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“THE DEVIL’S HAND” (Movie Review)

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Where’s Ernest Borgnine when you really need him?

For those young ’uns who aren’t aware, Borgnine played the religious leader in DEADLY BLESSING, the last major horror feature to take place in an Amish-esque community. In that film, the congregation were known as Hittites, while THE DEVIL’S HAND doesn’t assign them any specific denomination at all, as if fearing to offend anyone. That’s not the only way in which the film is timid; despite a plot that mixes a slasher saga with hints of the supernatural and a fairly high body count, director Christian E. Christiansen and scripter Karl Mueller seem reluctant to fully commit to making a horror flick.

DEVILSHANDREVTHE DEVIL’S HAND, which sneaked into a few theaters last weekend more than two years after it was shot and following a bunch of title changes, is set in New Bethlehem, where six baby girls are born late one night on the sixth day of the sixth month. Before you can say “Book of Revelation,” Elder Beacon (Colm Meaney), who rules the town with a metaphorical iron hand, arrives to slay the infants to fend off a prophecy that one of them will grow up to be the satanic “Drommelkind,” but is successfully opposed by one child’s father, Jacob (Rufus Sewell). Almost 18 years later, the girls’ pivotal birthday (according to that prophecy) is coming up, and someone who dresses like the killer in SCREAM, minus the ghostface and plus Argento-esque black gloves, starts employing a scythe to make sure they don’t reach legal age.

Meanwhile, Jacob’s daughter Mary (Alycia Debnam Carey) has been suffering seizures full of foreboding flash-cut imagery, and one might think she’s been watching too many black-metal music videos and title sequences of movies like this one, except of course the New Bethlehem-ers shun all such modern media. Certainly, the girls haven’t seen SCREAM, with its warnings about how to react in a stalk-and-slay scenario, since when the murderer takes off after them, they never flee to the right place. One poor, misguided lass, set upon in the woods, actually climbs down into a well, hanging precariously by the rope, instead of running to the nearby town. She is, needless to say, the first to go, and from there the movie settles less into horror territory than into a pokey whodunit, crossed with a coming-of-age story as Mary begins realizing that her sheltered life in New Bethlehem isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and rebels against it.

THE DEVIL’S HAND looks nice, thanks to Frank Godwin’s cinematography, and has some talented actors in it, including young leads Carey, Adelaide Kane and Leah Pipes (though the latter looks about 10 years too old for her role) and Meaney, Sewell and DEXTER’s Jennifer Carpenter. Meaney gives good fire and brimstone as Elder Beacon, but Sewell doesn’t have enough to do and Carpenter is stuck in the one-note role of Mary’s strict, disapproving stepmother Rebekah, who wears a perpetual scowl and is handy with an ax and a cleaver (and is thus clearly not the mystery villain). And they’re all stuck with dialogue that struggles to find a balance between everyday vernacular and stilted Old World-speak, in a story that has vague ideas about religious paranoia and conflict with the secular world, yet can’t deliver them in a coherent or compelling manner.

The long release delay, and trio of credited editors, suggest a lot of work was done to fashion something workable out of THE DEVIL’S HAND. What’s left, though, plays more like a CW-style teen melodrama than a serious theological terror film, especially when Mary begins hanging out with Trevor (Thomas McDonell), a boy from the next town over who just happens to be the son of the local sheriff. The movie seems more devoted to their lovey-dovey subplot than to exploring its own darker sides—including developing insinuations that Elder Beacon is a perv in addition to being a zealot. Then, at the very end, it finally remembers it’s a horror film and delivers a suitably spooky conclusion; but all the blood and thunder of the last few minutes serve mostly to point up how half-hearted the previous 80 are.

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Ken Michaels
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