Devil's Gate

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Devil's Gate
"For the first hour or so of its runtime, Devil's Gate smoulders with tension, piling on one horror after another as its spins out its central mystery."

Maria (Bridget Regan) and her young son Jonah (Spencer Drever) are missing. To locals in the small town of Devil's Gate, North Dakota, this doesn't seem like a big deal, but Maria's family in the city are worried and have alerted the federal authorities. Cue the arrival of FBI Special Agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull), a slender, blonde, well groomed woman whom the local police instantly reckon for a clueless city slicker they can wind up - at least until she disposes of a would-be assailant with a swift punch to the jaw. Unimpressed with the insistence that the woman's husband can't have hurt her because he's a lovely guy, she insists on repeating their unsuccessful investigation - and finds rather more than she bargained for.

There are echoes of HP Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror in this tale of isolated farm dwellers trafficking with otherworldly forces. An electrical storm puts paid to mobile phone communications and any chance of driving awa from the farm where Maria lived. Up above the ramshackle buildings it swirls as if opening a gate, and one can almost hear the whippoorwills. But it's the thing Maria's husband is keeping in a cage in the basement that's really cause for alarm.

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For the first hour or so of its runtime, Devil's Gate smoulders with tension, piling on one horror after another as its spins out its central mystery. Schull brings a great combination of toughness, smarts and humour to the central role, and enjoys some beautifully written exchanges with local police officer Colt (Shawn Ashmore). Milo Ventimiglia is on fine form as the husband, Jackson, a poorly educated, not-too-bright guy who has nevertheless taken the initiative in a desperate attempt to save his child. Way out of his depth but refusing to admit it, Jackson pursues one impulsive idea after another in a way that makes it impossible for Agent Francis to strategise - even as it emerges that the force they're up against has been planning what it's doing for a long, long time.

The trouble with stories like this is that they either have to find a means of preserving the mystery, which leaves some viewers frustrated, or they have to to develop a more complex plot which will inevitably struggle to compete with the scariness of the unknown. Devil's Gate chooses the latter route. The actual plotting is tight throughout and well handled, but it does suffer from a loss of scale, with what develops seeming mundane in comparison to what has gone before. This means it struggles to maintain tension in the latter third, with revelations that are chilling for Jackson just not impacting the viewer as hard.

Despite this problem, Devil's Gate remains well ahead of the pack when it comes to horror films with similarly restricted budgets. Strong dialogue and a well chosen cast (with cameos from Javier Botet and Jonathan Frakes) carry it a long way, and it would be churlish to complain about disappointment simply because it's so good early on. As a debut director, Clay Staub has a lot to be proud of. There's a genuine creepiness to this one that's hard to achieve.

Reviewed on: 01 Sep 2017
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Struggling to overcome a recent professional tragedy, an FBI agent relocates to a small town to investigate the disappearance of a woman and her young son.


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