APRIL 3, 2010
When I discovered that The Devil’s Ground was originally called The Cycle, I assumed that the film would be about someone trapped in a Groundhog Day scenario, albeit in a horror setting (not unlike Dark Floors). But I was wrong, and I have no idea why it was called that. The Devil’s Ground is at least easier to understand the relevance (there’s a line in the film where the setting is described as “The Devil’s Playground”), though it doesn’t really apply either. I would have just called it “Killer In The Woods Part 485”.
The ironic thing about the movie is that the stuff that actually separates it from being a completely generic slasher movie is also its most problematic. Sure, I’ve seen a group of 5-6 kids head off into the woods and get killed at LEAST thirty times in my life, but it can still work with the right ingredients: a likeable cast, a memorable killer, a couple of good kills, and technical competency. And Devil’s Ground has all of that, more or less. The killer uses a gun sometimes, which is an odd, infrequent choice, and looks pretty cool. And I wouldn’t go to any of their funerals, but I liked the kids OK enough - I didn’t actively HATE any of them at least, which is more than I can say about most slasher movies (even some I really like - I love Scream, but I cannot stand Tatum). And the only technical blemishes seemed to be the fault of the “home viewing” folks - an overly dark transfer and a really bad pan and scan job (even though it’s a 1.78:1 movie!) that keeps you in the dark as to who our lead character (Daryl Hannah) is talking to after she stops her car. If you must see the movie, I would most definitely recommend renting the DVD instead of watching it on cable.
And really, when are cable channels going to start airing things in letterbox format? 1/3 of homes have widescreen TVs, and the rest of the folks have to be used to the “black bars” by now since DVD took over from VHS nearly a decade ago. Get with it.
But what hurts the movie is what seems like an attempt to keep it from being yet another generic slasher, particularly in the final 10 minutes or so (spoilers ahead!). All of a sudden they toss ghosts into the mix, and it just doesn’t work. There are sort of two main characters: Hannah, who is driving from California to Bangor, ME (pretty much the longest drive one can take in the United States), and Amy (Leah Gibson) who has survived the slashing and is telling the story to Hannah. This means that Hannah never really has anything to do in the movie (really, if not for the fact that she’s the films only recognizable face, her character would be forgotten entirely), but it also takes away from Amy’s importance, which makes the reveal that she’s been a ghost the whole time as anticlimactic as it is just plain pointless (I’m sure watching the film again would reveal plot holes as well). Sixth Sense’s reveal works because not only do we care about the actor (Bruce!), we’re also seeing things from his perspective from the start of the movie, so even when the kid takes over and Bruce just sort of begins hanging out in the background, we can still see him as our protagonist and be sad when he turns out to be a ghost. The way it is in this movie, it would be like if the big twist at the end of Sense was that Bruce’s wife was the ghost instead. Who cares?
And props to writer Michael Bafaro (who also directed*) for coming up with a different reason to put them in the woods besides camping/partying, but it feels more like padding than creativity. Just saying that they were there for environmental studies would have been fine - we don’t need 3-4 minutes of the characters engaged in politically charged debate over the needs of the earth vs. the needs of the people. To be fair, it’s actually sort of connected to the killers (the toxic water caused their various issues), but the scene in question just goes on forever, and that is time that could have been better spent developing Gibson and Hannah's characters in the present. As with any flashback movie, some of the suspense is deflated - we know everyone but her is dead right from the start, so why waste time in the past? Put more into the present-day scenes.
They also work in a small twist involving Hannah’s husband. He disappeared on the same drive some time before, and for some reason this didn’t deter her from flying, or at least only driving during daylight hours. And surprise, the bad guys after her and Amy killed him, which we learn because they keep cutting away to a picture of his car (with personalized plate) over and over, so we know it’s his car when she finds it later. Why she apparently had such little concern about his disappearance in the first place is dumb enough, but the coincidence is a bit much to handle. Had she actually been investigating his disappearance, it would be one thing, but it’s just silly as is. Plus, it’s in Pennsylvania, not Maine, so what the hell? Does everyone stop here? Do they kill all northbound travelers? Again, maybe this would be acceptable if it was in the same town as their location, or at least in close proximity to it, but that both her and her husband, traveling separately, managed to run afoul of the same killers a few hundred miles away from their destination is a bit preposterous.
Oh, and cute. Real cute. The gas station guy turns out to be related to the killer, and his name is Tobe. You know, like Tobe Hooper, creator of the first (I think? Certainly most famous) gas station attendant who turns out to be evil, in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I’ve had it up to here with this plot element of horror movies - do ANY gas station clerks just do their job and go home? Seems they all live there and will “surprisingly” turn against our heroine when she goes back there for help. Chainsaw III actually had a nice twist to this formula, with Viggo helping them from the (not surprisingly) crazy attendant, only to discover he too was in on that and they were simply carrying out the most complicated ruse in history (OK, so yeah it was stupid - they could have just overpowered the two heroes, but it’s still an ATTEMPT at doing something new).
So I dunno. It’s got generic elements that work and wrinkles that don’t (plus the evil gas station guy that I’m personally sick of, maybe you aren’t and thus will consider this part of the movie a plus), so it just sort of cancels itself out. I appreciate the attempt to play with the structure of these things, with having a possibly unreliable "survivor" telling the story (I can just hear the pitch now - “It’s Usual Suspects meets Wrong Turn!”), but Bafaro isn’t entirely successful with the execution of his concepts, and tries to add too many surprises in the final reel. Less is more!
What say you?
*He also directed (but did not write) The Covenant: Brotherhood of Evil, which was also retitled (from Canes) and starred a Kill Bill alum. Odd trademark.