Sometimes, a morbid and trashy but witty story can be a liberating experience, letting your political correct defenses down and reveling in well-written dark, offensive humor. There are plenty of writers and filmmakers who do it well, somehow able to balance bad taste with a beating heart at the center, even if that heart is a murmuring, stint occupied death forecast. Those are the most successful, because they teeter delicately on the edge of simple offensive nonsense, yet never fall off that edge, retaining a balance of some dignity...
...Rarely are the ingredients ever mixed right, which make for an uneven film in tone as it either sways too much on the corny, feel-good side or the vile, filled the rim waste bucket side. Director, Garrett Kruithof, tries his luck with that fragile balance in the latest effort by High Octane Pictures, The Devil’s Acid. Make no mistake, this is a moderate to severely offensive film, but the bigger question is whether or not it’s equally entertaining.
We begin our trip into this drug addled, mischievous story as a fly on the wall in the home of Johnny, played by Drew Rin Varick. Right off the bat, Johnny is incredibly unlikable, tossing out racist remarks as if they were daily greetings to his house employees. His maid, pool boy and landscapers all fall victim to Johnny’s insensitive nature and very particular needs. It’s a dilemma though, because he pays them extremely handsomely to put up with his antics. The housemaid, Aiesha, played by Betty Jeune, is asked to do something clearly not in her job description. Johnny wants her to go pick up one of his “hot girls” for his annual party at an undisclosed location, where his women of choice participate in sex, drugs and other sinful activities. Aishea strikes a deal with Johnny to be included in this year’s party or she will quit. Johnny reluctantly agrees and they depart with the other chosen women to this year’s location, an abandoned prison. Oh yeah, and they all take a tab of, you guessed it, The Devil’s Acid.
If this sounds strangely appealing, it’s because it is. The Devil’s Acid earns immediate points for originality. What could have been a far more typical party movie plot, with some horror elements thrown in, stretches its narrative dynamics by giving us more than expected. One of the more memorable inclusions is an intermittent parallel story, where one of the landscape workers tells his two sons the story of the film’s events. The film’s events are all told with infectious energy and a borderline slapstick quality. It’s entertaining and I can recall more than a few memorable gags. Tonally, the film is consistent. However, while consistent, it’s not a tone that necessarily holds well over the course of an entire movie. By the end, I was left feeling short changed, like there was an entire act missing that could have elevated the film’s characters. Our actors here are mostly fantastically colorful, interesting and memorable, with the exception of Betty Jeune, who comes across energetically challenged. I usually appreciate when an actor pulls back from an-over-the-top assault of “look at me!” acting, but Jeune does the opposite to a fault, sticking out like a sore thumb from the other, more competent actors. Drew Rin Varick as Johnny steals most of the screen as a detestably selfish jerk, expressing entitled demands every chance he gets. He’s great for what the role calls for, but our main character is so insufferable that it creates a disconnect to the viewer. I don’t think every film needs its protagonist to be likable, but there should be, at the very least, something relatable to the viewer.
I completely understand that Garrett Kruithof and his writing partners, Eric Gibson and Finch Nissen have intentionally crafted their story and characters with cynical unlikability for comedic effect. That kind of bad taste humor can work, but not when it’s the only identity the film has. There needs to be a supporting component to function alongside it, whether it be a redeemable character or a theme that does more than shock you. It’s like a Chuck Palahniuk novel with all the perversions and taboo subject matter, but without the philosophy and thought provoking questions it so expertly raises. Not all that we’re given here is lost in a haze of druggy unpleasantness. In fact, the amount of drug culture references are surprisingly scarce. I’m pleased to say this film doesn’t rely on juvenile drug humor, as it could have so easily done. There are a lot of moments that do produce genuine, audible laughs, even though the structure is a scene to scene pattern of silly, gross-out shenanigans. I just wish there was a bit more to chew on here. They could have easily ratcheted up the horror gags to at least balance out the consistent, but still one-note tone.
Compositionally and presentation wise, The Devil’s Acid is top notch. While the early parts of the film don’t do anything notable with setting, once our characters enter the abandoned prison, I was very impressed by the scale of the structure. The location scout for this film deserves a bonus. Unlike many films that take place in a large compound, building or a generally large area, the geography and layout of the prison give a sense of where everyone is. It’s never hard to discern where everyone is, because each room inhabits a particular character and you begin to associate them with those corresponding spaces. Cinematographer Robert Foster does a more than competent job with shot composition. Each shot is given a good sense of perspective and symmetry. Nothing about the way this was shot feels amateurish and it gives the film a very professional look. One gripe I do have, is the shameless Quentin Tarantino-like opening credits, complete with 1970’s exploitation film sensibilities. The old song and dance of a catchy old tune, painted onto neon text and actor/character intro cards. We’ve been there and done that too many times before.
The Devil’s Acid fails as a successful marriage of dark comedy and tangible substance. However, it succeeds at being a highly entertaining, sometimes clever romp through the experiences of...questionable people. The actors commit, the production work is admirable and the story, while missing that beating heart at the center, is fun enough. It’s no doubt a mixed bag, but it’s a film that’s easy to allow for tempered criticism and enjoyment of the odd, perverse experience. Just don’t expect it to wind up being on your repeat viewing schedule.
Party with The Devil's Acid when it drops on VOD November 5th from High Octane Pictures.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth