Tuesday 19 March 2013

The Devil's Rock (2011)

Director: Paul Campion
Stars: Craig Hall, Matthew Sunderland, Gina Varela and Karlos Drinkwater

Given this week's announcement that our beloved local grindhouse gore girl, the Midnite Movie Mamacita, is back with fresh fodder at FilmBar, it felt appropriate to celebrate with a Kiwi triple bill. The Devil's Rock is so indie that writer/director Paul Campion re-mortgaged his house to pay for it, though fortunately the New Zealand Film Commission then stepped in to help out too. It's his debut as a feature director, though he's made a couple of award winning and intriguingly titled shorts: Night of the Hell Hamsters and Eel Girl. He also worked on many of the biggest pictures of the last decade, crafting textures, painting mattes and creating conceptual art at Weta Digital. Working for Peter Jackson is hardly the worst way you can kick off a career in the film industry, especially if you're working in New Zealand and your personal tastes draw you towards the gore genre. This film's success certainly placed him firmly on the cinematic map.

It kicks off quietly and darkly, as a couple of Kiwi commandos land on Forau Island, northeast of Guernsey, in the German occupied Channel Islands. It's the day before D-Day and the allies want sabotage raids to distract the Nazis away from Normandy. Capt Ben Grogan and Sgt Joe Tane are supposed to blow up some big gun, but they're led into a bunker that looks like the Black Knight's helmet in Monty Python and the Holy Grail by the eerie screams and moans escaping from it, not to mention the Nazi who bursts out of the door to puke in front of them. They soon discover what makes this picture such an attractive proposition to begin with. Using an antique occult text, Les Veritables Arts Noirs, these Nazis are attempting to harness demonic forces to supplement their more conventional arsenal, and if there's anything better than a horror movie with Nazis, it's a horror movie with Nazis, demons and arcane occult practices in the name of der F├╝hrer.

The neatly disconcerting ambient soundtrack underpins the progress these Nazis are making, but most of them appear to be dead, surely demonstrating just how much trouble they're in, trouble that our Kiwi commandos soon walk into. It turns out that the only living Nazi is an officer, SS Col Klaus Meyer, who promptly shoots Tane and takes Grogan prisoner. The rest of his men are dead, some shredded into lumps of meat that are almost unrecognisable as human beings. From them, Meyer even shovels up gouts of grue to feed to his other prisoner, the young lady whose voice we've been hearing throughout. Grogan escapes but, attempting to help her, discovers that she looks and sounds exactly like his dead wife. Of course, she's really the Nazi-invoked demon bitch who wreaked havoc on the Colonel's men. So Grogan and Meyer, the only two live human beings in the bunker, must put their differences aside and join forces to dispel her.
The Devil's Rock is something of a textbook in how to make a low budget horror feature. While there are some agreeably gruesome effects, notably including a corpse with a rifle rammed down its throat in an homage to Cannibal Holocaust, it focuses more on the characters. To be brutally honest, it had to, because they really aren't many of them and it was always going to succeed or fail on whether our attention is ably courted by such a small cast. In fact, the reason that Sgt Tane dies quickly is because at that point Campion was financing the film himself and couldn't afford to pay for more than three actors to flesh out the story. Anyone else was stuck in the extra bracket or at least not far above it. To keep things interesting, he forged these three characters into a dynamic triangle, each one with its own unique antagonism towards the others. Then he keeps us guessing as to which of those connections will develop the inevitable twist.

Campion, who co-wrote with Paul Finch and Brett Ihaka, deserves most of the credit. This could easily have been a mess. The concept is great but the money wasn't and hanging a feature film on three major characters is a gamble. By coincidence, the last feature film I saw with a cast this minimal was Lo, another picture about a demon, but that one aimed to build a plot with theatrical and cinematic invention, while this one aims to do it while keeping things traditional. It may not have a lot of locations to play with, but it does have them and they're well put together. We see solid sets, solid props and solid effects, the latter being very much in the old school physical vein rather than using new school CGI. The story unfolds chronologically, with each progression built and executed slowly but surely. There's little here to suggest at a 2011 release date except the quality of those effects. It could easily have been a found picture from the seventies otherwise.
Of course, that timeless feeling is never hurt by a cast of new faces. I didn't recognise anybody here, though everyone in the cast has at least a little experience. Capt Grogan is played reliably by Craig Hall, who may well be a familiar face on television down under, judging from his credits. His movie career has included films as widely seen as 30 Days of Night, The Water Horse and the remake of King Kong, the latter two alongside Geraldine Brophy, who provides some voice work here as the demon bitch. Physically she's played by Gina Varela, who brings more than merely enticing sensuality to the role, in and out of clothes or bodypaint. She was in a highly regarded Kiwi crime series called Bloodlines, for which Hall won an best supporting actor award. Best of them in my book was Matthew Sunderland as Col Meyer, who serves as both the grounding of the film and the catalyst for most of the plot movement, but all three act well off each other.

Any downside surely has to tie to the budget. While Campion did a fine job of throwing as much of it as he could onto the screen where we can see it, he would have benefitted from having more of it to throw. It would have allowed for more actors, for a start, to nip and harass the core dynamics of the three leads. It would also have allowed for more versatility in the locations. The few we see are used well and Campion did a fair job turning the bunker into a claustrophobic jail cell rather than letting the familiarity degrade into boredom. There are also many places where more effects work could have been beneficial, though I'm not going to complain that a good deal of what we see is there to add texture to the background rather than for cheap shock value. The more I think about this picture, the more I see it as bedrock on which Campion can construct his next few features. I'll surely be following up on them and going back to his short films too.

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