Fans of the Conjuring and Insidious movies will find much at which to shudder in Devil's Whisper, the new horror film focusing on an adolescent lad and his family struggling against a demonic presence. Neither winking nor sadistic toward its audience, this is humanistic horror, realistic and relatable in a suburban milieu. It ratchets up the tension as a supernatural element invades, leading to a confrontation of good versus evil in which the evil doesn't pull punches -- but neither does the good.
We begin with an abuela's antique armoire: she has passed on, bequeathing her belongings to her daughter, Lucia (Tessie Santiago), and young family. It's Confirmation time for her devout son, Alejandro -- known as Alex (Luca Oriel) -- and on that morning, intrigued by his grandmother's rustic cabinet, he finds within it a secret compartment, and within that, a small wooden box. A seamless puzzle box -- but there's something rattling around inside. After the ceremony, his game dad, Marcos (Marcos Ferraez), agrees to table-saw open his son's “gift” from grandma. In that explosive moment, something -- not tellin' what -- is released.
From eerie aerials to stark, shadowy interiors, Devil's Whisper evokes a sense of suburban dread akin to that of the original Halloween. However, rather than relying on an undeniably physical Shape, the terror here manifests from the spiritual realm. Adolescent Alex is a good if confused kid, wrestling with guilt over sneaking into 'R'-rated movies, plus “unclean” thoughts about his friend, Lia (Jasper Polish) -- but fortunately the priest who hears his confessions, Father Cutler (Rick Ravanello), not only knows what's perfectly normal for a boy; he knows what isn't, and how -- Loomis-like -- to combat it. What's haunting Alex makes a mere slasher seem like child's play, thus, under these harrowing circumstances, he's lucky to have an actual soldier of the lord on his side.
Elegantly directed by Adam Ripp from a tight screenplay by Oliver Robins & Paul Todisco (story by all three), Devil's Whisper evinces the fairly unique pedigree of being helmed by the producer of Bryan Singer's first feature (Public Access), and scripted by Todisco (whose One Day Like Rain reveals his mastery of the metaphysical), and Robins (whose storied career began by playing the boy in the original Poltergeist). You're in strong hands for a wild ride.
Thematically, while this film delves unabashedly into religious horror -- appearing plentifully: prayers, crucifixes, and an exterior angle not unlike the iconic one from The Exorcist -- other interwoven elements give Devil's Whisper a unique spin. The young, fast, and possibly out-of-control kids bespeak a fondness for teen angst ranging from Rebel Without a Cause to Heathers, and astute viewers may detect a parallel to A Clockwork Orange; our lead is even called Alex! The result is familiar, yet new: a mix of psychological and supernatural horror sure to linger after its final frame.
Hats off to production designer Mellanie Urquiza for her minimalist yet increasingly disturbing environs, and to composer Penka Kouneva, whose undulating score fills them with malaise. Inhabiting them is a uniformly solid cast, with Santiago, Ferraez, and especially Ravanello doing the heavy lifting of adulting through horror completely straight, plus they're joined by an excellent Luna Maya adding depth as Alex' concerned therapist. Kudos to Alexander Ward in the sort of role usually awarded to Doug Jones and Andy Serkis. And as the kid sister, Alison Fernandez brings heart to the proceedings -- a heart in increasing danger.
Admittedly, I'm a stickler for “rules” where the supernatural is concerned, thus some incidents here (mostly involving sidekicks credibly played by Coy Stewart, Justin Tinucci, and Benjamin A. Hoyt) raised an eyebrow. Plus there's a strong suggestion of harsh family history which may have played better if taken beyond suggestion. But it's also a relief that, unlike the unfortunate trend of interminable movies explaining themselves to death, this one delivers, then leaves you to ponder.
Taken on its own terms, there's a lot at stake in Devil's Whisper. Not all teen boys aspire to become men of the cloth, and I'm guessing it's kinda rare for their own local padre to encourage them to date girls, so they understand what they'll be giving up. “Are you...sure you want to be a priest?” entreats Lia in a shrewdly handled scene of romantic -- or attempted-romantic -- parking, encouraging Alex to be a bad boy, because that's what girls like. If only she knew how much badness he's harboring.
Devil's Whisper has been released on DVD in North America, and its VOD bow is November 14th.