The Devil’s Tongue is a taut, effective ode to the dark side of the creative process. Writer-director Julian Gowdy based the premise on his own experience as a recovering addict who spent time in rehab and emerged reflective about his experiences and the nature of his sickness. He wanted to make a film — and to make a film about someone diving as deeply into art as an addict does into their vices. It’s not a wholly original premise; “indie filmmaker descends into madness while pursuing his dream” is a go-to metafictional narrative in the horror world, particularly. But Gowdy gives the film a relentless pace that never stops shocking and a sadness at its core that remains effective throughout.
Julian (played by Gowdy) is a recovery addict working a 9-to-5 and dying inside day by day. He’s trying to make a film with friends and collaborators on weekends, but working without much of a budget and the time constraints of real employment make it almost impossible to finish. Weeks and months go by between shoots. Sure, he has a supportive girlfriend (played by Sarah Ward), but nothing can quell his desire to get out of Dodge and just make some art. Put something on film. Anything.
Eventually his friends and collaborators convince him the solution is to go completely avant garde. He’s able to recruit his posse for a “party” that becomes a shoot with few scripted lines. “Just go experimental as fuck with it,” Julian decides, and armed with maniacal focus, he sets out to get his work in front of the eyes of a big-shot Hollywood producer.
Things get bleak pretty fast, and the results include torture, violence and relapse. It’s a dark story, and it’s clear by the midpoint that Gowdy has turned his story into a machine through which he can grapple with his own history of addiction and complicated feelings about working in the independent-film world. The latter is a realm of stressors that creates a context for the former. The party he throws is full of substances for his cast and crew that it takes all his willpower not to partake in. Even his girlfriend questions the wisdom of opening himself up to that environment, and the fall is ultimately inevitable.
Eventually Gowdy’s outright violence turns off his collaborators and he’s left alone, sitting before a throne he built for his film, unable to stop churning over the blood-soaked planning documents from which he cannot detach himself. It’s not particularly subtle, but thankfully it’s not meant to be: Gowdy’s film works because it doesn’t try to play coy with its subject matter. There’s no bullshit. This is a primal scream of an independent horror production, one that emanates from a sentiment its director, writer and lead performer all make extremely clear early on: “I just wanna put a piece of myself out there to see if I’m accepted or rejected.” Gowdy may have only had $10,000 to produce his story, but he puts everything about his feelings as a filmmaker on the screen and at least succeeds in delivering something with a real voice to it.