“They want nothing from you and God help you if you try to interfere.”
It seems a little corny for husband and wife filmmaking team Lane and Ruckus Skye to begin their feature film debut with a dire quote from a 2010 census to underline the dangerous nature of people living in the remote region of Appalachia. It feels unnecessary, kind of like the drunk in The Slaughtered Lamb telling Griffin Dunne to stay off the moors in An American Werewolf in London. It’s overkill.
And then the end credits roll for The Devil to Pay and your first thought is, did that census taker make it out alive?
The film tells the story of a young woman and her son living a hardscrabble existence on a small mountain tennant farm while they await the return of the man of the house who, the wife assumes, has gone off on another bender. One day two creepy neighbors knock on their door to tell the woman she’s been summoned by the owner of her land. She’s to go alone; they will watch her son until she returns. It’s at that meeting that the wife gets her first real indication that her husband isn’t just off getting drunk, that he is on the lam after stealing from the landowner, and that if she wants her and her son to stay alive, she needs to find him and return what he took.
While it may not have the gore or high body counts that a lot of genre fans demand of their horror movies, The Devil to Pay makes up for any missing splatter spectacle by filling just about every second of its runtime with nail-biting tension. From the minute those guys show up on the porch with their message for the wife, the hook is set, deeply, and the Skye’s never give the line any slack. Even when the story seems to go off on a tangent, like when the wife makes a stop at a truly bizarre religious commune to deliver a mason jar of vitriol (sulfuric acid) that they need for their ‘baptism’ ceremony, the tension stays cranked up to 11. (And the way that the directors bring the story back around to the cult towards the end is near perfect.)
While there is a lot the directors do to get the movie under your skin, including everything from some strong editing to a haunting score, it is the performances of the actors that sell the story effectively. Danielle Deadwyler (Watchmen mini-series) is jaw-droppingly good as the mom, Lemon Cassidy. There’s a natural beauty to watching her with her child in the opening scenes before the creeps arrive that goes beyond acting to make you feel you’re watching real life as it unfolds. Watching the pure joy this mother has for her child makes what happens to them both terrifying and heartbreaking, leaving you on the edge of your seat hoping they will survive.
The rest of the cast is mainly made up of bad guys. They do not spend nearly as much time on the screen as Deadwyler, but each manages to make a deep impression on our psyche as the story unfolds. Catherine Dyer (Stranger Things) redefines evil with her role as Tommy Runion, the matriarch of the mountain whose machinations set the story in motion. Watching her calmly issue murderous edicts from her kitchen, calling for bloodshed as she bakes biscuits and pies, is deeply disturbing.
The rest of the horrible Runion clan are not nearly as disgusting as Tommy, but each has their moment to re-enforce the terror of the tale being told, especially Adam Boyer, the family enforcer who comes after their enemies with a relentlessness that would make a Terminator jealous. There is another mountain clan that’s part of the story, but they are just as evil as the Runions and don’t add anything beyond that to the story except an increasing body count. Likewise, there are the cultists, whose chant of “Back to the Ether” will haunt you, and while you have to cheer for them in the end, it’s impossible to forget what they did before they got there. Besides, like all cults, they are more a whole than individuals, although Aurora (Parisa Johnston) and her mysterious scar still manage to stand out.
The Devil to Pay is a rare gem of a genre movie, one that terrifies you without relying on shocking jump scares or gruesome special effects. It’s a reminder that that true terror doesn’t come from beyond the grave or outer space. It’s found in the hearts and minds of evil men and women and it takes a strong will to survive.
THE DEVIL TO PAY, starring Danielle Deadwyler, and directed by Ruckus and Lane Skye, opens in select drive-in theaters Friday with an On-Demand and DVD release Tuesday, October 6.
- John Black, The Devil to Pay