Harbouring a taste for British horror, I was introduced to Drew Cullingham when I watched his ambitious vampire film with a western lilt – Umbrage: The First Vampire. Though not perfect, it exhibited enough originality for it to be of some interest to a horror dweeb such as myself, and coupled with the informative extras laden DVD it was certainly a keeper to be filed in the ever expanding section of ‘shows potential’.
For his latest feature The Devil’s Bargain, Cullingham seems intent on pushing the envelope of ambition and inventiveness even further as he presents a film shot using an experimental ‘pinhole’ technique which indeed provides it with a unique look. Shot over four days, the film is set it 1974 and observes the lives of Adi (Jonnie Hurn) and Ange (Chloe Farnworth). We begin with the whirr of home movie footage as we learn of the tragic death that befell Adi and Ange’s son, tragically killed in a William Tell orientated childhood prank gone wrong.
With Earth about to be obliterated by an asteroid hurtling towards it, our haunted couple decide to head into the country to live out the planet’s final days in the location their son was conceived with the hope of finding some solace. As the pair rekindle their affinity with the picturesque location, their contentedness is punctuated occasionally marital tensions coming to the fore such as each other’s role within the relationship. All the time however, the nagging idea that they’re being followed seems apparent with the pleasing soft pinhole focus being interspersed with the stark black and white stills of a photographer’s camera.
Indeed, during some post-coital reflection Adi spots Luca (Dan Burman) lurking in the bushes taking pictures. He challenges him, but eventually with Ange professing that “nobody should have to face the end alone” they decide to spend the final few hours of humanity in each other’s company. Luca seems initially to be a free spirited soul with ideas rooted in artistic expression, but as they spend more time together secrets come to the fore, and the impending apocalypse becomes an afterthought compared to the new challenge that they are faced with.
The Devil’s Bargain is a film that defies pigeonholing into a specific genre. Part drama, part psychological nightmare, all set in the wake of a pending apocalypse. It’s an ambitious idea, but despite this the film seems grounded in a resolute simplicity which in my opinion is the driving force behind its success. Cullingham’s debut feature was often criticised for struggling to reach the heights of his aspirations, here though is the perfect example of how a filmmaker develops and manages to retain their ability to put their ambition onscreen whilst at the same time preventing themselves from overstretching.
The pinhole technique works successfully, particularly in the respect of the glowing orange sky that manages to be a continual reminder of the imminent doom. Elsewhere it gives us soft images with muted colours that fit perfectly with the mid-70s setting of the picture. In a year that gave us A Field in England – a memorable British feature set in the countryside and filled with madness and chaotic forces, who’d have thought that by the year’s end we’d have another, and from a similarly inventive English filmmaker.