Some of the darkest and most challenging material to emerge from the modern horror genre in the last few years has been coming out of Mexico recently, headed by Jorge Michel Grau's memorable tale of cannibalism, poverty and dispossession, the smartly allegorical “We Are What We Are”. Now, Madrid-born Argentinian writer-director Adrián García Bogliano (author of “Cold Sweat” and the “Bigfoot” segment for the recent “The ABCs of Death” anthology) might just have produced the country’s most challenging work yet with this Mexican/U.S. co-production, titled “Here Comes the Devil” (“Ahí va el diablo”) -- which, for understandable reasons, is being somewhat misleadingly marketed as yet another demonic possession picture, when in fact it’s something much more original and stranger than that.
Building from outrageous beginnings, Bogliano has the film develop into a profoundly unsettling and disturbing domestic drama, putting elements from some of the best works of Peter Weir, William Friedkin, Roman Polanski, Lucio Fulci and Brian De Palma into one giant plot-generating blender and spewing out a deliriously evil tale of forbidden sexuality that, while hinting at undercurrents of the uncanny, also wanders into some taboo areas that few other works of the imagination ever dare address so directly. For the most part operating on the knife’s edge that separates the arthouse from the Grindhouse, the film begins with some gratuitous exploitation and some shots of uninhibited lesbian sex (courtesy of actresses Jessica Iris and Dana Dorel) filmed in a style we’d more usually expect from the ‘70s works of the late Jess Franco or José Ramón Larraz in their sleazy prime. This artfully rendered girl-on-girl bedroom session gets rudely interrupted by a machete-swinging serial killer who harvests the fingers of his victims, and who comes knocking unexpectedly at the door of the uninhibited lovers late that night as if to punish them for their experimentation with non-conventional sexuality, his handiwork resulting in this garish prologue turning into an extended gore sequence encompassing the requisite sex and violence while giving every indication of having being tacked on afterwards to grab the audience’s attention, in a film that otherwise demands strict attention and has an extremely slow build during its first hour.
But it is also a scene that hints at the underlying themes of the work: a heady mix of demon-tinged religious guilt and coming-of-age sexual drama that also delves into the destructive violence unleashed by domestic abuse, while at the same time servicing the less subtle needs of the average sex n’ gore fetishist.
What follows, though, becomes an insidiously creepy trip into the darkest forbidden corners of childhood sexuality, with twisted subtexts operating through a grim examination of the relationship between parent and offspring. Set in Tijuana in the western corner of Mexico, the film introduces us to apparently ordinary holidaying couple Felix (Francisco Barreiro) and Sol (Laura Caro) and their two children Adolfo (Alan Martinez) and Sara (Michele Garcia). Twelve-year-old Sara experiences her first ever period while the family relax on the barren site of some deserted-looking planes situated on the outskirts of the city, near a mountainous region where an ancient rocky hill exerts an eerie fascination for the two children as a play area. Having dealt with this mini domestic drama in the washroom of a nearby convenience store, and explained the biological processes involved to both son and daughter (neither of whom had any previous experience of what was occurring) the parents are content to let the two youngsters out of their sight for an hour or so to explore the hillside, while they wait for them back at the car. However, the kids fail to return on time, and as the elapsed hour turns into a whole night away without explanation, the strains already existent on the adult couple’s shaky relationship are made rawer and exposed anew as they clash in a violent display of blame and shame in their cramped hotel room, as the police spend the night and the following day combing the surrounding mountainous areas.
This mysterious disappearance is presaged by some portentous imagery in which the two children are shown almost reverentially entering the mouth of a hidden cave on the hill which -- with admittedly rather heavy-handed symbolism -- is shaped like a vaginal opening. This takes place at the same moment that their parents are engaging in a torrid sexual encounter in their parked car -- an encounter which, pertinently, is prompted by the couple recalling for each other their very first (underage) sexual encounters from their early teenage years. The sexual scene is intercut with shots of the children entering the cave mouth, connecting the earlier images of menstrual blood flow on barren ground and the parents’ own obvious interest in nascent sexuality with an clearly allegorical visual symbol of sexual exploration that takes place, the parents learn later, and an area locally associated with supposedly supernatural evil and ancient beings who ‘use the bodies of humans as though they were mere shells’. Later, a shot of a torn throat gushing blood occurs in a context that returns our attention to this theme of lost childhood and forsaken innocence.
After the children are at last recovered, to great relief all round, having been found by a local policeman (Giancarlo Ruiz), wandering the hillside alone, all seems to be initially well with them. However, a physical examination of Sara at the hospital reveals that there is a faint possibility that she might have had a previous sexual experience, and the parents notice that their children both seem unusually insular, uncommunicative, sullen and secretive -- spending more time together than is usual, and apparently sharing a secret life during days in which they’ve started skipping school for the first time. A child psychologist’s assessment, based on examining similar drawings the kids made during therapy sessions after their return, progresses from mild concern to a conviction that Sarah has indeed been exposed to ‘a traumatic sexual incident’, and suspicion then starts to fall on a local oddball, trailer-dwelling warehouse worker Lucio (David Arturo Cabezud), who is thought locally to have ‘unusual predilections’ and is known often to frequent the same hillside, where he sometimes leaves candles and flowers in peculiar-looking homemade shrines.
This part of the film sees it emerge from its dreamlike “Picnic at Hanging Rock” beginnings to play more like a taut suspense drama that slowly builds tension by eliciting the clammy terror of every parent’s worst nightmare scenario and injecting it with a brutal vigilante theme, presumably inspired by Fulci’s classic giallo “Don’t Torture a Ducking” (judging by the name of the supposed perpetrator). The two child actors playing the apparently abused children are impressive here, but Barreiro and Caro bring out the inner torture and confusion of their parents (despite a morphing plotline that doesn’t have the time to stand still long enough to explicitly develop such nuances) as they seek to channel their horror and despair into murderous rage and a determination to make the defiler of their children pay for his crime. However, there proves to be a whole lot more going on beneath the surface here, and things get progressively weirder and more disturbing for the two adults as the story takes a series of increasingly uncanny turns which it is impossible to analyse and discuss without ruining the macabre experience for the viewer. Needless to say, after a previously happy-go-lucky babysitter friend of Sol’s (Barbara Perrin Rivemar) suddenly becomes a nervous recluse who refuses to even answer the phone after just one night in the company of the two kids, and bizarre poltergeist-like occurrences start to take place inside the house at night culminating in electrical disturbances and the kids experiencing seizure and levitation phenomena, Felix and Sol start to realise that something utterly beyond the realm of comprehension is happening to both themselves and their children.
“Here Comes the Devil” plays masterfully with genre expectations throughout its runtime, relying on the viewer’s familiarity with a variety of well-practised horror tropes and themes in order to better subvert expectations at the very last possible moment: Midwich Cuckoo-type child possession themes vie with imagery from “The Exorcist” and “Poltergeist” and combine in order to lead us inexorably towards a conclusion that is then roundly turned on its head to leave us dealing with a shocking final act event that raises as many questions as it answers. This is one of those films that will divide its audience between those viewers who’re left perturbed by the feeling that the film’s pay-off sacrifices sense and coherence for the sake of effect without making it clear what exactly has been going on, and those who find that the disturbing new questions it raises (and the possible barely imaginable interpretations the film’s ambiguous final moments seem to suggest) give it even more depth and replay value than standard horror movie conclusions that come all tied up with a nice explanatory bow at the end. This is genre film that deals with uncompromisingly difficult subject matter effectively in broad terms, while leaving you with a sense of unease and disquiet. The UK DVD from Metrodome provides a decent enough presentation of the 2.35:1 ratio movie, but the disc seems to be a bare bones affair with no extras included on the review copy.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!