Charles R. Rondeau
Elderly, reclusive eccentric Pete Jenson has just been found dead in a pool of blood that may or may not be his; a dead goat with its throat cut by his side. Sheriff Tom Fuller (Spencer Carlisle) suspects foul play but since no one in the sweltering small town of Furnace Flats, New Mexico, population 1505, liked the man much, it's difficult to tell just what happened. Arriving by bus, Nick Richards (Ed Nelson), Pete's handsome, charming nephew and only living relative, pops in claiming his Uncle had written him a letter telling him he was sick and wanted to see him right away. Upon hearing the bad news Pete has possibly been murdered, Nick is given a box full of his Uncle's belongings and ownership of his run-down shack and goats. He soon meets Nell Lucas (Jean Allison), the attractive daughter of the town's only doctor (Edgar Buchanan), who used to buy goat milk off the Uncle to help treat TB patients. After a slightly rough start, Nell and Nick hit it off and become fast friends. You could say they might even make a good couple, except Nell is dating and hoping to marry gas station owner David Simpson (Richard Crane). But something seems a little off about the newcomer, and a wave of unfortunate "accidents" soon start occurring all over town.
Though the seemingly kind, generous and amiable Nick seems to be the polar opposite of his much-hated Uncle Pete, the two are actually one in the same. Pete had just sold his soul to the devil for the ability to return to as a young man for two years; after which time Satan will come to collect. Nick / Pete isn't above doing whatever it takes to both get revenge on his enemies and get the girl of his dreams, who happens to be Nell. He first takes out a man he hates with some tainted goat milk, which causes him to keel over from a heart attack. Next up, he places a photo of David inside a hexagon he has hidden under a rug, causing David's dog to go crazy and maul his face. Though David survives the attack, he's badly disfigured and goes into a deep depression. Nick offers up his help in running David's gas station and also doesn't mind giving his girl a shoulder to cry on. A plastic surgeon heading in to fix David's horribly-scarred face is killed in a car crash on his way to town when a cow wanders into the road in front of his car. When Nick tries to pay off town wino Papers (Byron Foulger) to help him and the arrangement doesn't work out, he sends a black horse to trample him to death. Can the Sheriff and company figure out what's going on before more people are mysteriously killed?
Considering that this has lapsed into the public domain to little attention and took three years to release (the credits have a 1958 copyright date), this was better than expected. For starters, it's rather smoothly directed on a very low budget by Rondeau, who primarily worked in TV. The script (by Stanley Clements and Laura Jean Mathews) also isn't bad. The dialogue comes of as natural and credible, the premise is interesting, some of the side characters are enjoyably quirky and there are some genuinely neat ideas in here, particularly that Pete / Nick can transform into various animals to do his dirty deeds. Some tightening up on the vaguer elements would have improved things a bit, but we're given just enough to fill in most of the blanks. And this wouldn't have worked at all if the actors weren't decent, but nearly everyone acquits themselves well in this one.
Aside from his recurring gig on Peyton Place, star Ed Nelson was best known for the numerous early Roger Corman productions he appeared in. Despite racking up quite the cult film resume through the 50s and 60s, appearing in SWAMP WOMEN (1956), ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957), INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957), The Brain Eaters (1958), NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST (1958), A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959) and others, he's often overlooked as an actor. However, some of his best work can be found in this non-Corman film, where he provides a blend of nice guy charisma with some subtle, just under-the-surface sinister qualities that are perfect for this particular role. Ronald Stein's eerie score is another definite asset.