The Devil’s Rock

cast: Craig Hall, Matthew Sunderland, Gina Varela, and Karlos Drinkwater

director: Paul Campion

83 minutes (18) 2011
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Mark West

The Devil’s Rock

On the eve of D-Day, two New Zealand commandos – Captain Ben Grogan (Craig Hall), and Sergeant Joe Tane (Karlos Drinkwater) – are part of a mission to disable cannons and big guns on the Channel Islands. They land on the wrong beach on Forau and, after a tense experience in a minefield, come across a German fortification and hear what sounds like a man being tortured. They investigate and find a lone survivor in the base, Colonel Klaus Meyer (Matthew Sunderland), who kills Tane and captures Grogan. But it soon becomes clear that Meyer is in just as much danger as Grogan, from the chained woman (Gina Varela) who is locked in an upstairs room. Meyer, it turns out, isn’t a regular solider, but a member of an SS squad, sent to track down mystical items around the world (which leads to a lovely throwaway line, that Hitler had the Ark of the Covenant in his grasp and let it slip away), and he’s used black magic unwisely.

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A low-budget British horror film (though filmed in New Zealand and funded by the NZ Film Commission, director Paul Campion and his co-writer Paul Finch are English), this has a sheen of professionalism that is admirable – especially following some of the low-budget travesties I’ve watched recently for VideoVista. The story mixes a lot of real history in with the fakery and all of it hangs together perfectly, as does the dialogue – when these characters talk to each other, they sound like real people. The film also benefits from having a superbly staged first sequence – from the moment Grogan and Tane land on the island, and they cross the mined beach and enter the fortification, the sound design and shadows help to ratchet up the tension until the suspense is almost unbearable.

The direction is low-key and assured, with Campion making the most of his claustrophobic setting (apart from the beginning, the film takes place entirely within the fortification) and using shadows to his advantage. The image quality is consistently excellent, even in the dark, with clear detail and sharp colours and every shot – even when the camera is moving – looks beautifully framed. The sound design is nicely played too, adding real weight to the feeling of being trapped in a very, very bad place.

Although Tane does play a major part in the proceedings, for the most part this is a three-hander between Grogan, Meyer and the woman (who might or might not be Grogan’s deceased wife Helena, killed in an air-raid on London a couple of years previously). All three actors are very believable and never less than watchable, with Gina Varela perhaps having the hardest part, fluctuating between beguiling and vicious, often within the same snatch of dialogue.

The set design is excellent (moreso when you watch the making-of), as is the attention to detail and the CGI visual effects – set extensions (the big gun) and various matte paintings around (if not including) the fortification – are also nicely done. The make-up, especially for Helena, is fantastic, a real hark-back to the glory days of 1980s prosthetics and handled, in part, by the WETA outfit.

Of course, the film does have its drawbacks. Although Matthew Sunderland is a very believable Nazi, he has a very precise English accent (except for when he swears in German), whilst both Hall and Drinkwater have very distinctive New Zealand accents (though Varela, who is a New Zealander, has a very good English accent) and the difference does grate a little. Also, as befits a low-budget film, it does utilise some ‘talking-heads’ sequences and they do tend to slow the pace down, especially when Grogan and Meyer set up for a black magic ritual.

But those niggles aside, this is a terrific film, well handled and played, with a good, solid story that chugs along nicely, and the fact that it’s clearly had a lot of care and attention lavished on it, only helps. If you like dark, intelligent horror (with the odd splash of gore), you’re not going to go far wrong with this – very much recommended, and well worth catching, if you get the chance.

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On my screener copy, a making-of feature was the only DVD extra. Split into four sections – development (eight minutes, pre-production (15 minutes), production (25 minutes), and post-production (16 minutes) – this is a concise, fly-on-the-wall documentary that covers every aspect of the production except, strangely enough, the CGI work. From Campion explaining the projects origins – and taking in a brief interview with Paul Finch, and home-movie style footage showing the real-life fortifications on Guernsey that inspired the film – right up to the editing and sound design, this is informative and interesting and good fun. And, as the 1st AD discusses an argument, between Campion and his director of photography Rob Marsh, quite charmingly frank…