Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Devil in the Flesh (Le Monde/Prostar/Unapix, 1998)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent much of this morning watching some videos from the Lifetime backlog. The films I picked out were Devil in the Flesh from 1998 and its sequel, Devil in the Flesh II (also called Teacher’s Pet), from 2000 — and watching them consecutively tended to blur together their good qualities and accentuate the not-so-good simply because the two plots were almost identical! Devil in the Flesh starts out with two Los Angeles police detectives, Joe Rosales (a tall, thin, craggy-faced African-American who frankly did more for me aesthetically than a lot of the guys in the movie we were supposed to think of as sex objects!) and Phil Archer (Robert Silver), investigating a suspicious fire that killed a 30-something woman and her boyfriend. The rest of the authorities have decided this was an accident, but our detectives (who speak, naturally, in the clipped tones Jack Webb established on Dragnet as the way to play an LAPD officer) suspect not only that the fire was arson but that the victims were stabbed before the house was set ablaze, and they ask the medical examiner to do a second autopsy to check on that possibility.

We then meet the titular “devil in the flesh” herself, Debbie Strand (Rose MacGowan), daughter of the woman who burned in the fire, who shows up at a new school (still in the L.A. area, as the Hollywood sign in the background informs us) and is placed by a social worker into the custody of her maternal grandmother, Fiona Long (Peg Shirley), who turns out to be a martinet and a religious maniac who insists on sending Debbie to school in her mother’s old clothes, having her back home by 4 p.m., making her clean out the attic and the garage and beating her when she breaks the house rules. Needless to say, she’s also supposed to go to church regularly and is not supposed to date. Debbie latches on to a hot young teacher, Peter Rinaldi (Alex McArthur), when he saves her from being sexually harassed by a blond jock on the first day of school. She instantly forms a crush on him even though he’s already got a girlfriend more or less his own age, Marilyn (Sherrie Rose), a flight attendant who’s out of town a lot. Debbie seizes on every excuse she can get to be with Peter, volunteering to help him with his garage sale and tripping the other girl, Meegan Wright (Krissy Carlson), who had also agreed to help — Meegan (who resents it when anybody pronounces her name “May-gun”) is described in the dialogue as an animate Barbie doll, and Carlson actually looks like one.

Debbie also offs her grandmother — though the woman is portrayed as such a maniacal bitch we actually root for Debbie in her murderous attack on her! — and fakes phone messages to make Peter and Marilyn each think the other wants to break off their relationship, then turns up in Marilyn’s place at a fancy hotel restaurant where Peter has made a reservation, flirts with two other guys there, and sparks an altercation that ends with Peter being arrested and Marilyn meeting him disconsolately outside the police station — not exactly her idea of an ideal date with him after returning from one of her flights. Though written by a committee (Richard Brandes, who also produced, and Kurt Anderson, story; Steve Cohen, who also directed, Kelly Carlin McCall, Robert McCall and Michael Michaud, script), Devil in the Flesh actually comes off quite well — it’s nothing more than an entertaining piece of trash but at least it’s a good entertaining piece of trash, a credible splinter off the old film noir log with a climax (Debbie goes to Marilyn’s house to eliminate the competition, Peter and the cops follow, the cops get wounded and put out of commission but Peter and Marilyn manage to subdue the bitch, who ends up in a hospital for the criminally insane) that’s exciting and action-packed but also credible within the genre conventions (some Lifetime movies have brought in what seemed like half the entire U.S. military to apprehend the culprit!). It also benefits from a marvelous performance by Rose MacGowan, who’s properly low-keyed and twitchy through most of the movie and manages to give this character more dimension than the writers did.