Back in my Creative Writing classes at university the lecturers would explain one way to create a fictional character was to start with one thing - a name, say - and extrapolate from there. Is it a weird name? If so, what kind of parents would call their child something like that? Are they a happy family? Where do they live? And so on, scribbling our answers across the whiteboard like a spider diagram, until they could show us a pretty solid picture of this fictional character that sprang from a single word. It works with movies, too, sort of. Yes, yes, it's not terribly professional to start forming preconceptions when you're trying to decide what films to fit into a festival schedule, but here's what went through my head for Greg Oliver's Devoured
Okay, snappy title. What's it mean, I wonder? Someone eating something? It's a horror movie, so... are there cannibals? "A young El Salvadorean woman working in a New York restaurant to raise money for her son's operation starts to have disturbing visions" - I'm guessing no cannibals if they don't mention cannibals. Devoured, meaning to eat up greedily
, to destroy
, or waste
- a poor immigrant working at an upscale eaterie for the nouveau riche, so, this is social commentary, right? The customers devour, the heroine's devoured; figuratively rather than literally. Used up, psychologically consumed, wasted. Eh, could be good. Let's give it a shot.Devoured
does not confound this hasty analysis in the slightest. It's an impressive début, and a surprising choice for a first feature for a director best known for a documentary on Mötörhead's legendary frontman Lemmy. Technically, at least, this is slick, professional low-budget horror which evokes empathy for its tortured lead (a great performance from Marta Milans) and manages a few genuinely unsettling scares. But while individual character moments feel convincing enough, the overall story arc just seems so horribly obvious from the word go it sinks any chance the plot has to really connect. There's little outright bad about Devoured
, but it's a fairground ride as opposed to a magical mystery tour - you can see where it's headed inside five minutes and Oliver and his crew never do anything to make you think any different.
Once you see the premise, and assuming you've watched more than a few films along similar lines, it seems fairly obvious the story hangs on the answer to one major question (which could be one of two things, but I'm trying to avoid spoilers here.) Part of the disappointment stems from the way Devoured
seems to spend far too much time on speculating what that answer might be. The script tries to flesh out Milans' role with nods to her life back home and the kind of person she is when she's not fleeing shadowy apparitions standing just out of focus in the middle distance. The trouble is these little diversions quickly start to suggest the answer is going to be one thing rather than the other, which makes all that effort to muddy the waters some feel a little pointless.
And the spooks, while artfully presented - all chill blue-gray, dim lighting and picturesque Dutch angles - are clichéd in the extreme. Every page in the J-horror playbook is here, right up to the moment Milans follows her silent doppelgänger into a confined space and reaches out a trembling hand to tap her other self on the shoulder. The idea of the restaurant customers thoughtlessly devouring their food the way Milans is being consumed by the job could have worked, but Oliver runs it into the ground, like the steak scene from The Hunger
set to repeat every five minutes. It's miles above the tone-deaf emotional manipulation of nonsense like The Innkeepers
, but neither the cast nor the story can shake your conviction you've seen all this before, however pretty it is here. And with that disillusionment comes more time to guess at what the Big Reveal's going to be.
The social commentary, such as it is, does have some effect. The icy colour palette and weary, grinding sense of isolation are somewhat on the nose, but there's real feeling here, and Milans does her best work internalising the constant, innumerable degradations from her bigoted, sadistic superiors and the clientèle who see her as more a thing than a person. She gets frightened pretty well, too, much more a living, breathing person than a scream queen - the cynic in you knows that ghost over there will have jumped three feet closer to the camera when Oliver cuts back to look at it again, but Milans' terror does a great deal to sell it as more than a narrative device. True, she doesn't quite succeed, but it's still the kind of performance that deserves to score her more work.
Oddly, if I'm claiming Devoured
is far too predictable, you'd expect me to finish by saying the moment the film lays its cards on the table is the worst part? Not so; conversely, once Oliver stops trying to obscure how straightforward everything is the moment where we see everything explained is strangely much, much more shocking than anything up until that point. Maybe Devoured
would have been far better as a significantly different sort of film? This sort of tribute to Polanski's early career is a hard one to nail, certainly, and it's rare to find a film that gets the tone and the plotting and the escalating tension right. Greg Oliver has a damn good try, but Devoured
manages two out of three at best. Horror buffs ought to consider giving it a shot, but with appropriately lowered expectations.This review of Devoured comes from its screening at Grimmfest 2012, which ran from 3rd-7th October at the Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester, in the UK.