At times a disorienting mix of sobering terror and pulpy ‘demon movie’ conventions, the internal struggle Belzebuth wages over how to tackle a genre that is starting to feel ancient is evident early on. However, a script that is constantly on the run from the devil’s workshop keeps things fast and fresh, and ultimately manages to hold a fractured soul intact long enough to provide some supernatural thrills with hints of an Exorcist-meets–The Terminator vibe.
That may sound odd at first (and it is), as Belzebuth starts out more grounded. After a tragic (and horrifying) incident years earlier that cost him him his newborn son — and ultimately, his wife — detective Emmanuel Ritter is assigned to a mass shooting at a Mexican elementary school that has been perpetrated by a young boy. The sickening slaughter drudges up old nightmares, but when an American investigator for some sort of Vatican paranormal agency shows up and starts getting strange readings from the crime scene that may connect it to other mass attacks on children in the area, Ritter soon finds himself in pursuit of an ex-communicated priest who might be either the cause or the solution. While the pair tries to find out exactly what the evil force behind this carnage is after, they head down a road toward confrontation with demons both outside and in.
Along the journey, Belzebuth showcases plenty of creepy religious paraphernalia, white-eyed possessions, requisite talks about faith, a smattering of Ghost Hunter technobabble, and a John Connor-like figure who just might be a future savior of humanity — if he can survive. There are also more imaginative elements that definitely have a little more fun with the subject matter, occasionally dipping their toes into Sam Raimi levels of goofiness, such as with possessed pieces of cloth that suffocate and drag struggling victims into dark corridors, or a clever scene with a statue that comes to life which simultaneously tempts and taunts. In these moments, Belzebuth is a rollicking good time, one of those horror movies that will leave audiences smiling.
However, the film also depicts some uncomfortably shocking events that involve the deaths of multiple children, which at times can work against the more fantastical atmosphere that the rest of the story seems to be going for. These scenes are mostly front-loaded, giving the impression early on that Belzebuth is going to be darkly dramatic — a chilling examination of the nature of evil that is often hard to look at. Despite showing restraint when it comes to gore (which smartly helps his cause), director Emilio Portes doesn’t sugarcoat the callous wickedness of the atrocities in the slightest, presenting realistic scenarios that often hit a little too close to home. These sequences are skillfully assembled so as not to sensationalize the horror, and are highly effective at getting the audience’s attention.
So much so that when Belzebuth introduces the paranormal CSI team, who deliver lengthy tangents about high-speed cameras that record ghost sounds, or shine magic lights that illuminate ethereal hand prints while cracking wise, it can be a bit jarring. What kind of movie is this now? What had felt like it was going to be a slow, methodical boil now glosses over explanatory exposition as if impatient to get to the gooey parts. Gone is the clinical investigation of cold, heartless attacks, and in its place we get a demon tornado in a fortune teller’s house, an apocalyptic priest covered in symbolic ink, an eerie baby buggy, and an abridged — but still shrieky and messy — exorcism.
Belzebuth isn’t always pretty in its pursuit of a fresh take on the demon movie, but the result is nonetheless compelling.
One would think that these spirits don’t mesh, and it’s hard to argue in the various moments where disparate atmospheres meet that the transition is smooth. But Belzebuth nevertheless somehow pulls off the switch, segueing with such sincerity and craft that it’s difficult not to be pulled along. Portes gets all that pesky mystical dialogue out of the way as quickly as possible (except when a wizened, magnetic Tobin Bell is wheezing it out), and makes sure to pick up the pace; the faster things go, the crazier they get, the less questions asked. And before you know it, the film has turned from the investigative dread inspired by a Seven–like terror on the loose, into a thrilling (if sometimes clumsy) escape from an unstoppable force bent on finding and killing the one hope for mankind’s future.
In addition to Portes’ mostly steady hand at the helm, Belzebuth‘s ultimate success is greatly aided by an earthy cast capable of hitting whatever the script throws at them. Anchoring the proceedings is Joaqin Cosio as Ritter, whose weathered face, large frame, and lumbering gait is perfect for a man fighting his own disbelief (“In Mexico, even atheists are believers.”). His skepticism is countered by Tate Ellington’s wiry ghostbuster, hunting his supernatural perps with the measured enthusiasm of a Catholic G-Man. Tobin’s priest rounds these two out by lending an authoritative air to a mythology that is never quite sure of itself; if he says something, well, it must be true. A special mention must also be made for Jose Sefami, whose sympathetic sidekick detective comes across as a caring outsider always trying to find his way in. His quietly powerful performance will likely stick with viewers long after the sputtering oaths, holy water burns, and levitation has faded.
These people are champs, effortlessly gliding between the chilling and thrilling, even when their script stumbles in its demands. Because of their efforts, and the sharp filmmaking by Portes, audiences are never at a loss for reasons to keep watching. Belzebuth isn’t always pretty in its pursuit of a fresh take on the demon movie, but the result is nonetheless compelling.
Belzebuth releases on Shudder August 29th.