Jay got his first leading role in this low budget horror film put together by his friend and fellow actor L.Q. Jones. He is not the hero, rather he is the main antagonist, that is if you are not going to give the devil his due. Strother plays Doc Duncan, the retired Doctor who is catering to the needs of the small town that is trapped in a hellish nightmare of murder and child abduction. No one has gotten in or out of the small town for three days…until.
This is a tough one because the film, while it has some good qualities, is not particularly good itself. It seems that there were a number of movies that were horror based in this period that depended on shock rather than narrative to bring people into the story. There are simply gaps in the way things happen in this movie that frequently leave you scratching your head and wondering what if going on.
To illustrate, the opening of the movie is an attack on a car, with people inside who we never see, by a tank that crushes the car but may also be a toy. This sort of thing happens again later in the film so the device becomes a lot more understandable as we go along, but without context, that first scene is confusing. It takes us ten minutes of activity with the most boring people in the story, a father/daughter combination with a new girlfriend along for the ride, before anything else interesting happens.
The one thing we know for certain, is that this little girl is going to be a part of the story because several other children were present in the opening when the tank finished and a boy about nine, stepped out of the crushed car ruins and joins them as they silently stand there, oblivious to what has just happened.
The family who are traveling from an outing, encounter the accident and try to go to the nearby town to get some assistance. But before they see the crushed vehicle we are treated to the longest most boring car trip ever. The music on the radio is old fashioned and no one in the car speaks to each other until they come upon the ruins of the other car. Charles Bateman who bears a slight resemblance to the Kennedy Clan, is the father on this journey, and his performance is the most wooden in the whole film. His daughter K.T. is forgiven, as she is a child and was not expected to do much except for one scene. Bateman however is in the whole movie and every time he is on screen he slows things to a crawl. Only moderately better is Ahna Capri as the fiance. She has a couple of moments during a dream sequence when she is effective, but otherwise her character is a bit of a drip and a whiner as well. These are our main protagonists and they leave a lot to be desired. Three other characters do supplement the “good” side of the story, including writer/producer L.Q. Jones as the local sheriff, but they don’t get the time or plot points need to make the movie better. In the end, the movie has to count on the villain and the evil cult to bring some life to the picture. Fortunately, they have Strother Martin as the best weapon in the story telling arsenal.
Doc Duncan first appears as a pill pushing small town medic, who is as tired, frightened and flustered as all the other residents are. He, the sheriff and the deputy are about all there is by way of a civic structure for the town. At least they are the only ones who seem to be acting in an “official” capacity during the crisis.
As Doc Duncan, Strother is all “aw shucks” and scatterbrained with a healthy dose of skepticism built in. He is reassuring to his patients and kind to the child of the man he sends home with a bottle of pills, telling young Joey to take care of his dad. He is supportive of the Sheriff and seems willing to help out in any way he can. This is the sort of role Jay was noted for. He is a working guy, not particularly gifted, but with enough personal authority for a small time set up. He was usually a toady or if in charge, a bureaucrat. Of course there is a coven of witches operating in the town, and he secretly is the high priest of Satan in the coven. That is where the performance really shines.
A lot of actors “ham” it up in parts like this. When stars get a juicy villain role, they often go overboard as Gary Oldman and Dennis Hopper showed on more than one occasion. Strother however was a character actor. He played a cult leader in a Paul Newman film just a couple years earlier in “Harper“.
That role was almost comic relief in the film, in this story however, his role is the central and most interesting part of the story. Martin plays it cool and subdued for the most part. It is not until the climax of the film when an orgy of violence is called for, that he starts foaming at the mouth. For most of the scenes where he is addressing his fellow coven members, he has an oddly formal cadence and pronunciation. It is as if William Shakespeare was writing dialogue for a TV horror drama and Strother Martin decides to deliver it as if it is the western prose of Charles Portis from “True Grit”. As the acolytes gather and judge one of their own, he spews some of the most inane verbiage you can imagine but he sells it in a way that sounds completely legitimate.
The rest of the coven is made up of a dozen very elderly people. They greet one another at their first meeting warmly, with one exception. A younger women is joining the group, but since a coven is made up of thirteen, someone is going to be out of the loop.
We don’t quite know what it is that Dame Alice as she is referred to did to betray Satan. It sounds as if it had something to do with baptizing her child. Anyway, she is out and the younger “Phyllis” is in, and the whole crowd of oldsters takes her out of the picture with a suggested beating that we mercifully are not given close ups of.
We discover that the purpose of the children’s disappearance is to provide new vessels for the corrupt souls of the elderly witches. They needed one more girl which is why the family gets in and K.T. of course disappears. Ultimately, it becomes a war by the few townspeople who think they have figured out what is going on, against this invisible force.
The town folks and our couple are not very effective at preventing further disappearances.
Of course they have the duplicitous Dr. Duncan working against them from the inside. His rational laughing away of the local priest’s theory is one of the things that slows the good guys down. The priest has gone through a number of obscure texts that he happens to have in his collection and the images from those books tip him off as to what is going on. Those images also provide some of the scares in the middle part of the film. Many of the drawings are disturbing and sometimes the film makers tint the images for a subliminal effect when shown at a quick pace.
By the way, the friendly but inept deputy to L.Q. Jones is played by fellow producer Alvey Moore. He was a comic character actor best remembered as Mr. Kimble from the “Green Acres” television show, which is a far cry from this.
A few of the killings in the film feature toys that are favorites of the children who are being possessed. The toy tank for instance in the beginning but there is a weirdly disturbing murder by a doll. It’s not clear that the doll actually strangles the parents but they are definitely powerless against it and the clever use of shadow at one point built up some dread, which may be undermined a little bit later by a shaky image of the doll’s face close up.
We also got some foreshadowing of a death as a little boy wanders away while his Dad is napping, right next to a figure of a knight on a horse with it’s sword raised above it’s head. You can see what is coming for the day. Again we got a nice shadow effect and then a slightly less effective but still gruesome view of the aftermath.
While the frights are not very powerful, the film does get a lot of mileage out production design and clever camera work. The Temple of the Satanists is located in a black room where the vivid red archways of alcoves stand out and the Satanic interpretation of an ankh hovers over the dais that Strother “preaches” from at the end.
The best and most disturbing visual images occur at two other spots in the film. The fiance Nicky falls asleep in the Sheriff’s office and has a disturbing dream based on the images she encountered in the ice house of the town earlier in the evening. All the dead have been deposited there, some of them in pieces. In the dream sequence she sees’ K.T. laying down and covering herself up in the ice house and reveals her own face when she pulls back the cover on one of the bodies there. The green fog rising up from the ice adds to the surreal look of the nightmare scene.
The most memorable visual from the movie is a completely different nightmare. We see the children at play in a room decorated for a party but the cake and decorations are disturbing. The fact that they are being served by hooded figures is also a bit of a quirk. The most clever part of the scene besides the set decoration is a shot that pans away from the doorway where Strother is standing in a morning coat and tie, and then the camera pans along the table where the children are eating and enjoying the toys, and suddenly, Dr. Duncan is standing behind them from out of nowhere. It was one directorial flourish that Bernard McVeety can be proud of from this otherwise clunky film.
The climax of the film features a whirlwind of Satanists being killed in order for them to accept their new bodies. This is where Strother goes over the top as is called for by the script. There are hooded figures that help carry out the killings with flaming swords and more ritualistic posing and spouting by our star.
Especially disturbing a a shot that implies that Doc is naked under his cloak. It is a brief shot but not something that is likely to compete with the Burt Reynolds pose from Cosmopolitan.
For a little personal history: I saw this at the Garfield Theater down the street from where we lived at the time. I was thirteen and I went by myself. When you bought a ticket, you were also given a pack of seeds that were supposed to represent the seed of Satan I guess. I did plant them in a window box and they sprouted some bean vines that did not last long. I wish I had held on to the package, my memory is that it was illustrated with the silhouette image from the movie poster. It would make a cool souvenir of a movie that is largely forgotten. [Found a link today, the day after I posted this, which explains the bean seed link: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/favism-fava-beans ]
Here is a link to the Forgotten Films Podcast that I did with Host Todd Liebenow concerning this film.
Hollywood Consumer has a few words about the film in her Horror month wrap up a couple of years ago.