We here at Missile Test love a good monster movie. The Devil Below is not a good monster movie. But, we here at Missile Test also love bad monster movies. The Devil Below is not a bad monster movie, either. However, we here at Missile Test love mediocre monster movies, and The Devil Below is a mediocre monster movie. In fact, we love just about all monster movies here at Missile Test, mostly because it’s a subgenre of horror that is almost impossible to mess up into unwatchability.
Released this year, The Devil Below comes to us via screenwriters Eric Scherbarth and Stefan Jaworksi, and director Bradley Parker. It follows a scientific expedition that is trekking to rural Kentucky to find the lost mining town of Shookum Hills. In the late 1970s, the town was abandoned after a coal seam fire was ignited at the mine, à la Centralia, Pennsylvania. Or was it really a fire? Of course it wasn’t, or we wouldn’t have a monster movie.
The expedition is being led by Darren (Adan Canto), a professor of geology at Cambridge. He and his team (played by Zach Avery, Chinaza Uche, and Jonathan Sadowski) are looking for some geology stuff that will do something good for the environment. The details are never explained, nor are they needed. It would have been just as acceptable if, instead of a bunch of scientists, the group consisted of urban explorers looking to find some cool stuff. The important thing is getting the characters to the locations where bad things happen.
Darren may be leading the expedition, but the star of the film is Alicia Sanz as Arianne, a guide/climbing expert who specializes in taking people to out of the way places all over the world. Until this movie, I had not realized that rural Kentucky was as mysterious and unmapped as inner Borneo, but it is best to let things like that slide in this flick, otherwise a viewer could get hung up on the details. This is not a detail-oriented flick. It’s a monster movie. Again, getting characters to danger spots is paramount. How that happens is not.
Arianne, after some effort, manages to get the group to the mine, and soon afterwards the group learns that there be monsters down in the mine. This comes as a shock to them, but not for we viewers, as this flick already had a small body count by the time the main cast comes under threat.
The town may have been wiped off of the map after it was abandoned forty-plus years ago, but there is a dedicated group of locals that sealed off and monitor the mine, should any of the monsters escape. They are quite unhappy with outsiders coming in and messing up their containment efforts.
Here, viewers are also tasked with some substantial suspension of disbelief. The mine was owned and operated by a man named Schuttmann (Will Patton). In an introductory scene that takes place in the 1970s, we see the first emergence of the monsters, and Schuttmann is there. Then, there he is again as the leader of the locals who watch over the mine, in the year 2021. In the most generous assessment, his character was in his mid-forties in the first scene, yet here he is in 2021 showing hardly any aging. That type of narrative laziness is a feature of this film. There I go getting hung up on details, but in a film that punishes thoughtful consideration, Patton’s lack of aging stands out.
Because of the scientists’ shenanigans, the monsters have broken out of the mine and are attacking the old mining town. The action moves back underground for the final act, where we get to watch how Arianne manages to survive. No spoilers, there. It would have been very unexpected if Arianne was not the final girl.
As for Sanz, she’s a very pretty face, but miscast in the role. Her character is a Lara Croft clone, but that isn’t quite right for the film. There’s just not enough damage and world-weariness to Sanz. Instead of Lara Croft as a model, perhaps the filmmakers should have gone with an Ellen Ripley in Aliens type.
Lest I single Sanz out too much, no one in the cast shined, and Patton looked like he was there only because the check cleared.
The monsters are a nasty bunch, and something that the film did well. They could have been on screen a little more. The counterargument to that being to trust the filmmakers when they make it hard to see their monsters. They know better than any viewer how they look on film.
What keeps this film from being all that good is a lack of tension. What keeps it from being wonderfully bad is the filmmakers shied away from all extremes, whether it be in story, gore, dialogue, whatever. This is a film that would have benefited mightily from some key person, director or producer, just saying ‘fuck it.’ In the end, what viewers get is something of a timid movie that had more potential than what was in the final product. That’s hardly unique in horror, but still sad to see.
I’m going to be generous, and add The Devil Below to the Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index. It lands in the mediocre middle at #226, displacing The Pyramid.