Horror films involving demonic possession seem to be one of the hottest trends in recent years. From the Conjuring series, the Insidious series, and the upcoming Suspiria remake, horror films about possession utilize supernatural elements recycled time and again in an effort to craft something new. This seems to be the case with the Jason DeVan-directed Heather DeVan-co-written Along Came The Devil – originally conceived as Tell Me Your Name. It doubles-down on the possession clichés, even going so far as to name-check The Exorcist, in an effort to create unease amidst the uncanny. Despite offering some genuinely unsettling scenes and distressing F/X, the film as a whole feels largely incomplete, as though actual pieces of the story are missing. This detracts from any of the clever embellishments, making the weaknesses all the more glaring.
When her protective older sister starts college, teen Ashley (Sydney Sweeney) moves back to her hometown to stay with her estranged Aunt Tonya (Jessica Barth). Even after reconnecting with old friends Hannah (Madison Lintz) and Shane (Austin Filson), Ashley struggles to feel comfortable due to several strange occurrences in and around the house: the bed shakes, lights turn on unexpectedly, and ghostly figures appear to follow her while cutting through a local forest. Wondering if these metaphysical events are her deceased mother Sarah (Heather DeVan) trying to reach out, Ashley and Hannah try to call the spirit forward to understand what it’s trying to say to her. But once the girls open the door to the supernatural, something far more malevolent appears, putting all of their souls in jeopardy.
In an exorcism narrative, there’s an expected amount of jump scares, gnarly injuries, and frightening depictions of the occult. It’s the bread-and-butter of the subgenre. What Jason DeVan does, however, is effuse his scenes with an aura of menace that sits on the periphery, waiting for his characters to place themselves in just the right positon before making the malevolence known. In an early sequence that shows Ashley and her sister quietly using the bathroom, a grotesque figure approaches them from the shadows until a light turns on and the figure is revealed to be a harmless woman. This shadow work is one excellent example of how Jason utilizes the mind’s own ability to contort reality based on our fears. Later in Devil, a quiet walk through the woods turns alarming as a figure appears, distantly parallel to Ashley, moving at the same speed and seemingly intent on colliding with her. The ambiguity of the figure combined with staging taps directly into the discomfort of being in an unknown space, yet feeling observed. Even as Devil becomes more specific with its demons, the design work plays with the expected and delivers something new. Without diving into greater specifics, Jason DeVan, in concert with cinematographer Justin Duval (Superstore), demonstrates an imaginative eye for scene composition and staging, which, when combined with some clever make-up, supports the notion that Devil possesses clear thought in its design.
Unfortunately, these technical aspects aren’t enough to keep Devil engaging as the world that the Devans created – and it is vast – doesn’t particularly gel in any way. There’s an extensive prologue that sets up Jordan (Kyla Deaver) and Ashley’s close relationship and complicated adolescence before jumping to the present. There is a brief explanation before all of this via text, but as the film carries forward, all of the set-up from the prologue seems largely ignored. For instance, Jordan isn’t seen again for the duration of the film. Doesn’t matter what happens. It’s as though that aspect of Ashley’s familial support system vanishes. Connected to this is the sense that the characters don’t behave as people. Instead, they only seem to behave in service of the script. As the demon’s presence grows, a stench within Ashley’s room increases, yet it’s barely acknowledged and never explored. This is, of course, at least addressed, whereas the large swath of mold growing in the cover of Ashley’s room is not. Both of these grow more noticeable as the film continues, yet treated as mere nuisance, if acknowledged at all. Making matters more confusing, Aunt Tonya’s presented as spiritual, yet she initially refuses the aid offered to her by Reverend Michael (Bruce Davison), who acknowledges his previous experience with exorcism, even as the possession grows worse. Individually, these choices could be caulked up to distraction due to the horrifying events occurring before them and the willingness of the characters to find a scientific solution. However, so many of the choices seem contradictory to the established background of the characters upon the audience’s first meeting. Combining these issues with the fact that the story projects a great deal of significance on objects without payoff and the ending is far from resolute, the whole of Devil feels like a grand idea unfinished.
Along Came The Devil is a frustrating experience for any film-goer. The make-up, F/X, and camera work demonstrate careful thought and precision, while the narrative is clunky and derivative. The heavy leaning on possession tropes can be forgiven, especially when the technical aspects impress; however, the maladroit story can’t. Things happen to characters the audience either isn’t invested in or for seemingly unnecessary reasons beyond what the script calls for and the ending alludes to some greater significance, yet fails to deliver on that promise. Considering the interesting directorial approach of framing, as well as the when/where/how of inserting scares, it’s a shame that Jason DeVan’s Along Came The Devil is a film with some great ideas executed in a manner which ultimately diminishes them.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.