This week I’ve elected to shine a spotlight the troubled career of a talented independent filmmaker who could been the next John Carpenter or Guillermo del Toro if he’d been given the chance. Instead, he’s had to fight to scrape by financing his own films only to find them practically buried once the rights were sold, rendering someone who could have been filling our screens with horror classics for years a practical nonentity.
Maurice Devereaux started out as a French-Canadian film geek inspired by the best of the best who set out to make his own visions come to life and hopefully inspire others to do the same. He wrote, directed, edited, and produced four of his own films over a dozen year period through sheer determination and is possibly the most talented director you’ve never heard of.
Devereaux’s style combines horror creeps and gore with creative visuals, satire, and social commentary, all worthy of the Romero comparisons his work invites. But as much strife as Romero has overcome in his legendary career, he never had to wait seven years to get a film finished after he started shooting. In fact, mainstream fandom was always completely out of the question for Devereaux, given the impossible budgets these films were made on. Only indie fans need venture forth.
His 1992 debut Blood Symbol suffered from a troubled development cycle that included the lead actress leaving halfway through filming. Today it boasts one proper review on the internet, a mere 39 total ratings on IMDB, and is unavailable in any format physical or digital as far as I can see. As such, it remains the only one of his four films I haven’t watched, but judging by the review, it had enough style to make it well worth checking out. If only I could.
The review points out visual discrepancies in the film stemming from its extended development, including weight fluctuations for the lead actress and differing equipment (8mm and 16mm cameras) used at different points in shooting. This observation highlights another thing one notices watching Devereaux’s films: the massive leap in production values from one movie to the next.
It was another six year development cycle before our intrepid director turned in his next project, 1998’s exceptional Lady of the Lake. The budget was a minuscule $30,000, which Devereaux claims to be equivalent to a single second of Michael Bay’s Armageddon. Considering that ridiculously small amount, what ended up on screen is truly amazing. As with each of his first three films, some of the special effects are unimpressive and the acting is occasionally flat-out bad, but at the same time the creative beauty and style present in the man’s camerawork and overall mastery of storytelling is often stunning.
Sections of Lady of the Lake were shot FIVE YEARS APART from each other, making it amazing that it turned out as well as it did. The lead actress had moved overseas and needed to be flown back to Canada to finish the shoot, which was probably like half the budget by itself. Most of the other half was presumably spent on the exquisite underwater photography.
The music in the film is lovely as well, which is made kind of funny by Devereaux’s revelation in the DVD commentary that the walls of the sets were made of cardboard he had the music composer (who also funded the latter part of production) wallpaper for him. Now that’s how you indie, people! Much of the film is simply imagery accompanied by music with little unnecessary dialogue, which to me is a hallmark of high-level filmic storytelling. The combination of horror, dark fantasy, and romance that made up the core of the story worked really well together to make this one a winner.
Things got really interesting with 2001’s Slashers, where Devereaux made his micro budget format work for him by mimicking/mocking the reality television format. If major TV networks could make a killing turning cameras on a bunch of losers while we laugh at them, then why can’t an independent director make a film about a network killing a bunch of losers in turn on camera for laughs?
Slashers channeled The Running Man (both King’s and Schwarzenegger’s) with shades of Battle Royale (which he hadn’t seen yet) to satirically combine the inherent ridiculousness of reality game shows with our thirst for violent entertainment in an immensely entertaining and twisted package. Six contestants on a Japanese game show –complete with bubbly hostess and cheesy J-pop theme song- are released into a labyrinth along with three murderous masked massacrists and whoever survives gets to live long enough to enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame and the cash prize that goes with it.
The acting was still poor but the gore was a bit better by this time and the added satirical edge made this flick a bonafide knockout for me. The concept was pure win, the titular slashers were excellent, the kills were brutal, the tension was palpable, and in some ways it was Cabin in the Woods before Cabin the Woods was Cabin in the Woods, except that in that one the baddies didn’t have to pause mid-kill to wait through commercial breaks.
If anybody was still unconvinced that Maurice Devereaux was the man to watch in horror due to the low production values of his previous films, then End of the Line would be the statement he needed to make. Now here is a flick that if you don’t enjoy, then you just aren’t cut out to be a horror fan. This thing is an absolute beast and you need to see it.
As a straightforward apocalyptic end-times movie with both religious and supernatural twists, End of the Line is as good as it gets. The fact that it is actually more than that if you look at it closely enough works against it to an extent, but it takes a lot to follow the bread crumbs Devereaux leaves in the film, commentary, and bonus features to discover his veiled intentions so I recommend just sitting back and taking the film at face value for starters. Sometimes less is more; even from an intellectual standpoint. But the fact that he was willing to experiment with hiding the true narrative behind a puzzle to reward (or punish) inquisitive viewers is in and of itself exceptional.
When questioned about the budget of his latest film after it took the festival circuit by storm, the director chose not to discuss it, but it’s estimated to be around $200,000. More than his previous films, but still almost nothing at all compared to what most filmmakers work with. With that tiny amount, the man turned in one of the best horror films of 2007. It’s painful to think what he could have done with a Hollywood budget.
But that’s where it gets bad. Surely such a promising talent showing such massive improvement in his craft would be destined for greatness. But when you finance your own work outside of the Hollywood establishment and refuse to give up creative control for the comforts of corporate sponsorship, the movie industry can be a very bad place to be.
In a 2012 interview, Maurice Devereaux gave a fascinating and disheartening interview in which he discusses the business aspect of making films that has seen him out of commission, claiming that agents will “literally rape you and then ask you to pay for it”, and that the vast majority of indie filmmakers who get their films in wide distribution will never see a dime of the money. I recommend giving it a read in order to appreciate how nearly impossible it is for a filmmaker to operate without Hollywood connections.
It’s been seven long years since End of the Line came out with little word on any further forays into cinema. Aside from that blog interview from two years ago, one of my favorite up and coming directors nearly fell off of the face of the planet. Last year Fangoria dug him up and found him still seeking funding for two projects: a film inspired by Rosemary’s Baby and abortion debates, Unknown Delivery, and a graphic novel based on the lives of witchhunter King James VI and legendary cannibal Sawney Bean named Royal Demons that he’s given up on ever making as a film. WHY DOES NOBODY WANT THESE THINGS MADE!?
The tragedy of this speaks for itself. How many artless hacks do we have in Hollywood who get millions thrown at them to have their inane work crapped into theaters nationwide with millions more spent on marketing blitzes to promote them? Is it unthinkable that these studios could spare a few hundred thousand dollars for smaller directors with cult followings to put out some festival films and DVD releases that could easily recoup their cost with the possibility of blowing up to Paranormal Activity proportions? Yes. Yes it is.
The way major studios function is to buy out and destroy the competition and alternatives to their chosen blockbusters whenever possible. And their blockbusters and talent are almost entirely chosen by nepotistic practices. It’s not how good your work is, it’s who you bl….errr know. They don’t have any reason to support artists. They rake in millions ramming garbage down our throats; why bother with quality work from creators who don’t want to do as they’re told?
Such a happy-looking fellow. I think I’ll crush his dreams.
While this story represents a pretty bleak reality for aspiring filmmakers, I think it’s one worth knowing so that we can better appreciate some of the hardships independent directors face in getting their work made and seen. Every once in a while you get a Kevin Smith, Roger Corman, or John Carpenter who are able to spin low budget success into solid careers, but how many more do it for the love of their art and are driven out of the industry due to a lack of business savvy or connections?
Maurice Devereaux has been fighting tooth and nail to bring us great horror films since 1984 when he started production on Blood Symbol, and somehow he is still going. Only four total films -at least three of which are awesome- in a thirty year career. It’s almost physically painful to think of the potential horror classics we missed out on while this guy was scraping together couch change trying to get enough money together to wallpaper his cardboard sets.
So here’s to the little guys out there and to one day seeing a film industry that’s willing to take small chances on outsiders to bring us quality filmmaking instead of constant barrages of audaciously luxurious and forgettable productions by Hollywood sycophants looking for a write-off. I’m not holding my breath or anything but if we’d all give movies we know aren’t going to be any good anyways and only watch because everybody else is a pass in order to bestow a little more love on small time artists, we could potentially help reverse this trend.
As it is, good luck finding a way to watch Blood Symbol. Copies of Lady of the Lake are floating around on Ebay for pretty cheap, or you could buy one of the two copies available on Amazon for $79.99 new or $272.01 used if you’re feeling particularly insane. Slashers and End of the Line are thankfully still in print for the time being, but I wouldn’t count on it staying that way so if you’re looking for some great low budget horror, now’s the time.