From 1992 until 2016, I was a regular commuter from the UK to the USA; back in the day, it was always a bonus to pop into a video shop and select a few titles that hadn’t been released in the UK for one reason or another. That second tier of almost movies to fill the shelves now seem to have found their home on streaming; yes, there’s new movies every day on Netflix, Prime and others, but they’re not necessarily the one you’re looking for. Nonetheless, there are a few minor nuggets at the bottom of every pan, and writer/director Chris Von Hoffman’s chatty thriller is worth pointing out to genre fans seeking something a little off-the-menu.
The draw here is Radha Mitchell, a popular actress with over 80 credits from Neighbours onwards, but rarely given a role that allows her to show her skills like Eliza, a demonologist who gets contacted by an aspiring but somewhat thick LA actor, Clayton (Timothy Granaderos). He’s researching a potential breakout role over a weekend, with the call-back set for Monday morning, but which side is Eliza on? Is she a demon, a demonologist, a good actress, or just a fraud? She also seems to have an acetylene torch, so maybe she’s a welder by day and demonologist by night, but that’s a whole other movie…
The Devil’s Workshop is at its best when Eliza and Clayton are sparring; there’s cheeky mention of tarnished guru David Mamet here, and The Devil’s Workshop gives the actors the chance to develop their characters in a way that involves, an actor’s devil’s workshop if you like. The acting is equally good in a secondary story, about how Clayton’s rival Donald (Emile Hirsch) spends his preparatory weekend, but while the thematic parallels are clear, this diversion doesn’t feel vital to the main story, which does pay off in some gnarly horror scenes towards the end.
Dropping on Prime in the UK with zero fanfare, The Devil’s Workshop is an actors’ piece that, despite some annoying flashy edits and junky interstatials, should work for patient, literate audiences seeking something more than just jump scares. Connecting Californian culture to occult matters, this could be set in the same cruel, bleak universe as Hereditary’s equally bleak Utah; despite a few pacing problems and an abrupt ending, The Devil’s Workshop is an effective intro for the talent involved, and for Mitchell, ill-served by many roles to date, it’s a show-reel that demonstrates a real talent in a tricky, dramatic, somewhat diabolical turn.