Sunday, September 28, 2008
THE DEVIL’S CHAIR (2006) d. Adam Mason
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
For some reason, over the past few years films about asylums, mental institutions and prisons for the criminally insane haunted by demons and other creatures of the abyss have proliferated. Even though such fare is fertile ground for a movie, dipping into the same well time after time will eventually bring forth stale water. While the well hasn’t gone sour yet, the water level is clearly getting lower and that is not likely to be a good thing. While THE DEVIL’S CHAIR precedes such recent efforts as ASYLUM, INSANITARIUM, FALLEN ANGELS and FURNACE, it is dealing with a topic that is beginning to get threadbare. The only way for a film maker to get around seeming old hat and tired is to take your film in unexpected directions and that might have been a good thing for THE DEVIL’S CHAIR to do, but instead of blazing a new trail it borrows from another source, THE DESCENT, and as a result a somewhat passable but clearly mediocre film emerges instead of something special.
THE DEVIL’S CHAIR is the story of Nick West, a lowlife who witnesses the grisly and inexplicable death of his girlfriend Sammy when they visit an abandoned sanitarium known as Blackwater Asylum. After years of incarceration for Sammy’s death in Hilden Mental Institute, Nick returns to Blackwater in the company of Dr. Willard, a man who blackmails Nick in order to secure Nick’s release in exchange for assistance on a book he is writing. Accompanying Nick and Dr. Willard is his assistant Melissa and students Brett Wilson and Rachel Fowles. It isn’t long before gruesome experiences begin again at Blackwater, putting everyone’s soul at risk.
THE DEVIL’S CHAIR starts off in an uneven manner and continues to be uneven throughout its runtime. The story is told through the eyes of Nick West and all through the film we are treated to his narration of events past, present and future. At times Nick’s commentary can be gripping, but at other times it is distracting and occasionally just plain irritating. It doesn’t help that his whispery British accent makes the audio messy and muddy far too often. The first acts of the film are created using the modern photographic philosophical plague of exceedingly fast edits, painful close-ups and miserable shaky-camera disease, all of which are meant to parallel Nick’s descent into “madness”, but it still doesn’t work. What does work is that after that prologue, the camera work improves steadily and we are treated to much more thoughtfully arranged compositions. What is especially enjoyable is the use of shifting hues, subtle shades, and overexposure blended with dense shadow to create some very atmospheric segments of the film. There were times when icy cold blues and velvety blacks coruscate across scenes providing a texture that helps to briefly erase the earlier photographic transgressions. When coupled with the dismal and scabrous interior setting rife with revolting and unsettling props, the imagery in the middle of the film is profound. Keeping this fine camera work from reaching an apex of excellence was the film maker’s propensity for using freeze frames to accentuate the feel of a story told in a series of flashbacks and scattered memories. This worked in small doses, but to have it be a regular component of the movie kept the imagery from settling deep inside the soul of the viewer and lodging there like a cold core of evil not to be expelled. What was also disappointing was that in the last act of the film, we returned to the modernist methods of shooting scenes unpleasantly, creating a symmetry of visual dissatisfaction that limited THE DEVIL’S CHAIR’S appeal.
THE DEVIL’S CHAIR’S story was just as uneven. After the initial shock to the system in the prologue designed to whet the cinematic appetite, the story wound its way through some clearer channels that were designed to establish a firm belief in the occult nature of the conflict. While the plot was building steadily, momentum was increasing far too slowly and the earlier stages of the film suffered from being slow. Once the pace picked up however, as with the camera work, there was a stretch in the middle of the film that was gripping and thought-provoking. Then in an effort to take this film away from being predictable and formulaic, the writers decided to sample the primary plot device from THE DESCENT. Nick’s traumatic experience unbalanced his mind and it is only at the end that we see that Nick is truly insane and that there is no occult explanation for the bloodthirsty acts being visited upon the other characters. It is Nick who is the demon and it is his lust for blood that must be sated. Had THE DEVIL’S CHAIR preceded THE DESCENT, this plot twist might have been novel and incredibly creative, but it comes off as totally derivative. In the end, which is worse, to be formulaic or derivative?
THE DEVIL’S CHAIR is unevenly acted but inventively cast. Andrew Howard and Elize du Toit give strong performances as Nick West and Rachel Fowles. The venerable David Gant is a little over the top as Dr. Willard, but for a while that fits the tone of the film. Matt Berry’s character Brett Wilson adds nothing to the story for he is the proverbial “jerk that must be endured”. Whether the character was scripted that way or Mr. Berry played his part in his own inimitable manner, having a “pain-in-the-ass” in your serious horror film doesn’t make it scarier, it makes it less realistic and a more difficult sell. At first glance, the casting doesn’t seem to be all that inspired but the one element that does foreshadow the eventual payoff of Nick’s insanity is that the male characters are uninteresting looking at best and downright ugly to be honest. Elize du Toit and Louise Griffiths (Melissa) are drop dead gorgeous and that is purposeful. They are part of Nick’s dementia and a creation of what his mind wants to see. At first I didn’t notice this little tidbit dropped in the literary lap, but it became a clear construct that I felt added to the complexity of the overall painting.
The bonus features menu of THE DEVIL’S CHAIR is not terribly diverse, but it is rewarding. In addition to an audio commentary featuring writer/director Adam Mason and writer Simon Boyes, there is a 58 minute featurette called “Blood, Sweat and Fears: The Making of The Devil’s Chair”. This short feature is much more in-depth than the average “behind the scenes’ documentary and for those who find this film satisfying and compelling, it will be a worthwhile venture. There are a series of auto-play trailers at the head of the feature film and a menu option in the extras that offers another series of Sony Films trailers. While not “The Great Train Robbery” of bonus features, there is enough here to satisfy those who are willing to delve into this film more deeply.
When I first went ice skating on a pond and not a rink, I was both transfixed and somewhat vexed by the uneven nature of the ice. The smooth sections offered the best skating while the rough stretches often dumped me on my backside, but the lack of consistency kept me on my toes. THE DEVIL’S CHAIR is a little like that long, lost experience. I enjoyed elements of this film and found reason to praise it, but it wasn’t a superior motion picture. It struggles with paying homage to other films, even references other works in the dialogue like HELLRAISER, DR. WHO and SCOOBY DOO, but even more problematic it ventures over well-traveled ground that is beginning to feel worn. Had THE DEVIL’S CHAIR tried to be its own project and brave its own path through the wilderness, it might have been a bit more memorable.