About twenty minutes into Devil’s Gate, you’ll likely have a pretty good idea of where you think the film is headed. A woman and child missing, a secluded farmhouse, an abusive religious zealot – it’s not hard to put the pieces together. But here’s the thing – you’re going to be wrong. Devil’s Gate is built around one outlandish twist that turns the film on its head, becoming a completely different kind of thriller. It’s a trick that turns two adequate plot lines into something much more fun to watch.
Amanda Schull stars as FBI Agent Daria Francis, who arrives at Devil’s Gate County, North Dakota, looking for Maria and Jonah Pritchard, a mother and son who’ve gone missing. There she’s partnered up with local deputy Colt Salter, Shawn Ashmore, who agrees with the sheriff that the two, more than likely just took off. Haunted by a past case gone wrong, Francis isn’t so sure, driving a search that leads them to the Pritchard farmhouse, an isolated house in the middle of a barren field. Pritchard, played by Milo Ventimiglia, has rigged the house with deadly traps, trying to keep someone, or something out.
Devil’s Gate is a film you should walk in knowing about as possible. The script by Peter Aperlo and Clay Staub, who also directs, shows a deep understanding of the genre. Staub weaves in and out of conventions, using his knowledge of horror iconography to subvert audience expectations. Devil’s Gate isn’t attempting to subvert the horror genre, but rather re-arrange the pieces in a way you’ve not seen before. The result is a film that always feels familiar enough to trick you into believing you know the next move, but unpredictable enough to make you doubt yourself.
The structure Devil’s Gate is ingeniously manipulative and that can make the film seem much more clever than it actually is. The delight of watching Devil’s Gate is in seeing your expectations upended. Aperlo and Staub seem to know this, building a narrative on twist after twist after twist. After the film’s big reveal, the impact of subsequent revelations feels diminished. By the end it’s hard not to feel like the film is straining itself to surprise you one last time. Once the shock of the film’s latest twist has worn off, we’re left with an increasingly convoluted and improbable story that feels progressively less grounded, and consequently less suspenseful.
Schull and Ashmore serve as reasonable audience analogues, suitably aghast as the scope of their nightmare unfolds. The real standout is Ventimiglia, who has always excelled at imbuing roles with a certain sense of menace and is given the opportunity to go very big here. It’s an intriguing performance that calls for something more than snarling.
The film looks very good. The set design by Réjean Labrie is wonderfully menacing, if a bit on the nose. The film features a number of digital affects done by Alchemy 24, which look impressive for a film of this size, but Devil’s Gate has the most bite when it utilizes practical effects.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Devil’s Gate is a fun little rollercoaster of a horror film. It’s a solid showcase of Staub’s talents, who manages to keep viewers on their toes. Featuring some genuinely unexpected twists, Devil’s Gate should entertain even veteran genre fans. It’s a film people should see without watching trailers, or reading spoilers. What really makes the movie fun is not knowing where it’s going to go. It doesn’t quite keep things together at the end, but even when the film is slipping off the rails, it’s never not fun to watch.