The Devil’s Machine (2019)
Lawrie Brewster’s 2019 horror The Devil’s Machine recently appeared on Amazon Prime. Mark Anthony Ayling reviews for Horrified...
In recent years Lawrie Brewster and writing partner Sarah Daly have been carving a bit of a niche for themselves in the low budget indie realm of British horror cinema. Following on from Lord of Tears (UK, Lawrie Brewster, 2013) and The Unkindness of Ravens (UK, Lawrie Brewster, 2016), the pair collaborated on The Black Gloves (UK, Lawrie Brewster, 2017) a period monochrome Gothic set in the Scottish Highlands in the 1940’s that fused elements of folk horror, the visual stylings of Dario Argento, and psychological art horror cinema with impressive results.
For their subsequent effort, released yet again under the Hex Studios label, the pair returned to the realms of gothic horror. However, The Devil’s Machine (UK, Lawrie Brewster, 2019), originally titled Automata, eschews the folk trappings of 2017’s The Black Gloves to tell a supernatural tale of a haunted clockwork doll and the mystery surrounding its deviant history.
The film starts with an army regiment transporting a mysterious box across moorland in the 18th Century to an undisclosed destination. The box likely contains the Devil’s Machine of the film’s title. The regiment is ambushed en route, and the box and its contents are spirited away following a bloody battle in which most of the participants wind up massacred.
The film then moves forward to a modern day setting, where Dr. Brendan Cole and his stepdaughter Rose are tasked with verifying the authenticity of a legendary 300-year-old automaton, which has been discovered by a German aristocrat in a remote Scottish mansion.
The doll, which carries the unflattering moniker of the Infernal Princess, has a reputation for driving people insane and fostering suicidal tendencies in those unfortunate enough to fall victim to it.
Dr. Brendan Cole, foremost authority on all things Infernal Doll, is entirely cynical regarding its veracity. Provided with a million-pound incentive to investigate its legitimacy, however, he agrees to look into the matter further. The German aristo, played by Erich Redman, insists that Dr Cole must get the doll to perform five pre-determined activities as proof of his success. He must also complete the task within a week if he wants to see any of the money.
Naturally enough, the doctor’s cynicism is severely tested during his time in the mansion. As both the doll and the spirits that inhabit the mansion exert their malevolent influence on him and his daughter, things take a turn for the decidedly unsettling.
The Devils’ Machine, like The Black Gloves before it, is something of a hybrid feature, fusing the Gothic lushness of Roger Corman’s Poe cycle and classic genre staples such as Rebecca (USA, Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) with the garishly rendered dream logic of Dario Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy. However, the film departs from the monochrome noir and folk horror of The Black Gloves in favour of an erotically charged narrative, ripe with repressed longing.
This is not to say the film isn’t scary, since it is. However, whilst the film provides an admirable blend of mainstream horrors such as a spooky mansion, spectral figures in windows, haunted dolls, bewitched paramours, and stagy jump scares, it is ultimately the less palatable and much more distressing theme of father/daughter incest that powers the narrative.
As a means by which creatives are able to explore the shadow face of human psychology, incest is a tried and tested Gothic trope dating back to The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole, 1764). More recently, the theme was explored in the lavishly mounted and entirely starry Goth chiller Crimson Peak (USA, Guillermo Del Toro, 2015), in which murderous siblings engage in a consensual relationship that is at once disturbing, sympathetic and intriguing.
In The Black Gloves, Brewster and Daly hinted at an incestuous liaison between a reclusive ballerina and the domineering matriarch tasked with looking after her. With The Devil’s Machine, the pair have gone further by elaborating this motif considerably, placing it at the heart of the film’s story.
The relationship between father and daughter in The Devil’s Machine is a predominantly fantastical one conjured by their increasingly vivid imaginings as they fall under the corrupting influence of the mansion’s resident automaton. As the film evolves, the pair become more and more infatuated by the doll, obsessing over its functionality and history. Their repressed desires are projected onto and reflected back at them by the doll, manifesting as erotically charged waking dream states visually reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
As the horrors and revelations mount, and the pair find themselves privy to nightmare re-enactments of historical perversions, originally perpetrated by the mansion’s former occupants, so does the disorientation and uncertainty. At times it’s not entirely evident whether the incestuous fantasies are those of the doctor or his stepdaughter, whether their experiences are real or imagined, or whether events are occurring in the present or the past tense.
Credit is due here to Daly’s writing. The art horror sensibility she brings to the script imbues it with an extra layer of psychological depth that the editorial team of director Lawrie Brewster and Thomas Staunton do an admirable job making sense of, even as past, present, reality and fantasy begin to merge. DPs Gavin Robertson and Michael Brewster, meanwhile, infuse the film with a wide-ranging colour palette, which perfectly complements the hallucinogenic experiences of the film’s protagonists when reality, and their understanding of it, fractures and disassembles.
Regular collaborator Jamie Scott Gordon does a fine job of depicting the psychological disintegration of Dr Cole as he falls under the witchy spell of Alex Nicole Hulme’s creepy mechanical princess. His character here is slightly more sympathetic than the psychologist he portrayed in The Black Gloves, which is a credit to both the performance and the writing, given the inherently aberrant nature of his character’s barely suppressed incestuous desires. Newcomer Victoria Lucie as Rose, meanwhile, delivers a convincing and admirable performance as the loving, playful, and entirely practical daughter who later manifests as a nubile seductress beguiled by incestuous possibilities.
If the aim of Gothic horror is to realise psychological fears in tangible terms through an exploration of social taboos, then The Devil’s Machine is a success. It is easily Brewster and Daly’s most assured film to date, marking a singular step up both in terms of quality and value for money genre entertainment. Well worth a look for those unfamiliar with their work.