The achievement of telling a successful horror story is akin to the achievement of successfully juggling chainsaws. Both activities entertain an audience by making them tense, and both have their entertainment value severely reduced by a messy, shock-value ending. Of course the activities do differ a little. Telling a bad story does not result in a sudden loss of hands. But the analogy holds true, as The Devil’s Business shows. This is, for the most part, a really creepy, intelligent film, that, now and again completely drops the chainsaw.
The Devil’s Business is the story of an assassination. Two hitmen, the experienced Mr Pinner (Billy Clarke) and the inexperienced Cully (Jack Gordon), have been hired by the gangster Bruno (Harry Miller). They are to kill Kist (Jonathan Hansler) who has stolen something of Bruno’s. Having broken into Kist’s house, the two settle in to wait for their victim. Pinner is determined that the job be a simple one. But when the two hitmen stumble across a Satanic altar, things soon become very, very complicated.
The result is a profoundly creepy experience. Stumbling back into the light as the credits rolled, the sudden loss of tension made me feel empty and spent. This is a film that truly exploits the horror of the unknown, with the use of darkness and shadow at times approaching mastery. Indeed one of the film’s best sequences is nothing more than Mr. Pinner talking at the camera for a bit. It doesn’t sound like much, but with Pinner’s face covered in shadow, apart from two pinpricks of light reflected off his hidden eyes, the result is truly unnerving.
In fact, I might even describe Hogan’s abilities as Lovecraftian in quality, displaying craft worthy of a horror master. I might. But I can’t, because though the horror of the unknown is great, as soon as he makes it known, the film falls to pieces. As might be expected for such a low budget film, props and costumes ultimately fail to convey anything as truly scary as what we might imagine lurking in the shadows. Speaking to fellow critics after the film, I found overall opinions somewhat mixed. But one thought was repeated by everyone. This would have been a better film, if we had seen less.
That’s not the only problem either: about halfway through, Devil’s Business undergoes some odd pacing difficulties. I can’t go into detail because of spoilers, but essentially an event occurs that seemed to me to be a natural conclusion. I sat there for about 10 minutes, expecting the credits to roll at any moment, before belatedly realising that no, there was more to come. The pacing did recover from this upset, but still, that transitional period was awkward and ugly.
But though the plotting has its flaws, Hogan’s dialogue is excellent. One of the distinctive features of Devil’s Business is the artificial, quasi-theatrical style of the dialogue (the film has been described as Pinter-esque). This kind of writing style is a risk. As a positive, the oddness of it can be unnerving, and the artificiality allows for a spot of philosophising. As a negative, sometimes actors end up delivering their lines with an obvious lack of understanding. That kills a movie: certainly it destroyed Cosmopolis for me. It is a mark of Clarke’s ability in particular that he was able to sell the dialogue, his mournful Irish brogue instilling alien words with true feeling.
This delivery, combined with a deep, emotive performance, makes Clarke the best of the cast. Hansler’s Kist is as creepy as only the British upper-middle-class can be, but his one-dimensional character limits him somewhat. The same goes for Miller’s East End mobster Bruno. Gordon has strong emotional chops, able to convey feeling well, but he struggled a bit with the language. Still, despite these limitations, the cast put on a strong showing, the strength of their acting empowering the film.
As for the technical filmmaking, well, here unfortunately we have more problems. Nicola Marsh is obviously an inventive, experimental cinematographer, something which pays off as regards working with shadows and darkness. But at other times all the artifice just gets in the way of the story. What’s more, the camera operation was at times decidedly messy: one sequence in particular was so shaky it looked like an amateur home movie. The score too was of similarly inconsistent quality. In its subtler moments it proves to be quietly effective. In its louder moments, it completely destroys the atmosphere.
I think this dichotomy characterises The Devil’s Business. This film is at its most effective when it is being low-key: when the sounds, camerawork and monsters are all safely unobtrusive. It should be emphasised that this is the case for most of the film. This is a legitimately scary story, and definitely worth a watch. But still, it remains flawed. My hope is next time round, Sean Hogan and his team show more restraint. That would be a recipe for greatness.