On paper, Nathan Frankowski’s The Devil Conspiracy sounds like the kind of movie that would often show up as a joke on 30 Rock (a distinction that’s more of a compliment than you might think). Here’s the setup: A shadowy biotech conglomerate and a cabal of satanists (gasp!) are planning to release Lucifer from hell by … wait for it … stealing the linen cloth used to cover Christ’s body during his entombment, using it to clone Christ’s DNA, and then implanting it into a surrogate mother, allowing Lucifer to possess the fetus. The Devil Conspiracy is like a mix of Rosemary’s Baby, Demon Seed, and the surrogacy mix-up romcom The Switch.
In the right hands, this setup could make for a pulpy delight (see, for example, Brendan Steere’s spirited, budget-light The VelociPastor or Larry Cohen’s schlock classic, It’s Alive).
While The Devil Conspiracy is mainly a horror movie, it also includes some promising science fiction concepts. For instance, head biotech company scientist Dr. Laurent (Brian Caspe) cloning historical icons and auctioning them off to millionaires. That idea sounds like the kind of short story you’d see in a collection from authors like Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, or George Saunders. You could even imagine Ridley Scott handling the eventual film adaptation. Here, unfortunately, the lack of storytelling talent behind the camera is thuddingly clear.
The Devil Conspiracy contains some truly wild moments. At one point, the archangel Michael inhabits the body of a murdered priest and then immediately backs his physical host’s modest sedan into a luxury car for kicks. But unfortunately, the film suffers from problems ranging from technical ineptitude to a fundamental lack of spiritual imagination. It’s a film with Christian leanings that holds little inspirational appeal for believers, and doesn’t make the faith terribly attractive to outsiders, either.
After a garbled voiceover detailing Lucifer’s fall from heaven and imprisonment in hell (the film’s sound mixing is so bad that only about a quarter of the dialogue is intelligible), we jump to modern-day Italy, where art historian Laura (Alice Orr-Ewing) is working on a paper about religious art. While Laura visits the Turin Duomo for research, the biotech company’s assassins, led by a woman named Liz (Eveline Hall) show up and execute the Duomo’s single security guard, as well as priest Father Marconi (Joe Doyle). The assassins steal the Shroud of Turin — a piece of linen that some believe to have been wrapped around Jesus’ entombed body — and then kidnap Laura to impregnate her with a demon baby made from Jesus’ DNA. Michael is dispatched from heaven to inhabit the body of Father Marconi to stop their diabolical scheme.
Apart from the tough-to-decipher dialogue and poor lighting that makes most of the film’s nighttime and hell-set scenes hard to see, The Devil Conspiracy’s uninspired take on faith dulls any of its more entertaining instincts. Laura seemingly exists only as a vessel for the evil clone-baby, destined to suffer continually at the hands of Liz and Laurent, or as an object of pity for Michael and the Catholic Church. Artists throughout history have come up with varied and interesting depictions of hell; consider Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg’s vision of the underworld in The Sandman comics, or Dante’s increasingly unpleasant nine circles of hell in The Divine Comedy. The Devil Conspiracy’s vision, by comparison, is a barren gray landscape that suggests the filmmakers ran out of time to come up with something distinct.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film, despite ostensibly being about the war between heaven and hell and the relationship between God, God's emissaries, and God’s subjects, is that The Devil Conspiracy treats God as disinterested, absent, and oblivious. Michael is originally responsible for imprisoning Lucifer, but seems fully unaware of the satanists’ repeated attempts to liberate Lucifer from hell. God is mentioned, but never intervenes directly in the plot, and ultimately seems like a distant CEO who’d rather not get their hands dirty. Laura, an agnostic, mentions her anger at God seemingly being absent in the face of others’ suffering, but a further discussion of her questions never happens. The fact that Laura’s own traumatic ordeal is allowed to happen at all only makes her distrust of the divine further justified from her perspective.
The Devil Conspiracy, like many of its faith-based cinematic relatives, is a disappointingly bland take on a subject that has many unexplored possibilities. From the fevered imagination of the book of Revelation, to Hieronymus Bosch’s darkly funny nightmarish paintings, as well as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Christian and Christian-inspired art has a rich, vibrant tradition in depicting the war between heaven and hell. With its gonzo premise and John Wick action proclivities, The Devil Conspiracy had plenty of opportunity to contribute to this tradition in a unique way. But it goes for an opportunistic cash-grab instead, replete with artistic and theological imagery that it’s not invested in enough to explore.