The organizers of the Film component of the Northside Festival—some of whom are named on the masthead of this very magazine—sought to build a higher platform for emerging local filmmakers with this year’s program, which runs June 8–10 around Williamsburg. That meant a greater emphasis on the shorts programs—plus the new, unique “episodics” category, meaning web series and pilots—as well as a pared-down feature program, with six independent titles in competition, alongside three showcase titles, including a number called Devil Town, which is exactly the sort of curious, hyperlocal work Northside is engineered around.
Written and directed by one Harvey Mitkas, the film stars the filmmaker and actress Sophia Takal, a member of Northside’s Features jury. She plays orphaned Eve, who comes to New York to locate her walkabout older sister Isabel, and is drawn into the vortex of her life, particularly her association with a cult predicated on crunchy rituals and sinister secrets. The film riffs on the Val Lewton-produced “cult” classic The Seventh Victim (1943), with the original’s Greenwich Village subbed out for the organic cafes, boutique distilleries and summer rooftops of contemporary Brooklyn. As the first-time writer-director explained to me via email, Devil Town proceeded, out of sequence, from a scene-by-scene outline replicating the Lewton film’s plot (with one significant alteration); performers improvised dialogue knowing only their character’s biography and, for the cult members, the cult’s cosmology.
The film’s overall structure is cruelly objective: flashbacks reveal more of Isabel and the cult as Eve takes wrong turns on her search. Yet the hazy visual style—a drifting camera, and subjective interludes with superimpositions and double exposures—maintains a mood of uncertainty, portent and transference. According to the filmmaker, Devil Town was an “experiment,” conducted with a cast of local microindie luminaries—actresses Brooke Bloom, Lindsay Burdge and Jennifer Kim apparently proved more adaptable to the “purposefully ambiguous” process than filmmakers like Lawrence Michael Levine, Caveh Zahedi, and Alex Ross Perry (himself also a member of the Northside jury, alongside Crystal Moselle, whose The Wolfpack is reviewed elsewhere this issue).
The film is Eve’s “coming-of-age” into the knotty, manipulative world of adult relations, per the director; it’s a story about a young woman dealing with the confusions and dangers of new people and experiences in the big bad city. Some of the strongest scenes recall Takal’s previous work: her real-life husband, Levine, plays an intriguing former connection of Isabel’s, and, as in his lighter Wild Canaries, the two investigate trust via the romance-thriller genre. “Larry and I joke that both of these movies are about fear of marriage and we made both of them right around our wedding,” Takal said via email. She also allows some similarity between Eve and the protagonist of her debut feature Green: “I feel vulnerable all the time and I’m constantly struggling to assert myself in tense situations. I really related to her.”
A sense of dread, social and personal, permeates the film, making the cult’s concerns—ecological disaster, self-doubt—all the more outwardly sympathetic. The filmmaker researched “religious groups and New Age-y therapy” with which family members were involved, and readily admits to finding many cult beliefs “persuasive.” But the real spiritual cleansing seems to have been the making of Devil Town: in our interview, the filmmaker ranted, tangentially: “Movies are such bullshit these days. Everyone is hedging their bets. Fuck money. I was inspired by Mailer’s Maidstone and Warhol films. I mean, people don’t punch each other, they just complain on Twitter.”