Film Review: The Devil Went Down to Islington

Daniel Wilson’s comedy-horror The Devil Went Down to Islington is a broad, farce-laden tale that feels like a film out of time. A throwback with a curious tone that harkens back to the early noughties when lad-culture and scantily clad women were the order of the day, the jokes miss more than they hit amid the blood-soaked CGI-silliness of the story.

Film poster for The Devil Went Down to Islington.

At the end of a drunken night out, hapless music teacher John (Spencer Brown) and his colleague Nick (James Lance) unwittingly sell their souls to Beelzebub himself (Dominic Coleman) for a few days of peerless luck and joy. Though lottery wins and sexy-sexy-girlfriends are suddenly in abundance for the witless pair, as the reality of eternal damnation nears they decide to embark on a quest to undo all of their good fortune and nullify the deal.

At points The Devil Went Down to Islington manages to capture the tone of the early Edgar Wright projects that it is clearly aping. Here you will find lots of shots and editing choices influenced by Wright’s work on Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, and also the whip-smart delivery that some of the dialogue attempts will certainly remind you of early Pegg and Frost banter from across the Three Cornetto’s Trilogy. Though ultimately, in paying homage to those superior works, the film only serves to remind the audience of some of its own shortcomings.

Two men looking suspiciously at something off camera. Still from The Devil Went Down to Islington.

Much of the film falls flat with jokes that don’t land, ideas that are half formed and a script that seems to have barely mastered the single entendre.

Director Wilson’s background is as a seasoned director of BBC soap operas like Doctors and Eastenders, and to his credit the film looks terrific; whilst aping the feel of early Edgar Wright, Wilson’s direction has enough flavour and confidence to stand on its own merits and helps hold the film’s unwieldy narrative together.

Less successful is the CGI blood and gore across the film. The practical effects in the film are fun and gruesome, and while they never convince as anything other than an effect, with a film as silly a tone as this that is not an issue. When the film calls on the CGI crew to create a grizzly image or demise of a character, the effects work immediately takes you out of the piece with its slapdash and haphazard appearance. Pulling off some of these shots on what would have been an extremely tight budget was always going to be tough, and I wish that they had stuck to their grimy practical effects successes.

A young blonde woman smiling to a man who is mostly off camera. Still from The Devil Went Down to Islington.

Spencer Brown (Nathan Barley) is great fun as the hapless John Robertson, a failed indie artist who has fallen into a life of high-school teaching that he is ill-equipped for. James Lance (fresh from his Ted Lasso gig) plays the role of ‘sleazy best mate’ as well as could be expected, but even his magnificent hair cannot distract from the fact that these characters feel like they have both been plucked out a comedy show of another era.

The whole film feels like a failed attempt to squeeze the cast of Men Behaving Badly into a feature length episode of Spaced

Michael Smiley, playing a priest, looking up to the sky screaming. Still from The Devil Went Down to Islington.

Michael Smiley is on hand for a glorified (and glorious) cameo as an unhinged, heavy-metal priest, staking the forces of darkness in a very fun, over the top pre-credit scene. But this wild-man character seems to stand in stark contrast to the one we later meet in the film, with very little explanation as to why or what his function was.

The larger cast of the film is populated with familiar faces from British tv comedy of the last twenty years, all bringing a little zest and energy to proceedings and keeping the film ticking along. Mark Benton (Anna and the Apocalypse), Tessa Peake-Jones (Only Fools and Horses) and even the wonderful Ronni Ancona (The Trip, Hotel Babylon) are all on hand to give the peripheral characters a little flavour, and all add to the ensemble feel of the production. Even British day-time TV legend Ainsley Harriott is on hand for a surreal and silly cameo as himself in one of the film’s more dreamlike moments.

Two men running down the road next to a brick building. Still from The Devil Went Down to Islington.

The Devil Went Down to Islington is an odd film to get to grips with. Largely fun and innocuous, the film is peppered with some concerningly out-dated sexual politics that paint it as a film from a bygone era, whilst still attempting to channel the style and cool of one of Britain’s greatest filmmakers. More Edgar Light than Edgar Wright, Wilson’s film feels like a fun festival experience that doesn’t quite translate to the small screen.

The Devil Went Down to Islington is on digital HD now.

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