Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, March 2014
Synopsis: New Orleans, 2013. Police interview Zach McCall. Ten months earlier, after the last drunken night of a Dominican Republic honeymoon ends in a forgotten Satanic ritual, Zach’s wife Sam discovers she is pregnant (despite being on the pill). Sam becomes withdrawn and aggressive, and though vegetarian, secretly devours raw meat. Strangers observe the McCall house from outside, and secretly install video cameras. At their niece’s christening, Father Thomas has a stroke-like episode. Rewatching the footage, Zach notices their Dominican cab driver in the congregation, and sees (for the first time) the missing episode from their holiday video. Thomas warns of the coming Antichrist. Possessed, Sam hunts deer, and telekinetically murders three onlookers. As Zach finds the neighbouring hideout of a Satanic cabal, Sam kills Zach’s sister. Pinned supernaturally to a wall, Zach watches the entranced Sam slice open her own belly, and die. Conspirators take the baby. Paris, the cabbie approaches a honeymooning couple.
Review: The collective Radio Silence, comprising Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and internet pranksters Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Chad Villela, first courted attention in the ‘found footage’ anthology V/H/S (2012) – and if their climactic contribution, entitled ’10/31/98′, was a calling card for the filmmakers’ way with in-house devilry, then their not entirely dissimilar feature debut also feels more like an infant advertisement of their potential than a mature work able to stand on its own two feet.
Devil’s Due updates the child-bearing anxieties of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to the age of home video, with newlywed Zach McCall (Zach Gilford) recording for posterity every stage in the unplanned pregnancy of his wife Samantha (Allison Miller), even as he grows convinced that Sam is nurturing an embryonic Satan. It is, however, a premise that comes with twin problems. The first is that there have already been entire found-footage franchises devoted to diabolical possession (see the Paranormal Activity, [REC] and The Last Exorcism series), as well as found-footage films concerned specifically with demonic pregnancies (see the original 2010’s The Last Exorcism and the ‘Safe Haven’ episode of 2013’s V/H/S/2). If, as the opening quote (from 1 John 2.18) of Devil’s Due suggests, there are ‘many Antichrists’, then films about them have proved just as legion, leaving the McCalls’ otherwise spacious suburban home with little room for originality. Directors Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett may know how to deliver thrilling scenes, but they are hardly renovating this old dark house. Even the telekinetic forces applied to some characters and, latterly, to a camera, are lifted straight from Chronicle (2012) – with which Devil’s Due shares producer John Davis.
The second problem is that there is no ambiguity here to generate tension. Where Polanski took great pains to leave his viewers uncertain from start to finish whether they were witnessing a gravid woman’s mental unravelling or a genuine demonic conspiracy, Devil’s Due announces its intent in its punning title (nominal phrase doubling as plot synopsis), and in its opening, apocalyptic quote from the New Testament – and even the surname of screenwriter Lindsay Devlin might be regarded as furnishing a hint at the devil in the details. This intent is confirmed by everything that we subsequently see (even if much of it goes unnoticed by Zach himself): the impressionistically glimpsed involvement of a drugged Zach and Sam in a satanic ritual; the unnatural movements of Sam’s belly; Sam’s erratic, eventually paranormal (even murderous) behaviour; the activities of a watchful cult, who secretly install cameras in the McCalls’ home; and finally the full-on eruption of diabolism in the house.
Meanwhile the fly-on-the-wall format of ‘found footage’ itself conventionally lends ‘objectivity’ to the film’s supernatural events – although in this case, strictly speaking, the footage remains unfound, with all the home video material, and even a sonogram of the foetus, mysteriously disappearing before they might furnish corroborative police evidence for Zach’s implausible story. By implication, the sinister cabal that has been overseeing the Antichrist’s birth has also removed and collated Zach’s videos, all at once in order to cover its tracks and to have a family record to which the older child can refer (i.e the express, original purpose of the recordings). The film that the cabal has appropriated and edited is also, precisely, the film that Radio Silence has put together – or as Zach puts it in a moment of sublimely metacinematic self-awareness: “This is going to sound crazy, there’s some people watching us.”