Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Devil’s Well (2017)

Warnings: spoilers ahead, I suppose!

A year ago, paranormal investigator Karla Marks (Anne-Marie Mueschke) disappeared without a trace while examining The Devil’s Well (a well in the cellar of an empty building that is supposed to be a gate to hell) together with her husband Bryan (Bryan Manley Davis). Finding nothing at all, the police decided to blame Bryan for the disappearance despite a complete lack of evidence for it, the best motive they could come up with being something along the lines of their website now having more hits.

Now, Bryan has asked his old college buddy Lucas (Chris Viemeister), who is leading another group of paranormal investigators going by the excellent acronym of S.I.G.N.S. (we never learn what that’s supposed to stand for, by the way – “Supernatural Investigations Go North, Sid”?) to return to the well with him. Lucas also invites a documentary filmmaker to produce the now mandatory documentary on the case. Things just might not turn out too well for anyone involved.

Needless to say, Kurtis Spieler’s The Devil’s Well is another POV/found footage horror film, though one that purports to be the actual documentary about the case. The film’s first act is a pretty good imitation of a cheap yet professionally done documentary, avoiding the typical first act drag of many POV horror films by providing exposition, characterisation and the general set-up concisely and through more than just showing us people who never turn off their cameras doing little of interest.

Now, I know quite a few people reading this really can’t stand the whole found footage approach to horror anymore. I still love the form to bits: it is a comparatively cheap way to make a film (and if the filmmakers are good, as Spieler certainly is, they still can smuggle in large amounts of clever and atmospheric filmmaking), it certainly can help with patching over problems coming with a low budget, and it has the immediate quality of a good campfire tale (or in 2018, a good piece of creepypasta). That the sub-genre tends to have quite a few tropes and plot beats its films hit again and again isn’t exactly something limited to POV films; slashers, just to go for the most obvious example, tend to be nearly ritualized. Basically, what the misadventures of spam in a cabin with a masked maniac are for other horror fans, POV horror is for me. However, I’d be perfectly okay with a moratorium for films that end on a character with a camera running through the woods for twenty minutes, screeching, while nothing much happens around them.

As luck will have it, The Devil’s Well doesn’t end on that note at all. In fact, there’s neither needless camera shaking at all on display, nor woods, nor all that many scenes of people running around panicking. Once death comes for the characters, it mostly comes quick, in a way that has a pleasant air of inevitability. Spieler’s script, even though it certainly uses many an element we all have encountered in other POV movies about paranormal investigators meeting their doom in an enclosed space cheap enough for a production with little money to throw at sets or costly locations, does feature quite a few small and not so small changes from sub-genre standards that keep the tradition in view but get away from it far enough to actually surprise. An obvious example is how believable the film treats its sceptic – his positions make sense throughout as ones an actual human being in his situation might have, and he lacks the shrillness that often mar sceptic characters in all kinds of horror movies (imagine every atheist would be like Richard Dawkins).

As a whole, the characters and their background feel a little better fleshed out than in most films of the style (which doesn’t lend itself to deep characterisation terribly well), and interact in ways that as as a whole make them believable as people who have actually worked with each other for quite some time. The acting is always at least decent throughout too, which certainly helped my immersion.

All of this adds up to a film that feels made with care and thought, well-paced and with at least two really great horror scenes and no bad ones. The POV horror watching year starts off rather well for me.

No comments: