During the Puritan period of the mid-17th century, a husband, whose wife was killed during the witch trials, travels across East Anglia with her body in writer/director Mark Garvey’s choose your own adventure style, interactive movie Twas The Devil.
Many of my 80’s and 90’s childhood memories involve the reading and playing of some sort of adventure gamebook. The Fighting Fantasy series, written by the legendary duo Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, where always my favourite but I also had a number of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books too. Over recent years, TV has made tentative steps to choose-your-own-adventure style programming; Netflix streams a few animations where you can choose the outcome of the story by using your remote control, while also having the feature-length episode of Black Mirror about choosing your own outcome called Bandersnatch available. Now director and writer Mark Garvey brings his own ideas to YouTube – a website seemingly perfect for the concept of interactive programming.
Twas The Devil is set in the 17th century and is an impressive production, managing to hide most of its meager budget constraints with clever use of stunning black and white photography. What could quite easily have become silly and laughable or a local amateur dramatic group roaming around the forest in puritanical costumes is actually elevated to a work of art by the talented eye of its director. I do have some criticisms about Twas the Devil but cannot deny that as a piece of experimental avant-garde filmmaking, and what Garvey has produced here is a genuine success.
Zachary Makepiece, played by the commanding Simon Cleary, is mourning the death of his wife due to accusations of witchcraft so embarks on a journey across East Anglia carrying her remains in a coffin. It is then up to the viewer, using a series of prompts that appear at the end of each clip, to choose Zachary’s fate. Which way to go? What answers to reply with? What reactions to give? It’s up to you.
Director Garvey also acts as the cinematographer on the film and he shows actual top quality, there are many impressive moments during the film including a fine use of tracking shots early on, while the images of sunlight leaking through the trees in the forest often look sumptuous. There is a fascinating tendency for Garvey to also use reflections during some scenes. He likes to layer transparent shots on top of translucent shots creating what seems to be ghosts and mirror images. There is never any explanation for them and they don’t add much to the story, in fact, they often confuse the viewer, but they do look great.
If we class the video game Witcher III as the highpoint of choice and 90’s kitsch classic Knightmare as the low, Twas The Devil runs the gamut of everything in between. We meet a range of interesting and not so interesting characters along Zachary’s path, and it’s during these encounters that some of the performances waver slightly. It’s also unfortunate that a number of the sequences go on for far too long. It’s easy to lose interest before it’s your turn to choose again and when it is, the choices we are asked to make are not particularly exciting. To capture the audience’s attention and then to keep it, the scenes need to be shorter, punchier and the choices we make more consequential and gripping. When we have made our choice we don’t feel like we have affected the outcome in any way and remain somewhat on the outside of the story.
With moments of paganism, expressive dance, and ancient folklore, there are sinister undertones throughout Garvey’s story and an awful lot of darkness. There is so much dark that it begins to engulf you and with there not being much light relief around, there is very little escape from it. In order to fully enjoy the experience, we need a break from the constant doom and gloom and the oppressive darkness becomes very galling. There needs to be some more light to balance out the shade.
Overall, Twas The Devil is more the Filmmaker’s story and not so much the viewer who is supposed to be making the choices, but when the filmmaker is a huge talent as Mark Garvey shows he is here, you may as well choose whatever you want and then just drink in the visuals.