In the upcoming horror thriller “The Devil Below” from director Brad Parker an abandoned Appalachian mining town holds a dark and deadly secret. Back in the 1970s the tight community of Shookum Hills was decimated by what was ruled an “environmental disaster”. As a result the town burned to the ground and as many as 1,000 miners and their family members vanished. Now it’s as if the town and the events that occurred there has been wiped off the map and from everyone’s memory.
Parker has spent most of his film career working as a digital artist and special effects supervisor. His only other directorial effort was 2012’s “Chernobyl Diaries”, a not-so-good horror film built around an intriguing premise and an eerie setting. Similarly “The Devil Below” has a setting that grabs you and Parker soaks his film in atmosphere. And while it does stumble with a couple of head-scratching character choices and some all-to-familiar genre moments, there’s more than enough mystery and fleet-footed tension to keep things fun and entertaining.
Will Patton has turned into one of my favorite character actors – always reliable and well-tuned to whatever movie he’s in. Just last year he brought a great presence to two of my favorite 2020 films, “Minari” and “Blood on Her Name”. Here he appears in the prologue as Paul, a foreman for the Shookum Hills Mining Company. In a brief but well shot opening, we see him lose his son to something (emphasis on THING) from deep inside the mine. Wounded and incapacitated by the creature, all Paul can do is helplessly listen to the screams of his son from the depths below.
Jump ahead to current day and we’re introduced to Ariana (Alicia Sanz), a strictly business expedition guide who scouts out hard-to-find locations and leads her paying clients to their destinations. She’s hired by Darren (Adan Canto), an Oxford-funded leader of a research team anxious to uncover what really happened at Shookum Hills. Darren is a man of science who scoffs at anything that can’t be logically explained. This causes him to butt heads with team member Shawn (Chinaza Uche), a geologist and the one member of the group who embraces the possibility of the supernatural. Other team members are Terry (Jonathan Sadowski), an annoying but skilled tech guy and Jamie (Zach Avery) who handles the vaguely defined “security services”.
Parker takes his time setting things up, spending much of the first thirty minutes or so building up atmosphere and setting the film’s tone. That’s helped immensely by DP Morgan Susser’s camera and the foreboding score of Nima Fakhrara. These early scenes follow the team as they venture deep into the Appalachian hills led by Ariana who believes she’s narrowed down the location of the now uncharted ghost town. They get no help from the cryptic locals, the kind who clearly know more than they want to share. Among them is Patton’s Paul. “I want them gone“, he grumbles about the nosy out-of-towners. “No matter what it takes.”
Of course the researchers don’t heed the advice of the locals, eventually finding their way to the hull of Shookum Hills. They hilariously miss evidence that the town may not be so vacant (burning kerosene lanterns, mowed green grass, etc.) and they press on until they find the mine and disturb the ghastly secret that lies deep within it. What follows is a pretty familiar survival horror formula – a group running for their lives and being picked off one-by-one. But the story is kept interesting through its brisk pacing and Parker’s ability to not only build tension but sustain it. It’s also helped by some of his visual choices. The grainy night vision and occasional handheld camera sometimes make things hard to decipher, but he nicely utilizes the setting and captures a steady sense of claustrophobia in the second half that’s pretty harrowing.
“The Devil Below” is very much a genre film which both helps and hurts. But overall Parker along with screenwriters Stefan Jaworski and Eric Scherbarth have their own vision and they hit their target, delivering a moody and absorbing horror-thriller that keeps you locked in from start to finish. Good performances fill out the under 90-minute runtime, keeping our focus forward and leaving little time to question the logic of what we’re seeing. It does leave some of the characters too thinly sketched, but the story has just enough grit and suspense to keep things entertaining. “The Devil Below” premieres March 5th is select theaters and on VOD.
VERDICT- 3.5 STARS