ON IN CINEMAS
EIFF 2018: The Devil Outside (2018) starring Mark Stobbart
N.B. This film is not on wide release in the UK at present. It has been shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018.
Religious fervour and fundamentalism
Noah Carson plays Robert, the shy pubescent son of a devoutly Christian mother (played by Keeley Forsyth) and a more lukewarm but less assertive father (played by Alex Lowe). One day, when they pay their regular Sunday visit to the local Baptist church, they find that their regular sermons are now being conducted by a fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone type named David (Mark Stobbart). His mother becomes the first person to fall under his spell. Robert, meanwhile, befriends a tearaway boy in the congregation named Marcus (Daniel Frogson), who starts introducing him to such taboos as smutty photos and internet porn.
Under David’s increasing influence, his mother becomes more impassioned and strict to the point of throwing away a science book which he brought home from school and refusing to let him watch television. She also gets her family to take part in an evangelical parade through the town. Robert absconds from the march and visits the local wood, where he discovers a dead body with long dark hair and a beard resembling the visage of Jesus which hangs on his bedroom wall. He is convinced that what he has seen is a sign and decides to tell mother. In turn, she reveals this to David during his next sermon. The latter then uses this revelation to inspire others from the congregation to come forward and confess their sins, thus putting them further under his thrall.
Robert, meanwhile, finds himself increasingly torn between being egged on by Marcus into partaking of the usual adolescent temptations of rebellion and sexual experience - or following his mother’s path into extremist religious delirium.
The visuals far outclass the dialogue
This psychological drama, set in small-town Northern England, is handled with some flair for visual storytelling on the part of writer-director Andrew Hulme. He displays a notable flair for shot framing by using skylines in a vividly expressionistic manner and presenting his titular “devil” (a metaphor for worldly experience) in the form of flourishing, phallic-shaped fungi seen looming in the foreground. The climactic sequences are also stylistically impressive, being as they are bathed in an infernal orange light which could almost pass this off as a horror film.
Unfortunately, when The Devil Outside concentrates on acting, dialogue and characterisation, it’s on less sure ground. Let’s just say that the adjective “heavy-handed” would be an understatement when speaking of these aspects. Mark Stobbart’s David is a stereotypically glassy-eyed religious extremist and Robert’s mother is a one-note blind follower in his impassioned footsteps. On the other side of the coin, the young Marcus is a gleefully malicious little terror who swears, makes lewd remarks, unashamedly helps himself to the contents of the church collection envelope and generally comes across like a demonic possession victim from a rip-off of The Exorcist. The family dynamic between the extremist mother and her docile but clearly far less fanatical husband is equally unconvincing. How exactly did they stay together through all of these years despite their underlying differences of opinion? They feel less like real people, and more like they have been forced together in service of the necessary screenwriting mechanics.
The dramatic conflict here is so unsubtle and lacking in nuance that it ends up being more hilarious than believable. At times, I felt uncertain of how to take the film. Is it meant to be a satire? In which case, why is it presented with such a patently straight face? Is it meant to be a serious exploration about the effects of over-applied religious dogma on a child? In which case, why is it handled in such an artificially simplistic manner?
These weak and tonally confusing elements are all the more of a shame because there are genuinely engrossing central threads running through the film. Firstly, there is the inner conflict which Robert goes through as the dogma forced upon him proves to be fundamentally irreconcilable with the harsh realities of the world outside. Secondly, there is some exploration of the sad personal circumstances which can drive people into the waiting arms of extreme forms of religion. The climactic scenes are also disturbingly effective because they deploy Andrew Hulme’s aforementioned impressive visual handling of the symbolism instead of his rather cack-handed way of presenting it through dialogue. According to the review on the Variety website, The Devil Outside was inspired by Hulme’s own experiences of a fundamentalist religious upbringing, so he clearly has a considerable claim to validity when discussing such subject matter. With that in mind, it is difficult to understand exactly why his general approach here comes across as being so ham-fisted and comic.
Runtime: 103 mins
Dir: Andrew Hulme
Script: Andrew Hulme
Starring: Mark Stobbart, Keeley Forsyth, Alex Lowe, Noah Carson, Daniel Frogson