BLACK DEVIL DOLL: Stuck In Grindhouse Limbo With A Ventriloquist’s Dummy

One of the most hotly debated films in the schlock world during 2009 was Black Devil Doll.  This pseudo-remake of an infamous shot-on-VHS horror cheapie from the 1980’s acted as a line in the sand, polarizing the exploitation flick-loving faithful.  Reviews from were always even divided: either Black Devil Doll was the second coming of exploitation cinema or it was an aggressively-pitched hype that seduced the easily-duped true believers.  As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Black Devil Doll starts by introducing us to Heather (Heather Murphy), a buxom but simpleminded good time girl.  One night, she fools around with a Ouija board that zaps the evil spirit of an executed African-American mass murderer into her ventriloquist dummy.  In short order, the dummy seduces her and she falls for the now jive-talking hunk of plastic.  Unfortunately, one sex partner isn’t enough for the doll so he gets her to invite over some friends for a sleepover.  This is when the doll’s other need – a need for bloody carnage – takes over…

It’s a solid setup for lowbrow laughs & thrills and, on a pure content level, Black Devil Doll delivers the exploitative goods.  There are acres of bare flesh, a decent amount of cartoonish gore and a steady onslaught of raunchy humor.  It knows no shame (rape and racism are the major sources of its humor) and aggressively goes for the gusto in a way that grindhouse fans will adore.  Unfortunately, Black Devil Doll can’t quite sustain its running time.  After about a half hour, it becomes obvious that the filmmakers had about 30 to 40 minutes worth of actual story material and decided to pad out the rest of the running time with skits and riffs on whatever came to mind.

As a result, Black Devil Doll meanders when it should be tightening up, with the plot acting as a loose thread on which several digressions are hung.  Some pay off nicely: the best is a scene of Heather’s pals washing a car that becomes an over-the-top parody of oversexed hip-hop videos.  When the digressions don’t work, you get numbing excursions into poop jokes and extended takes of strippers soaping up their silicone-bombarded breasts.  Black Devil Doll also boasts the longest end-credits scene in recent memory, built around in-jokey gags that aren’t as funny as the filmmakers thought they were.

It doesn’t help that the performances are mostly awful.  Granted, no sensible person should expect Shakespearean acting in a film like this but is it too much ask for a little charisma?  Heather and her pals are all interchangeable, none showing a trace of personality beyond generic sexbomb mannerisms.  In fairness, Martin Boone does score a few chuckles as White-T, a faux gangsta, but the liveliest, wittiest work comes from the doll himself, who basically carries the flick on his little plastic shoulders.

However, Black Devil Doll does surprise with its unexpected level of technical polish.  The James Bond-parody title sequence and a few other visual effects boast above-average CGI work for a no-budget production.  There’s also a certain sophistication to the editing, including some inspired use of moving, multi-split screen effects (kudos to John Osteen, who served as CGI designer, co-editor and cinematographer).  The end result has a slicker, more visually imaginative style than most films at this budgetary level ever have.  Your Humble Reviewer was left feeling there is talent here but, creatively speaking, it’s just taking the easiest way out.

In short, the folks behind Black Devil Doll have more technical skill and potential than their detractors are willing to admit but their admirers are overlooking  their lack of focus and weak storytelling chops.  Hopefully, next time the Lewis brothers will try to compete with the best examples of the grindhouse era instead of its worst and invest more effort in the conceptual/script phase of their project.

“General Audiences” Trailer – But Still Pretty Much Not Safe For Work: