follow Zach McCall (Zach Gilford) as he breaks into his own house to see his fiancee Samantha (Allison Miller) on the night before their wedding. Zach does most of the filming which is explained away as a thing his dad did to document Zach’s childhood, a tradition that Zach wants to continue for his own child. The McCall’s get married the next day and head off on their honeymoon to the Dominican Republican. They get a little turned around on their last night, find a taxi with a friendly driver and get convinced to go with him to one last party. While there, they both get drunk and pass out. The cabbie and some other men take Sam, place her in the center of a circle symbol and perform a ritual on her. When the McCalls wake up the next morning, they have no knowledge of this. Shortly after they return, Samantha discovers that she’s pregnant. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together and figure out that little baby McCall will probably be rising from the eternal sea, creating armies on either shore and so on.
One of the biggest reasons Devil’s Due works as well as it does is simply that the two leads are genuinely likable human beings. It sounds like this should be an easy thing to get right, a no-brainer, but astonishingly it’s one of the main problems for found footage movies. The audience is typically inundated with obnoxious, annoying assholes, the type of people we can’t wait to see die and yet it’s these very people with whom we are forced to spend almost the entire runtime. After all, someone’s gotta be running that camera, right? Forget about relating to characters, by writing the McCall’s as decent, fun people to be around, it simply makes the first act of the film bearable. Instead of being forced to listen to bro-dudes one up each other, we’re given a normal, loving couple starting their life together. It’s not terribly interesting, but it doesn’t have to be. It gets heaps of good will just for not being infuriating.
Then there’s the scale, which is frankly much larger than expected. Found footage tends to put constraint on how big and far things can go, but here the filmmakers have discovered a few ways to push the scale out. As we get closer and closer to the birth, Samantha, or rather her baby’s powers increase exponentially allowing for more destruction and carnage. And bringing the cabbie from the DR and other members of his cult back to the US to keep tabs on Samantha’s progress, along with a clever coda in Paris gives the story a global feel.
Many found footage films have an over-reliance on jump scares. You know the type, slowly panning camera pans slowly and slowly and BOO! The ghost or whatever jumps out at you accompanied by a shrill music cue. And while there are certainly a few jump scares here and there, the most unsettling scenes in the film are created with good old fashioned tension, scenes like Samantha at lamaze class or at her niece’s first communion. These scenes build on one another to create a palpable sense of foreboding and doom.
The movie doesn’t spend too much time in set up. The strange stuff starts early on and escalates til the very end. It’s briskly paced, keeping the film moving right along. Gilford and Miller both do a fine job, giving solid performances that anchor the film, Gilford in particular. While scary might not be the right word, when the shit hits the fan, there are plenty of tense moments and the ending caps things off very nicely.
You could easily ask the same old found footage questions like who edited all this together, who’s watching this etc. but in the end it doesn’t really matter and the film does a good job of avoiding most other major found footage pitfalls. It’s a slight movie, certainly, but one that’s fun enough for the majority of its 89 minute runtime. While it won’t win any awards, if it establishes a trend of writing and crafting decently smart and likable characters in found footage movies, we can count it a huge success.
The Upside: Likable leads, solid story, good set pieces, well paced.
The Downside: Doesn’t have a fix for every single found footage problem, cult symbol looks a lot like the Q symbol from Quake with an extra line added and turned on it’s side.
On the Side: Directed by members of Radio Silence, the collective that made 10/31/98, by far the best segment in V/H/S.