Clay Staub’s directorial debut, Devil’s Gate, is a slick horror/sci-fi flick that, from the first scene, demonstrates with its gorgeous cinematography that you’re in competent hands. Puffy, low-hanging clouds pack the pale blue sky and frame a sepia landscape, where a vintage sports car barrels down a long, flat, barren country road toward a seemingly abandoned farmhouse. The film remains beautifully shot throughout, and the special effects soon match the photography's grandeur, but what follows that first scene is a hodgepodge of genre-film tropes — a hard-nosed FBI agent challenging the local police, an outsider lunatic defending his home, religious sacrifices and even alien invasions — that make it seem as though Staub and co-writer Peter Aperlo were reaching for 10 Cloverfield Lane or Devil but came up empty when crafting their own twists and turns. Great setup; no payoff.
Milo Ventimiglia of This Is Us fame plays Jackson Pritchard, a mysterious, dimwitted yokel who inhabits that country house from the first scene. His wife and child have disappeared, and FBI agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) comes to town to school the local police, including Colt (Shawn Ashmore) and Sheriff Gruenwell, who’s played by the perfectly paternally condescending Jonathan Frakes, aka Star Trek’s William T. Riker.
In a cardinal sin of genre filmmaking, Staub lets his audience figure out the twists before his characters do, all while he over-explains the plot. Francis is an Agent Scully skeptic type, who, even when faced with firsthand evidence, frustratingly cannot and will not believe in the supernatural or otherworldly she finds in the house. Staub might have sold Francis’ stubborn skepticism for much longer if he’d focused on building any of these characters’ backstories or inner lives.
Clay StaubMilo Ventimiglia, Bridget Regan, Amanda Schull, Shawn Ashmore, Javier BotetPeter Aperlo, Clay StaubIFC Films