So many horror films never bother trying to capture the banality of evil that it's a pleasant surprise (relatively speaking) to find the most terrifying thing about Sean Hogan's The Devil's Business
is a simple conversation with a man in a business suit. Yes, plenty of other films have featured a villain who looks perfectly normal at first glance then turns out to be a monster under the skin, but it doesn't get done that
often and not usually this well.
It's a shame, then, that Hogan has to go and spoil the effect so badly, with page after page of flowery dialogue, cheap gore and comical Halloween creature FX devoid of any real suspense. The Devil's Business
is less of a thinking man's horror film and more a standard disposable video nasty with a couple of slower, more thoughtful moments thrown in. Genre fans or gorehounds may still find this one worth watching, but anyone else will probably feel it could have been a good deal more than it is.
The premise is simple enough. Two men break into an empty house late at night, and it quickly becomes obvious they're up to no good. At first they seem like petty thieves, but then you realise they've come for the owner, Mr. Kist (Jonathan Hansler). One of the hitmen, Pinner (UK TV character actor Billy Clarke), is your average world-weary professional who's seen it all and just wants this job wound up nice and quiet-like. The other, Cullen (Jack Gordon) is a mouthy wideboy who's having second thoughts, but bottling them up for fear the older man won't be impressed.
They settle down to wait for their target to return home, but little by little both realise they've not been told all the salient facts about the man and why the crimelord paying their wages would want to be rid of him. While Pinner is used to being kept in the dark, it's evident this particular contract is very different from the rest, and that having blundered into it with no knowledge of the things their target is capable of the two men will be lucky to escape the house alive.
The opening scene-setting is intriguing, but worrying at the same time; Clarke proves reasonably good at fleshing out an obvious type like Pinner, but Hogan's script does him few favours. The professional starts out replying in grim monosyllables, but opens up with over-elaborate, flowery lines that come across about as naturalistic as a nice glazed ham done up in purple ribbons - Clarke puts in considerable effort but this is still stilted, theatrical exposition nothing like anything an actual human being would say.
On the other hand, Gordon seems to be playing Cullen as an extension of his eternally chipper rent boy in Philip Ridley's Heartless
, all swaggering, gormless bravado masking mounting fear. Oddly enough while this starts out exactly as much of a caricature as it sounds, Cullen is what begins to hint at a better, slightly deeper film under the typical Brit-horror posturing. His incredulous response to the occult souvenirs dotted around the house and pragmatic frustration at the tedium of waiting make the horror hit home a little harder.
And when Hogan starts ramping up the strangeness, however clichéd the production design might be it does
briefly feel genuinely, deeply disturbing. While the director chooses a fairly obvious way for Pinner and Cullen to realise just how depraved the man they've come to kill is, Clarke and Gordon sell their reactions surprisingly well; they're actually horrified, not merely nodding their heads. And though they still don't catch on to what's really happening, Hogan manages to get a little amusement out of this (Cullen: "What's a homo-unculus? Sounds gay").
And then the film briefly gets really strange. Some people will probably guess where the story's headed around the half-way mark, but credit to Hogan for setting it up with very little showiness or melodrama. When the two hitmen realise Kist is much, much more dangerous than they gave him credit for, their shock and disorientation feels much more convincing than most genre films ever manage.
All of which sets up the confrontation mentioned earlier, where Hogan could have gone for any number of boo scares but foregoes pretty much all of them. All we see is Cullen sit down for a quiet drink with Kist, but during that time he's forced to admit he's completely out of his depth, and that the world doesn't work in anything like the way he imagined - none of this being wholly original, or masterful cinema, but it's still eerie, haunting stuff by way of pulling the rug out from under you, not pig intestines or rubber masks.
Which makes it all the more disappointing when Hogan falls back on easy boo scares and lazy body horror. It feels as if he can't quite get his head around how to wind things up when his story obviously isn't going to end well - as if he assumes most people will be in it for the nastiness, so he may as well go out with as much splatter and daft creature designs as the budget can stand. There are some disturbing moments here, like Kist's getting the last word in, but most of it is too much like watching someone tread water.
If only Hogan had displayed a bit more ambition, or had more faith in our attention spans this could have been something of a rough diamond. As it is, there are flashes of greatness, but the film feels fairly throwaway on the whole - a haunted house, a Big Bad, a nihilistic twist, some grisly deaths. Too much of it seems designed to push the audience's buttons rather than trying to evoke any kind of emotional response. The Devil's Business
has its moments, but for most people it gets a cautious recommendation at best.(The Devil's Business was screened at the 18th Bradford International Film Festival, held in the UK National Media Museum in Bradford from 19th-29th April 2012.)