Those who have been waiting for a mashup of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Rosemary’s Baby” may find their prayers answered with “The Devil Conspiracy.” Everybody else is likely to be somewhere between amused and aghast at this over-the-top supernatural potboiler, including the Christian audiences one suspects are partly being targeted as the English-language Czech production opens wide on 1000+ U.S. screens.
If they’re game for CGI-laden eye candy that treats Biblical prophesies with about as much respectful seriousness as the “National Treasure” franchise did American history, they’ll be rewarded with a lively if overstuffed popcorn diversion. However, first-time producer-screenwriter Ed Alan’s loopy fantasy — in which Archangel Michael does Earthly battle with Satan’s present-day minions — will also confound those looking for evidence of sincerity (or even just cogency) in a project that reels between action-adventure, horror, camp, techno thriller, bad taste and debatable sanctimony. Canadian helmer Nathan Frankowski manages to glue it all together in colorful stylistic terms, much helped by solid design collaborators. But as a jumbled, every-which-way narrative construct, this “Conspiracy” is for the birds.
You know you’re in for some very literal-minded theology when a brief prologue shows the casting out of Lucifer (Joe Anderson) from Heaven as an astronomical event: A meteor hurtling from deep space to burrow into the hot core of planet Earth, where the bad angel’s first utterance upon regaining consciousness is “Shit.” He is chained to this hellacious spot forevermore by Michael (a briefly-seen Peter Mensah), vowing nonetheless that one day he will have his revenge.
That day is now apparently nigh, thanks in part to the Shroud of Turin’s rare public display in an Italian cathedral, which enables its theft. Witnesses to the crime are American art student Laura (Alice Orr-Ewing) and her young British priest friend Father Marconi (Joe Doyle). He does not survive a scuffle with the absconding sinister flunky known as Liz (Eveline Hall), but with his dying breath summons the Archangel to “use my body to defeat Satan,” and is thus re-animated.
Less lucky, perhaps, is Laura, who finds herself held captive with other women as potential vessels for either holy or unholy spawn. (The film can’t seem to make up its mind.) This involves injecting their uteri with the “DNA of Jesus of Nazareth,” lifted from that aforementioned Shroud by Liz’s biotech mad-scientist confederate Dr. Laurent (Brian Caspe). Also factoring in is a sort of ash-and-fire eel specter; a “Beast of the Ground” (Spencer Wilding) resembling an offspring of a Ninja Turtle and the Incredible Hulk; a dungeon dumbwaiter thingie that descends a “Hell-hole” passageway to Satan’s residence; and more.
Meanwhile Marconi-cum-Michael attempts to rescue Laura and stop Satan’s evil if rather garbled plan against God, which said demon actually describes as “the ultimate ‘fuck you, Daddy.’” His only allies are a reclusive Cardinal (James Faulkner) and eventually some waifish “stolen souls” who “don’t belong” in Hell, but are stuck there anyway.
As if all this weren’t hard enough to sort out already, Alan’s screenplay doesn’t maintain a very firm grasp on even individual characters: Their supernatural powers seem to come and go, like their loyalties to one another. “The Devil Conspiracy” often seems to be muddying its own fantasy logic, not because the plot is complicated, but because too many silly ideas get introduced without being developed. Ideally this ought to create the kind of hot mess that only grows more entertaining as its excesses pile up. Instead, the movie begins to wear out its welcome once you realize the myriad frayed strands aren’t really going to tie together — they’ll just land in a messy heap.
Particularly since quality dialogue is not a strength here, the performers can do naught but try to keep a straight face, some under heavy layers of creature latex. Least fortunate is Orr-Ewing, who is ultimately called upon to pass in and out of a “possessed” state that no actor could gracefully pull off, as written. On the other hand, former dancer/model Hall treats her villainous role as a variation on Cruella DeVil, simply refusing to be made ridiculous — she will do that job herself, avec panache, thank you very much.
She’s not the only element that flags at least an occasional tongue-in-cheek attitude, which notably surfaces in some soundtracked songs and Anne-Kathrin Dern’s original score. In visual terms, “The Devil Conspiracy” is also frequently on the ball, from the use of splendid historical locations to production designer Ondrej Lipensky’s mix of Gothic and sci-fi motifs. The varied FX work is mostly first-rate, even if the concepts they illustrate are seldom very original; particularly good are the fallen-angel “devil bats” glimpsed in luridly colored Hell sequences. DP Milan Chadima’s widescreen photography is impressive throughout.
Indeed, this movie looks like the proverbial million bucks, or rather every last cent of the many millions it actually cost. But as is so often the case now, such craft is expended on a script that feels much less painstakingly thrown together, by committee. The end result is both eccentric and impersonal, entertaining and forgettable.