By Matthew Sorrento | October 31, 2008

Though not fully successful, “Jack Brooks” hit that nerve – the one that recalls our monster tales of the past, now repressed under a pile of “Saw” repeats and formulas like “Quarantine.” Monsters have gone corny long since their classic hey-day, having become so innocent and self conscious that they now serve as gags more than haunts. It took filmmaker Abel Ferrara – who shoots on impulse and hits direct when not misfiring – to return the pod people to the creepy regions in 1993’s “Body Snatchers.” Meanwhile, a more recent attempt, “The Invasion,” played like a script template right off a studio boss’s shelf.

The viewership sits dormant, waiting for the next beasts to return from the repressed. The monsters of old channeled mythic dread, as Dracula realized a stifled rape fantasy; the werewolf, the libidinous beast within; and Frankenstein, an Edenic procreation fantasy, the monster-child a botched accident that the father casts away. Filmmaker David Winning looks to mythical lore in the folk figure of the “Swamp Devil,” or Swamp Beast – it that lurks in murky bogs beyond human reach. When this beast rears itself from the woods, a variation of the classic monster hunt is on.

Winning’s beast undercuts expectations in “Devil,” which premiered on the SciFi Channel and screened at this year’s Terror Film Festival in Philadelphia. Without giving away much – though I’m unsure if promoters leaked it into a clip or trailer – this Devil twists and flails, bends and breaks whatever is in its path. It’s a fine little bit of nightmare, something borne of paranoia as much as childhood fears.

When the swamp devil takes down search-party members, their pre-demise astonishment is almost cute – an unavoidable element that doesn’t quite work. One wonders how they aren’t scared senseless by that which will make them into plant food. The party hunts for a human suspect believed to have murdered a young woman. The wrongfully accused (Howard Blaime) is played by the bankable Bruce Dern, who’s laid-back take on the role creates a safe, if routine, performance. With his head of cotton-white and readily available zaniness, Dern could dish out the freaky hippie (now aging) that he’s been playing for years. But the veteran tones things down, once his character’s no longer on the run and can speak his case.

Howard is father to Melanie, who’s returned to town to help her estranged dad. In casting Cindy Sampson as Melanie, Winning has found a dead ringer for Meadow Soprano. Sampson, with her jet black hair, large eyes, and choice bone structure, makes for quite a site in close-up. Yet, she seems emotionally tone deaf, as if unnerved by the camera lens coming face-to-face. If her facial emotions waver, her vocal delivery goes off-road, running the narrative over rocky terrain. It’s a sad performance, in a way – one of a model who somehow found herself at a casting call. (Perhaps the small screen – her usual home – makes do with that angelic face.)

Melanie is brought to town by Jimmy Fuller (Nicholas Wright), who acts odd right away, like the shadow of a former self. Wright seems at home in such a genre role: with confidence and ease, he can go from a lost boy to he who knows a little too much. The other performances work well in the genre makeup. Winning understands his necessities and limits, even if his script calls for an attack upon a female cop that does nothing but buy time. This moment cracks open the script to reveal its artificial skeleton, which cannot regain momentum through the final act. To keep up the suspense, things need to stay tight, but “Swamp Devil” stumbles right when it should turn up the mayhem.

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