This ultra-low budget effort from independent writer-director (and editor) Sean Hogan merges the crime and horror genres in interesting ways while making use of the most extreme back-to-basics approach to the mechanics of terror it can get away with. “The Devil’s Business” is a festival favourite which recalls Ben Wheatley’s excellent “Kill List” with its ‘paid killers stumble into secret world of Black Magic’ theme, but has been, in actual fact, paired down even further to the bone in terms of budget and stylistic approach. For most of its running time, this could have easily been a creepy, dimly lit theatre offering –just two guys in a room talking, with the entire cast of this seventy minute mood piece only amounting to five people in total. Everything comes down to how successful Hogan and his tiny cast of players are in pulling us into their imagined world of contract killings and diabolical Black Magic rites merely by using the power of suggestion generated with convincing performances. Thankfully, they do a pretty good job, although the budget still tells in the end, and this does ultimately feel more like a 1980s TV drama in style than a modern cinematic drama. Anyone going into this expecting the finely wrought tension and atmosphere of the Wheatley film will probably feel just a little short changed; take it for what it is though – a creepy, suggestive drama powered by thoughtful characterisation and good performances – and you’ll come away from it feeling very glad you invested your time in this nicely conceived tale of damned souls adrift in a modern purgatory of mundane suburban surroundings.
The set-up sees two hit men employed by irascible cockney crime lord Bruno (Harry Miller) to take out a rival by the name of Mr Kist (Jonathan Hansler) because: ‘he has something of mine and I want it back’. They arrive at the target’s unassuming semi-detached under cover of darkness and wait in his tastefully ordinary dining room whilst Kist (who is described as ‘a man with the look of a corpse and a handshake to match’) is enjoying a night out at the opera (Charles Gounod’s ‘Faust’ – what else?). It should be a straightforward job for veteran hit man Mr Pinner (Billy Clarke), even if he has been paired up with rookie opportunist Gordon Cully (Jack Gordon), a reckless young man who doesn’t seem to have fully considered what it means to be a hardened killer beyond the money he’s liable to earn from such a gig. The newbie is already freaked out by the fact that there’s a skinned sheep’s head placed incongruously on a dinner platter in the middle of the room, suggesting some unusual habits fill the days of the apparently urbane Mr Kist. During their lengthy wait, Pinner relates a strange tale about another hit he once performed for Bruno on a beautiful exotic dancer called Valentina, who worked at one of his boss’s nightclubs, and tells how her dressing-room mirror was thereafter judged by many to be haunted. But before the tale comes to its conclusion a sudden clatter from nearby interrupts Pinner in his tracks. The two assassins tentatively venture out to the lock-up garage abutting the house, but find amid the usual junk and clutter one would expect to occupy such an environment, a pentagram chalked on the floor with the bones of a small animal of some kind placed deliberately at its centre. On the walls there are painted occult symbols and inscriptions, and ancient books of spells litter the floor. Then the two paid killers find something else in a discarded cardboard box: something which makes even these two seen-it-all cynics -- who are prepared to commit murder for money with no questions asked – begin to fret over just what they’ve unwittingly got themselves involved in, and to fear for their lives …
With the action confined to just a handful of ordinary rooms and their unassuming surrounding locales, and little in the way of special effects to help out (even the small amount of prosthetic work which is attempted for the conclusion was probably ill-advised in the end, since it fails to convince and risks spoiling the atmosphere that’s already been successfully built up by this point), this film needs to find other ways of generating its mood and of implying a sense of anticipatory dread and unease. Hogan has opted for a reliance on his writing skills and the ability of his actors to carry the load. Pinner’s eerie monologue for instance, skilfully delivered by actor Billy Clarke as the camera pans in slowly on his haunted gaze, is the first instance we get that there’s a supernatural undertone to what appears up until that moment merely to be a wry crime story in which a callow young newbie is broken-in by a hardened cynic who’s soul has died during the time he’s been doing this job without his even noticing. Both actors play off each other very convincingly for the first half of the movie, and there’s a very nicely understated comic undertow to their banter which offsets the macabre elements of the screenplay without undermining them (‘what’s a “homunculus”?’ asks Cully, nervously leafing through one of the Black Magic texts; ‘is it Latin for ‘bender?’). The second act sees the diabolic and the irrational impinging on the order Pinner in particular assumes to structure his reality, and which he’s always used previously to inform a world view that’s really more a justification for his emotionally cauterised and deadened attitude to the ‘work’ he carries out -- but even then it manifests itself in a relatively subtle, yet at the same time striking and undeniable, way. The conclusion arrives at a destination which draws together some ideas which have up till then only been obliquely implied or mentioned in passing during the body of the film, but it is here (with a scene that seems to reference Dario Argento’s “Phenomena”) that it slightly lets itself down over makeup effects that aren’t able to fully deliver on their promise.
Nevertheless this is an intriguing, nicely delivered tale of insinuating supernatural order disrupting the hardened milieu of a group of practiced cynics and bringing unpredictable consequences. Harry Miller and Jonathan Hansler ably fulfil their roles in it as the twin polarities that represent these opposing dichotomies: the bullish, no-nonsense crime lord and his Crowley-esque sophisticate of an opponent. “The Devil’s Business” is a likable micro-budget offering from a promising young indie writer-director who, with a little more money at his disposal, will surly have a good deal more to offer the genre in the future. This is an interesting attempt at traditional ghostly storytelling surrounded by the conventions of a contemporary crime thriller, and it is well worth giving it a chance.
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