Horror films concerning children behaving badly, either under supernatural or psychological circumstances, have always been fascinating and sometimes controversial in nature. Unsung and rather overlooked by the masses, DEVIL TIMES FIVE (also known as THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL, the title seen here) is one of those films that could only have been made during the glorious grindhouse days of the 1970s, complete with catfights, nudity, a colorful cast of characters and assorted killings carried out by an unlikely bunch of pint-sized assailants. With a troubled production history that can now be told, Code Red gives this neglected gem a deserved Blu-ray upgrade.
A small bus passing through some snow-filled mountains overturns, injuring the driver. The five passengers on the bus – all children en route to a mental institution – escape unharmed, and proceed to take off on foot. The kids consist of David (Leif Garrett, WALKING TALL) who fancies himself a child actor, military-obsessed Brian (Tierre Turner, FRIDAY FOSTER), pyromaniac Susan (Tia Thompson), albino nun wannabe “Sister” Hannah (Gail Smale) and little Moe (Dawn Lyn, WALKING TALL PART II) who tugs around a plush fish. They eventually make their way to a large cabin house owned by wealthy industrialist Papa Doc (Gene Evans, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH), there for a weekend gathering with his sex-starved wife Lovely (Carolyn Stellar, CRY BLOOD, APACHE), his daughter (Joan McCall, ACT OF VENGEANCE) and her boyfriend (Taylor Lacher, MR. MAJESTYK), a spineless doctor (Sorrell Booke, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE) and his inebriated wife (Shelley Morrison, CASTLE OF EVIL), and Lenny-like mentally retarded handyman Ralph (BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW’s John Durren, who also wrote the original screenplay). The adults have no choice but to take the innocent-seeming kids in for the night, but when bodies are found dead in inexplicable, gruesome circumstances, they question the innocence of their strange little visitors.
Originally filmed as “People Toys” and initially released by Jerry Gross’ Cinemation Industries, DEVIL TIMES FIVE takes the “killer kids” genre to a chilling, disturbing level without having to resort to the paranormal to explain their psychotic, sporadic behavior. The film’s low budget is evident (you’ll notice more than a few continuity flubs, including the fluctuating levels of fallen snow; an essential plot point concerning our victims being stranded), but adds to the effective minimalism that 1970s drive-horror often thrives on. On first view, the film appears to take a while to really connect and convey the appropriate mounting tension, but the latter half explodes into a rewarding experience. The kids' initial attack on a victim in a dark cellar is shown in brown tinted black and white and is unspooled in slow mo, dragged out to six minutes! Whether it was meant to pad the running time or not (the scene was definitely part of the re-shoots), it certainly sets up the dark mood of things to come. The subsequent inventive death scenes (including piranhas being tossed on a naked woman in a bathtub!) lead to a twisted, unpredictable ending which was probably meant to set up a sequel.
Tough guy character actor Gene Evans (as the humorless, constantly grumpy Papa Doc) heads a decent cast of characters. TV veteran Sorrell Booke, proving he was more than just a hickish slob on “The Dukes of Hazzard,” stands out as a cowardly little man who has to finally confront and stand up to his boss, and Shelley Morrison (a busy TV actress who in recent years landed it big as a regular on “Will and Grace” and much earlier, was a cast member on “The Flying Nun”) is also memorable as his lushy, unaffectionate wife. The child actors all perform their parts unflinching and believable. Most of them had vast experience before this outing: future teen idol Leif Garrett around the same time was playing Felix’s son Leonard on “The Odd Couple”, and sibling Dawn Lyn had just been on the final few seasons of “My Three Sons” (it must have been pretty shocking for theatergoers of the time to see them in an R-rated feature of this sort). Keeping it in the family, sultry actress Carolyn Stellar is their real-life mother. Familiar Canadian character actor Henry Beckman (you’ve seen him in everything from episodes of “The Munsters”, “The Monkees” and “Bewitched” to David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD) plays the doctor in charge of all these crazy youths, but there’s a hilariously unconvincing double for his character’s death scene (part of the re-shoots).
Upgrading their 2006 DVD release, Code Red now revisits DEVIL TIMES FIVE on Blu-ray in a new 2K transfer from the original elements. Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio in 1080p HD and bearing THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL title, the image looks fantastic; a sharp, clean transfer with very bright colors, vivid detail and very few blemishes, and the daytime outdoor scenes are especially impressive. Skintones looking realistic, grain structure is eye-pleasing and black levels are deep. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is perfectly clear with no significant problems. No subtitle options are included on the disc.
The supplements from Code Red’s 2006 DVD have been carried over here and include an audio commentary with producer Michael Blowitz, co-director David Sheldon, actors Joan McCall (GRIZZLY) and Dawn Lyn. According to Blowitz, the original director’s cut only ran 38 minutes, and director Sean MacGregor was more than a disappointment. Months later, the cast was brought back to shoot new footage, mostly directed by Sheldon (this explains why Garrett is seen wearing and removing a very bad wig in several scenes). All this is addressed in the commentary, as well as just about everything else about the production, and moderator Darren Gross does a fine job, throwing out all the right questions to keep things interesting. The participants from the commentary are joined by actor Tierre Turner for an anecdote-filled featurette (22:01) that holds up very well after ten years (it’s hard to believe it’s been that long since the DVD was released). Found on the previous DVD as a series of hidden “Easter Eggs”, there is an additional montage of bonus interviews (7:00) with McCall (who talks about her DEVIL TIMES FIVE death scene), Lyn (who discusses the ups and downs of being a child actor), Turner (who talks about working with Pam Grier and Fred Williamson) and Sheldon (addressing a mix-up on the IMDb which confused him up with an NWA wrestler known as “The Angel of Death”). The extras are rounded out with an original theatrical trailer (“There is no way to survive THE DEVIL TIMES FIVE”) which compares the film to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. The DEVIL TIMES FIVE Blu-ray can be ordered HERE. (George R. Reis)
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