Sometimes all a movie needs is one great performance. The new demonic horror-comedy VAL has a lot more going for it than that, but it also lags in the middle and overstays its welcome by a good 20 minutes. Still, the film’s lead actress, Misha Reeves, keeps viewers’ attention the entire time she’s on screen, delivering a fantastic performance that — if there’s any justice in the world — will guarantee that she has plenty of starring roles in the future.
Written by Victoria Fratz and Aaron Fradkin, who also directed, VAL tells the story of Fin (Zachary Mooren), a man on the run from the police who breaks into the posh home of Val (Reeves), a high-dollar escort who is waiting for her next client to arrive. At first, Val seems every bit the damsel in distress, screaming for help and begging Fin not to hurt her. The longer Fin stays in her home, though, the more he realizes that she is the one with all the power…and that’s before he finds out that she’s actually a demon.
Visually and tonally, VAL is a delight. Val’s home decor and her hair, makeup, and wardrobe make her look like a Gil Elvgren painting come to life. The bright lighting — usually splashed with some devilish reds — makes the saturated retro touches pop. It’s difficult to place VAL chronologically, which only adds to the title character’s mystique and the film’s overall charm. Rotary phones and ancient television sets coexist with references to reality shows and Vanilla Ice. Canted angles and a repeated mirror motif keep the visual interest up even when the plot drags, and the score is marvelous, perfectly threading the needle between modern and retro and between suspenseful and tongue-in-cheek.
There’s not a weak performance to be found in the film, as each cast member fully commits to the cheeky humor, but Reeves truly steals the show. She plays Val as the ultimate throwback, a wisecracking broad worthy of Rosalind Russell and Lucille Ball. When Fin kills Val’s client, a mobbed-up man named Freddy (Erik Griffin) who is fond of crawling around on all fours while Val holds the leash attached to his dog collar, Val scolds Fin for offing her biggest paycheck: “You coulda just told him to heel!” She is hilariously unflappable, remaining in control the entire time as she manipulates the men around her, all while wearing glamorous feathered robes and maintaining her perfectly coiffed hair.
There are a few eerie moments, mostly courtesy of the creepy mannequins in Val’s dungeon, but this horror-comedy leans hard into the comedy side of things. VAL even references Beetlejuice in one of the best sequences in the film, dressing Val in a red wedding dress, placing Fin at a delightfully macabre dinner table, and using music that sounds just enough like Danny Elfman’s score to strike a chord with fans of the 1988 classic. Though the film might rely a bit too much on goodwill for Beetlejuice, the homage feels so affectionate — and Reeves sells it so well — that it will likely earn viewers’ forgiveness.
VAL is a great idea in search of a narrative that maintains momentum all the way through, but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun. The lighting and production design make it an enjoyable watch, and the score is perfectly suited for the film’s devilish humor. The real draw, though, is Misha Reeves as the titular Duchess of Hell. Her entrancing performance is hilarious, bold, and — forgive the pun — heavenly.
VAL is available now in select theaters and is available On-Demand via DREAD. Want to own a physical media version of the film? The Blu-ray will be available on November 2!