With few exceptions, during the course of the past several decades, horror movies have become nearly unwatchable. Where a filmmaker’s goal was once to horrify an audience with a tableau that would not only create an immediate visceral reaction but also occupy a place in that viewer’s memory; one that the viewer would carry long after having left the theater. Those who grew up watching horror films made in the 1970s and 1980s can recall quickly and gleefully the nightmares that were generated weeks, months, and years after the respective films’ two-hour run time had long passed.
More recently, the focus of directors of such films has shifted dramatically. It seems like most recent horror films are designed to maximize the number of jump scares in order to be able to create a trailer that features the reactions of audiences filmed in low-light to the on-screen scares. It has long felt like filmmakers who lack the imagination to create a coherent, terrifying story have used the jump scare as a crutch, secure in the knowledge that a commercial showing a preview audience filmed from multiple angles getting scared by a scene is easier to pull off than creating a truly scary film is. This is especially true of low-budget filmmakers who are hamstrung by limited financial resources to create frightening effects and who seem forced to revert to the jump scare. (While a similar technique was used by some studios in the 1970s when print ads warned those with medical conditions to reconsider viewing a particular film, this sort of advertisement was limited to the schlockiest films of the genre and not to seemingly every release. The Exorcist did not need this sort of advertising to prove its bona fides.)
One would have understood if writer/producer/director Adam Ripp and co-writers Paul Todisco and Oliver Robins chose to rely upon jump scares when creating Devil’s Whisper, a supernatural horror film about an ancient demon that has been terrorizing children since the dawn of man. Instead, the filmmakers went in a different direction, making the most of their limited budget and 19 days of principal photography and created a taut, 85-minute thriller that not only fills the viewer with a sense of crushing dread within its first two minutes, but also, amazingly, leaves the viewer frightened enough long after the film ends that one might find oneself wondering if the suddenly-flickering light in one’s bedroom is the result of more than a mere dying bulb.
Based on a personal story shared with Ripp by a friend who suffered from years of recurring nightmares, Devil’s Whisper tells the story of 15-year-old Alejandro (Alex) Duran (Luca Oriel), a religious, Latin-American teenager (who aspires to be a priest) who discovers a mysterious wooden box hidden in an armoire once owned by his grandparents. The box has no visible way of being opened, but it rattles when shaken and piques Alex’s interest. With the help of his father, Marcos (Marcos Ferraez), who operates the table saw, Alex opens the box and discovers a cross in it, which we learn once belonged to his grandfather. Unwittingly, by opening the box, Alex has also unleashed a demonic spirit bent on possessing him. This ancient demon, which has tormented children since the dawn of man, is bent on destroying Alex and everyone in his life.
And were that the extent of the film’s plot, Devil’s Whisper might have been no more than your average horror film; however, beneath the obvious battle between Alex and his demon, the film is also a psychological thriller about childhood memories and repressed childhood trauma – one built upon traditional horror movie tropes (flickering lights and bedroom closets that open mysteriously) that are used to great effect.
One would argue that said tropes had no right ending up as frightening as they were considering that we have seen them used previously in countless films, but it is a testament to the combination of a taut script; Ripp’s ability to ratchet up the creep factor throughout the film – while including several unobtrusive homages to films that shaped his artistry – leading up to the inevitable final showdown between Alex and the demon; and superbly nuanced acting performances from the entire cast in roles small and large.
Oriel is a revelation. His attempt to contain the internal battle between religious, somewhat-sheltered teenager and possessed young adult could easily have turned into a farce in the hands of a less-talented actor; one who would rely on overacting to portray the battle. Oriel is able to strike fear in the viewer by contorting his face slightly, whether it be a crooked smile or a shift of his eyebrows, and he fights the internal battle between good and evil throughout the film. That you don’t always know when the demon will cause him to become evil is the reason that the viewer feels impending dread throughout. A lesser actor than Oriel is would not have been able to maintain this overarching battle as well as he does, which would have led to the ultimate weakening of the entire film.
As with many low-budget films, the performances of the every cast member, regardless of the size of the part, are crucial to the success or failure of the film, because a weak actor cannot be hidden.
Rick Ravanello portrays Father Cutler with a measured intensity that adds a gravitas to a role that another actor might have played as mere caricature and Alison Fernandez, who portrays Alex’s sister Alicia, breaks out in a small-but-crucial role. In one scene late in the film, a sudden shift in her performance is both terrifying and thrilling and, in the future, one will be able to point to that moment as the instant that her prodigious acting talent made its presence felt.
In addition to the aforementioned skills of the writers and director, credit to this film’s success also goes to the technical crew. Despite having a budget that would cause a big-budget film’s craft services department heartburn, Devil’s Whisper is produced so judiciously that the limited financial resources available to its creators never detract from the quality of the film. Even the portrayal of the demon seems to benefit from the limitations of the budget. A more realistic (and more expensive)-looking demon would have ultimately resulted in a less-frightening creation.
While Devil’s Whisper is set in the present, it also feels like somewhat of an anachronism; a horror thriller that relies on a developing sense of impending dread instead of throwing at the viewers cheap scares that don’t necessarily further the film’s narrative. Because of that, horror fans will not only enjoy Devil’s Whisper tremendously in the theater, but like other memorable horror films, they will remember the small things that they usually ignore (like a suddenly-flickering lamp) and, at the very least, encounter pangs of terror long after they leave the cinema.