Monday, November 27, 2006

Should Old Acquaintence Be Bloodshot

Gene Evans holds satanic children at bay with a golf club in DEVIL TIMES FIVE.

DEVIL TIMES FIVE is known, like the Devil, by many names. It was produced and previewed under the title PEOPLETOYS, then became THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL for its first theatrical release, before settling into the moniker that's stuck. I first saw the film in 1974 at a private screening under the PEOPLETOYS title, probably before it was acquired for release by Jerry Gross's Cinemation Industries, and being 18 and frankly stoned, was sufficiently impressed by what I saw to fire off the following "Capsule Comment" postcard for publication in CINEFANTASTIQUE (Vol 4 No 2):

"Titanic, nightmarish horror-of-personality film about a team of 'special' children who walk together in a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED type pack. They invade a household and destroy its dull, vanity-conscious occupants in various jolting ways. One of the most thought-provoking works of horror in recent years." (TL, +4)

"Plus-four" being CFQ's very highest rating, and only one notch higher than the gratuitous accolades I had accorded around the same time to MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. Hey, I was a teenager. It was the Seventies.

Ten years later, I reprised those red-eyed comments into a toned-down but still-excessive three-star entry for my VIDEO TIMES paperback compendium YOUR MOVIE GUIDE TO HORROR VIDEO TAPES AND DISCS (Signet Books, 1985):

"Five wandering homeless 'special' children are offered shelter in [Gene] Evans' handsome winter retreat, where his haughty and privileged guests are unaware that the kids have just escaped an asylum for the criminally insane. This unsettling, moralistic horror story sees the affluent adults gradually falling victim to the sudden reality of the children's true natures (the most memorable scene shows one guest beaten to death with chains in a chilling sequence of grainy still photographs). Promising director Sean McGregor [sic] never made another feature after this sleeper, also known as PEOPLETOYS and THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL." (p. 39)

It's hard to believe that almost 30 years have passed since that initial screening, and I've been wary ever since of seeing the film again, because I knew it was unlikely to be even half of what I wrote it was. For one thing, though the memory of the picture stuck with me for awhile, that's not the same thing as provoking thought -- a distinction I wasn't critically equipped to make in those green days. In fact, aside from an extended slow-motion sequence (not "grainy still photographs") that couldn't have possibly have lasted as long as it seemed to (could it?), I was very soon unable to remember much about the film at all.

The mind-boggling drop-piranha-in-the-bathtub scene.

Last week, DEVIL TIMES FIVE was released on DVD for the first time, courtesy of a new label called Code Red, distributed by Media Blasters. After spending part of a day last week blogging about CFQ's mutation into GEEK MONTHLY, I was in a mood to reminisce about my fledgling days in my profession and this traipse down Memory Lane inevitably intersected with my long-postponed reacquaintence with this work credited to director Sean MacGregor. When I first saw this movie, MacGregor's name leaped off the screen at me much as Oliver Stone's did when I saw SEIZURE (the two films have things in common), and I expected to hear more from him; I never did. Media Blasters' excellent disc goes a long way toward explaining why. (MacGregor is credited or co-credited with the direction of two subsequent pictures, supposedly neither of which he completed.)

This is one of those DVDs as important, if not moreso, for what it reveals about the facts of production as for the main feature itself. As a horror movie of its period, DEVIL TIMES FIVE doesn't hold together very well (the film's first victim is played by three different people, one of them THE BROOD's Henry Beckman!), but it contains its share of scenes and images exert a certain disturbing quality. There are things in this movie that would never be permitted in today's climate; for example, in one scene, a little girl and a novice nun (!) dump a bowl of piranha fish into a bathtub with a very full-breasted, naked woman, and her naked body is later shown being dragged through the snow by a group of kids whose average age is 12. To make matters even weirder, we later learn that the actress in question (Carolyn Stellar) was the mother of two of the children (Leif Garrett and Dawn Lyn). The audio commentary's willful overlooking of this point -- "Wasn't it weird seeing your mother naked, much less dumping piranha fish on your mother naked?" -- is proof of the film's still-valid discomforting quality, and its use of children directly interacting with graphic violence and adult nudity remains creepy, as does its unexpectedly but very Seventies nihilistic ending.

The even more mind-boggling Leif Garrett-drags-his-mother-naked-through-the-snow scene.

Furthermore, remember that extended slow-motion scene I mentioned earlier? It wasn't just the pot; it really did last as long as I remembered, running a full six minutes -- because the producers had to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the movie out when the director's cut, filmed at Lake Arrowhead over a four-week period, amounted to only 38 minutes of footage!

And here's where the value of this disc truly kicks in, because the supplementary materials -- the audio commentary and on-camera interviews with cast and crew -- reveal that Sean MacGregor was fired from the production and sued by the producers following those four weeks, after which time the balance of the picture was completed in only one week, under the shared direction of uncredited production consultant David Sheldon (a production executive at AIP) and Sandra Lee Blowitz, the film's production manager and the wife of producer Michael Blowitz. She also revised the original screenplay to make the film completable within the short allotted time. DEVIL TIMES FIVE thus earns the unsuspected distinction of being one of the few horror films of the 1970s (THE VELVET VAMPIRE, BLOOD SABBATH) directed by a woman, and one of the very few in history to be written and directed by a woman.

I spent most of DEVIL TIMES FIVE wishing it was more cohesive, but the best scenes do appear to have been shot after MacGregor's departure and pretty much forged from the fires of desperation. The producers, to their credit, lament that the alledged incompetence of MacGregor (whose name appears nowhere on the packaging) made it impossible to film John Durren's script as it was written, and -- given their repeated endorsements of its quality and difference from the end result -- viewers will lament that the script wasn't included on the disc as a PDF file. As moderator (and sometimes VW contributor) Darren Gross points out in the commentary, the slow-motion sequence -- which features stand-ins for the victim as well as the novice nun played elsewhere by MacGregor's girlfriend, Gale Smale -- is nightmarish almost in spite of itself, with its gritty snuff-movie quality striking chords associated with Andy Milligan's THE GHASTLY ONES or perhaps MARAT/SADE.

The 16:9 presentation is splendidly colorful and crystal clear, and the pristine source element sports the HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL title. An alternate sequence consisting of the Cinemation Industries logo and a DEVIL TIMES FIVE title card is also included. Actors Joan McCall and Dawn Lyn are featured in on-camera interviews and the audio commentary, along with producers Blowitz and Sheldon. The theatrical trailer is curious for name-checking VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (as I did in my original notes on that preview screening... coincidence?), a film older than more than half the film's cast list.

Seen again after all these years, I must revise my original overblown opinions and declare DEVIL TIMES FIVE a mess, but it's an interesting mess. Maybe, just maybe, a two-star mess. And the Code Red disc makes for a very interesting, three-star evening's entertainment as an illustrated, annotated lesson in independent genre film production. BTW, for those who love to live dangerously, take a peek at the Code Red trailer supplement. Tucked away there are unbelievable coming attractions for the renowned necro-sickie LOVE ME DEADLY, the mind-boggling SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS (it's incredible to think that theaters ever played trailers like this!), and other toxic untouchables that we're glad to know are soon forthcoming.

P.S. BLOGGERS! Remember the Joe Dante Blog-A-Thon tomorrow!

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