Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 2, 2014, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

No one actually gets eaten in Devoured, but you may wind up gobbling your fingernails by the time Greg Olliver’s film is done. The movie takes its time getting to the scary stuff, but the wait is worth it—and compelling in its own right.

As much as a horror film—and certainly not the schlocky type suggested by its trailer—Devoured is a character study of a woman struggling against a world in which all odds, and other people, seem to be against her. Lourdes (Marta Milans) is a cleaning woman at a fancy downtown Manhattan bistro who sends every dollar she can back home to Mexico, where her young son Oliver is living with her mother and awaiting a desperately needed operation. She works hard and doesn’t plead for sympathy, and certainly doesn’t get it: her boss Kristen (Kara Jackson) is a domineering monster who’s getting it on with the chef, Billy (Tyler Hollinger), who nonetheless has no compunctions about getting handsy with Lourdes. She also has to deal with the occasional leering male customer, and the scary types she encounters on the subway while traveling to work in the pre-dawn hours. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the basement cooking/storage area may be haunted.

Olliver and screenwriter Marc Landau lay on the oppressive forces tormenting Lourdes a little thick, when her family situation, and especially Milans’ terrific performance, are more than enough to get us on her side. The Spanish-born actress, who’s done TV in both her home country and the U.S., brings a quiet power and raw yet controlled emotion to her first feature-film lead, conveying an inner strength that gets Lourdes through her sometimes miserable days. All is not completely bleak; she meets a nice guy, Frankie (Bruno Gunn), who gets off his shift just as she’s starting hers and starts joining her for before-hours coffee and breakfast. But at the same time, the signs that something supernatural is going on are getting stronger…

Or are they? Olliver and Landau cue us in by the half-hour mark that Lourdes has a fairly active imagination, and running shots of the restaurant’s closed-circuit video monitors suggest that certain things she sees are not actually there. It’s the time-honored scenario hinging on whether what Lourdes is seeing is real or all in her mind, and Devoured pulls it off because that question is secondary to the drama. What’s crucial is how Lourdes deals with it, and whether she will persevere in the face of her torment and hang onto her sanity. While doling out a few well-timed jolts, Olliver focuses most of the movie on emotional rather than visceral intensity, in which the potential for Lourdes’ mind to crumble is more unnerving than any specifically revealed ghost.

He and Landau aren’t all about making the viewing experience a complete downer, though, and they find time for telling, well-observed moments of humanity, as when Lourdes reuses a carelessly lost greeting card she finds in the restaurant to send to Oliver for his birthday. The director has a good eye for detail in general, zooming in tight on assorted foodstuffs being chopped and minced to establish the bistro as a place where things are ground up and consumed, and he and cinematographer Lyle Vincent (who went on to shoot the Elijah Wood productions Cooties and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) catch different kinds of sinister atmosphere in the basement and other threatening environments that make up Lourdes’ world. Carly Paradis’ ominous music and Rich Bologna’s jittery sound design also do a lot to immerse you in it.

After stirring up all kinds of psychological unease for the first hour or so, Devoured takes a dip into the more concretely horrific in the final act, when what’s really plaguing Lourdes is revealed. The change in emphasis is legitimately shocking rather than jarring, though, as it plays fair and pays off on clues that have been previously dropped, and the ultimate payoff is all the more horrifying for proceeding so logically from what has gone before. It’s the kind of conclusion that spurs the viewer to go back and see how it was all set up, and that—along with Milans’ performance—makes Devoured a movie worth watching more than once.

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