Though it falters a bit, “The Devil Comes at Night” is mostly able to overcome its flaws with strong acting and solid action scenes.
The siege subgenre of cinema is one of my personal favorites, and over the years has given us some classics. From John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) to George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) to the criminally and almost forgotten Self Defence, aka Siege (1983).
It’s a well-trodden troupe of the hero having to defend their home or some isolated outpost. Outgunned, outnumbered, and having to hold on until the cavalry arrives. The genre is wonderfully flexible and has proven a rich stomping ground for independent filmmakers over the years.
So, I was excited to check out The Devil Comes at Night because, on paper, it ticks all those fantastic horror and exploitation boxes. Demonic possession, check. Cannibalistic cult, check. Siege horror, check.
The story follows a washed-up boxer, Ben, played by Ryan Allen (who is also one of the film’s writers).
Ben finds himself trapped inside his deceased father’s house and surrounded by a demonic cannibalistic cult. He is soon joined by Amy, played by Adrienne Kress, who has hidden herself away in the house to escape the strange events taking place.
The Devil Comes at Night opens rather strongly.
We are dropped right into the thick of the action with a semi-conscious Ben being dragged into the house by his long-time friend Jack (Elias Zarou) following a bar fight.
Director Scott Leave, best known for his directing work on the television series Fair Trade, spends the first twenty minutes focused on building the tension and developing the feeling that things are far from normal.
It’s in these moments we get some of the strongest scenes. We are introduced to the neighbors Lisa (Dana Fradkin) and Austin (Di McDonald). This scene is played out beautifully, with both actors delivering unsettling performances somewhat reminiscent of Romero’s The Crazies (1973).
Leaver and his actors deftly encapsulate the old Hitchcock adage of, “Mystery is when the spectator knows less than the characters in the movie. Suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie.”
As an audience, we know something isn’t right, but we still don’t know what. However, we never quite get the payoff, and the film squanders this good work.
As these well-crafted characters simply disappear from the film, with only McDonald’s Austin popping back up briefly.
It may be a cliché, but film is a visual art form; you should show rather than tell.
The Devil Comes Out spends a fair amount of time telling the audience rather than showing them. Indeed, several scenes take place in pitch black, which is a shame because what we hear going on sounds fantastic. This is evident in the scene where Ben and Amy look to escape into the cellar. They open the front door and… pitch black.
The Devil Comes Out is also hampered by some of the editing choices. The film cuts to black on several occasions, which really interrupts the flow and makes the film become a little staccato.
Now lighting has become somewhat of a battleground in recent years. Let us cast our minds back to the final season of Game of Thrones, where the internet went into meltdown due to scenes being deemed “too dark”.
Early on in the film, Ben is told not to turn the lights on. It’s a nice narrative device but one that does come back to bite the film on the butt.
Without going into the finer points of three-point lighting and boring everyone to death, lighting within a film, and in particular horror, is a fundamental that is often overlooked. When it’s done well, nobody notices. When it isn’t, it’s hard not to notice it. Lighting is key in setting the intention within a scene. It gives us, the audience, an insight into what the characters are feeling and what is going on within the scene.
For large proportions of The Devil Comes at Night, the primary light used is a lamp/flashlight that Ben carries with him. However, at times we get very little fill light and almost no backlight, which makes it hard to see everything going on, especially when there is action taking place.
While watching The Devil Comes at Night, you get the sense that the film is playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order.
Even when the film begins to shift into a higher gear, it never quite hits top speed.
We are teased with potential moments of gore, but what we get is a cutaway to the actor’s reaction to what is happening. Also, we have a cannibalistic cult that doesn’t do a lot of cannibalizing; we merely get a little bit of finger dipping. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting Cannibal Holocaust (1980) levels of gut-munching, but maybe a little bit of nibbling wouldn’t have gone a miss.
Now it may sound as though I didn’t like The Devil Comes at Night, which isn’t true.
The film has several strengths, one is the performance of Adrienne Kress, who plays Amy. She manages to fulfill the female sidekick role without ever lapsing into the damsel in distress. Her chemistry with Ryan Allen is strong, and they make an excellent team. This goes a long way in keeping you invested in the story.
Both actors do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to exposition.
A particular highlight for me is a scene involving a tape recorder, ala The Evil Dead (1981). Kress and Allen bounce off each well and keep things moving along nicely. Jason Martorino, as Mason, is clearly having a blast. He brings a creepy stillness with a touch of Stephen King’s Randal Flag thrown in. Martorino’s Mason plays nicely opposite the more volatile Ben.
The action scenes are well handled; the dust-up in the cellar involving a harpoon gun is excellent.
Overall, The Devil Comes at Night has a strong cast and good action with moments of creepiness. It is an enjoyable indie horror and, despite its flaws, is most definitely worth watching.
The Devil Comes at Night lands on digital and DVD on June 6, 2023.