It’s not easy to make a movie. It’s really very, very hard, so maybe cut Chester Novell Turner a little slack. When he set out to make Black Devil Doll From Hell, all he had was a shitty 1980s camcorder and a cheap Casio mini-keyboard. He managed to rustle up $10,000, but almost all of it went to paying the actors and crew. I can’t imagine the crew was anything more than a camera person, but you never know.
Turner wrote the script over a weekend, but it took years to finish filming it. He had never made a movie before or even taken a film class. He ended up taking a correspondence course to help him finish the film.
The premise isn’t so bad. A sexually repressed, conservative Christian woman buys a ventriloquist puppet at a second-hand store. The store owner warns the woman that the doll is rumored to grant its owner his or her deepest desire, just like the room in Tarkovsky’s Stalker. When the woman gets the puppet home, it comes to life and seduces her. Her chastity broken, she is turned into a craven sex maniac. Then the puppet disappears, leaving her with an unquenchable thirst for sex, but as hard as she tries, no man is able to satisfy her. That’s a pretty good story. If there had been an R-rated version of The Twilight Zone, it might have fit right in. A prudish, judgmental Christian pays the price for her haughty ways by being forced to come to terms with her own repressed urges. It’s a humanist lesson in embracing the full spectrum of life’s expression. It is also one of the most poorly made, clumsy, incompetent films to ever be put on magnetic tape.
To begin with, the movie is barely visible. There are wavy lines and tracking problems throughout. Even with the whole image wobbling like jelly, it’s the lighting that really makes it hard to bear. The whole movie seems to be shot using unaltered, unconsidered available light. Basically, Turner just turned the lights on in a room and then started filming without regard to backlighting, shadows, or hot spots. He didn’t try to shoot near a window or muster a little contrast. The whole film is just a muddy beige fog of soft-focus mush.
There must have been a long chapter on b-roll in Turner’s correspondence course, because most of the movie is made up of just that. The camera wanders around the house looking at rugs and pictures on the wall while we listen to dialogue. We spend more time looking at the coffee table than we do looking at any of the characters.
Then there is the atrocious dialogue. It sounds as if it was written by a robot, a particularly unskilled robot, maybe a calculator. No, a broken calculator, or possibly an abacus. The puppet speaks in a kind of gangster-style bravado. He ends every single sentence with “Bitch!”, as in, “I’m gonna fuck you, bitch!”, or, “I’m fuckin’ you, bitch”, or “Howdya like dat, bitch?” This style of speech is contrasted with Hellen’s prim and proper English. In terms of code-switching, Hellen speaks in a manner associated with middle-class white people, and the devil doll speaks in a manner associated with black “thugs" and “gangsters". This creates a subtext that could point in different directions. Either the thug style of speech represents a more honest mode of expression and is in opposition to her white speaking style, or the thug style is a degenerate style of speech associated with the devil and all things evil and dirty. You can interpret it either way.
The filming is bad, the dialogue is bad, the acting is bad, but the music is exceptionally bad. When all you have is a $17 Casio kid's toy, you don’t have a lot of options, but most anyone could do better than just holding a single key down through the duration of a scene. Yes, that is exactly what Turner does. There are basically three musical modes in the film. Mostly, Turner just turns on the drum function of the synthesizer and we get a muffled approximation of a snare drum and bass. At least I think that’s what they’re supposed to be. Then, when things get tense, Turner picks a piano key and holds it down until… I’m not sure… until he is tired of holding it down? The last mode is a mindless meandering up and down the keyboard.
About half the film is sex scenes between Hellen and the puppet. The scenes are unspeakably awkward and creepy. The worst part is the long shots of the puppet using his abnormally long, wooden tongue to maul Hellen’s breasts. Fortunately, the lighting is so bad you can’t see it very well.
Black Devil Doll From Hell came out in 1984. Twenty-three years later, in 2007, a sequel was made called Black Devil Doll. Maybe it’s a sequel, maybe it’s a remake, maybe it’s a rip-off, I don’t know, but it is incredibly misguided, offensive, and even upsetting. Fortunately, it is very hard to find, unless you want to pay 50 dollars for a DVD. I found a torrent thanks to the assistance of my pal Liquid Nuke. Thanks, Nukey!
It’s difficult to know where to begin. The 2007 production of Black Devil Doll could easily have been made by the Proud Boys or the Klan. It is an unrelenting parade of racism and misogyny that just knocks you over and marches right over your face. The 1984 version was stupid and racist, but it was so completely inept it was kind of endearing and funny. Not very endearing and funny, just a little. Mostly it was just profoundly ineffective. If the 1984 version looks like it was cobbled together by a first grader, the 2007 version looks more like the work of a very disturbed 9th grader with a bigger budget.
In the 2007 version, we meet Heather, a young woman with a very curvy body that juts out in every direction. She is sitting on the couch being bored. We know she is bored because we get a lot of cutaways to the clock on the wall. I’ll give Jonathan Louis Lewis, the director, this; his use of boring footage to represent boredom is akin to Chantal Akerman’s techniques in her film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Boring your audience with lifeless footage in order to convey ennui is as artless as hitting them all on the head to convey pain, but don’t get me started about French films.
Heather plays around with an Ouija board and accidentally summons the spirit of Mubia abul Jamal. No, not Mumia Abu-Jamal, but a radical, black, psychopathic activist named Mubia abul Jamal.
The spirit possesses a Charlie McCarthy doll on her couch and turns it from a white aristocrat into a little, black man with a black power fist on his T-shirt and a big fro. The rest of the film is just watching Mubia rape and kill a coterie of plus-size strippers with surgically inflated breasts.
Setting aside the references to radical black activism for just a moment, Mubia is meant to be a parody of thug culture like his 1984 predecessor. The 2007 version is more intense and has a lot more to say, but essentially, both characters are meant to be humorous exaggerations. The puppets despise women, use sex as a weapon of degradation, have no emotions other than anger and avarice, and think only of their own benefit. The funny thing about thug ideology is that it imagines itself to be a transgressive stance against white society, but it is actually in lockstep with it all the way. Misogyny, greed, narcissism, and emotional stoicism are the mark of the rich, white executive as much as it is any gangster rapper. They are both just poisonous products of late-stage capitalism.
Mubia spouts a never-ending litany of B-words, N-words, and whatever else he can muster to insult and degrade everyone around him before he murders them. Now, about those references to radical black activism that I set aside. The film does something really despicable with them. While Mudbia rapes his victims, his aroused growls and angry thrusts are intercut with archival footage of Huey P. Newton and other prominent figures, along with famous events from the civil rights struggle. The result is a montage that blends eroticized rape, thug bravado, and revolutionary ideas of black power as if they are equivalent and interchangeable.
Most of the radical black revolutionaries of the ’70s were Maoists. They were well versed in a variety of ideologies and helped expand our ability to critically evaluate the hegemony of the state, but Jonathan Louis Lewis reduces them down to a bunch of weed-smoking pimps who just want to fuck and kill white girls.
If you look up Lewis on IMDb, you get this, “ Jonathan Louis Lewis is an award-winning writer and director originally from Oakland, California. As an accomplished creative, Jonathan has written and directed many short films, two feature films, and a multitude of creative content… He's a director with passion and style that cannot be denied. He tirelessly works on new creations and continues to violently push the envelope, rendering his own brand of cinematic magic.”
“Cinematic magic", so that’s what you call filming a puppet orally raping a huge-breasted corpse in a bathtub, got it.
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