Saturday, February 19, 2011

In short: The Touch of Satan (1971)

Anti-spoiler warning: I'm going to be especially vague in my descriptions today, because I'm afraid to otherwise spoil the film's minor charms.

Young Jodie (Michael Berry) is travelling across the USA to learn the bewildering ways of his people. When he stops in the surroundings of the small farm of the Stricklands, he immediately feels drawn to their daughter Melissa (Emby Mellay). A bit of talking, an evening dinner with the folks and a nice long walk lead to an invitation by Melissa to stay with her for a few days. Jodie agrees, not knowing that he's just taken a step into a realm he'd possibly better avoided.

A secret surrounds Melissa and her family, and questions are opening up before Jodie: why do people in the nearby town think she is a witch (something Jodie will laugh off as pure superstition for much longer than is rational)? What is wrong with the old woman (Jeanne Gerson) locked up in a room in the Stricklands' house? Has she something to do with the murder committed in town a few days ago? And what is the true purpose of Melissa's invitation?

In the beginning, Don Henderson's The Touch of Satan looks like one of the less interesting entries into the large sub-(sub?-)genre of regionally produced horror movies about witchcraft. Henderson's direction is straight, the film's pacing is quite slow and there's only a bit of early 70s local colour to keep a viewer's interest up.

But then, slowly yet surely, the film develops a bit more traction than its beginning or its especially lousy IMDb score promises. Henderson's - or rather his scriptwriter James E. McLarty's - ideas about witchcraft turn out to be slightly more off-beat than you'd expect in a film like this, having a folktale-ish bent to them that is surprising and quite enjoyable. I also appreciate how much the script is willing to play with its audience's expectations of what is going on and why while keeping completely inside the parameters of early 70s witch movies.

Once the film has finally gotten going, Henderson even manages to do some pretty clever directing from time to time: there's a scene in which Melissa, after witnessing something traumatic, falls to her knees, the camera circling around her, and all sounds get muted while Melissa's breathing is the loudest noise we hear, that looks like a pretty fantastic way to show her emotional turmoil to me; then there's a flashback witch burning that becomes a lot more chilling than its ropey effects promise by having the witch haters singing "Amazing Grace" through it until something happens to make them stop. Scenes like these, sudden unhoped-for bursts of creativity and artfulness, are exactly what I'm looking for in lost little films like this.

Emby Mellay (whose only role this seems to have been) is also pretty good in her role as sympathetic witch. Unlike many inexperienced actresses playing witch roles in lowest budget movies, she's projecting naturalness, and doesn't go for the scenery-chewing (though the letter would probably be fine with me, too), so that I can nearly imagine her as a person.

Sure, the The Touch of Satan is a bit slow, its plot is a bit silly and has its share of holes, the effects (what there is of them) aren't good, but I'm quite willing to ignore these sorts of problems in a film that is always at least competent, does much that is ambitious and even succeeds in its ambitions more often than not.


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