Dopey Amish Horror 'Devil's Hand' Loses Grip on Thrills, Themes

Directed by: Christian E. Christiansen; Runtime: 86 minutes
Grade: D

Few big bads are quite as ... well, as big and bad as the Devil himself (or itself, or whatever): provoking the temptations of man, possessing bodies to enact its will, exacting merciless agendas that typically result in elaborate bloodshed or madness. Traditionally, belief in higher powers isn't really required to dig into his presence in a horror film, playing to both skeptics and the faithful with the mystical and often metaphorical properties of the villain's manipulations; whether he's real not commonly emerges as a theme. The Devil's Hand appeals to that ambiguity at first under the guise of an Amish slasher movie, as strange as that might sound, filled with ancient prophecies and potentially haunted young women in the trappings of a strict religious commune. Sadly, director Christian E. Christiansen delivers neither strong chills nor a compelling philosophical balance, clutching onto the anticipation of seeing the fruition of a fantastical religious forecast whose truth collapses under the film's meager established ideas.

Several years prior to the main events in The Devil's Hand, six girls were born on the evening of June 6th within a religious sect, lending some credence to the prophesized arrival of the Devil upon their eighteen birthday. Fable tells the collective that one of these girls would become a vessel for his will, called the "Drommelkind", sparking enough fear to result in the death of one of the babies on that very night. The remaining five grow up as friends together and are raised with little awareness of the prophecy, dismissed as hearsay by some members -- including Jacob Brown (Rufus Sewell), the father of one of the girls -- while others view them with suspicious scrutiny, notably leader Elder Beacon (Colm Meaney). One of the girls, Mary (Alycia Debnam Carey), begins to have severe seizures (with flashes of violent images) that could be interpreted as the emerging presence of the devil, intensifying as each of the girls start to disappear from the grounds ... later discovered to be murdered. The religious group suspects demonic activity; the skeptical girls suspect their elders.

Despite the obvious campy potential guiding the premise, The Devil's Hand plays the concept utterly straight, sporting a severe and humorless attitude in an effort to lend validity to the demonic happenings. Instead of the desired tense realism, the progression of events -- the disappearances of the girs, the bickering over the prophecy, the haughty authoritative abuse dished out from Elder Beacon -- acts as if the only objective here is to convey the one-note bleakness of oppressive religion instead of actually having a good time with what essentially becomes Scream in Amish country. A lack of authentic performances bears some of the responsibility for that, where the scrunched-faced religious intimidation from Colm Meaney and Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Jabob's wife and Mary's step-mother, evoke an unduly hostile perspective on, well, anyone who deviates from the way they think (rather, how he thinks). Their zealotry comes in unsubtle bursts that convey all the same grating, shallow things portrayed many times over about harsh splinter religions, only dialed up in volume to arouse suspicions of their capacity for murder.

That kind of explicit malice makes one question the decisions made by the moderates and fearful devotees wriggling underneath the sect's clutches, weakening the grip that The Devil's Hand has over sensible plotting, if that's the direction they must go. Despite a stable and occasionally engaging performance from Reign's Adelaide Kane and a kinda-just-there but even turnout from Rufus Sewell, it's difficult to land on much of a point to the rebellious actions of the young victims and their sheltered existence, especially when the focus falls on a weepy teen-drama caliber romance between buttoned-up Mary and townie Trevor (Thomas McDonell). Unsurprising experiences with keggers and romantic fooling-around with the "heathen" neighboring city have little going for them beside throwing Mary and her birth-sister clique in the throes of temptation in their search for answers, and thus in the line of fire of whatever cloaked demon keeps snatching them up. It's all incredible stale, only showing signs of life when the frightened girls really start to struggle with practical thoughts about their community and what's hunting them down, even when they don't use a fleck of common sense about safeguarding themselves.

Had the horror elements in The Devil's Hand been more successful on their own, there's the possibility that ID: A director Christiansen could've justified this watered-down agnostic blend of the natural and supernatural, spiking the suspense with provocative bloodshed at the hands of the mystery killer. That isn't the case: the scraped fingernails, sliced throats, and ambiguous shadowy blurs of a Ghostface proxy across the religious compound are delivered through dime-a-dozen, grounded gore with little momentum aside from its five-girl checklist, only meagerly boosted by awaiting the reveal of who's underneath the cloak and why they're so stabby. Alas, the answers that await are more exasperating than surprising, taking a regrettable turn into the realm of the mystical that sends messy, infuriatingly mixed signals about its perspective on wickedness -- including its loathsome scenes of lurid psychological torture on the "cursed" young women. Trusting in nonsensical prophecy and hostile religious discipline apparently aren't such bad ideas with the primo Big Bad afoot, right?

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