You might think you know the story: two men meet at a remote cruising spot, where men have been mysteriously disappearing for weeks, and find themselves falling deeper into a murderous cat and mouse chase. But this surface level synopsis is the only true similarity between Devil’s Path and 2013’s widely acclaimed anti-thriller Stranger by the Lake, a film to which it will likely be compared based on the subject matter alone. It’s true that both films delight in subverting storytelling conventions for a murder mystery tale of this style, and both have an underlying commentary about homophobic self-loathing – they just take it in different directions.
Matthew Montgomery (in his directorial debut) has crafted a more mainstream friendly version of this narrative, that directly plays into our preconceptions of the horror genre, frequently subverting the story being told right in front of our eyes. Tense chase sequences through a labyrinthine setting sit directly next to quieter character moments that discuss weighty issues from mental health to the very basic concept of love. It may look like a familiar thriller from the outside, but it has a peculiar character of its own.
In a nature trail known to the locals as “Devil’s Path”, Noah (Stephen Twardokus) meets Patrick (JD Scalzo). Patrick is at the known cruising spot for a hook-up, but gets sidelined by Noah – a shy, naive individual who doesn’t seem to properly grasp the concept of cruising, and fits into this landscape as awkwardly as you’d expect. While wandering through the woods on their bizarre, pseudo meet-cute, a park ranger warns them not to stray into a certain area of the woods, where gay men have been disappearing after entering for hook ups. Despite trepidation from Noah, the pair eventually wander in to this part of the woods anyway; and things quickly get worse, when two seemingly homophobic men who Noah agitated earlier notice the pair, and become thirsty for violence. What unravels from here is less predictable than initially appears.
Although this is a twisty thriller that could easily be lapped up by more mainstream audiences, the best comparisons for Devil’s Path are all firmly within the arthouse realm. Montgomery isn’t afraid to wear any biblical metaphors on his sleeve; this is a film where characters introduce themselves by noting similarities between their names and biblical figures, only for proceedings to slowly take a turn towards something considerably less holy. I was at times reminded of The Ornithologist, the brilliantly surreal Portuguese film from director João Pedro Rodrigues, which itself took a story with biblical origins and transformed it into something unsettling and vaguely satanic. Devil’s Path isn’t likely to utterly confound audiences in the same way, but the themes and the nightmarish scope of the setting (lost in seemingly endless woods with no sense of direction to escape) feel drawn from the same well.
The direction Devil’s Path wanders down is best left a secret for viewers; it makes perfect sense in reflection, but feels thrillingly unpredictable watching it unfold. Weighty themes (such as mental illness and internalised homophobia) are condensed to fit the efficient B-movie storytelling, without undermining their seriousness. There’s even an understated, borderline heartbreaking, epilogue that illustrates the desperation that comes with feelings of depression and anxiety – a cry for help that goes unanswered. That this is perfectly tailored into the storytelling without feeling tasteless is one of Montgomery’s strongest achievements.
Devil’s Path won’t change the world, but it will definitely satisfy genre fans – and proof that adding even the smallest amount of humanity to a cat and mouse thriller can help enliven proceedings, and make them feel genuinely unpredictable in the process. It’s unmistakably a midnight movie, but with a heart and soul that ever so slightly elevates it above the pack.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Matthew Montgomery