Synopsis: A struggling actor spends a weekend with a female demonologist to prepare for an audition.
Stars: Radha Mitchell, Timothy Granaderos, Emile Hirsch
Director: Chris von Hoffmann
Running Length: 86 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: With the onslaught of content thrown at us 24/7, the more a movie can stand out from the crowd, the better. It’s not so terrible to be bad, but it’s truly the worst to be forgettable. That’s why how a studio plans to market a film is critical to its success. You’ve heard me gripe enough about trailers that give too much away, so now let me get on my sturdy soapbox to bend your ear about boring posters. What your advertising looks like visually is as essential to me as the movie itself, so don’t give me a cheap-o photoshop cover or key art that is crudely cobbled together.
Had I not been enticed by a preview that drew me in, I might have declined to review Devil’s Workshop solely on the poor quality of its poster. Let it be known (spoiler or not) that the image you see above doesn’t factor into the completed film…and that turns out to be a good thing. If you were to glance at this marketing, you might think Devil’s Workshop involves some half-naked ginger possessed by something rotten. Instead, writer/director Chris von Hoffman has delivered a film aiming higher and often hitting its target, boosted by energized performances and a script that doesn’t show its hand right off the bat.
Struggling actor Clayton (Timothy Granaderos, We Are Your Friends) has been trying to make it as an actor in Los Angeles for the past 15 years. Still waiting for his big break, he endures calls from home congratulating him on his cut roles in the latest episode of NCIS and watching while his peers go on to the kind of career he wants. He’s wildly jealous of Donald (Emile Hirsch, Midnight in the Switchgrass), a d-bag who lucked out early and has followed that initial success to consistent work. Similar in type, the two are always competing for the same roles and Donald, being the more recognizable face, often gets the job and a nice paycheck.
When both are up for the same role in an upcoming paranormal thriller, Clayton decides to look outside his acting class (and I would too, after witnessing eye-rolling scenes of pretentious never-beens theater-gaming themselves silly) for help in preparing for the role. He places an ad on the web for instruction on demonology and gets a hit from Eliza soon after. Driving to her isolated home far outside the city, Clayton isn’t sure how this will benefit him, but he knows he needs to do something to change his current path.
Until this point, von Hoffman’s film has been a traditional look at the same story facing many actors arriving in Hollywood with stars in their eyes. The business is tricky, jobs are scarce, and if you are friends with people in the industry, they will likely make it, and you won’t. We must leave the city behind for von Hoffman to shift Devil’s Workshop into a different gear. Coincidentally, that’s when Radha Mitchell (Olympus Has Fallen) shows up as Eliza.
Playing a free spirit that’s perhaps a little too welcoming, Mitchell is an absolute revelation as this mysterious character. She gives Clayton a reason to keep his guard up with the single woman living alone in a large California country house. Eliza promises the next few days will help Clayton prepare for the role, offering her experience as a demonologist to help inform his acting choices. First, they’ll need to get to know one another and prepare him for the ritual she’ll be taking him through. Thus begins a weekend of strange experiences for Clayton where Eliza’ll challenge him on more than just an acting level. Secrets from his past will affect the present, and Eliza’s history will also factor in.
Had this been the through line of Devil’s Workshop, I may have added another point to my total. Unfortunately, we still have to keep Donald on our mind, and von Hoffman intercuts Eliza and Clayton’s time together with Donald’s druggie/chill night with two female friends. As is often true, Hirsch is fun to watch; yet these scenes drag the picture into territory that feels more self-indulgent the longer they stretch on. I just wanted to go back to the A storyline and ditch the B plot once and for all.
I’m not entirely sure Devil’s Workshop finds a satisfactory way to end the film; I thought it would surely tack on another scene after the finale that better ties things off. From a filmmaking standpoint, it’s edited quite nicely, with impressive make-up and gore effects throughout. For a film involving demonic possession and ritual sacrifice, the final 1/3 of the film isn’t as wild or unrelenting as it could have been and for that steady hand, I was grateful. It’s another sign that von Hoffman had a clear vision of what he wanted.