Devi Snively has led several lives over the years. She’s worked as a translator, writer, editor, ballerina, adjunct professor…you know, the usual stuff. But all that life experience is taking a backseat to her latest career choice: filmmaker. While Snively has done a little bit of everything, it’s her work in the cinematic arts that is earning awards and garnering attention for this talented woman.
I first became acquainted with La Snively’s work last March at the Pretty Scary Blood Bath Film Festival. I’d previously seen her name but had only a vague notion of who she was. Then I saw her short film Death in Charge, and I realized she was a talent to be reckoned with. I made a note to check out her work and moved on to other things. Imagine my delight when, a couple of months later, a package containing all her short films showed up in the Slammed & Damned mailbox.
Watching Snively’s work in chronological order is an interesting experience. To date, through her production company Deviant Pictures, she’s written and directed six shorts (Teenage Bikini Vampire, Confederate Zombie Massacre!, Raven Gets a Life, Meat Is Murder, I Spit on Eli Roth and Death in Charge) and one feature (trippin’). I’ve now been lucky enough to see all of her work, but today I’m going to focus on her short films. To view them sequentially is to observe the development of an artist. Personally, I think of them in two phases: Before Raven Gets a Life, and after.
In her first two flicks, Teenage Bikini Vampire (2004) and Confederate Zombie Massacre! (2005), you see an artist learning the ropes and filling her toolbox, becoming familiar with filmmaking and experimenting with the medium. The films are good, but somewhat insubstantial when compared to Snively’s later work. Teenage Bikini Vampire is a fable about Sadie, a Gidget-like vampire who wants nothing more than to live the life of a surfer girl. Of course, her distaste for sunshine makes that impossible, but her loving family steps in to make her dreams come true. Confederate Zombie Massacre! details a “true story” about a little-known Civil War battle that ends in zombie heaven (or hell).
Even though Teenage Bikini Vampire is her first film, some chief components of Snively’s style are already on display. Her bold use of color is in full bloom, and her interesting camera angles are present. Snively’s shot choices play a major part in her storytelling and are one of the most interesting things about her films. Also demonstrated are her puckish sense of humor and her love of heightened reality. In almost all of her work, everything is a bit askew—not much; just enough to throw the viewer off balance. In Confederate Zombie Massacre!, we see Snively learning how to handle a large cast and choreograph action. She also gets her hands dirty with gore effects, an important color on any horror director’s palette.
With Raven Gets a Life (2006), Snively takes a big step forward. Both of her previous flicks were tongue-in-cheek comedies, but here she paints with darker tones. She also drives home a couple of her recurring themes, specifically: life should be more than survival, and what it is (or isn’t) to exist in the modern world. In this film, we meet another young vampire girl, Raven, who just isn’t engaged with her after-life. As often happens these days, a doctor decides she’s depressed and medicates her. That doesn’t fix her, but Raven does eventually find her cure—and it is a heart-warming surprise. Snively still makes us smile, but this film is unquestionably more serious in nature. It’s also much more accomplished technically than her previous work. She has modified her use of color, allowing it to accent and help drive the narrative. Raven Gets a Life is the work of a filmmaker finding her feet and hitting her stride.
With the release of her remaining three short films, 2009 was a busy year for Snively. Her next flick, Meat Is Murder, revisits the themes of Raven Gets a Life, but it does so in comedic way. In Meat Is Murder, we meet two boho hipster drones, sleepwalking through this modern disposable life like the zombies they are. They sit in front of their TV anesthetizing themselves with brain-numbing programming, drinking their generic beer and stuffing their faces with processed foods—in est, I think we called it “feeding the tube.” They eventually realize the mystery meat in their freezer has the power to kill. Soon, much like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, their refrigerator is drawing other drones and people are dropping like flies. Once more, Snively illustrates the tendency in modern life to treat the symptoms rather than address the problem, but it’s done in such a fun, post-modern way, you don’t feel like she’s beating you over the head with her opinions.
In I Spit on Eli Roth, Snively allows her radical side to emerge. Banding together with fellow filmmakers Amy Lynn Best and Jane Rose, Snively takes on Eli Roth and anyone else that might not employ horror to its best effect. Though Roth is more symptom than sickness, they take aim specifically at his “Chick Vision” feature on the Cabin Fever DVD. This short also allows the makers to ask the critical question: “Don’t you want us to cut off Eli Roth’s balls?” If that’s not reason enough to see it, I don’t know what is. Maybe it’s the tongue-in-cheek tone or the fun performance from Amy Lynn Best. Perhaps the best reason to recommend it is because, although it’s definitely her most humorous work, it makes Snively’s point very effectively. Yes, Devi, you can catch more flies with honey—especially if the honey is torturing and killing Eli Roth.
That brings us to Death in Charge, which I consider the summation of Snively’s work so far. Made under the auspices of the AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, Death in Charge was inspired by the Columbine school shootings and shares the life lessons learned by the Grim Reaper and the little girl she’s accidentally charged with babysitting. Essentially a meditation on the current state of the world, this film allows Snively to employ a clever narrative device: In the “real” world, the wonder of life is often revealed to us through death, but here it is Death that is taught the wonder of life. Death in Charge is an artfully made film that delicately balances several themes and tones. In lesser hands, this flick would fall apart. It’s to Snively’s credit that it comes across as thought-provoking rather than precious or clumsy.
For all the deeply personal viewpoints she communicates in her films, Snively is always a subtle creator—she’s never preachy. She’s also a director that works quite well with her actors. She seems to particularly enjoy working with children, who I suppose give her an interesting dramatic window through which to view the world. I’ll be back soon with a look at trippin’, Snively’s feature film, but now I’ll close with a caveat. Please don’t let my rather academic look at these flicks put you off. Though Snively is a smart filmmaker, her work never feels sterile or cold. I mean, she’s dealing with life and death here, people. It doesn’t get any messier than that.