It’s a well-known running gag that black characters in American horror movies tend to be human fodder, but at least they exist, unlike films from other countries, where they’re largely invisible because of a dearth of A) horror movies and/or B) black people. Even in countries with a decent horror tradition — the UK, Canada, Italy, France, Japan — black actors seem to have a smaller slice of the pie than in America (granted, it’s improved during the 21st century), and of the roles that do exist, it’s hard to erase visuals of cheesy fare like the Italian cannibal films of the ’70s and ’80s that relegated blacks to the savage tribesman stereotypes from back in the King Kong days.
Part of what makes The Devil Lives Here so refreshing is that it foregoes such tired portrayals. Although it features a slave narrative, the slaves aren’t lazily drawn, one-note tools for mayhem. They have a rich mythology and a sympathetic backstory that places them as central figures in the plot. It takes place in Brazil, a country whose racial history seems (from my limited research) to parallel the US in many ways — from slavery to systematic post-abolition discrimination to current high crime and low income rates. Slavery, in fact, wasn’t abolished there until 1888, more than two decades after America.
The film thus can be seen as a tale of the legacy of the cruelty of slavery. The story is deceptively simple: four young (white or whatever lighter-skinned designation is appropriate in Brazilian culture) teens/twenty-somethings gather at a remote farm to conjure and free the spirit of a slave rumored to haunt the location.
The ghost is that of a baby born from a slave woman raped by her notoriously violent master, referred to as the Honey Baron because of his beekeeping livelihood. When the baby was born, the mother killed it out of spite, and ever since, slaves and their descendants — most recently, brothers Luciano (Felipe Frazão) and Tiao (Pedro Caetano) — have kept watch over the site of the death, convinced that the baby’s ghost can free itself every nine months. They’ve ensured the spirit stays trapped in its basement dwelling for over a century, but the four kids, intrigued by the legend, decide to intervene…and well, you know how that usually turns out in horror movies.
With its bee imagery, historical racial violence and urban legends involving vengeful ghosts, it’s hard not to compare The Devil Lives Here to Candyman. It’s certainly not as good, but it has some of that film’s sense of dread, along with a touch of the visual flair and sense of isolated survival horror of The Evil Dead.
It also has a rich mythology with intriguing characters and plenty of opportunity for social commentary, but it all becomes so swamped with confusing characterizations, muddled motives and jumbled identities as spirits jump from body to body, the nuances of the storytelling are diminished. Still, the gist is effective enough, the tone is atmospheric enough and the pace is brisk enough (with a barely 75-minute running time, including closing credits) to make for a lean, mean supernatural tale worth viewing.