Bradford After Dark Review: The Devil’s Business (2011)
Review by Keri O’Shea
Evil occultists are alive and well and residing in good old Blighty, where it seems they enjoy fucking around with unwitting hitmen – at least that’s the case in a couple of instances in the horror movie universe recently, including The Devil’s Business, an as-yet little known film which I got to see recently during the Bradford After Dark leg of the Bradford International Film Festival. And, I’m pleased to say, this isn’t a bad entrant into the occult horror genre which I love so much. It has a few flaws, sure, but its ambition and sense of earnestness carry it through.
Hardened gangster Pinner (Billy Clarke), accompanied by the eager-but-completely-clueless young recruit to ‘the trade’ Cully (Jack Gordon) is out on a hit; the two men arrive at a deserted property, let themselves in – and wait, for an old associate of their boss, Bruno, one Mr. Kist (Jonathan Hansler). This isn’t going to be a good night for Kist, to put it mildly. Does he deserve it? All Bruno says is that they go way back, and that Kist is into some weird shit. Pinner doesn’t ask questions, and really, really wishes Cully would ask a few less, but by anyone’s estimation, Kist seems like an odd one. A cursory look around his house reveals a lot of books of an occult nature, and a few other things which raise an eyebrow – it’s almost a relief when he gets home, pours himself a drink, and Pinner can get on with what he’s been asked to do. But is it that straightforward? It seems that these two guys aren’t in possession of all the facts about this Mr. Kist, whom their boss was so adamant must die…
It would be disingenuous of me, I reckon, if I went any further without mentioning a certain other British movie which came out quite recently, and which shares a few similarities with The Devil’s Business. Yes, I am of course talking about Kill List, made in the same year and the same country – in which two other hitmen find themselves taking on a job which throws them into sinister circumstances they can’t control and definitely don’t understand. I can only say that I don’t know at all which of these films was written first, or if either screenplay was known to the other filmmaking team prior to shooting, and there’s no point in guessing, but I’ll say this: it must be bloody teeth-grindingly annoying to develop a screenplay, only to see something notably similar come out at more or less the same time. However, if it so happens that Devil’s Business director/writer Sean Hogan was pipped to the post by the appearance of indie sensation Kill List, he can feel satisfied that his movie surpasses Kill List, for this humble reviewer at least. The reason for this is that The Devil’s Business feels like more of a whole movie, where I felt that Kill List comprised two movies linked together rather weakly; there’s a workable back-story in The Devil’s Business, and the presence of the occult elements here feel enmeshed in the plot from the start. It doesn’t blandly spell everything out, it retains elements of mystery (occult means ‘concealed’, after all) but it felt like one consistent narrative.
The Devil’s Business has a very small cast, a challenge for any writer, and my first feelings were that the characters of Pinner and Cully had had their dialogue rather overdone – on first appearances, they came off rather cartoonish, but the script definitely improved as the film progressed, relying less on overblown, self-conscious swearing and allowing the actors to show what they could do. Clarke delivers a brilliant anecdote about his darkest days in the job, for instance, which really humanises his character. Cully stretches credibility in places – that someone like Bruno (Harry Miller) would send such a daft lad to do a job like this seems unlikely – and there are some problems with consistency in terms of, for example, how careful the two men are when they arrive compared to the errors they make soon afterwards, but the steady increase of tension helped to stage-manage this, as did the few moments of black humour, risky to go for, but great if they work. Special mention has to go to the charismatic Kist, though, whose portrayal by Jonathan Hansler is spot-on – a dulcet-toned devil if ever there was one.
Essentially, The Devil’s Business has the courage of its convictions; it enjoys venturing into the sinister subject matter at its heart, bringing something interesting to the genre as it goes, and it performs some nice tying-up of its plot lines which suggests that Sean Hogan had a good rein on his work here. As a final bonus, it doesn’t overstay its welcome either – you don’t need two hours to tell a good yarn, as this film proves.