A creepy old farmhouse covered in metal trinkets, a car that has broken down at just the wrong moment… and a backyard full of booby traps. Not the usual ingredients for a science fiction movie about alien visitors, but hey why not throw in some of this horror stuff in too I guess. Although this may have been intended as a kind of Dusk ’til Dawn style bait and switch, there’s no real way of keeping the sudden change of events here a secret. The first act of the story does at least keep things going in a fairly realistic direction with a suspicious disappearance in a rural town, however this is mostly a tale of sinister intruders from other worlds. It might be set on a farm for the most part, but it’s not crops that are being harvested.
Agent Francis (Amanda Schull) arrives in Devil’s Gate, North Dakota to investigate the case of a mother and son vanishing without a trace. It’s a dusty and barren town, the sort of place where nothing interesting ever happens. After a tragedy in her FBI career she’s out to prove herself, but the local cops are unimpressed by this kind of bureau interference. Deputy Salter (Shawn Ashmore) is happy to help, but his superior Sheriff Gruenwell (Jonathan Frakes) is not convinced anything has been missed. He’s certainly not happy about Agent Francis being brought on board after hearing about the outcome of her last missing persons case.
After a fairly nice shock opening things settle down and it becomes a routine detective story for a while as the small town police clash with the outsider who acts like she knows better than them. It’s all pretty polished and while the characters are kind of trite all the performances are solid enough. It’s very bleached looking which takes away from the feeling that this is a real location, which is a shame. With a few more local faces the surrounding area might feel less deserted and more mundane before the weirdness starts to creep in. Even the tone is very dour — with everything that’s about to happen some levity would have gone a long to to make these characters more affable.
Despite the warnings of the Sheriff not to go poking around, Agent Francis soon arrives at the home of Jackson Pritchard (Milo Ventimiglia) who seems to have lost his marbles after his family disappeared. All signs point to him having them hidden in the basement. It’s a reasonable assumption, and his over acting doesn’t do him any favours. Agent Francis is soon on the case — although her expertise is questionable when she spots a crossbow tripwire next to the front door and fails to warn the deputy about it. The stage is set for a dramatic reveal, but how much of the second half of this story works is debatable.
Soon enough the contents of Jackson’s cellar are uncovered, but it’s not his wife and son who are locked away in the dark. It doesn’t take long before outlandish twists and turns keep Francis and Salter from taking their suspect back to town. While the protagonists don’t initially realise what genre of film they’re starring in, there is little debate after a rather unnatural lightning storm and a close encounter with a slimy trespasser. Some of the visual effects are pretty ropey but there is at least some great creature work involved. The monsters are very nice looking, particularly in the close ups. However the overall story structure doesn’t have the same kind of finesse.
Despite the obvious nature of the location and the small cast of characters, there really isn’t enough simple suspense in what should have been a classic siege situation. While the first act is fairly straightforward and well paced, everything at the Pritchard house feels muddled and uneven. There are some fairly gruesome moments here and there, but too often it feels as though characters are simply wandering around in the dark. After seeing all the traps Jackson has set and multiple lines about barricading the home, a full on attack never materialises. Instead there’s a lot of talk about what he was really doing with his family out here after it’s apparent he hasn’t been imprisoning them. The exposition all feels kind of rushed just so that it can go full Xtro.
There are admittedly a few haunting images and a handful of good ideas in play. But ultimately the major reveal is just too heavy handed. There’s no subtle escalation in terms of the action or the narrative, it just dumps all the plot information in as quickly as possible. It could all do with a boost of actual horror atmosphere and charm to make it more memorable. There are at least some allusions to religion and faith to add an extra dimension to the story, but this isn’t really strong enough to form an overall theme. In the end it fails to be a truly chilling tale of the unknown, but it could have been much worse. It’s a watchable genre mash-up and many elements are handled with creativity, but overall it’s no more than the sum of its hybrid parts.