I can’t get enough of those murderous, irascible brats; The Bad Seed (1956) started it for me, and then those weirdo, virginal birth alien kids from Village of the Damned (1960) sealed the deal – kids can’t be trusted. (Believe me, I know.) This brings us back to the ‘70s, and before we get to wee Damien, we’re babysitting Devil Times Five (1974), a thriller that goes from low-key creepy to wtf over the span of 88 minutes.
Originally released as Peopletoys in May, it was re-released in June as The Horrible House on the Hill, and then re-re-released in October of ’76 as Devil Times Five. (This would explain the title card at the beginning of the film, plastered on like cheap wallpaper covering a hole on the wall.) This indecisiveness is par for the course of this production as original (and credited) director Sean MacGregor (Gentle Savage) was booted from the project for only coughing up 38 minutes of usable footage, and veteran producer David Sheldon (Grizzly) was brought in to overhaul and finish things up. The result is a bizarre film filled with continuity disasters that still manages to unnerve the viewer all the way to the downbeat ending.
How about a little story? A van transporting five kids (aww, our devils!) to a special mental health facility crashes in the mountains, so our youngsters gather what they can and look for the nearest refuge. Only one adult survives the crash, and he knows how, uh, precocious they are. The wee ones arrive at a private retreat owned by one Papa Doc (Gene Evans – Walking Tall), who coincidentally is the proprietor of several mental institutions himself. Papa is having a working weekend with some of his employees, including his daughter and son-in-law (Joan McCall and Taylor Lacher), an associate (Sorrell Booke, The Dukes of Hazzard’s Boss Hogg) and his perpetually sloshed wife, Papa’s horny wife Lovely (Carolyn Stellar – Circle of Fear), the head doctor, and the occasionally slow-witted handyman Ralph (John Durren – Lepke). I say “occasionally” because his learning disadvantage seems to fluctuate from scene to scene. Anyhoo…
The kids are reluctantly taken in by the group, who are mostly narcissistic shits without kids of their own; only Papa’s daughter seems to care about their welfare. It makes no never mind to the rascals, though; all they care about is having a safe environment to play in, which they do by eliminating the grown-ups one by one in very creative and unpleasant ways.
That’s it, really; the simplicity of the title spreads to the screenplay by Sandra Lee Blowitz and co-star Durren, which gets the kids to the cabin and has them dispatch the adults for the third act. In between? Well, things take a while to percolate; even with such a short running time it could have been trimmed by another ten. (Leave in the catfight though, please and thank you.) But I say this about most movies, and I must commend Sheldon for coming aboard and making heads and tails of the whole operation; at least the adults have enough quirks between them to make the downtime interesting: drunken wife, lascivious wife, good wife – okay, apart from the always engaging Booke and Durren’s handyman, the rest of the males don’t really register. Not that the women are upstanding characters for the most part, but at least they’re given characteristics besides representing a body count (although they do that too, in worse fashion than the men).
As for those kids: they’re all pretty good; future former teen idol Leif Garrett plays a cross-dressing (I guess that’s his “illness”, eh ‘70s?) pubescent with delusions of making it in Hollywood, and his younger sister is pretty good as the youngest of the bunch (and their mom is horny mom in real life! I mean her character is horny, not her, of course.) It can be tough for children to portray evil convincingly on screen, but what our Brady Beasts do is underplay the terror for the most part, no hand wringing required or supplied.
Now, what the children accomplish would certainly be cause for hamming it up, as a few of the deaths are worthy of Dr. Phibes himself. Immolation, an electric noose, a piranha bath and other delights are trotted out by the imps with smiles but very little cackling. (I dunno, if I dreamed up some of these insanities, I’d be doing full on stand up to myself.)
The film has an opportunity to comment on the mental health system and its mistreatment of children, but it seems to be saying more about a generalized apathy towards them – children should be seen and not heard, I guess, until one of them throws a school of flesh-eaters in your tubbie – and in this it succeeds. Underestimating a child has never worked out well; not in Dennis the Menace, Charlie the Brown, and certainly not with the Devil Times Five.
Devil Times Five is available on DVD from Code Red.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: KILLER FISH (1979)