Release Date(s)1983 (March 28, 2023)
Studio(s)New West Films (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
Unexpectedly good for such a cheap horror film, The Devonsville Terror eschews the early-80s trend of teen-centric slasher films instead adopting a vaguely feminist approach with a tale laced in a repressive, moody atmosphere, underscoring a feeling of dread more akin to a handful early 70s British productions like The Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man, without ever being imitative of either film. It’s not exactly good and, indeed, a couple of moments are unintentionally hilarious, but there are plenty of interesting concepts and effectively creepy moments scattered throughout.
In 1683 Devonsville in rural New England, three women are dragged from their homes, accused of witchcraft. One is disemboweled by hogs, another tied to a wagon wheel that’s set afire and rolled down a hill, the third burned at the stake. An apparition of the third woman appears in the clouds prefiguring a curse upon the land.
Three hundred years later, progressive schoolteacher Jenny Scanlon (Suzanna Love, wife of director Ulli Lommel) arrives to teach at the one-room schoolhouse, about the same time Monica (Deana Haas) turns up as a nighttime DJ at a local radio station where she takes calls from local women who discuss problems with their husbands and boyfriends. At the same time, Chris (Mary Walden) begins work in Devonsville conducting environmental studies of the local water, threatening the future of businessmen that casually pollute Devonsville’s rivers.
The conservative patriarchs of the community, sexually aroused by the women, view them as a threat to be snuffed out, especially after Jenny explains to her students that, historically in some cultures, God was a woman, by golly.
Elsewhere, local town physician Dr. Warley (Donald Pleasence) has a sideline obsession studying the “Devonsville Inquisition,” frequently hypnotizing his patients who not only never question such medical unorthodoxy but, a la Bridey Murphy, prove to be spiritually connected to their hateful ancestors. Warley himself has reason to worry, as his great great-grandfather was one of the executioners, and now he’s beset with an infestation of worm-like creatures growing inside his body, creatures he methodically removes with a clamp from cuts he makes in his skin. (In creepy dialogue he discusses a relative literally eaten alive from within.) More reasonable local man Matthew Pendleton (Robert Walker, Jr.) warns Jenny that the town’s men increasingly believe the women are reincarnations of the executed witches, returning to Devonsville to wreak vengeance. Particularly concerning are the lies being spread by general store owner Walter Gibbs (Paul Willson), who recently murdered (and got away with murdering) his ailing wife, and who now lusts after Jenny.
Though set in Massachusetts, The Devonsville Terror was actually filmed on location in rural northern Wisconsin, which doesn’t much resemble the Puritan State. Nevertheless, the lonely remoteness of the area, with its dilapidated barns, dead lakes, stifling overcast skies, and isolated birch tree forests is plenty atmospheric. More significantly, it captures the conservative mores of many such rural communities, hundreds of miles from anything like a major city. Though saddled with an electronic musical score emblematic of such horror films of the period, in the hands of longtime session keyboardist Ray Colcord’s the music itself is way above average and adds to the ambience.
Except for Pleasence, Walker, and Willson, along with Love, who worked almost exclusively in her then-husband’s films, the cast is composed of local talent, though several appeared in other Lommel productions. Nevertheless, the quality of the acting is unusually high for a film at this budget level. In one of the creepiest scenes, Chris, renting a cabin deep in the woods, is unexpectedly visited by one of the misogynistic townsmen, a menacing Jay C. Flippen-type, who at first is all Mayberry-folksy and polite, calling her “Ma’am” and so forth, segueing to creepy predator brushing the back of his hand against her cheek and commenting on her soft skin. It’s a believable, unsettling sequence, if more akin to Law & Order: SVU than Friday the 13th. The actor playing this role is unknown to this reviewer, but he comes off as disturbingly authentic.
Willson, soon after best known as a semi-regular on the sitcom Cheers, is even better as grocer Gibbs, who in early scenes tries to pass himself off to Jenny as a sensitive, cultured widower, but whose hopeless social graces test Jenny’s ability to not offend while fending him off simultaneously. It’s surprising to see a low-budget horror movie capture awkward male-female incompatibility so clinically.
One failing of the film is that its horror aspects are hopelessly confused. It works when it thematically links the three women, lusted after by men who want to torture and murder them once they’re rejected, to the 17th century witch trials. However, the movie emphatically insists both sets of women are falsely accused yet some kind of supernatural force is at work here. Under hypnosis, Jenny alludes to a “messenger from the unknown,” but just what that might be is never remotely explained.
Donald Pleasence was, of course, brought in for box-office insurance, but it’s obvious the filmmakers had his services for but a single day. All his scenes take place within the confides of his clinic, and though the story unfolds over a period of several weeks, I don’t think Pleasence even changes his clothes. And while he pops in and out of the story, he was obviously long gone before narration of Dr. Warley reading diary entries were recorded: for that an unbilled actor provides a Donald Pleasence-like imitation, clearly not the Halloween star, and which sounds more like Riff-Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That’s pretty funny, but even more unintentionally comic is a spitting scene between one of the accused witches and her accusers. The initial ptooey leads to another and another until it descends into a free-for-all of phlegm, with the cutting back-and-forth taking on the air of a Three Stooges pie fight.
Likewise, Robert Walker, Jr. is barely in the film, he doubtlessly also hired for no more than a day or two. The finished film suggests Walker, too, departed before completing his scenes, as he is conspicuously absent entirely from the film’s climax. The audience never knows what happened to him.
Though targeted for a theatrical release, The Devonsville Terror went straight to video, first released on VHS by Embassy Pictures in 1983. The best film elements Blu-ray distributor Vinegar Syndrome could locate was a 35 mm internegative, the third-best option when the original camera negative or an interpositive prove unavailable, but the 2K video transfer, in 1.85:1 widescreen, is quite good considering. The image is reasonably sharp, with decent contrast and blacks. The English DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is likewise fine, and the Region “A” disc includes optional English subtitles.
For such a minor film, Vinegar Syndrome has impressively packed this release with scads of extra features. These include separate interviews with actress/co-writer Suzanna Love (35:22); actor Paul Willson (42:05); special effects artist Matthew W. Mungle (15:16); makeup artist Erica Ueland (12:18); and camera operator Jürg V. Walther (18:45). An archival interview with Lommel (7:16), who died in 2017, is also included. A trailer (1:55) and behind-the-scenes photo gallery (1:10) are also included. That’s more than two hours of supplements, commendable in one sense, and while the interviews offer much amusement and insight, I found myself longing for the taut, catch-all making-of documentaries companies like Blue Underground made back in the days of DVD, when the best of such material was distilled to an entertaining yet brisk featurette.
The Devonsville Terror couldn’t have cost more than a couple hundred thousand dollars to make, yet continually surprises with its intelligence and effectiveness, a real offbeat horror title worthy of reappraisal.
- Stuart Galbraith IV