Written by William Drew
There’s the Artist. He is lanky with long, unkempt hair and stubble. The Artist also happens to be a gambler. Oh and a photographer because artists need a few side-hustles. He’s gone to the Caribbean on a job (we don’t see this because trips to Caribbean are expensive). When he gets back he tells the manager of the gallery that represents him about this strange experience he had out there. He was taken to a celebration, some kind of ritual, entered a cave and in that cave a man was painting a canvas in a trance-like state. Both the painting and the absolute focus of the painter made him question the value of everything he’s produced up to now. The gallery guy tells him he should just forget about all of that.
At home though, the Artist, who managed to take advantage of photos of the painting, is trying to replicate it himself. As you can imagine from the film’s title and, like the history of Western literature, things don’t go well from there.
The Faustian narrative is an archetype so well established that you’d expect some attempt to reconfigure it from a modern film. That’s not something we get here. Even if the film followed every Faustian cliché to the letter though, it’s a classic narrative for a reason so it allows for plenty of opportunities for horror: the transformation of the Faust figure as he becomes drunk on this new found power and success; the Gretchen figure fascinated by Faust’s talent and seduced by him; the dark figure of Mephistopheles/the Devil leading Faust into the ways of evil and finally extracting his debt. All of these appear in The Devil’s Canvas but it manages to avoid instilling any sense of fear or repulsion at all.
In case it’s not obvious by now, this is a very very low budget indie movie. The lack of resources shouldn’t be an excuse for a horror film not to be remotely scary though. Take the whole found footage genre (e.g. Paranormal Activity); the pared down simplicity of the two Creep films. The key is to work with what you have. And this doesn’t have to be going down the found footage route. Jeff Begos’s Bliss follows a very similar story to The Devil’s Canvas but it creates a really distinctive atmosphere from the beginning. You feel like you’re diving into the dark existence of anonymous sex, hard drugs and booze that is the artist’s life. Here, by contrast, we see the Artist swigging whiskey and working late into the night but it’s with a level of detachment that doesn’t serve any kind of purpose. It just reads as a lack of ideas.
Making a feature length film is a huge achievement and I am loath to accuse any filmmaker of laziness. The lack of immersion in the sound, the limited number of cameras, even the poor acting can ultimately be put down to a lack of resources. The lack of ideas, the lack of creative thinking that beset the film throughout though become particularly problematic when it comes to representation. This is honestly the kind of thing that comes down to decisions made in the script and it’s where the excuses start to run out. There are two main female characters in the movie: one is the secretary/receptionist at the gallery and the other is the stripper at the club who comes home with the Artist and whose body he paints. The latter is naked more often than not. None of the men get naked. The evil spirit (only referred to as the Devil in the title) that the Artist calls forth into the world has been imported by him from a Caribbean island and is described as being a vodun spirit. The only non-white characters are a kind of gangster who the artist owes money to and the various embodiments of that spirit. The fact that the stripper’s character is there for titillation is pretty obvious but even this might have been excusable if she or the other female character had had any agency at all in the movie. And the idea of the vodun spirit being imported by the Artist and infecting him plays into some extremely problematic tropes that I’d really like to think we’d left behind.
Overall, there’s not really any aspect of The Devil’s Canvas that makes it worth recommending. For far more effective treatments of similar subjects, check out Bliss and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child.
Verdict: 1 out of 5