Devil To Pay
Crazy as Hell initially opened for limited runs only in Los Angeles, Atlanta and at three cinemas in New York. An excellent effort, put together and filmed in nineteen days, it was done with pocket money and no frills. Only miniscule-print postcard "posters" were provided at the film’s final pre-release showing. Therefore, I will have to avoid names and refer to characters by their functions, except for the doctor and, of course, "Satan," the latter a mixture of charm, humor, androgynous sexuality and hard menace who proudly lists his a.k.a.’s—Lucifer, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Prince of Darkness and Father of Lies, etc.—and is commandingly played by Eriq LaSalle (from TV’s ER). La Salle also co-produced, directed, and, in candid opening remarks, asked for word-of-mouth publicity.
Based on Jeremy Leven’s screenplay from his novel Satan, this film is in a line with Taylor Hackford’s 1997 The Devil’s Advocate and Alan Parker’s underrated 1987 Angel Heart — and even the Robert Bloch-Roy Baker Asylum (1967). It also bears kinship with Elizabethan theater, most particularly Marlowe’s Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.
Supposedly brilliant, though only recently absolved in two spectacularly failed cases, and loaded with serious baggage of his own, Dr. Ty Adams (Michael Beach) arrives at the psychiatric hospital where, for one month, he is to be in charge of a ward. Disapproving of the doctor’s controversial methods, the hospital director nevertheless gives him carte blanche, and he is also to be tracked and minutely filmed, except for bathroom functions and pleasures, by a documentary crew.
The Gothicky state institution seems peopled—and staffed—by a group of zanies out of a Doré Inferno etching. This is, after all, California. The inmates are a mixed bag, often funny, sometimes pitiable, usually drugged to harmlessness but occasionally violent to self and others.
Enter stage left the newly voluntarily committed Satan, urbanely insisting that the good doctor not treat him as a mortal whose delusion is that he is what his name implies but, rather, as what he truly is. Aside from an uncanny knowledge—partly "explained" by conversations overheard—the hulking newcomer performs no cheap fire-and-brimstone conjurer’s sleight of hand. Instead, he begins a cat-and-mouse unraveling of the doctor himself, at first only seemingly benignly, forcing the latter inward to his own ghosts. The mind-games are caught on camera by the ghoulish documentarians, themselves perhaps not strictly integral to the movie, but, still, a nice dispassionate touch: film within film within film, mirrors mirroring mirrors.
Satan cannot really be Old Nick incarnate—can he?—for there is the newspaper clipping of a brutal human murder—never checked on—and he does have a birth name and sweet birth mother living in the city—or does he? He may get cutting or downright nasty, but what he says is Gospel truth -- or is it? But then, Shakespeare reminds us that the devil may assume a pleasant guise, the better to beguile men into madness.
A word of caution here, and of further praise. Though at least one critic chooses to play the usual so-called race card regarding Crazy as Hell, we should admire the lack of—indeed, obliviousness to—issues of race. LaSalle and Beach, obviously, are African-Americans; but Satan and Ty Adams just happen to be African-Americans. Were they white—or Asian- or Native American—instead, it would make not a jot of difference. With unchanged script, might not Denzel Washington as well speak for Oakies as Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad? Dr. Adams is a driven overachiever, a workaholic haunted by failure—like many whites—not because he is black but because he is a man.
As the Elizabethan poet-dramatists recognized, along with countless others before and after their era, heaven and hell—God and Satan—are not necessarily physical, but internal, the soul and psyche each human carries in his heart and mind. "I am a good man," insists the doctor. Some viewers may disbelieve and choose to see him as unbendingly arrogant, deserving hellish retribution for the sin of pride. Mistaken he undoubtedly is, but all men make choices, often patently incorrect ones, and to stand by them is, after all, most human. Circumstance of success or failure is the arbiter, finally, between well-placed confidence and overweening sin. Satan, as Melville bitterly envisioned him, is no more than a con-man, the supreme ironic trickster.
Feel free to take Crazy as Hell as you will, to see or perhaps read into it much or nothing. It is, after all, fun entertainment, well done even to details like apples and a close-up of sweating, oily skin. But that is what many films too often lose sight of amidst cutesiness or benumbing violence and special effects. Here, on the other hand, is a highly enjoyable ninety minutes – a movie that leaves viewers with something to think about after the screen goes dead and house-lights come on.
As the man requested, spread the word-of-mouth.
(Released by Artistic License and rated "R" for some strong sexual content, violent images and language.)