An important rule to follow when taking a day hike through uncharted territory is to make sure your companions are the kind of people you wouldn’t mind getting lost with. The four protagonists of “The Devil’s Courthouse” fail to heed this advice, and the result is an hour’s worth of bitching and complaining that is sure to overwhelm the average viewer.
Four college kids seeking spiritual kicks day hike to a rock formation in the forest that is rumored to be a portal to Hell. Amber (Julian Meredith Kelly) learned about the legend of this “power point” from a psychic, but Preston (Brighton Ellithorpe) doesn’t buy the story for a second, preferring to drown out her blather with the nu-metal on his I-pod. His girlfriend Kelly (Amanda Ladd) believes in theory and is willing to find out for herself, but the portly, awkward Brian (Warren Sain Underwood) forgets all about the mystery of the woods as soon as his stomach starts growling. They backpack in but quickly become lost in the wilderness without food or shelter, and strange fates befall them. Is the Devil’s Courthouse really where Satan himself passes judgment on the wicked to determine their fitness for Hell? Who is the mysterious gate-keeper, and is benevolence his motive when he anoints the wounded students with cherry wine?
“The Devil’s Courthouse” concerns itself with man’s eternal spiritual quest, following four mismatched seekers through an endless forest of wrong turns and deadly consequences. Their varying levels of commitment to the journey lead to ill will, and surrogate conduits to enlightenment such as sex, drugs, art and technology are considered but always fail. Even once our foursome wanders back to civilization, the true nature of their experiences in the spirit world is unclear. Are they possessed by something evil? Are they still human?
Regardless of what it all means, it doesn’t work. The performances are awkward at best and annoying at worst, except for Ladd, who ceases her caterwauling only for a brief, highly gratuitous nude scene with Ellithorpe. The action is tedious and there’s enough howl-worthy dialogue for a drinking game. The breaking point arrives midway when a character unwisely eats what turns out to be a hallucinogenic mushroom. Cue trip scene, which clocks in at five minutes but feels longer … at first director L.D. Donahue accurately depicts the soft, rippling visual distortions of a psychedelic experience, but he’s unwilling to leave it be. The sequence is extended beyond usefulness with bits of old cartoons and assorted visual flash that betray it as no more than some cinematic noodling. It’s not played for laughs, however, and in this case the film captures a little reality in the moments when the freaked-out hiker realizes just how sick he really is.
“The Devil’s Courthouse” has the feel of a first effort and isn’t worth sweating over. Still, uniqueness is always a virtue and there’s undoubtedly a streak of that in this fantasy/horror/sci-fi hybrid mash-up. Actually watching it might lead to headaches, so lay in a stock of whatever kills your pain if this one threatens your attention.