Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Film Review: The Devil's Rock

There is a popular strain of pseudo-history involving the Nazis and their fascination with the occult. Indeed, under the technical modernity of Nazi Germany lay a strange mix of 19th-century anthropology, ancient Teutonic myths and Eastern mysticism which animated the Nazi Party's early ideology. Whether Hitler himself considered any of this seriously is up for debate, but SS Chief Heinrich Himmler certainly did. He sent out archeological teams in search of a lost super-race in the mountains of Tibet and allegedly for mythical artefacts buried in folklore such as the 'Spear of Destiny'. It is a concept that has been popularised in all forms of media. Countless books have been published on the matter, as well as notable films (Indiana Jones, Hell Boy) and videogames (Wolfenstein). In this sense The Devil's Rock treads on familiar territory.

June 5th, 1944. Two Kiwi commandos are sent to the Isle of Guernsey to sabotage a coastal gun in order to distract the Germans from the coming invasion of Europe. No sooner have Captain Ben Grogan (Hall) and Sergeant Joe Tane (Drinkwater) landed on the island than they hear screaming followed by gunfire emanating from an ominous looking bunker complex. Ignoring the first rule of any horror, curiosity gets the better of the two when they decide to investigate the source of the screams. What they discover is a lone SS Colonel (Sunderland) and a woman in chains (Varela).

It becomes apparent that the Germans under SS Colonel Meyer have been spending all their time summoning demons that "would make Jack the Ripper look like a kindergarten tale" in an effort to find the ultimate super weapon that will turn the tide of the war. Given that demons are generally wont to do however, the experiment went to shit. The action is confined to narrow tunnels and dingy bunker enclaves which are typical of the claustrophobic, fear-inducing atmospheres that horrors like to create. However, for all its gore and occasional creepiness it is actually less scary than the premise suggests. The problem, and also the strength, in The Devil's Rock is its small cast and effusive screenplay. While it detracts from the maelstrom it sets itself up to be, it transfigures into an intimate piece of drama.

New Zealander Paul Campion's debut film is actually a surprisingly ambitious commentary on war attempting to embed a tactility subtle subtext. It is natural for Nazis to be demonised in popular culture, but here there is a bit more devil in the detail. While probably not as unique as it thinks it is, The Devil's Rock alludes that where war is hell, even the 'good guys' would make a pact with the devil to achieve victory. Indeed, it attempts to cast moral ambiguity over the fairytales presented in history books by drawing striking comparisons with the film's allied 'hero', Grogan, and its villain, Meyer. Meyer makes accusations of British hypocrisy in defence of the Nazi's actions while Grogan's sadism toward Meyer is palpable, quite literally taking a page out of the Nazi's book in his effort to beat him.

Despite not being as chilling as perhaps the premise would suggest, or even as profound as it would like to think it is, Campion's debut should be commended for its ambition. Yes, Meyer has an accent that sounds like Himmler was recruiting SS members from all corners of the British Empire, and its conventional portrayal of diabolism in order to convey the ambiguities of war is hardly the cleverest thing you'll see. But The Devil's Rock still manages enough to capture one's interest - that is if you're into this sort of thing.