They just don’t make movies like Devil’s Gate anymore. The kind of earnest schlock the film immerses us in feels like it burned out in the late ’90s, smothered and extinguished by the ironic self-reference of the ’00s. An irreverent mix of genres taken completely seriously but with no small amount of fun, Devil’s Gate wears its script’s stupidity on its sleeve and allows its creature effects and committed cast to carry it throughout.
It’s easier to track the film’s procession of genres, color-coded along the way like a Candyland board, than it is its plot. Form the beginning, Devil’s Gate’s got all the camera steadiness and attention to conversational detail of a police procedural: Its blue-grey color palette captures the drably natural feel of podunk nowhere, Devil’s Gate, North Dakota, when FBI agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) teams up with Deputy Colt Salter (Shawn Ashmore) to find a missing woman (Bridget Regan) and her son. Here, rural decay is both moral and environmental.
The duo’s major suspect, whom the crusty old Sheriff (Jonathan Frakes) warns his investigators to avoid, is pious local boy (and respective husband/father to the missing persons) Jackson (Milo Ventimiglia). When the film ogles his rusty, crumbling farm, Devil’s Gate takes on the timbre of a horror film, of your Texas Chainsaw Massacres and your Jeepers Creepers-es. Barbed wire, sharpened farm implements and Ventimiglia’s burning eyes infect us with a tense kind of tetanus as we observe his bunkered fortress. When one of his many booby traps spring, we get a sense of the genre-mix we’re in store for: This is going to be the Home Alone McCallister house, except outfitted by an addled farmer.
After Schull establishes her dark, dry wit and Ashmore his puppy-doggish enthusiasm—a tried and true combo for police movie work, like splitting Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper in two—the two contest local politics that attempt to derail their search before heading out to the farm. The police procedural becomes a full-tilt thriller, a defend-the-fort horror movie, a creature feature and a contemplative, weirdly over-plotted sci-fi flick, all in quick succession.
There are certainly moments of cliché—bound to happen given so many genres covered—but with so much going on it’s hard to be bored. The relationship between the two law officers is often more refreshing than not, and their interactions with Ventimiglia’s hunched madman build deliciously to the secret he’s locked in his basement. The rest of the film is impossible to describe without revealing copious amounts of seemingly neve-rending twists and spoilers, but the moods director Clay Taub explores are bent and molded in ways both ludicrously satisfying and completely inane.
Schull runs the show with an imposing screen presence and deft physicality bolstered by Ashmore’s dedication to his completely harmless good ol’ boy. Both develop interesting bonds with Ventimiglia’s lazy-lipped The X-Files victim, whose character becomes more and more interesting as the film goes on. The fun comes in the details of the film’s storytelling and set, seeding doubt in every shadow and glee in every shocking development. Once what was presumed to be its central mystery is revealed, Devil’s Gate keeps executing its euphoric bacchanal of bizarro plot points.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s special effect work, even if I can’t in good conscious describe its context. The campiness of its goopy, malformed humanoids, with mis-spaced eyes and amphibious skin, has taken notes from the dark, not un-scientific humor of Guillermo del Toro. Some insane weather effects bridge the gap between respectability and Sharknado enjoyably, the environment of the film always buzzing with tangible questions of faith and horror. A film setting us in a farmhouse covered in booby traps, under fire by otherworldly lightning storms and infiltrated by unknown beings can’t help but be exciting when it has the freewheeling energy of a mid-’90s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink thriller. It’s a shame Devil’s Gate couldn’t help more.
Director: Clay Staub
Writer: Clay Staub, Peter Aperlo
Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Bridget Regan, Amanda Schull, Shawn Ashmore, Jonathan Frakes
Release Date: Premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter.