Thursday, February 16, 2012

Devil Times Five (1974)

... aka: Horrible House on the Hill, The
... aka: People Toys
... aka: Tantrums

Directed by:
Sean MacGregor
David Sheldon
Sandra Lee Blowitz (uncredited)

A quirky, one-of-a-kind and oddly enjoyable blackly comic shocker; this had an extremely troubled production history which often causes coherence and pacing problems, but at other times manages to enhance the overall weirdness, making the film that much more enjoyable. Grumpy bazillionaire Papa Doc (Gene Evans), who's made a fortune building retirement villages and resort complexes across the U.S., is planning on opening up a new branch and brings along a pair of doctors; experienced Harvey (Sorrell Booke), who's a brilliant doctor but something of a pushover, and his daughter Julie's (Joan McCall) boyfriend Rick (Taylor Lacher), who refuses to bite his tongue around his abrasive, bossy future father-in-law, or kiss his ass. All of the above plus Papa's unfaithful, nympho wife Lovely (Carolyn Stellar) and Harvey's unhappy, boozy wife Ruth (Shelley Morrison) all decide to spend the weekend at Papa's remote ski lodge at Lake Arrowhead to get the plans in motion. Because of bad weather, they all get snowed in and the phone lines are down. What better time for a van transporting a handful of deranged young folks to crash nearby? Five of the psychotic kids escape into the snow and eventually show up at the cabin.

Also crawling out of the wreckage from the van crash, a doctor pursues the escapees, only to immediately get killed upon arriving at the cabin. The children eventually turn on the others adults, devising clever ways to kill them off. The victims are so wrapped up in business and personal matters that they barely seem to realize that there's something not quite with the kids until it's too late. Orphaned Susan (Tia Thompson) has a thing for fire, precocious wannabe actor David (future star Leif Garrett) has a thing for chess, wigs and ladies clothing, Brian (Tierre Turner) fancies himself an army drill instructor and little Moe (Dawn Lyn, Garrett's real-life kid sister) is obsessed with fish, carries around a stuffed fish doll and thinks fish are her babies. Most interesting of all is the oldest of the children, a sullen albino girl named Hannah (Gail Smale), who passes herself off as a novice nun in charge of the others!

Working as a group, the killer kiddies rig the cabin's generator to hang the semi-retarded, bunny-loving caretaker (played by screenwriter John Durren) and use axes, wire, hammers, bear traps, pitchforks and a hand-made spear to kill. One victim is coated in gasoline and set on fire and another is killed with a scythe fashioned to a swing. During the most memorable bit, the nun surprises Papa's sexpot wife in the bathtub and holds her underwater as the youngest of the psychos throws live piranha into the tub. Only in the 1970s would a scene like that - featuring a nude woman in clear view of two children (one dressed as a nun, natch!) - have been shot!

Devil Times Five (originally filmed as Peopletoys and also aka The Horrible House on the Hill) has a production history so checkered you just know the movie is going to be a mess. Just doing a little research on this one turns up the following annecdotes:

- Though there are conflicting stories, director Sean MacGregor was either fired or quit the film well before completetion. Supposedly less than half of the footage used in the final cut was shot by him, though he received sole credit for directing.
- Producer Mickey Blowitz and MacGregor hated each other so much that, during a physical alteraction, Blowitz threw him through a plate glass window (!)
- The film ruined a longtime friendship between screenwriter Durren and the director because MacGregor scrapped much of Durren's original screenplay while in the middle of filming. - After MacGregor was out of the picture, Blowitz salvaged what footage he could from the first shoot, then hired David Sheldon to help him re-write the script and two additional people (Sheldon and Sandra Blowitz - the producer's wife) to direct the rest of the movie.
- Shoot two had to be edited together with shoot one, despite the films having different interior and exterior shooting locations.

So it's no surprise that the editing, continuity, pacing and coherence level are all just a little bit off; downright amateurish at times. Characters are mentioned who never materialize on screen, things seem rushed toward the end and one slow-motion, sepia-toned murder sequence lasts a patience-shredding five minutes. And yet, despite all of the obvious problems, it's amazing how interesting and entertaining the finished product is. It helps that the filmmakers had the courage to be pretty sick, darkly humorous and subversive, and it benefits a lot from a decent cast, with veteran character actors Evans and Booke (indistinguishable from his famous Dukes of Hazzard "Boss Hogg" character here) leading the way. The characters, adult and child alike, are all surprisingly well-defined. Garrett, who became a heartthrob and disco singer soon after making this, has probably the best role of his entire career as the sexually confused pre-teen. In surprisingly perverse scenes, he flirts with one of the old guys and is even seen in full drag at one point! Several nude scenes are provided by the busty Stellar, Garrett's real-life mother.

Though currently credited to "Alan Smithee" on IMDb, MacGregor also made the drama GYPSY ANGELS (1981), another troubled production which lends credeence to the recollections of the cast and crew on Devil concerning his lack of professionalism. The film was not technically finished and multiple lawsuits were filed against MacGregor by both investors wanting their money back and at least one of the actors who appeared in it. Vanna White, who did some brief nudity in Angels and didn't want to sully her image as a squeaky clean game show hostess, sued to try to hault its release. According to MacGregor, star Gene Bicknell, who put up most of the production budget, also didn't want to tarnish his image as a squeaky clean "family values" Republican gubernatorial candidate by the film's release. The unsuccessful politican would later go on record as saying that appearing in the sleazy slasher flick / Sybil Danning vehicle THEY'RE PLAYING WITH FIRE (1984) cost him the election. Regardless of the lawsuits, the film finally made its way to video in 1994.

Presumably a public domain title, Devil Times Five is available on many bargain DVD packs, but your best bet is getting the Code Red DVD, who offer the superior print and an interesting documentary featuring interviews with Blowitz, Sheldon, McCall, Lyn and Turner. It's definitely worth a look. I enjoyed it a whole lot.


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