Touch of Satan, The (1971)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-03-07 04:20

Written by: James E. McLarty
Directed by: Don Henderson
Starring: Michael Berry, Emby Mellay, and Lee Amber

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

ďI am a friend and companion of the night. I rejoice in spilled blood and the baying of dogs. I wander among shades and tombs. I am Gorgo, and Mormo, of the thousand-faced moon."

Like its Code Red DVD companion Seeds of Evil, The Touch of Satan found itself rebranded across different territories upon release; however, its various monikers (Night of the Demon, Curse of Melissa, Pitchfork etc.) at least faithfully sold the film in this case. While you wonít see much in the way of an actual demon or Satan himself, their sinister presence faintly (and I do mean ever so faintly) operates in the background. Indeed, you can only accuse these titles of being boring and generic, which his actually apt since thatís exactly how youíd describe the film as well. The umpteenth 70s film centered on demons and witchcraft, The Touch of Satan is a hayseed riff on the theme, warbling with a tedious drawl that buries whatever compelling narrative it may have.

Despite its 70s release date, The Touch of Satan definitely has a 60s hangover: its protagonist, Jodie (Michael Berry), is some sort of wandering hippie who canít settle down and instead prefers a transient, pastoral existence. His latest travels lead him to a beautiful young girl named Melissa (Emby Mellay) who heís immediately and almost inexplicably attracted to. Ever hospitable, Melissa invites him over for dinner at the family farm, where something seems a little off; while her folks seem perfectly nice, her loony old grandmother (Jeanne Gerson) has to be locked up because sheís prone to hacking up strangers.

Really, The Touch of Satan demands a generic title because it never settles into one mode. At first, it seems like rural-pastoral update of the old dark house genre, what with the deranged, homicidal family member being shamefully hidden away. Had the film stuck to that, it might have been wacky enough because itís not every day that you see a sickle-wielding granny (though it is the second time in as many weeks that Iíve seen it). Not content to stop there, however, the film gets even stranger as it continues to unfold and reveal all of the secrets of the Strickland abode. Iíll refrain from doing that here, even if it will require me to tip-toe around much of the filmís plot; even though it does have some twists and turns, theyíre thinly stretched across the filmís tedious, threadbare proceedings. Somewhat ironically, none of the filmís titles actually spoil the true nature of the menace at its center, as the film meanders from its old dark house/slasher setup into something altogether different by the end.

As such, thereís an interesting story to be found somewhere in The Touch of Satan, but it takes a lot of effort to dig it out from Don Hendersonís dull, stilted direction. Everything about the film inches at a snailís pace, with nearly every scene dragging on for too long; there are slow burns and then thereís this approach, which completely boils the flavor out of the film and results in a plodding, interminable experience. Hendersonís lack of restraint is best exemplified by his decision to circle around Melissaís horrified face after her grandmother has claimed yet another victim (quite possibly the filmís best scene, if only because itís appropriately frenzied); while a 360 degree camera move is usually dynamic and disorienting, Hendersonís comically lopes and further exposes Mellayís inexperience as an actor.

Henderson canít boast much more experience, as this was his final directorial outing, a fact that Iím sure few have lamented over the years. To his credit, he does occasionally capture the faintest hint of a nightmarish atmosphere, particularly during the opening murder sequence that holds the promise of a better movie to follow. Iím sure everyone involved wanted to resist the urge to make a simple splatter movie, which is usually a commendable approach. However, settling in to focus on Jodie and Melissaís blossoming (and obviously doomed) romance robs the film of its intrigue, as the characters are stuck in a dry, airless torture chamber of bad dialogue, worse line deliveries, and non-existent charisma. This is one case where a director should have just delivered an ample amount of deranged schlock and called it a day; instead, that stuff merely provides the admittedly awesome bookends to an otherwise insipid movie that betrays a narrative that should have been more fun had it been able to truly come alive.

The Touch of Satan doesnít want for a pretty solid foundation since its story is a little rote but perfectly serviceableóitís just too bad nobody bothered to build anything worth a damn around it. If the film is exemplary in any way, it almost perfectly crystalizes the badness of 70s Z-grade junk that was made with the sole purpose of cashing in on a trend. Deep fried with a regional flavor that includes several actors whose resumes remain thin 40 years later, The Touch of Satan has an amateurish vibe that would be more loveable if it didnít result in such a dismal experience for the most part. Leave it to Code Red to give a film like this its first official release (itís been released in its MST3Ked form a couple of timesóyes, this one played aboard the Satellite of Love, so youíve been more than adequately warned now). Stuck on the lower part of this ignominious twin bill with Seeds of Evil, itís still easily the better of the two, if only because itís coherent (when youíre scraping the bottom of the barrel, you cling to things that are otherwise taken for granted). Per usual, the transfer here is a little scratchy and scruffy, but thereís little doubt that fans of this stuff would have it any other way. As is typically the case with Code Red, the few fans of Touch of Satan should just be glad it can be seen in an unmolested form on DVD. This worked out much better the last time the company released a Night of the Demon, though. Rent it!

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