Belzebuth made its North American premiere at Cinepocalypse 2019.
Delivering early shocks and a unique take on the demon out for human blood, Belzebuth eventually falls back on standard, monotonous, uninterestingly lensed fare that neither pays off nor gels with its strong setup.
Emilio Portes wastes no time getting to the supremely upsetting material, cramming two mass murders of children (including newborns) into the first 15 minutes. Portes, the director/co-writer/co-editor (with Luis Carlos Fuentes and Rodrigo Rios, respectively), finesses the disturbing sequences so that they aren’t repellently explicit, but it’s still rough stuff.
The acts are certainly attention grabbing, potentially setting up a dark quest for answers to explain the horrors, and the first half of Belzebuth deftly lays the groundwork for intrigue and terror. A central performance by Joaquín Cosio oozes exasperation and anger, and there’s a malevolent presence at play with potential for genre-bending spiritual and corporal clashes. Unfortunately, all entities eventually convene in a protracted final confrontation that’s not nearly as interesting as what led up to it.
One of the many people gravely affected by the child killings is Detective Emmanuel Ritter (Cosio), who begins an investigation into the slayings that comes to involve a “paranormal forensic specialist” (Tate Ellington) and an excommunicated priest (Tobin Bell), who looks more like a haggard crackpot than an honorable cardinal. Instead of providing an entanglement of emotion, logic and spirituality, this triumvirate shares plot points and case files with one another until the all-too-literal confronting of demons.
As contrast to the opening carnage, Belzebuth is best when it steps back and examines the gruesomeness, lingering on Cosio and his expressive face at crime scenes and doling out information piecemeal as the tragedies pile up and mystery deepens. Visual subtlety is also strong in spots, as in a classroom where blood is splattered across construction paper artwork or when the camera matter-of-factly follows an unfolding calamity at a pool. More overt action, including an explosion and a talking crucifix, leave less of an impact and reveal the budget constraints with some questionable effects.
While patience and restraint were virtues early and Portes shows serious skill in creating mood, bombast and tedium derail the action in the final act, making the film feel every second of its 114 minutes. Much of the climax takes place in a poorly lit tunnel, and even though it’s dark, the setting can’t completely obscure familiar tricks involving floating, incantations and rolled-back eyes, and no amount of dimness could hide an almost comedic-sounding demon voice.
Anything allegorical, from ruminations on grief and faith to demons invading a tunnel under the Mexico-U.S. border, is also swallowed up, the clunky action overpowering any real revelations.