A relentlessly-paced microbudget marvel, “The Devil’s Tongue” is a cautionary tale of obsession and a celebration of the creative spirit.
The Devil’s Tongue asks a familiar question: how much would you sacrifice for that which matters most to you?
This micro-budget horror film is about a recovering addict who desperately wants to make a movie, made by a real-life recovering addict who desperately wanted to make a movie.
With a story told from such a personal perspective, writer-director Julian Gowdy cast himself as the lead character and also named his character Julian.
We begin with a bride (Summer Binkley) approaching a throned devil in the woods. She’s made a Faustian deal, and it’s time to fulfill her end of the bargain. As the dramatic music ramps up the tension, the bride suddenly forgets her line. And we’re immediately pulled out of the fantasy and into the reality.
A filmmaker (Gowdy) is trying to get a shot right for his film, using a couple of unpaid actors.
It’s been a long day, and he still doesn’t have what he needs. But his actors are tired, and they have other commitments. He begs them to stay and get a couple more takes, but they tell him he’ll have to try again later — maybe in a month or two.
By that time, he knows he’ll never be able to recreate the scene in a way that maintains continuity.
The frustrated filmmaker begins to realize his labor of love may never see the light of day.
Julian values art above all else, and he sacrifices everything in pursuit of that art.
In the film-within-a-film, Julian’s bride has chosen to sacrifice everything in pursuit of love. While watching a scene from the film with Julian and David, Julian’s friend Morris heartbreakingly admits he has chosen drugs over everything else, even love.
As for Julian, he’s seemingly won his fight against drug addiction (at least for a while), but he remains an addict — replacing one drug with another and chasing that elusive high at any cost.
It’s a clever way to force us to challenge how we think about addiction and obsession.
While we are often quick to judge and condemn those who can’t kick an addiction to drugs or alcohol and who often cause harm to themselves and others in service of their addiction, we tend to glamorize the noble pursuit of art against all odds.
There’s something so romantic about the notion of the starving artist who never gives up and who willingly bleeds profusely for the sake of creative expression.
But Gowdy paints a portrait of a man who succumbs to great darkness in the frenzied pursuit of his art, drawing distinct parallels between the addiction to art and harmful substances.
And yet, though we are taken on a gritty and unnerving descent into hell, we can’t help but walk away from our viewing of The Devil’s Tongue feeling impressed and inspired by what Gowdy has managed to accomplish.
This is true, even though Gowdy telegraphs that it’s as much a bit of madness as hard work and dedication that helps an artist like himself bring their vision to fruition.
From the outside looking in, Julian seems to have a lot going for him.
Though he works a soul-sucking job, he’s got friends who willingly donate their time and talents to helping him make his dream a reality, as well as a loving and supporting girlfriend, Sarah (Sarah Ward), who adores him and does all she can to encourage the pursuit of his passion.
In spite of that, his life feels empty because, no matter how hard he tries, he can’t seem to succeed at the one thing that matters most to him: his art.
His actors can only give him so much of their time for free, and even his editor, David (David Sbarge), hasn’t watched the dailies from their latest shot because of his commitment to a paying gig.
While bemoaning these setbacks, David offers an intriguing suggestion: take a more experimental approach.
This causes the wheels in his head to begin to turn. Those wheels begin to spin furiously when his friend Morris (Morris Swed) shows up, fresh out of another failed stint at rehab and bragging about befriending Phil, the son of a big-shot Hollywood producer.
With that, Julian begins to hatch a sinister plan. He convinces his friends to join him for a bit of improv filming at his house and gets Morris to bring Phil (Philip Bushman). Once Phil arrives, he is persuaded to participate in the filming, ostensibly to replace an actor who couldn’t show up at the last minute. Reluctantly, Phil agrees.
The scene being acted out is a hostage situation, and Phil plays the hostage while Julian’s friend Steve (Graham Rickerman) plays the torturer. However, Phil starts to get more than a little uncomfortable as the torture, which includes actual waterboarding, feels too authentic.
But Julian needs it to look believable because he plans to extort Phil’s father, Hollywood producer Harrison Porter (David Snow), into reading Julian’s script and funding his project. Unfortunately for Julian, Harrison is not one to be trifled with. He immediately senses a con job and tells Julian to take a hike. This leaves a determined Julian no option but to escalate the situation in a bold effort to get Harrison to take him seriously.
From here, things quickly take a much darker turn and devolve into sheer madness.
I won’t ruin the surprise of what happens next or the dark twists and turns this nasty little film takes, culminating in a doozy of an ending.
But I will say it’s a captivatingly tense, highly effective ode to the all-consuming nature of the creative process.
Admirably, Julian doesn’t make his character — a proxy for the filmmaker himself — all that sympathetic. Gowdy seems well aware of his inner demons and doesn’t try to glamorize or make apologies for them. He knows his obsession is as much a curse as it is a gift, and he recognizes and eagerly explores the darkness inside him that compels him to pursue his art at any cost, repercussions be damned.
Julian, the character, isn’t a hero. He isn’t even someone we’re particularly drawn to, nor someone we’d want to spend much time with.
What he is, however, is highly relatable to anyone who has struggled with the same type of single-minded compulsion.
If you’ve ever danced with these demons, this is a film that will make you feel seen and understood, even as you grapple with the horrific nature of the kind of unyielding devotion that pushes someone to the point of depraved desperation.
It’s the reason I was so drawn to the intriguing premise for The Devil’s Tongue.
We live in a time when the pervasive mantra is that anyone and everyone can make a film due to the accessibility of digital technology and the fact that you can shoot a decent-looking film on an iPhone.
While all that is technically true, there’s a mighty deep chasm between making any film and making a quality film that people might actually see and enjoy. Those who want to create a film that gets seen quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the daunting resources it takes.
A filmmaker must be prepared to beg, borrow, and steal — sacrificing all and bleeding for their art.
The mere fact that a film exists, whether it resonates with a viewer or not, means something incredible has been accomplished.
The Devil’s Tongue showcases and honors the resourcefulness and creativity to make movie magic.
Made for a shoestring budget of just $10,000, money obtained from a COVID-related grant, it’s about perseverance in the face of limitations, budget constraints, and nearly insurmountable hurdles.
In the film, Julian eventually finds himself all alone, as his friends have become disenchanted with the questionable process and leave him to unravel, freefalling into his stop-at-nothing determination without a safety net.
This profoundly speaks to the inherent loneliness and isolation that creativity often demands.
At the same time, the film respects the importance of collaboration and the reality that no film ever gets made without considerable help from others, regardless of how many hats the filmmaker wears or how much weight they must carry on their own shoulders.
That’s certainly true for The Devil’s Tongue, which Gowdy acknowledges was very much a communal effort.
Like his fictional counterpart, Gowdy was aided by a small team of friends and collaborators who generously stepped up to help make his dream a reality.
It’s a talented team that made the characters feel believable and helped effectively sell this world of determination and desperation.
While Julian’s onscreen persona is a man who succumbs to his inner demons and spirals out of control, the real Julian found a way to exorcise his demons — channeling his unbridled passion into a riveting directorial debut that feels original, authentic, and unfiltered.