[Cinepocalypse 2019 Review] Belzebuth

I love a good cold open in a horror movie. It sets the tone and, when done well, can captivate you from the first screen. The cold open in Belzebuth, premiering in North America at the Cinepocalypse Film Festival, is the perfect example of a great cold open.

A happy family welcomes a baby into the lives of parents Emmanuel (Joaquín Cosio) and Marina (Aurora Gil). Emmanuel’s time with the baby is cut short when he gets a call from his police chief and has to leave. As he walks down the hall, we see so many smiling families, welcoming their kids into their worlds. Emmanuel passes a somber and preoccupied nurse as he takes an elevator. A nurse that will, moments later, grab a scalpel and slaughter every kid in the newborn unit before slicing her own throat.

It’s a bloody, harsh and frankly terrifying opening that speaks to the depravity we will see.

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But the story picks up five years later where Emmanuel, now living by himself, gets another call from his police chief. There’s been a shooting at a school. The culprit? A boy who until now has been a normal kid. His targets? A room for of kindergartners. 33 deaths including the boy who finished the deed by blowing his head off with a shotgun. Gruesome stuff.

While Emmanuel tries to get a handle on the situation, an agent from the Vatican’s Paranormal Forensic Division, Ivan Franco (Tate Ellington) shows up to help in the investigation. He’s been on the trail of an excommunicated priest named Vasilio Canetti (Tobin Bell), who has been dabbling in satanic rites and has been seen around the school the day of the shooting.

Things start to get weirder as Ivan shows the disbeliever Emmanuel handprints, captured on a black light, that seem to have crawled up the wall of the classroom murder scene and onto the ceiling. According to Ivan, the patterns not only don’t match anything in recorded history—human or primate or otherwise—but were also recorded in the hospital room where Emmanuel’s baby boy was murdered.

Before they can even begin to make sense of what’s happening, another mass murder happens across town. And the two are forced to work together to get to the end of what’s happening.

There’s a lot going on in Belzebuth and its inspired by many different genres and subgenres. The opening half is structured like a noir detective investigation…albeit one with supernatural aspects. Ivan and Emmanuel are the consummate odd couple. Ivan is an English-speaking gringo and a man of faith while Emmanuel is Mexican and obviously isn’t a believer anymore. It’s a framing that’s popular in exorcism movies and the structure feels vaguely reminiscent of The Exorcist III…except on a grander scale.

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What begins as a fairly typical, though exciting, police procedural with a demonic presence turns into a fight for humanity itself. The dark and noir urban landscapes give way to sun-bleached and windswept deserts and the tone changes. These two parts make the almost two-hour runtime move incredibly fast. It’s paced exceedingly well, with gruesome jolts and plenty of fantastic set pieces and it feels epic in ways that most demonic possession stories rarely are.

The story by Luis Carlos Fuentes and Emilio Portes pulls together various and disparate plot threads to create something incredibly satisfying to watch. A woman whose son has premonitions and dreams of The Devil; a paranormal investigator from Rome seeking an excommunicated priest; a cop still grieving the loss of his family; and an ominous priest who might be masterminding the whole deal all come together in a stylish and fantastic way.

My biggest complaints are twofold. Emmanuel and his police partner go from disbelieving cops to completely convinced participants in ways I don’t think police normally would; particularly for his partner, who misses most of the supernatural elements. It works for the pacing, which never drags, but feels more plot-driven than character driven. The other problem is the exorcism itself, which you know is going to happen in a demonic possession movie. It’s bloodier and more action-packed than any exorcism I’ve seen, but still feels tacked on in the same way the exorcism felt in The Exorcist III. There’s a moment when I thought it might subvert genre-trappings, but instead it just dives headfirst into them.

That said, I really enjoyed Belzebuth. It sticks out in a subgenre that I didn’t think had anything else to say. Director Emilio Portes brings his caustic sensibilities to a tired subgenre and skewers specific aspects of life in Mexico, a country, as a character states, “oppressed by an empire” and one that doesn’t have time looking for missing children because “drugs, corruption, and fear” rule the day. I’d recommend checking this one out.