Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Kristen Kerr, Lizzy Strain, Trent Haaga, Sarah Scott, Cinqué Lee, Amie Nicole, Masuimi Max
Written and directed by Ramzi Abed
Distributed by Halo-8 Entertainment
The Devil’s Muse opens on January 15, 1947, with a voiceover from a corpse that turns out to be the Black Dahlia. Cut to the approaching 60-year anniversary of that event, and a woman in her underwear is being stroked, seemingly willingly, by a man in rubber gloves, who then begins tormenting her. It’s a forceful way to start — simultaneously extremely erotic and totally terrifying … and certain to make a lot of audience members uncomfortable. After that we meet a filmmaker (Abed) who is researching the murder of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, one of the most infamous — and brutal — unsolved homicides in LA history. From there we learn that pieces of flesh and a good amount of blood splatter have been found at a crime scene along with a torn photo, which leads to the introduction of our main character, Lisa Small (Kerr), a woman whose apartment is a mini-shrine to Beth Short. Lisa is an attractive young actress who happens to be auditioning to play the deceased woman in the aforementioned filmmaker’s production. Next up is a cop questioning a suspect about the death of … someone, and we’re off and running with the is it Elizabeth Short or is it Lisa Small scenario we’ve been looking forward to since reading the back of the DVD box.
What’s immediately striking about The Devil’s Muse is the sparseness of dialogue in its first act. It’s an art film lover’s dream that’s drenched in color and sophistication. Predominantly blue and red are played off each other to excellent effect. As the lines blur between past and present, Abed uses the opportunity to create increasingly surreal and grotesque setpieces. The killer becomes more and more dangerous and brutal with each subsequent victim. Yet, somehow the film’s sexual edge remains intact, mostly due to the magnetic qualities of Kerr and Haaga. Kerr may not have had any more of a handle on exactly what her character was going through than I did (things are rather confusing at times), but it’s okay because she’s immensely likeable and the camera flat out loves her. My only complaint about Haaga (who also has a burgeoning career as a writer thanks to Deadgirl [review], among others) is that he didn’t get enough screen time.
Scott, who portrays Lisa’s friend Grace, adds a burst of energy to the proceedings just when TDM needs it the most, having started to drag a bit before she shows up. The rest of the acting, however, is uneven — painfully so at times — but characters are mostly secondary to sight and sound anyway. Putting style over substance is tricky and often done to a film’s detriment, but TDM successfully falls in line with its predecessors in spirit like “Twin Peaks” in terms of bizarre, dreamlike passages, except without any of that show’s quirkiness and small-town charm.
Not that The Devil’s Muse doesn’t have several charming qualities, first and foremost of which is its stellar score. David J, formerly of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, has woven a melodic thread that keeps everything in sync even when events veer off temporarily into your typical earnest indie pitfalls like pretentiousness and over-complication. The musical interludes keep things lively yet still off-kilter and serve to break the tension of trying to figure out if all the twists and turns are adding up to a worthwhile climax. Fortunately, in the final third the pieces begin coming together, and our patience is rewarded. Another thing TDM does 100% correctly is pay attention to its wardrobe. All the clothes are dead on and absolutely fabulous. Costume designer Freddie Rojas deserves ever penny he got out of the project’s budget!
Taken as a whole, The Devil’s Muse rates slightly above average, and when it comes to extras, you have to give Halo-8 credit. The love given to the film’s soundtrack is exceptional. Not only are there two music videos and a 25-minute concert by David J and some special guests, but we get a separate 11-song CD. The live performance ends with a trippy Kabuki-like flourish and was probably a lot more satisfying in person, but still, I applaud the effort. The 27-minute making-of featurette is introduced by a droll and philosophical Mark Borchardt and includes outtakes, interviews, and scenes of Abed and crew setting up various shots. By far the most entertaining moments come from half-sisters Julie and Lizzy Strain, who discuss/debate how they first got attached to the project and the improvisational nature of their roles in the movie-within-a-movie known as The Devil’s Muse. Julie’s fans especially should enjoy it as her most famous assets are magnificently showcased throughout. Kerr doesn’t seem nearly as comfortable during her Q&A, during which Julie again pops up to save the day and leave everyone smiling. A short while later Masuimi Max enthusiasts should be pleased to watch her practice a bit of her choreography for the camera.
In his four-minute “message” Ramzi Abed thanks everyone who was involved from cast and crew to those of us watching the DVD. We’re actually all thanked twice … first in full frame and then again in extreme close-up. It’s kind of goofy but also very sincere and much appreciated for its comic relief. There are two deleted scenes and, finally, a ten-minute conversation between Abed and Mary Pacios, who knew Elizabeth Short as a young girl, that for my money is the highlight of the special features. It’s both chilling and moving to hear Mary’s touching tribute to the horribly mutilated Beth all these years later. A couple of Easter eggs are supposedly lurking about, too, but I’ll leave it to those more resourceful than I to find them.
Certainly not everyone is as big a proponent of experimental cinema as I am, but if you have a taste for something that’s off the beaten path and on the twisted trail of the darkly perverse, The Devil’s Muse could be just the ticket. A blood-soaked neo-noir with an underlying message of how Hollywood exploits young women, it’s right at home with the innovative films of the 70’s that also dealt with “weird sex and black magic.” I wouldn’t want a steady diet of either, but once in a while it sure is fun to quench that craving.
Disc Two (CD)
3 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5
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