THE TOUCH OF SATAN
Color, 1971, 86m.
Directed by Don Henderson
Starring Michael Berry, Emby Mellay, Lee Amber, Yvonne Winslow, Jeanne Gerson
Code Red (US R0 NTSC) WS / (1.78:1) (16:9)
Proving no era produced weirder horror movies than the 1970s, here comes a double feature of abstract, colorful films that barely fit within their genre. First up is Seeds of Evil, a macabre fantasy passed off on the '70s drive-in circuit as a nature-amuck film and also issued as a long-discontinued special edition DVD as The Gardener. The film first earned its place in the history books for the first non-Warhol-related lead role for actor Joe Dallesandro, the beefcake blank slate seen in Flesh, Trash, Heat, Blood for Dracula, and Flesh for Frankenstein. Colorful and often inscrutable, it's the kind of genre-mashing exercise that would be impossible to finance now but should bring a smile to anyone looking for something a bit different.
In the curious prologue, an ailing woman in a hospital bed goes into hysterics and then dies when large, exotic flowers are brought into her room. Cut to the tranquil estate of the Bennetts, John (Congdon) and Ellen (Houghton), who spend much of their time hobnobbing with the other rich and famous residents nearby. One afternoon Ellen is so taken by a dead acquaintance's stunning garden that she decides to hire the man responsible, a strong-but silent type named Carl (Dallesandro) who mostly wanders around shirtless while gazing at the plants. Though one of the maids suspects Carl might not be on the up-and-up about his green thumb, Ellen is immediately taken with his impressive floral results. Unfortunately she's also drawn to Carl sexually, and when not busy throwing elaborate fancy costume parties (that favorite instant-artsy standy of exploitation films), she finds herself controlled by dark and possibly murderous impulses...
Though aimed for the sex-and-violence crowd, Seeds of Evil doesn't really wallow too much in either gore or nudity despite brief lashings of both. Instead it tries to conjure an off-kilter ambience of surreal dread similar to other hallucinatory, dark fairy tales among the rich like Angel, Angel, Down We Go and Tam Lin. Best known as the daughter from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Houghton has to anchor most of the film with her demanding performance, and she acquits herself well; Rockford Files vet Congdon provides able support as her husband, while the notoriously inexpressive Dallesandro is kept largely silent as he broods menacingly and shows off his physique. Amusingly, his few line readings appear to have been pieced together entirely through awkward editing, which just adds to the funky ambience. Things eventually come to a head for the utterly bizarre finale, which looks like something out of a Kenneth Anger film; coherent it might not always be, but Seeds of Evil is definitely something different.
The initial The Gardener DVD from Subversive boats a presentation that's "fully restored and containing footage not previously available," running almost five minutes longer than theatrical prints (basically extra chit chat and more atmosphere shots originally removed to pick up the pace). Two audio options are offered, the original mono and a two-channel stereo remix. Stick with the crystal-clear first option, as the well-intentioned but flawed stereo version has a prominent echo during all of the dialogue scenes (similar to Anchor Bay UK's attempt at remixing Last House on the Left). The incredible extras are still worth it just for Dallesandro's first commentary track, which goes into great detail about the making of the film and his entire film career around that period. While he's not much more vivacious here than in his film roles, he offers as astonishing amount of information considering how little he's actually onscreen. Director James H. Kay turns up for a second commentary track, and though he's surprisingly light on actual Puerto Rico production stories (and never really explains how this film came into being), he does an adequate job of sketching in his intentions for the film and his interpretatons of the bizarre events unfolding throughout. Both men return along with Houghton for a very concise and worthwhile featurette (which stretches the definition at nearly 40 minutes), "Planting the Seeds of Evil," in which they talk about the film's effect (or lack thereof) on their careers and their thoughts on its creation. Perhaps the most fascinating extra is a vintage half-hour documentary that looks like it was produced for local TV, titled "Million Dollar Dream" on the menu but called "The Distribution of Low Budget Films, or the Gardener's Seeds of Evil Killed by Million Dollar Dream" onscreen. Producer Chalmer Kirkbride, Jr. walks the viewer through a circa-early-'80s history of the film as an example of the pitfalls of indie filmmaking, where all of the money you bet can ride on the whims of the public. The hefty package is rounded out with the film's trailer along with other Subversive trailers for such amazing releases as The Candy Snatchers, The Freakmaker and Blood Bath.
The Code Red presentation is part of their on-again/off-again Maria's B Movie Mayhem line, with wrestler/singer hostess Maria Kanellis donning a big gardening hat and carrying a rake as she explains why Dallesandro was "the perfect man." (She also kills someone with that rake after the second feature, so stick around.) The transfer of the standard theatrical version starts off on a rough note with loads of print damage for the opening two minutes but then more or less smooths out for the rest of the running time. Colors are much more natural (and presumably accurate) than the Subversive release, which was color timed to push color saturation past the breaking point and make everyone look like tangerines, and the 1.78:1 framing looks fine. An alternate deleted version of Maria's earlier intro for Seeds of Evil is also included with her sitting in a movie theater and trying to come up with a synopsis for the film. Other extras include the Seeds of Evil theatrical trailer and bonus ones for Devils Three, Caged Men, and The Visitor.
And now on to our second feature, The Touch of Satan, which is presented here in a print bearing the alternate title Night of the Demon (not to be confused with the '50s horror classic or the '80s anti-classic of the same name). The third and final film from the same guy who directed The Babysitter and Weekend with the Babysitter, it's a pretty decent little rural occult tale that was hacked down into an incomprehensible mess and subjected to ridicule on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Naturally this sent its critical reputation into the toilet, but seen in its original form, this one is perfectly fine (if undistinguished) entry in the creepy country subgenre.
Jodie (Berry) is a wandering guy cruising the back roads of America in his sporty red car, going wherever the wind takes him. Unfortunately that wind one afternoon seems to be pointing to a farming community where he meets Melissa (Mellay), a young woman who invites him over for dinner. That turns into a protracted stay with her oddball family, including a very old, very crazy grandmother (Gerson) with homicidal tendencies. Of course, it soon turns out that Melissa and granny share a supernatural secret.
Boasting just enough blood to still skirt by with a PG rating, The Touch of Satan spends as much time on its ill-fated central love story as it does on the psycho granny and her deadly gardening implements, which will probably frustrate some viewers expecting a relentless grindhouse bloodbath. Instead the film takes its time and manages to pull off a handful of effective sequences including a couple of grisly kills and a truly weird ending that throws a couple of additional twists into the mix. The print for this one is in less than pristine shape with scratches and other debris prevalent throughout, but it's perfectly watchable in a grungy sort of way. Keep your expectations modest and this one should kill a slow evening just fine.