Paul Campion’s Bad Books
The Devil’s Rock, Paul Campion’s sharply composed first feature, extends the meaning of “war is hell” to encompass capital-H Hell itself. Demons included. The action of this horror / WW2 film hybrid unfolds on one of the small islands in the English Channel, just off the coast of Normandy. In the immediate lead-up to D-Day, the British army has dispatched two soldiers to the island to incapacitate the Nazi artillery on the island. This straightforward mission is vastly complicated when the two soldiers encounter a Nazi plot to summon the forces of Hell as backup in the war efforts. Captain Ben Grogan (Craig Hall) is unwilling to grant the enemy this advantage, and so begins a standoff with two of cinema’s classic villains: Nazis and demons. Yes, please.
While the entrance of the forces of Hell into a war movie might suggest that the story was a total invention, Campion found the seed of his idea in the real history of the Channel Islands. “Back in 2009 I screened my short film Eel Girl in Guernsey in the Channel Islands and I was interviewed by the local newspaper there. One of the questions was did I know anything about Guernsey’s history of witchcraft -which I didn’t, but I did some research and found out that the Channel Islands were supposedly a hotbed of witchcraft in the middle ages, and more witches were burnt at the stake there in on 50 year period than anywhere else in England. I also found out about the ‘Bad Books’ – which are a set of supposedly indestructible books of black magic that are part of Guernsey’s folklore. I put that together with Hitler’s known interest in the Occult and came up with the basic plot about German soldiers discovering one of the books and using it to summon up a demon.”
The “bad book” created for the film is a richly designed object, reminiscent of Evil Dead’s Necronomicon or the volumes that drive the plot of Polanski’s The Ninth Gate. To achieve the look he wanted, Campion had to deviate from the appearance of the books of magic that are preserved in the archival libraries on the island of Guernsey. “The one we based the book on was 250 years old and had what appeared to be instructions in very old French on contacting Lucifer and Beelzebub. I was quite surprised by how small the books were as well – you’d expect them to look like the one we made for the film, but the real ones are just like small pocket books that you could carry around in your pocket.”
Campion brings a loaded CV to his first feature, to the point that restricting his title to “director” seems rude. On The Devil’s Rock, Campion produced, wrote, and directed, and was likely intimately involved in the earliest stages of building the conceptual look of the film on paper, as the bulk of his background is in the conceptual art and visual effects departments. Taking on The Devil’s Rock brought a number of new challenges. Campion has worn many hats on past projects, especially in guiding his two shorts (both previously screened at Fantasia) to completion, which made handling the various aspects of his feature more manageable. “The most intimidating and challenging part of the process is writing the script,” Campion says, affirming that things are at their most difficult before the cameras start rolling. He co-wrote the script with Paul Finch, with Brett Ihaka also providing input. “Everything hinges on that, and it’s such a subjective medium, particularly when you’re working with several other writers. It’s a combination of trusting your instincts but also listening to other people’s input. If 9 out of 10 people are telling you that part of the script is crap, it probably is.” Campion’s approach certainly resulted in a script that cuts the crap, an admirably smart and talky piece that doesn’t use dialogue exclusively to trot out plot elements or backstory, as is all too common in historical horror films. The ongoing faceoff between Captain Grogan and SS Officer Klaus Hall (Matthew Sunderland) is defined by rich character work and sparking dialogue. Admittedly, the demon (Gina Varela) gets the best lines, and Varela clearly savours her role. The cast in general does excellent work, and Campion feels that this is a result of his staying out of their way: “You’re collaborating with professional actors who want to give the most honest performance they can, so it’s really about letting them do their job and creating an environment around them so they can deliver that performance.”
Gina Varela, Matt Sunderland and Karlos Drinkwater will be on hand to discuss their experiences on The Devil’s Rock at the August 3rd Fantasia screening, as will Paul Campion, who is particularly excited to see the film with the audience it was designed for. “I wasn’t able to attend the festival before when my short films Night of the Hell Hamsters and Eel Girl played here, so this will be my first time here. I’m just really looking forward to watching the film with the audience – this will be the first time the film has played to a hardcore genre fans so I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes down with them, and I hear the audiences here are really enthusiastic.”
THE DEVIL’S ROCK has its North American Premiere August 3 at 9:30pm in the Hall Theatre, hosted by Writer/Director/Executive Producer Paul Campion and Actors Matt Sunderland, Gina Varela and Karlos Drinkwater. More info on the film page HERE.