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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.25.18] horror thriller drama

Andrew Hulme's second feature is an intense psychological thriller with elements of horror, a film about faith and madness. It's a singularly strange piece, not entirely successful, but curiously thought-provoking and haunting nonetheless. For the first half I was riveted, but as the film progresses it struggles to find itself and often feels uncertain, becoming repetitive before ending on a frustratingly false note. There are so many interesting ideas here, and the performances and eerie cinematography all work well; it's an easy film to admire, but perhaps not to actually watch.

Robert (Noah Carson) is a teenager living in a small English town, the kind of place where the 1970s never really went away, all abandoned factories and prefabricated Vic Hallam houses and schools. His mother is a fanatical evangelical Christian, his father a passive and ineffectual shadow, while Robert himself is quiet, shy and naive. This family have a lot of tense dinners together during which very little is said as the clock ticks noisily on the mantelpiece.

At church one Sunday, a young lay preacher speaks passionately about the terrible state of the modern world, about people's lack of pride in being Christian - he admonishes the congregation for feeling shame in having faith in a world full of apathetic agnostics and militant atheists. This is David (Mark Stobbart), a recovering addict and born-again believer. His sermon touches Robert's mother deeply, and she invites him to spend time with her family. Robert meets Marcus, another teenager who's new to the church. Marcus (Daniel Frogson) is rebellious and cynical, more interested in pornography than prayer. He and Robert begin spending time together.

Beyond the above, their isn't a whole lot of plot to The Devil Outside. As David's influence over this unhappy family takes over, Robert finds himself alternating between questioning his faith for the first time, before finding it renewed, while his mother falls deeper into her own faith, allowing it to completely consume her. Marcus opens Robert's eyes to the temptations of sex and alcohol, but when Robert discovers a gruesome 'sign' from God in the woods near his home - the decaying corpse of a homeless man who bears a striking resemblance to the Christ figure - he suddenly find himself desperately seeking forgiveness and acceptance. At night, a spooky portrait of Christ stares mournfully at him from his bedroom wall, and he has visions of people creeping into his room to deliver strange messages.

The film often feels as though it's operating on the level of dream logic, containing vaguely hallucinatory sequences and strange motifs, such as that of doubles (we repeatedly see two moons floating in the sky, the two conflicting sides of Robert's emerging personality take physical forms), but it's the moments which take place firmly in the real world which move things along. A protracted scene in the church during which David encourages his flock to openly and publicly confess stands out as probably the best scene in the film, as ordinary people suddenly begin to weep en masse as they release pent-up feelings of guilt over various sins - this scene is made even more effective when some of the congregation leave in outrage and disgust at this display. Similarly, when Robert starts to learn about evolutionary science at school, his mother tosses his textbooks in the trash and refuses to discuss the issue: "Why would anybody want the mystery and wonder taken away?"

Although there is a rhythm to the film, there isn't much in the way of momentum. Robert becomes increasingly alienated from his mother, and his parents' relationship becomes fractured and unstable, but the film doesn't really position itself morally on these events. David may be sinister, but there is nothing inherently wrong with his desire to rejuvenate the church, and while both he and Robert's mother may be misguided in many respects (Robert is forbidden even from watching television), at no point are we invited to laugh at these characters.

The film's tone is sombre and detached, and while it's clear that Marcus represents temptation, and even Satan himself during certain moments, we're never quite sure what's real and what's imaginary.

Themes of faith, adolescence and religious indoctrination, and the conflict they can generate, have been horror movie staples for decades, even before The Exorcist, and while it's tempting to compare The Devil Outside to recent films like Hans-Christian Schmid's Requiem, or Carol Morley's The Falling, the film I'd put this one on a double-bill with would probably be Philip Ridley's The Reflecting Skin. The Devil Outside is not as... well as totally bonkers as Reflecting Skin (and I doubt it'll be celebrated and remembered in the same way), but they both contain a poignant sense of sadness and despair, as though whatever becomes of these characters they are all destined to live lives of profound unhappiness. The films also share a similar sense of psycho-geography, their rural setting appearing at once beautiful, and profoundly unsettling.

It's a shame the film never quite realises its potential. As Robert's mother, Keeley Forsyth gives a wonderfully understated performance (it's a role which could easily be played over-the-top), and Frogson as Marcus does an excellent job in selling his character's loathsomeness and duplicity. In the role of David, Stobbart manages to creep us out, but never oversteps the mark, and the result is an agreeably realistic portrayal of a man once broken by his addiction to drugs and alcohol, who has found a new obsession in God.

Ultimately, the film feels vague and indirect, so much so that when we reach the ill-fittingly melodramatic denouement, it feels wildly out of place. In a film which otherwise revels in its unwillingness to take the material in any one specific direction, why settle on hysterics? It felt as though we'd been asked to take this film very seriously, but then we get hit in the face with a custard pie, and we can't believe we fell for it.

The Devil Outside, then, is worth checking out if you're in the mood for a sombre British reflection on faith, insanity and questionable parenting techniques (and hey, who isn't?), and to observe some fine performances. I felt there was more it could have done with its premise, but I am glad I saw it.

There is no trailer for The Devil Outside.

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