Friday, June 23, 2017

The Kids Ain’t Alright – DEVIL TIMES FIVE

Who doesn't love kids?  With their adorable, cherubic faces and eyes full of wonder, they can warm your heart.  Sure, sometimes they can be a handful.  They can push your buttons.  The can squabble with their siblings.  They can cut your phone line.  They can dump a bucket of piranha on you when you are in the tub. But bring a smile to their faces and it's all worth it.  Just ask the adults from 1974's DEVIL TIMES FIVE (AKA: THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL).  Oh wait, you can't.  They're all dead.

The Capsule:
Gruff, overbearing tycoon Papa Doc (Gene Evans) sequesters his family and underlings in his isolated winter chalet for a working vacation.  His obligated guests include dutiful daughter Julie (Joan McCall) and her macho, fun-loving fiancée Rick (Taylor Lacher), gold-digging vixen Lovely (Carolyn Stellar), spineless suck up Harvey Beckman (Sorrell Booke), his lush of a wife Ruth (Shelley Morrison), and the lumbering childlike caretaker, Ralph (John Durren).  Their weekend of boozing, bickering, and cat fighting is interrupted by five adorable children who were the only survivors of a horrific bus accident.  Unbeknownst to the adults, the little cuties are really a pack of pint sized maniacs on their way back to the mental hospital when their van went off the road.  One by one, the clueless grown-ups are lead to their increasingly grizzly deaths.  By the time the remaining olds wise up, they find themselves at the mercy of these diabolical delinquents who aren’t about to let the fun end so soon.   

One of the most interesting things about DEVIL TIMES FIVE (or THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL, which is a stupid title because the house is quite the swinging pad) is that by the end it is a completely different movie than how it started.  The first twenty minutes are pure soapy melodrama, like an extra trashy episode of Dynasty.  You’ve got the belligerent patriarch that everyone is resentful or terrified of, the sad sack sycophant (played by the future Boss Hog from Dukes of Hazard!), his wife who won’t have anything to do with him because he isn’t a bottle of bourbon, and the irresponsible ex-jock layabout.  There is a full-on cat fight between jealous sisters (I think they’re sisters), complete with hair pulling and stray boobs, accompanied by a Starsky & Hutch style groove.  The adults are so committed to their booze drenched drama that no one notices the kids slowly and carefully laying the groundwork for the horror to come.

I have to admit, the adults are such ridiculous clichés of the era (only in the ‘70s could a comb over hairdo be considered sexy) that they are kind of amusing all by themselves.  The real fun is the pack of underaged weirdos who emerge completely unscathed from the incredibly traumatic van accident.  The movie doesn’t bother trying to pass these ragamuffins off as anything but dangerous freaks right from the start.  They show absolutely no concern over anyone who died in the crash.  Brian (Tierre Turner), who is caught in permanent pretend soldier mode, even loots a bunch of stuff off the driver’s corpse.  The oldest, an albino 15 year old dressed as a nun known as Sister Hanna (Gail Smale), seems like she might be the caretaker, until she kills a guy.  True Sisters of the Cloth tend to shy away from such activities.

I was happy to see these malicious munchkins have no backstory, other than they are all residents of the State Mental Hospital, Children’s Acute Ward.  They don’t bother with any Dr. Loomis style explanation about what made them evil.  They don’t even mention why they were all out on bus ride in the first place.  Since Dr. Brown, the one surviving adult, is desperately following their trail muttering “I’ve got to stop them,” they clearly weren’t on a field trip to the zoo.  My theory is the van was on its way to Mount St. Helens so the doctor could chuck the kids into a volcano.  It might sound harsh, but believe me, it’s the most appropriate treatment plan for these little psychos. 

It’s not a particularly bloody movie, but the violence is brutal and disturbing, especially given that it is all perpetrated by children.  And not just insert shots of little hands holding knives, or little people stand-ins when things get rough.  These kids are front and center.  The first murder shows all the actors, even the darling 8 year old girl, beating Dr. Brown to death with hammers and chains—in slow motion—for FIVE MINUTES.  It only ends when Brian stabs the guy in the heart.  In another scene, they dump gasoline on someone and dance around the burning, flailing body like it was a maypole.  This was the ‘70s, before anyone cared about things like developmental trauma or scarred psyches.  

All of the kids have their moments, but the standout is David, played by a very young Leif Garret, the late ‘70’s teen idol.  It’s pretty obvious why this kid went on to fame and adoration.  In his freshly pressed suit and flowing blonde locks (which turns out to be a wig), David has flare. He delivers all his lines with the pomp and gravitas of a stage thespian, which he (and only he) considers himself to be.  You know, the type of kid who would use the word “rue” a lot in sentences.  Now that I think about it, David is a bit like a prototype Stewie from Family Guy, but less (intentionally) funny and more homicidal.  

All of the kids zero in on one specific adult to manipulate and torment, but David has a particularly unusual relationship with the luckless milquetoast, Harvey Beckman.  For one thing, the kid only calls him by his full name, as in “We will be friends, Harvey Beckman.”  Almost arbitrarily, David casts this mousy little man as his great nemesis, when there is clearly nothing great about him at all.  The best part is all of David’s Machiavellian schemes are completely lost on Harvey.  The putz is so happy that someone is even paying attention to him that he is oblivious to all the warning signs.  He seems to fancy himself a mentor to the kid, teaching him how to play chess and chop wood (bad idea).  David’s interest in the sad little man can be categorized as a little more complicated.  A telling sign is when he declares into the mirror, “That’s it; you’re all mine, Harvey Beckman!”  He also happens to be wearing one of Ruth’s dresses, a long black wig, and putting on lipstick at the time.

Luckily, David ends up killing him before things can really get weird.  Well, weirder.

Harvey Beckman aside, once the first body is discovered, the adults don’t waste time with the usual “but they’re just kids” rationalizations.  Even the gruff blowhard Papa Doc goes from “Yeah, right” to “oh shit, they are going to kill us all” in the space of a single scene.  By that time it’s too late, though.  The game is set, and the grown-ups have been completely outmaneuvered.  They can’t even get away because the industrious twerps have sabotaged the only car.  The story turns very quickly from carefree romp to stalker horror.  One by one, the adults are hacked, stabbed, or fed to piranha, and there is nothing they can do to stop it.  Except for one moment when David missteps and is slightly injured (leading him to yell, “My face! Look what you’ve done to my beautiful face!”), the kids are in complete control.

Rick and Julie turn out to not only be the most decent and quick thinking of the adults, but also the ones with the most potential to survive.  [Spoiler]  Ultimately though, they are no match for the miniature MacGyvers of Evil and their clever deathtraps.  In a final scene that would be copied by dozens of slasher movies to come, the kids have propped up all their victims in one room for a psycho tea party.  After they have sufficiently desecrated the corpses, one of the girls declares that she’s bored, and the whole crew head off in search of more people toys (the original title) to have fun with.  Kids: 8, Adults: 0.

Director Sean MacGregor is no Stanley Kubrick (he was actually fired and replaced by producer David Sheldon), but the secluded, snowbound setting gives the movie a bit of a THE SHINING vibe.  In fact, DEVIL TIMES FIVE could be thought of as an age reversed take on that story, where Danny is the one stalking Jack Torrance (Shelly Duvall would be pretty much the same).  So, since it was made six years earlier, maybe Kubrick ripped off this film for his little masterpiece.  Just a theory.   

The movie is undeniably clunky, and some of the performances are a little cringe inducing.=, but the kids have a weird balance between normal brats and twisted freaks that I find fascinating.  I would love to see a sequel set in modern times with the same cast.  All the little devils, now as old as their victims from the first movie, have a reunion at the chateau, only to be set upon by a new gang of murderous tykes.  The old devils would have to recapture the mischievous spirit of their youth.  They could have a deathtrap dual, the olds with their garrottes and tripwires, the youngins with their Bluetooth controlled robots.  Or it could just be the continuing adventures of David.  I’d be fine with that.

Checkmate, Harvey Beckman!

C Chaka

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