- Oh, this won’t end well…
Pregnancy horror exploits our fears of a particularly vulnerable and emotional time. The movies never feature parents expecting their fifth child: it’s always their first, when the pressures to be a good provider and caregiver are especially strong because you don’t really know what you’re doing or what to expect. Is it normal for her to eat raw meat? Rosemary’s Baby, both Ira Levin’s novel and Roman Polanski’s film adaptation, is the genre’s ur-text, though few successors have adopted its Big Apple-specific subtext: that New York City is an historically evil place that, by the late 60s, was returning to its sinister roots.
The Devil’s Due, which opened Friday to $9 million (though it reportedly cost less than that to make), is pregnancy horror not for the de Blasio era but the age of Paranormal Activity: it’s a rough retelling of Rosemary’s Baby in the suburbs, impossibly assembled from myriad camcorder and surveillance sources. It’s also this January’s requisite sojourn into Satanism, following last year’s The Devil Inside or The Rite from earlier in the decade. Both of those films are undone by their excessive religiosity, as are almost all movies about demonic possession since The Exorcist created the template. But Devil’s Due downplays its Christian concerns until the religious overtones become undertones. Instead, writer Lindsay Devlin and directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett embrace the domestic drama at its core.
They get a lot of help from the talented leads, Allison Miller and Zach Gilford, who help make this feel like a well-acted family drama with just an ambience of horror-suspense. We meet them the night before their wedding, which they spend together despite the tradition that forbids it, a rather secular violation that sets off a run of bad luck, particularly the last night of their honeymoon, when a trip to a Santo Domingo discotheque in a cave ends with them blacking out, snippets of Satanic ritual on their camcorder (from which the bulk of the film is sourced, his diary of the new family), and then waking up in their hotel, oblivious to the previous night’s Prince of Darkness impregnation. Six weeks later, her at-home pregnancy test shows a line, because no birth control pill can overpower Beelzebub’s baby batter; the subsequent eight months find her and her body engaging in increasingly troubling behavior, not least of which is eating raw meat right out of its styrofoam container, right in the supermarket aisle.
There’s some such gore and gross-outs in The Devil’s Due, but also well-directed scares, like the first-person tracking shots through dark upper floors of a house that are truly wrenching. But the film’s most wrenching moments are those between our heroes, an adorably loving couple; at the climax, all the devil-cult histrionics are stripped away, and they engage with one another like real, caring people; the scene, and many before it, boasts a sincerity to which most of the movie’s peers could never lay claim. It’s this sort of emotional legitimacy that makes or breaks the film—not, its makers are smart enough to know, the coherency of its backstory, which they fill-in cursorily.
The couple’s problems are pinned on “early religion,” a “dissident sect” that wanted to take down the early Catholic Church. That its practitioners are Dominicans suggests several possible interpretations: it’s about the wickedness of Caribbean indigenes, or the revenge of touristed-upon natives? Or perhaps, because the film is deliberate to show us the first cathedral constructed in the New World, with its statue of Columbus outside, it’s the revenge of the autochthonous peoples across centuries. Or, you know, maybe it’s nothing at all except the often subtle, spooky and sad (and vaguely racist) story of two people with the worst luck.
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