“Devoured” can be comfortably bracketed among that subset of psychological thrillers which includes under its banner everything from Jimmy Sangster’s ‘60s thrillers for Hammer to Polanski’s classic study “Repulsion”, right through to the recent “Black Swan” -- a gene type which has traditionally placed centre-stage an account of the modern female psyche as it copes (or, more accurately, fails to cope) with issues that relate to the social experience of contemporary womanhood. The tension between the neurotic need for self-actualisation and the urge to escape into a black pit of distorted fantasy often form thematic twin poles of attraction in such works, marking out an ambivalent territory which defines a particular thriller form that on the one hand systematically encourages our sympathy and understanding of its unhappy protagonists, making use of concentrated character study as one of its major hallmarks, while at the same time tending to create the impression that there’s something inherently dangerous and prone to instability that we need to be wary of in this type of female outsider: she will invariably either break so free of the life patterns decided for her by patriarchy that she spirals into a destructively insular psychosis, or else conform too rigidly to predetermined societal roles, her subsequent loss of sense of a self-hood or core identity tipping her over the edge into irrational violence fuelled by fatal delusion.
Texas-born documentary filmmaker Greg Olliver’s first directorial offering in the realm of feature pictures, sees him dealing proficiently if rather generically with these psycho-thriller fem-themes, re-working some of the well-worn motifs of the sub-genre to produce a mildly diverting effort that offers a solid lead performance courtesy of Marta Milans and a visual vocabulary that delivers a welter of atmospheric effects, tics and tropes borrowed wholesale from Asian supernatural cinema of the early Noughties. Shot with professional digital technology, “Devoured” is well-made but looks like a million other mid-priced films of a similar style and content, and seems to be ultimately rather a predictable and curiously ordinary example of a thriller type that should readily thrive on individuality and a feel for the offbeat and the strange.
Perhaps screenwriter Marc Landau, already aware that most viewers sitting down to this would probably have seen enough genre studies of isolated young women who go quietly insane in alienating surroundings to be familiar with the standard moves the form is prone to rely on, and so decided to juggle with the formula a little in an attempt to challenge our preconceptions, although the pieces he has at his disposal (and which make up the template used here), are too limited to provide for quite enough variation to be worth the effort. Certainly, most standard psychotic women thrillers usually divide themselves into three types: those in which a genuine external supernatural threat turns out to be at work (“Dark Water”); those in which everything we see turns out to be all part of the subjective experience of someone who has lost touch with reality (“Inland Empire”); or they fall into that ambiguous in-between’ category, where we’re left unsure even as the credits role how much of what the neurotic protagonist experienced really happened objectively (“The Innocents”). Another (and increasingly common) move is the one that tries to justify any strangeness or sense of isolation experienced by the lead by revealing that the central character has been dead all along (“Carnival of Lost Souls” being the best example of this type, “Jacob’s Ladder” the best known) and “Devoured” starts off by offering us that idea as a real possibility when it opens just as a NYPD detective is examining the body of the film’s heroine, after her corpse has been discovered on the floor of the high-class French themed New York restaurant at which she works nights as a cleaner.
We know from the very start, then (so this doesn’t qualify as a plot spoiler), that Spanish émigré Lourdes (Marta Milans) is going to wind up dead by the end of the picture. When we flash back to an earlier unspecified date in her life, the viewer is inclined to wonder if those spectral visitations that sometimes appear to assail her both at work and at home are merely co-inhabitants of a purgatory that has taken the guise of this unfortunate slave-to-the-minimum-wage’s twilight existence on the fringes of the Big Apple. The thought is definitely a pertinent one: for Lourdes’ final days before her demise seem already to be playing like they’re a living form of death, at least if the details of her dreary existence as detailed here are anything to go by. Having come to the U.S. in order to find work to help pay for a desperately needed operation for her sick son (Luis Harris) back home in Spain, Lourdes is forced to work evenings as a help at the restaurant bar, where she seems all but invisible to its sophisticated, well-heeled patrons. Having stoically stood by and watched the rich quaff and devour their way through expensive dishes by the dozen, Lourdes then has the rest of the night alone in which to clean and mop up after them, leaving at dawn the next day to take the semi-deserted subway home through an eerily deserted metropolis, and ending up back in her grim, one-room tenement flat where she tries to cheer herself with phone calls to her son, who is staying with his Grandmother. Greg Olliver creates a suitably intense atmosphere of loneliness and isolation, aided by Milans, who is able to combine her inherent attractiveness with the impression that her character is also a brittle, downtrodden drudge and an eternal victim, escaping the unforgiving grime and harshness of the big city by creating a dream world of sun-drenched memories about her relationship with her young son in happier times. Lourdes’ economic and social powerlessness is highlighted in the extent of the abusive relationships that surround her and dominate every aspect of her life. Her boss (Kara Jackson) verbally racially abuses and threatens her; the head chief (Tyler Hollinger) alternates between blandly issuing her kitchen instructions one second and violently sexually harassing her the next. Her position at the bottom of the pile is soon made abundantly clear to Lourdes when rich male customers start following her to the washroom in order to offer her money for sexual gratification. Unable to turn down such debasing propositions because of her desperate need for the cash, Lourdes enters into a vortex of loneliness, isolation, self-loathing and fear.
This would be quite enough grief to be going on with for most people, but things soon start getting even worse for the poor woman because, late at night, ghostly presences appear to be regularly haunting the deserted restaurant’s environs -- and they specifically have it in for Lourdes: locking her in basement rooms while she’s cleaning, pursuing her through dimly lit corridors, or manifesting as bizarre apparitions that take the form of writhing body parts in the restaurant’s refuse bags (an image clearly filched from “Audition”); even a visit to the changing room at the end of her shift results in bloody hands reaching out to claw at her from the recesses of her locker, and a doppelganger with a demonically distorted face joins the other ghastly looking ghouls all seemingly intent on making her life a thoroughgoing misery. These sinister supernatural happenings seem to escalate as the abuse from her employers and the customers gathers pace, until only a kindly nightshift worker (Bruno Gunn) Lourdes first bumps into whilst fleeing one particularly unpleasant manifestation offers any relief at all from the terror.
“Devoured” may be a fairly standard spook fest in many ways but it does deliver a few effectively creepy moments, and the way in which it plays with the subjective/objective angles concerning the truth (or otherwise) about what is really happening to Lourdes offers a relatively interesting new wrinkle on the old psycho thriller formula. We’re made privy to a supernatural event early on in the film that Lourdes herself is apparently unaware of, and the restaurant’s CCTV system is also used on several occasions to display an objective image of a spectral manifestation that she herself never directly experiences. We implicitly know, then, that there appears to be some degree of legitimacy attributable to the types of uncanny events she’s been witnessing (assuming this isn’t all some sort of “Jacob’s Ladder” purgatory experience), but at the same time, an apparently ordinary conversation that Lourdes is shown having with one of her best friends at the bar midway through the film, is eventually revealed to be a delusion when CCTV footage of it shows us that, in fact, Lourdes has been completely alone in the restaurant the whole time. This device makes us very aware very early on, that the film’s narrative is in fact made up of a labyrinthine jumble of subjective delusional and objectively real experiences, but it doesn’t let us in, until the very end, on which is which -- apart from those few isolated examples mentioned above. Although this means some aspects of the last act reveal are predictable (one plot point in particular which is made much of is actually blindingly obvious, despite being held back until the near the end), there is a good deal of tension quite successfully evoked by the idea that Lourdes may be going insane in tandem with the prospect of her also being haunted by real (and dangerous) spectral apparitions that are, for some reason, encroaching upon her life in an increasingly threatening display of supernatural menace. We can never actually be sure that most of what is experienced by Lourdes is real for most of the picture; anyone of the apparently solid, corporeal people in her life -- even her boss or the kindly nightshift worker who brings her coffee, and for whom she cooks breakfast while she offloads her troubles -- might be mere products of her imagination. Perhaps they’re grotesque embodiments of her disenfranchisement, or the latter might be the sad wish-fulfilment fantasy of someone who is a stranger in a strange land still yearning for some kind of a human connection in an unforgiving urban jungle? The pay-off, when all of these questions are answered, requires some degree of suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer (and one demonic apparition relating to Lourdes’ son, in particular requires a bit more explaining than it gets, whether or not it was real or imagined), but the events of the last night of Lourdes’ life are spun out with a crushingly bleak inevitability that nevertheless never detracts from the suspense of the situation and makes this downbeat thriller eminently watchable.
Matchbox Films bring “Devoured” to DVD and Blu-ray with a decent enough transfer and audio but with no extras apart from a trailer.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!