After surviving a fire which killed her abusive mother, Debbie Strand (Rose McGowan) is sent to live with her fundamentalist Christian grandmother (Peg Shirley) who makes her wear old clothes, continually clean the house, and not have any fun. At school, Debbie develops a crush on a teacher at her school, Peter (Alex McArthur), even though he has a girlfriend. The tale seems to be going in a pretty safe, innocent way. Perhaps a love triangle will develop. Maybe the film will teach us about how inappropriate student-teacher relationships can be.
Nope. The film is called “Devil in the Flesh“; what do you expect? Consider two detectives, who think, perhaps, that the house fire at the beginning wasn’t an accident. They even find a hidden knife, which survived the blaze. Debbie starts showing signs of not quite being the nicest person in the world. It begins with a dog and ends with more than one person. Debbie is a killer, and she will do whatever it takes to be with the man she loves, even if that means eliminating everyone else on the planet (presumably).
You’ve seen this kind of movie before, I’d assume. 1992’s Poison Ivy was very similar, if I remember correctly. If you haven’t, then you’re not exactly missing out on a whole lot, especially if you’re considering making your first exposure to its ilk Devil in the Flesh. This is a mediocre watch at best, and a terrible one if you can tell where it’s going from the get-go. It’s predictable and completely unsurprising, meaning it can’t even come close to being suspenseful.
Devil in the Flesh also puts the audience in an awkward position. On one hand, we’re supposed to feel sorry for our protagonist. She has a semi-tragic back story — her mother was abusive is about all there is to it — and her grandmother is so … not the type of person most of us would want to live with. We want to see the grandmother get a little bit of comeuppance. And we initially feel sorry for Debbie, as she’s had a hard life and her craziness is likely due to childhood trauma, not Satan.
(Sidebar: It’s kind of weird how Devil in the Flesh, despite its title and overly religious grandmother, doesn’t really take the religious route with its story. The grandmother doesn’t seem that motivated by it — it’s a character trait, but she would probably treat Debbie the same way regardless — we’re never led to believe that it might be the Devil that’s causing Debbie to go nuts; there’s nothing like that. Was it afraid of Carrie? I have to wonder.)
However, by the end of the film, we’re supposed to applaud if and when Debbie winds up losing on her quest to become the sole lover of her teacher. If she happens to, I don’t know, get shot or stabbed, the film might set it up so that we want to see that. This contradicts what it wanted us to feel earlier. Thinking back, I can’t pinpoint the moment at which this changed. When are we no longer rooting for Debbie? After her first victim? I don’t think so, although killing a dog might put her in a lot of people’s naughty books.
Debbie appears to be a character motivated solely by the desire to bag the teacher, so to speak. Nothing else seems to matter to her, and almost all of her actions in some way work toward that goal. It’s kind of surprising that Devil in the Flesh is at all watchable given its boring plot and oversimplified lead character. Granted, at least she has motivations; everyone else in the film is there to be a victim. I’ll take simple motivation over nothing at all.
I think part of the reason it continues to be as watchable as it is is because of Rose McGowan in the leading role. Her sultry, bad-girl routine works wonders here, and it allows for a few good moments of comedy and one-liners. She also gives her character slightly more charm and charisma than necessary, and turns in a performance far better than this material deserves. Peg Shirley will be unfavorably compared to Piper Laurie, but only has a few scenes. Alex McArthur plays a nice and smart character, but one who is seemingly clueless about anything not related to literature.
Devil in the Flesh is a forgettable movie about a girl who crushes on a teacher and kills anyone who might have a hope of stopping her accomplish the goal of the two of them becoming a couple. It’s predictable, forgettable, and not very much fun. It has a couple of funny moments — and even more unintentionally funny ones — and a decent enough leading performance from Rose McGowan, but on the whole you can do far better. Maybe check out Poison Ivy for a similar, but better, film.