Devil Times Five (1974)

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*. Watching a movie like Devil Times Five is a bit like dumpster diving. You know everything in the dumpster is garbage, and smells bad, and you’re going to get a lot of stink on you for going in there, but every now and then you find something totally unexpected.
*. Devil Times Five is an interesting, at times delightful movie. It’s also total garbage. It was a major influence on Sinister, and the director of that film, Scott Derrickson, apparently told his co-writer that he had to watch it because “It’s not a good movie, but it’s a great movie.”
*. There’s scarcely the suggestion of competence in any department. It’s a cheap exploitation flick that looks like hell and gives the impression of falling apart at the narrative seams. And yet . . .
*. The original director was fired (or quit) part way through filming. Later scenes didn’t always match up, and you get the sense no one really cared. Leif Garrett’s hair was shorter for the stuff that was filmed later so he had to wear a wig. The wig didn’t match his longer hair from the earlier material and in one scene you even see him picking the wig up and pulling it on. It’s that kind of movie. Other crazy continuity errors abound, like switching from day to night and back again without any consistency. It gets to the point where you really don’t care any more.
*. Complementing this patchwork texture are the various odd titles it was released under. Devil Times Five because there are five murderous monsters running loose. It was also known as Peopletoys, which is a weird conjunction that actually fits the bizarre story. The Horrible House on the Hill is the most generic title, and also the least descriptive. The U.K. release title was Tantrums, which isn’t a very accurate description of anything in the movie, but which is kind of funny.
*. The theatrical release poster specifically references Village of the Damned as a landmark: “Not since Village of the Damned has death become so savage . . . or survival so hopeless.” This is a stretch. Personally, I see less Village of the Damned here than Lord of the Flies: a fable about kids going feral and savage in an isolated setting.
*. The basic premise is a lot of fun: a van full of five mentally disturbed children tumbles down a cliff in a remote, snowy, mountainous region. The kids survive the crash and make their way to a house (the “horrible house on the hill”) where a family has gathered, which they then proceed to murder.
*. It’s pretty terrible in all respects, but there are three things that I think make it quite interesting.
*. In the first place, the dysfunctional family plays like a parody of some Southern Gothic plantation drama, complete with that big house on the hill. The irascible patriarch is a Big Daddy figure named Papa Doc. I guess he thought taking the nickname of a Haitian dictator was more original than stealing from Tennessee Williams. Papa Doc’s wife, “Lovely,” is a nymphomaniac. His son is a doctor married to an alcoholic. His semi-normal daughter is married to a slightly-less normal guy who has, by the way, “balled” Lovely at some point in the past. The other member of the household is a hulking dolt named Ralph (embarrassingly played by co-writer John Durren) who is just Lennie from Of Mice and Men transplanted to the mountaintop. When Lovely tries to seduce him all he can talk about is petting his rabbits.
*. The second interesting point is the rag-tag troop of killer kids. These include a pyromaniac, moody girl, a black militant boy with a toy (and later a real) gun, an albino nun, and the aforementioned teen heartthrob Leif Garrett as a wannabe teen heartthrob, already living a fantasy life where he’s really someone famous and crying out in anger after spearing one of his victims in the throat and suffering a minor blow to the head: “My face! Look what you did to my beautiful face!”
*. Adding to the overall sense of familial perversity, the boob-baring Lovely is played by Carolyn Stellar (Leif Garrett’s mother) and the pyro girl by Dawn Lyn (Garrett’s sister).
*. Finally, what gives the movie a place in cinema history, undistinguished but significant, is that it’s a clear forerunner of the late-’70s body-count film. Though crudely rendered, almost all of the ingredients are here, beginning with the isolated house full of victims being picked off one-by-one in inventive ways (throwing a bucket of piranhas in the bathtub was the best). Given how silly it all is, it’s almost like a pre-parody of the form, and when Lovely announces “fine, you all just sit here, but I’m going to take a bath and relax because if I don’t I’m never going to make it till morning!” we have to smile. Talk about famous last words!
*. All of this combines to make Devil Times Five quite a lot of fun for its target audience. It gets off to a slow start, and never even bothers to create suspense, but even its failures have an inept charm. The first murder goes on forever and is done in slow motion, which makes it laughable. There’s also the use of freeze-frame at the moment of death that is (inadvertently?) hilarious.
*. You have to enjoy all of these bizarre elements and epic fails. There’s one moment, easy to miss, when the kids first arrive at the house and Papa Doc literally shoves his wife at them to check them out and see if they’re sick. This despite the fact that he’s a doctor and his son, another doctor, is standing right next to him! These are kids, after all, and taking care of kids is woman’s work!
*. Sleazy and cheap, bizarre and notable, this is a must-see for horror fans. Great trash movies are a happy accident, and we should not be ashamed to rubberneck.

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