Studio: Reel Nightmare Films
Director: Giordano Giulivi
Writer: Duccio Giulivi, Giordano Giulivi
Producer: Silvano Bertolin, Ferdinando D’Urbano
Stars: Alessandro Zonfrilli, Carlotta Mazzoncini, Duccio Giulivi, Ferdinando D’Urbano, Silvano Bertolin, Simone Moscato, Simone Valeri, Walter Smorti
Eight people trapped in a mysterious recluse’s mansion fight to outwit a death trap capable of predicting their every movement.
I passed on an opportunity to cover “The Laplace’s Demon” when it premiered at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival in 2017. I passed a second time later that same year when the movie played at Screamfest in Los Angeles.
Those were easy calls to make. When you watch the trailer, you see unknown amateurs overacting in front of computer-generated images projected onto a screen. The aesthetically odd footage calls to mind a community college production morphed with a PlayStation One cutscene, except in black-and-white and Italian to narrow its niche appeal further. Imagine a slow-burn “Sin City” knockoff whose budget has four fewer zeroes.
Although I’m being a little glib for the sake of spicing this read, I’m not misleading anyone about the micro-indie movie’s lo-fi look. “The Laplace’s Demon” was almost entirely put together by just four men. In a move that’s either amusingly endearing or unnecessarily overindulgent, those four men list their own names a total of 48 times in end credits, and that doesn’t include their writing, producing, directing, or acting associations from the front end. The scroll could have lasted 10 seconds if every crewperson only appeared once. Yet they relisted themselves again and again for casting, grips, set decorators, electricians, effects, and so on. Nothing like coming away from one project with a two-page résumé.
Again, I can’t help myself from taking a cheaply sarcastic swipe. But the real reason I mention this is to calibrate what level of craftsmanship lies in store. I.e., this is a movie absolutely dripping with blood, sweat, and elbow grease behind the lens, but not so much curb appeal up front. What “The Laplace’s Demon” lacks in prim and proper prettiness, which is a lot, it at least makes up for with a passionate production and intelligently sharp story.
Backing up a bit, an unfortunate truth is that frankly, a black-and-white foreign film with experimental visuals featuring unfamiliar faces and a heady concept at its core is a hard sell for broad audiences. This is every ingredient for low interest from potential readers. Crossing it off my screening list was a no-brainer both times.
But every now and again as “The Laplace’s Demon” continued its festival run, I’d hear a random whisper about the film. Not just the usual PR fluff masquerading as “reviews” from fly-by-night blogs either. Critics with some genre cred had positive words of praise, which had me wondering if I’d unfairly, and incorrectly, made a misinformed snap judgment.
Early in 2019, yet another solicit to review the movie hit my inbox. With the film having floated around my periphery for nearly 19 months, my willpower weakened. Facing a temporary shortage of timely features to screen anyway, I thought after all this time I might as well give “The Laplace’s Demon” a shot.
And I’m grateful I let open-minded objectivity guide my hand instead of dismissive prejudgment, even if it was almost two years late. To be clear, “The Laplace’s Demon” is more rough than diamond. But the movie’s slick setup remains captivating from beginning to end, unleashing a delightfully devilish mystery that’s psychologically engaging as well as entertainingly gripping.
Successfully developing a proprietary piece of software earned Isaac’s research team an invite to a private island. This is no tropical getaway however. The island is owned by Professor Cornelius, a reclusive scientist who has never been seen in person, but who has arranged for the seven academics and their boat captain to spend the night in his mountaintop mansion.
Inside the mansion, the octet discovers an intricate model of the very home they are in, powered by complicated cogs, gears, and other analog mechanisms. Curiously, eight chess pawns representing each person stand in their respective positions inside the mini-mansion. More curiously, whenever they move, their respective pawns do too.
Here’s where it gets weirder. Cornelius isn’t there in person, but he is present on a VHS videotape. The mystery man explains by proxy that the mimicking pawns aren’t an illusion. Cornelius claims he concocted a mathematical formula capable of predicting human behavior. He merely preprogrammed the mechanical model according to what he deduced everyone would do and when.
Confused and astonished, the group rewinds the tape. They fast-forward it. No matter where they stop, Cornelius foresaw the precise point in the cassette to continue delivering his messages. He even answers live questions in prerecorded form, carrying on conversations since he knew in advance what everyone would say.
The eight pawns can only guess what Cornelius’ true endgame might be. Then a queen chess piece suddenly appears in the model and people begin disappearing. Whatever the professor is up to, it involves an unknown entity picking them off one by one while eerily anticipating every move they make.
I hate to undercut the effort the filmmakers put forth by saying this, and I risk shouts of “sacrilege!” from the anti-remake contingent too. But a big-budget redo with big-name talent would do wonders for “The Laplace’s Demon,” and virtually solve every one of its issues.
Ugly appearances are an impediment to immersion. “The Laplace’s Demon’s” jagged CGI eventually becomes part of its shaggy distinctness, as though cramming crudeness so relentlessly at last manipulates your mind into accepting it as a new form of fractured reality. But having to rely on homegrown technical tricks punches the story’s solar plexus regarding how seriously one can take it.
Uneven acting similarly spins wheels that don’t push the premise’s plausibility forward. None of the eight actors have IMDb headshots. Nearly none of them have acting credits other than this one. Being generous, maybe half of the cast is mildly believable as gifted scientific minds. Characters who have the most screen time are paired with the better performers, although one of the men pretty much purses his brow the entire time in a flat expression used to convey every emotion no matter what.
As much as I can’t help but feel like “The Laplace’s Demon” begs for experienced hands to more pleasingly mold its ideas into a fully breathtaking thriller, the four main men responsible still do an admirable job in light of considerable restrictions. Luckily, the plot sustains enough suspense that your imagination doesn’t feel put upon to meet flaws halfway. And ultimately, the cleverly conceived script stays solid as the movie’s main bread and butter.
“The Laplace’s Demon” requires an acquired taste for overlooking the low-budget limitations mentioned above. But fans of films like “Exam” and “Fermat’s Room,” even “Cube” or essentially anything where people trapped in tight spaces have to solve a puzzle, will find their fancy for crafty chills tickled.
Despite desperately wanting to take a nail file to its torn cuticles of overdone acting and exaggerated imagery, ignoring “The Laplace’s Demon” time and again turned out to be the wrong decision. Giving it a chance to put its hooks into my head was definitely the right choice.
Review Score: 75