What to Watch Verdict
'The Devil Below' takes its purgatorial themes a bit too seriously, as the film itself feels caught in a limbo that merely exists instead of thrives.
🔥 Monster costumes (from afar).
🔥 Some deep reds.
🔥 Cavern landscapes from a postcard.
🔥 Not especially thrilling.
🔥 Short on development.
🔥 Momentum lurches instead of builds.
🔥 Falls victim to frustrating creature-feature tropes.
How can The Devil Below, an Appalachian creature-feature about abandoned, always-aflame mining systems, be so unremarkable? Based on intentional The Descent vibes, Bradley Parker's intersection of scientific data and unexplainable folklore should amount to more than scraps left behind by better woodland monster-thrillers. Barren passageways symbolize the emptiness in Stefan Jaworski and Eric Scherbarth's screenplay, which fails to imbue survivalists, mountain ranges, and narrative motivations with significance. Enjoy the same cutaway tactics before altercations and stumble-by-numbers doldrums that horror fans endure too frequently, which is quite the disappointment given how Parker's setup teases something that should be the apex of claustrophobic, fangs-out fearsomeness.
During the 1960s or 1970s, a Kentucky mining community known as Shookum Hills vanished from existence. Expeditioner Arianne (Alicia Sanz) is contracted to lead a geological investigation party towards the isolated, off-the-map location in hopes of discovering a purified resource that's supposedly been burning for years since an incident at the Shookum Hills mining site. Darren (Adan Canto) and his crew are seekers of reason, but what they discover locked within tunnel systems, kept underground by electrical grate rigs, has no logical conclusion. Not even the mine's still-living overseer Schuttmann (Will Patton) can provide answers once the troublesome trespassers stumble upon a camp of protectors, all with a united cause: ensure whatever's underground doesn't breach the surface.
What opens on a very Jurassic Park introduction, tragically between father (Schuttmann) and son, pegs The Devil Below maybe twenty-ish years into the future, although there's no definitive consensus? Neither is there a strive to develop characters beyond "The Bodyguard" (Zach Avery), "The Techie" (Jonathan Sadowski), or "The Philosopher" (Chinaza Uche). Attention to worldbuilding beyond roll-over credits sequences burning holes through CGI newspapers is superficially interested in the film's damnation story, or at least that's the sensation scenes maintain. Overall pacing, while speedy, is also wonkily bounce-about given how friend-and-foe motivations are more off the charts than seismic readings before an earthquake. We're never given a reason to care beyond generic dummies-meddle-with-unknowns milestones.
Parker struggles to make audiences feel the weight of stakes within The Devil Below. Arianne's adventurers discover a sinkhole entrance, immediately fall under supernatural attack, even more rapidly encounter Schuttmann's outpost, then are herded into the mines for a finale standoff that's less standoff and more running around cavern systems with jostle-about camera steadiness. Mutant humanoid creature suits aren't crafted for combat, given how performers are typically glimpsed in background shots flailing around as sound design clicks echolocation. It's rarely compelling, where action restricts to off-screen bursts or chases blur within shaky-frantic cinematography that rarely crystalizes an otherwise jumbled picture—even when we meet some Alien Resurrection-slash-Starship Troopers "Queen" that's supposedly a representation of Hell on Earth.
The Devil Below toys with ideas about what lies below versus our up-top normalities but lacks enthusiasm across technical aspects. The overall color palette mutes unless focus descends into the subterranean labyrinth, as orange light filters flicker synthetic suggestions of fires elsewhere. Performances are rarely engaging, especially from an Alicia Sanz who seems uncomfortable as the badass action-hero arc with a female bend. Tension escalates and deflates without control, while the experience of monsters with poison dagger-arms and bulbous noggins becomes the equivalent of dead air. A genuine disappointment because there are so many instances where I wanted my adrenaline to peak or payoffs to sway the tides, yet there's no relief. What exists on paper as this apocalyptic mineshaft disaster-piece becomes another creature-forward walkthrough that doesn't even instill the suspense or heart-racing thrills of a haunted Halloween attraction.
There's are some grave miscalculations throughout The Devil Below, and the summation is a moodless cycle through monster-flee moments that should drip granite entrapment like a waterfall. Instead, cinematography trades the intimacy of inches-wide cavern passages for widened openings that never, ever capitalize on the dread that should be like an onyx noose. Atmosphere lacks from animated ghoul faces to lacking environmental accents, presentation is drab, and performances are uninspired in this naturalistic ode to cryptid underlings that never savors a single sulfuric second of the murderous mysteries that lurk under Earth's crust. They may be ugly and toothy entities up-close, but once the shot pans backward, it's back to blandness as costumed actors do their best wiggly-arm-running impressions.
The Devil Below will be available on VOD on March 5th, 2021.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.