Horror films can be a curious thing. Especially in these free-for-all times where censorship isn’t what it used to be and directors can seemingly unleash anything on an audience by claiming it as their ‘artistic vision’. Well hell, what I curl out after a heavy night on the sauce could be claimed as my ‘artistic vision’, but I wouldn’t dare film it and call it cinema.
That said, amid the thorny mire of underwhelming, low budget scarefests that litter the torrent sites and late night schedules of the Horror Channel, there’s always a rose to be found. And despite cribbing from a whole host of films which I’ll go into later, Devoured is such a rose – a slow-burner that makes you wait for the pay-off. And a deliciously sticky pay-off it is too.
Opening with the old ‘the-end-at-the-beginning’ gambit, we see Lourdes (Marta Milans) lying dead in a stairwell, police officers assessing the potential crime scene. As one officer peeks behind a cellar door to see something shocking (which we the viewer aren’t privy to), the film cuts to the past – the next 80 minutes taking us through the events leading up to her untimely death.
But this is no ordinary death (as if it was ever going to be). Working a thankless job as a cleaner in a small New York restaurant, her lot in life is to raise money for her son back home in Mexico who’s awaiting a life-saving operation. Battered pillar to post by pretty much everyone she works with or meets (save for a friendly fireman), she’s eventually cornered into sexual submission by a succession of men, each one more disagreeable than the last, in return for money to add to her funds. So far, so distasteful – but in-between these unpleasant moments there’s all manner of supernatural goings-on: her son appearing by her bedside to stroke her hair; an ashen-faced man creeping behind her in suitably low-lit environs; an eye watching her getting dressed from behind a wall; hands grabbing at her from inside her locker. Either the security at this restaurant is severely lax, or there’s more to Lourdes’ life than the director is letting on.
As you might expect, the latter is true – and it’s a final act rug-pull which largely succeeds in making the previous 80 minutes worthwhile. In the vein of Audition in more ways than one (a bin bag with a body in it? Check. A protagonist with a secret? Check. Death by stair-falling? Check), it slowly pulls the viewer in one direction for pretty much the entire film, only to drag them sideways in the last reel.
Now admittedly, as you may have noticed, it’s far from original – it’s beautifully shot (Lyle Vincent’s cinematography is stunning in places) but where Devoured loses points is due to an over-reliance on rote manoeuvres. You know the score: the hand-grabbing of the protagonist from the shadows; a figure in the distance suddenly up-close; the cellar door behind which lurks a dire secret; people’s eyes turning black for no reason whatsoever. Textbook plot points and tired scares seem to appear in a million and one horror flicks. But when a film does its textbook plot points and tired scares well, is that really such a bad thing? And with a film that’s patient in its methodology, you can’t help but give director Greg Olliver a pat on the back for not losing his nerve – he waits right until the last moments to deliver the requisite pay-off, rather than buckling earlier and laying on more blood than is necessary.
I could nitpick though, and I will: there are the thinly-scripted supporting roles, each and every person (save for that friendly fireman) being about the worst form of social scum you can imagine. And while logically justified by the time the ending arrives, you feel the film could have done with a character reality check at some key moments. But it’s an easily forgivable flaw that doesn’t mar what is a solid fiction debut from Olliver, his previous feature being the co-directed documentary Lemmy. High praise too for Marta Milans, her nuanced performance no doubt rewarding a second viewing, once you know what’s coming. So if you see Devoured on the Horror Channel listings in the next few months, don’t be put off – or alternatively, come see it as part of Final Girls, a season of extreme horror films at Manchester’s Cornerhouse championing the last woman standing (or lying dead in a stairwell, as the case may be – though the sentiment remains much the same).