Strange, immediately after hearing the news of Tobe Hooper’s death, to begin the day at FrightFest with a film whose opening pays full and glorious homage to Hooper’s most famous and influential film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). For the prologue to writer/director Clay Staub’s feature debut Devil’s Gate shows a young man (Adam Hurtig) driving in the American hinterland, when his car breaks down right in front of a boarded-up farmhouse with derelict barn in what is otherwise the middle of nowhere. This property’s similarity to the Sawyer home from Hooper’s film is made complete by the low-angle follow shot that tracks the man’s approach to the property. He is, as the genre-savvy viewer guesses, heading to his doom. For he will fall into one trap, only to step back and land in an even bigger one – and this forms the perfect introduction to a film that will repeatedly wrong-foot even the savviest of viewers with its misdirections and mergings of subgenres.
FBI Special Agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) arrives in the rural town of Devil’s Gate, North Dakota, under something of a cloud – or under two actually. In her last case she had managed to locate a missing girl, only for the girl to commit suicide in front of her – and now, with a lightning storm brewing overhead, she is again investigating missing persons. For Maria Pritchard and her young son Jonah disappeared recently from their home – the house in the film’s prologue – and Maria’s husband Jackson (Milo Ventimiglia), who has a hair-trigger temper and a history of violence, is in Daria’s mind the obvious suspect. Daria rides out to the property with local deputy Conrad ‘Colt’ Salter (Shawn Ashmore), fully assuming that she will be making an arrest. Jackson is not welcoming, and a tense stand-off unfolds – but as Daria discovers Maria’s car still on the property, and wonders why Jackson has the house booby-trapped and the door to the basement locked and barred so securely, the heavens finally open above, bringing a storm upon the house the likes of which this special agent has never seen before. From here on in, the film takes Daria’s – and our – expectations through several 180° turns, as it finds three different genre frames through which to tell essentially the same story of family, property, incursion and bad blood, and leaves us wondering whether what has happened to this god-fearing clan is domestic tragedy, divine intervention or just part of a more universal history of evolution and interbreeding.
To say much more would be to spoil – but this very accomplished film, with its atmospheric use of location and its excellent performances, introduces Staub as a talent fully formed.