“Nazis. I hate these guys”
With those words, spoken in The Last crusade, Indiana Jones summed up the feelings of a movie-going generation, while also announcing the return to the franchise of history’s greatest villains as they attempted once again to get their hands on a religious relic with which to win the Second World War. It should have surprised no one really as the Third Reich’s supposed flirtation with the supernatural was always going to prove fruitful ground for the cinema, having also been alluded to over the years in films as diverse as Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983), Werner Herzog’s Invincible (2001), and Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy (2004). Now, in Director Paul Campion’s The Devil’s Rock we find them up to their old tricks once again.
Set on the eve of the D-Day landings it tells the story of two allied commandos who are sent to the Channel Islands to plant explosives and divert German attention away from the Normandy beaches where the invasion of Europe is set to commence. However, as they skirt a Nazi fortress housing the huge artillery they’ve been ordered to destroy, they hear what sounds like the screams of a woman being tortured emanating from within. Against the advice of his Sergeant (Karlos Drinkwater), Captain Ben Grogan (Craig Hall) decides to investigate, initiating a series of events that will lead to the discovery of multiple murders, a dastardly demon and all round Nazi nastiness.
Although it has its moments, The Devil’s Rock feels like something of a missed opportunity, as it possesses all the ingredients for a rather intense and gruesome little horror but fails partly because it blows its chance by showing its hand too soon.
For instance, it is no great spoiler to reveal that the woman tied up in one of the base’s cells is actually a demon that Colonel Klaus Meyer (Matthew Sunderland), the head of Hitler’s Occult division, has summoned up with a view to turning the tide of WWII in Germany’s favour. It’s no great spoiler because that is what is revealed almost as soon as she is introduced, when Grogan discovers her assuming the guise of his dead wife Helena. Although Grogan is initially bewildered, Meyer convinces him of Helena’s true nature within minutes, thereby jettisoning the dramatic possibilities of the demon playing the two soldiers off against each other. It also means that the audience are never in doubt as to Helena’s true nature and all we’re left with is a straightforward gore-fest as we wait for her to break free, when the opportunity was there for some real drama and suspense as well. It wouldn’t have been beyond the script to devise a scenario whereby the real Helena had disappeared rather than died, leading to the manifestation of some serious doubts within Grogan when he finds her again.
The film also raises the possibility of an examination of the nature of true evil when Meyer seems to regret his actions in unleashing this creature on the world; his banal, ‘only following orders’ rationale thrown into stark light by the existence of a creature who embraces evil purely for its own sake. Unfortunately, this is never really explored any further despite a nice moment later on when things are turned on their head for an instant and it is the demon who is appalled by the actions of one of the characters.
None of this would matter so much if the potential wasn’t so apparent, nor if the road that the story does take was followed with greater pace, intensity or even a sense of fun. Too often things seem to grind to a halt, only really picking up towards the end when the skills of FX company Weta Workshop are employed to gruesome and entertaining effect.
However, this all sounds as though I disliked The Devils’ Rock when in fact there were several aspects to it that I think work really well. Two of the film’s main strengths are the performances of Craig Hall as the hero and Gina Varela as The Demon. Varela in particular plays it note perfect as she effortlessly goes through the gears from seductive to sinister to scary, never over doing it and managing to avoid descending into parody in a role that openly invites it. As a result she is credible and highly watchable throughout and although her Demon form may be a touch ‘on the nose’ for some, I loved the old school approach of it all, coming across as she does like a Boris Vallejo inspired monster with a butt that simply refuses to quit.
Hall meanwhile is equally convincing as both a ruthless soldier prepared to do whatever it takes and as a nervous captive, stoic yet afraid in the face of possible torture, playing his final scenes with an ambiguity that is suggestive of some dark waters that may run deep in this man.
Only Sunderland as the Nazi strikes an off note occasionally, mostly because of his delivery. Too often he is guilty of murmuring his lines into the dark, necessitating several rewinds on the DVD player to catch what it was he was actually saying. Also, while I appreciate that this is a New Zealand production with New Zealand actors, a Nazi officer really should have a German accent or at the very least not an antipodean one.
There are also some very effective yet subtle touches such as the moment when Helena’s human disguise drops slightly, the iris in one eye turning yellow and the pupil dilating to achieve a very unsettling effect. Also, the setting itself is suitably atmospheric with long, echoing corridors lit by isolated columns of light. There are also some wonderfully grizzly establishing shots of the carnage that has already been wreaked in this place as we see soldiers driven to suicide and one poor soul who was forced to swallow an automatic rifle of some sort.
So while Paul Campion may have delivered something of a mixed bag with this film, there’s enough here to warrant interest in any movies he might make subsequent to it. Given his visual effects work on sagas like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia it’s obvious that he knows how to make something look good and, despite its failings, with The Devil’s Rock he proves that he knows how to get the best out of his actors. It’s just a shame that the story was so leaden and lacking in any real drama because, had that not been the case, The Devil’s Rock could have belied its small budget and been so much more.
Some decent special effects work, gore by the spade full (literally) and good performances aren’t sufficient to elevate this film to a level above average. It’s certainly worth a look but its on-the-rails plotting and premature revelations mean that you shouldn’t go expecting any great surprises.