My notes on Devil in the Dark, which is available on VOD in the U.S. from Momentum Pictures on Tuesday, March 7th.Towards the end of Devil in the Dark (working title: The Plateau), an actual monster shows up onscreen for several seconds – it’s barely glimpsed, doesn’t resemble the antlered being on the poster, and its nature is undefined? Alien abductor? Wendigo? Bigfoot? Demon of the woods? Some distant relation of the Devil in the Dark from the classic Star Trek episode that dominates google hits when you search on this title? It’s no spoiler to say that it’s not entirely clear … but it’s not so much a giveaway to mention the creature as a reassurance that you’re watching the film you thought you were because otherwise audiences might think for an hour or so that this is a mainstream, well-acted, nicely-observed little indie about two brothers who’ve been estranged for fifteen years getting together uncomfortably on a hunting trek up to a plateau in the woods.
Director Tim Brown (of the low-key ghost story The Cradle) and writer Carey Dickson are abetted by understated performances from Dan Payne and Robin Dunne as Clint and Adam – who didn’t get on as children because their man’s man father (Daniel Cudmore) favoured outdoor kid Clint (whom he took hunting) over stay-at-home-and-read-comics Adam (whom he thought was gay). Suffering from dreams that relate to a lost-in-the-woods prologue he has no conscious memory of, Adam comes back to the small town where Clint has taken over Dad’s job and is raising a family and never quite comes out an explains why he’s suggested that he and Clint go hunting (which he hates) while Clint has so little understanding of his brother that he doesn’t realise how strange (and perhaps sinister) this impulse is. The early stretches set up the town in nice, uncaricatured strokes – after fifteen years away, Adam can turn up in a bar and find the same guys still in the same chairs and he reckons if he came back in another fifteen they’d still be there (‘I hope so,’ says one) while Clint is coping with a downturn-related work crisis he’s too manly even to mention to his wife (Briana Buckmaster) or anyone else and which isn’t a set-up for a later plot development.
In fact, quite a few hints are dropped while crucial facts are apparently left out so the film has an unfinished, elliptical feel which is suprisingly disturbing – but also quite frustrating. There’s talk of a local who ventured up to the plateau a long time ago and was never seen again, but people are more interested in debating whether it’s accurate or acceptable to call the disappearee a ‘retard’ than in speculating what happened to him. Only when they’re half-way up the mountain does Clint mention that no one else has hiked this trail since the disappearance – and, again, he has other things on his mind, like needling his brother for his lack of wilderness savvy and making policy decisions (like not lighting a fire in the cold nights because smoke in the clothes will spook deer) which seem arbitrary and cruel but are overruled without debate anyway. There’s a set-up whereby Adam opts to take a dangerous, difficult climb rather than follow sensible Clint in walking the long way round … but Brown doesn’t show us how (or, really, even if) he manages it or has the brothers talk about what happened.
Other vital events – a shot taken at a deer which might not be a deer – take place offscreen, and weird noises prompt what seem to be overreactions perhaps rooted in that suppressed memory. All this stuff is promising and creepy, and the two performers are excellent without overexplaining things (Adam never even says whether he’s gay or not) … but the last reel, when things actually start happening, is a mix of shock action (a bad fall, a monster, a dragging-into-the-dark) and ominous Blair Witchery (a clearing decorated with way too many antlers) that really could use a tad more resolution. It winds up not with an explanation but a punchline – admittedly, a decent one. Several recent North American genre films (Pod, They Look Like People, Wendigo, Almost Human, It’s in the Wood) have used primal horrors to highlight male relationships and masculine insecurities – it’s a fruitful area, and this makes an interesting addition to this little clutch of movies, though I suspect it’d have had more of a chance to carve out a niche if it had gone a slightly more conventional monster route.