Judge Daryl Loomis' muse stares back at him from the mirror.
Hollywood murders women.
The Black Dahlia murder has retained a ubiquitous interest among Hollywood buffs and has been the basis of countless documentaries, dramatizations, and works of fiction. Big movies and little movies come out to examine the facts of the case or glorify the supposed free-wheeling days of yesteryear. Because there is little to examine in the case, the results of these releases have been, mostly, very poor. Little is known about the victim, Elizabeth Short, and little real evidence has ever surfaced in the case. The Devil's Muse is just such a film, but one that does not try to solve the crime. Instead, using a story that works with the murder, it examines the role that Hollywood has played in objectifying women, both as actresses and as characters, and how the industry destroys women, sometimes physically, but very often spiritually.
Facts of the Case
Lisa Small (Kristen Kerr, Inland Empire) has arrived in Hollywood from the Midwest to pursue her star struck dreams. She gets a call back for the lead role as Elizabeth Short in a film about her murder. As she gets deeper and deeper into the script, the character starts to inhabit her life, and Lisa's mind starts unraveling. Meanwhile, a killer obsessed with trying to recreate the case begins systematically kidnapping the other women vying for the role in an attempt to find the "perfect" Black Dahlia.
Movies about Hollywood are self-referential by nature, and this one lays it on thick. While there is the subplot of the murderer, the primary story is about what Lisa goes through to get this part. It's unclear that this role means any more to her than another lead role would if offered but, because this is her first real gig, she obsesses over the script trying to understand the character. Almost immediately, as though there's some kind of mystical force over the character, she starts to become Elizabeth Short, even occasionally referring to herself as Liz. The longer this goes, the more detached she becomes from reality. What appears on screen becomes more erratic and untrustworthy, like she slips between waking and dream states without warning.
Contained in these dreams and flashbacks, clues to the identity of the murderer appear and there are plenty of red herrings thrown around, but the mystery is merely fodder to build up Lisa's mind for destruction. The more paranoid she becomes, the more she embodies the role of Elizabeth Short, and the faster she succumbs to the dangerous pressures of the industry. Lisa wants to act and that's all, but Hollywood in The Devil's Muse doesn't quite work that way (and often in real life, I presume). In their search for the best Black Dahlia, the producers want the actresses to truly embody Elizabeth Short, which means they must do a little more than act. At a lavish party thrown by the financiers, they coerce Lisa, with the help of her supposed best friend, into playing the prostitute. When she firmly objects in the end, the sleaze doesn't respect her for it. He continues to treat her like a hooker, just now like one without worth. Maybe she isn't the perfect Black Dahlia the producers thought she was, but their options are starting to thin.
As the killer gets closer to his vision of perfection, he weeds out the competition for Lisa. The police are on to the serial killings, and even have a few leads, but in this backbiting world, the people connected directly with the victims—the other actresses—are unwilling to answer questions. They deny knowing the victims, let alone caring about their well-beings. They know that their chances get better with each passing death, though deep down they know that it also increases their chances of being the next victim. By sheer lack of help, the cops are forced to let the killings continue.
Director Ramzi Abed employs multiple stylistic touches to represent this dark and dreamy vision of Hollywood. He uses black-and-white, sepia-tones, and full color interchangeably, with different levels of exposure and focus helping to keep viewers on edge. In these consistently changing looks, we can look for answers, but this only further confuses the experience. Abed's stylistic assault effectively disorients the audience, but it's also very self-conscious and never settles into a consistent stylistic pattern. The music from Bauhaus's David J. echoes this, as well; a mix of original compositions that range from traditional and cabaret styles to all-out electronic music, the score feels schizophrenic. While this adds to the disorienting feel, it's equally inconsistent with the movie in general.
While on the subject of inconsistency, the acting varies in quality much more than anything else. The work from Kristen Kerr and Trent Haaga (Terror Firmer) as her creepy ex-boyfriend are mostly quite good, especially surprising from Haaga given his history with Troma Films. The rest, on the other hand, are not so much. It is these people playing in these roles, however, that will help The Devil's Muse attain its inevitable cult audience. Nearly every role is populated by somebody of niche value. Gidget Gein, former bassist for Marilyn Manson, pinup models Masumi Max and Courtney Cruz, comic artist and creator of "Meatcake," and many more fill the parts. All the fans of these people will get a kick out of their performances, even if they aren't particularly skilled. The casting the prospective actresses is the most interesting part of the production, though. Because all these women are vying for the same role, they all dress, act, and look very similar. Like in many war films, where soldiers quickly become interchangeable in their helmets and uniforms, so too in The Devil's Muse. This small thing goes a long way to effectively describe the cold, faceless misogyny toward women in the film industry.
Halo 8 has done good work on their release of The Devil's Muse. Because of the jumble of styles, the image suffers a little, but it is generally fine with few transfer errors. The surround sound is very good with dynamic spatial effects and heavy use of the subwoofer. The DVD is supplemented by an interesting half hour making-of documentary and a short concert with David J. and ensemble performing pieces of the score. Additionally, in my favorite of all DVD extras, it comes with a CD copy of the soundtrack. As a fan of film scores, this is something I could potentially buy separately and its inclusion is the definition of "added value content" in terms of real dollars.
While not a total home run, The Devil's Muse is a worthy, ambitious project with a strong message. Cult audiences will fondly receive the film and embrace its failings as much as its successes.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Halo Eight
• Making-of documentary
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