Wednesday 15 August 2012

Demons: "The Devil's Business"

The Devil's Business, a quietly promising debut from writer-director Sean Hogan, starts as another of those two-men-in-a-room exercises that filmmakers with limited resources often issue as calling cards, but gradually comes to insinuate outwards and invoke its own malevolent cosmology. A key influence is Pinter's The Dumb Waiter: two hired killers - cadaverous Irishman Pinner (Billy Clarke), initially shot in unsettling silhouette, and his garrulous underling Cully (Jack Gordon) - have been dispatched to the home of their latest quarry by an East End crimeboss. 

Killing time before their target's return from the opera (Faust, naturally), they bicker and swap stories, either to test one another's limits or in a vain attempt to get something off their chest: Pinner has an especially haunting tale about a dancing girl, murdered at the behest of his employer, but whose spirit appears to live on after death. It's when this pair start poking around the house that things start to get really weird: evidence of Satanic activity is stumbled upon in the garage, turning what ought to have been a clean, quick hit into something else besides.

Though the freakout finale proves in thrall to one 1970s Brit horror classic the way Ben Wheatley's Kill List was to another, Hogan favours subtle effects: he knows how to make disquieting such sights as a man waving from a distance, and the sound of a loud noise behind a locked door, but more generally busies himself cultivating an atmosphere of dread out of nothing much more than long shadows, ticking clocks, and a twanging guitar score that might well send a chill down your spine if you caught it on the car radio at two in the morning while driving through the deep, dark woods.

It's true the performers take a while to bed into your psyche, but these characters are meant to be a little rough and fraying around the edges, and are only gradually revealed for what they are: sympathetic pawns in a much bigger game. Gordon makes a lively foil, but it's the veteran Clarke who takes the acting honours, fleshing out a terrifying-seeming individual humanised by a philosophical streak and a willingness to look his demons square in the eye. Bare-bones production and a pared-back running time (just 75 minutes) point up just how strong Hogan's writing is, particularly in its marshalling of the central relationship past antagonism to a point of mutual respect, just as matters take a turn for the diabolical, and the likelihood of these two men working together again is greatly, drastically reduced.

The Devil's Business opens at selected cinemas from Friday before its DVD release on September 10.

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