Maria Kinellis of Code Red’s “Maria’s ‘B’ Movie Mayhem” plants SEEDS OF EVIL with a green thumb thanks to THE TOUCH OF SATAN!
When socialite Ellen (Katherine Houghton, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER) returns to Puerto Rico after three months in the states, she is shocked to discover that her friend has died suddenly. Marveling over the dead woman’s garden, Ellen decides to hire her mysterious gardener Carl (Joe Dallessandro, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN) to do up her own villa. Although Ellen’s divorcee friend Helena (Rita Gam, KLUTE) suggests her interest in Carl may have more to do with his torso than his botany, Ellen is fascinated (or so she tells herself) by Carl’s ability to bloom rare and beautiful flowers quickly and out of season (including what a party guest points out resemble some very rare and expensive orchids). The maids are unnerved by Carl’s talents, the resentful yard man suffers a mysterious attack amidst the blooming buds, and Ellen’s husband John (James Congdon, 4D MAN) keeps pricking himself on non-existent thorns. When John leaves for a business trip, Ellen starts to become unnerved by her own attraction to Carl as well as housekeeper Liza’s (Teodorina Bello, PRESUMED INNOCENT) insistence that Carl’s talent is black magic and that the plants listen and watch for him. When her visiting niece Jinny (Cass Fry) abruptly disappears, Ellen decides to dismiss Carl. Helena helpfully – or so she insists – decides to hire Carl to do up her own garden. Meanwhile, Ellen discovers that all of Carl’s previous employers are either dead or hopelessly insane…
SEEDS OF EVIL – aka THE GARDENER – has an interesting cast and some interesting ideas – including the shallowness of Puerto Rico’s American socialites (who have “not enough big worries”) – but it can’t really decide whether it’s a sexploitation film or a classy, arty mainstream work. Houghton carries much of the film, even if it requires her to be ridiculously naïve and dismissive of everything around her. Dallessandro’s Bronx accent doesn’t gel well with his mysterious character, but the character is problematic in general when required to speak. The pace of the first two acts is much too leisurely, with the final act rushed and unsatisfying despite some out-of-left-field gore. The film could almost pass itself off as a TV movie with its commercial-ready fade outs and its rather chaste take on the exploitation-worthy material. Marc Fredericks’ orchestral score adds an air of class to the production, but Michael Zingale’s otherwise colorful photography lacks sufficient light during the night exteriors. The story alludes to the abduction and rape of Persephone by Hades; and Ellen attends her carnival party as Persephone with her husband casting himself as Hades, although the audience knows better since the talky script has already explained the symbolism much earlier (by way of one of Helena’s sophisticated beaus). The film’s attempts to transition from the suggestive to the fantastic are undermined not only by poor special effects but also by overall lack of clarity on the part of the filmmakers with what Carl really wants from Ellen.
Released on VHS by Unicorn Video in a murky-looking transfer in the eighties, SEEDS OF EVIL arrived on DVD first through Subversive Cinema under its original title THE GARDENER in an anamorphic widescreen (1.75:1) transfer with a good Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix as well as a stereo remix (which sounded great during musical passages but echoey during dialogue suggesting that Subversive did not have separate dialogue and music and effects tracks for remixing) in its longer – though not necessarily better – eighty-six minute version. The disc featured separate audio commentary tracks with Joe Dallessandro and director James H. Kay, as well as a featurette featuring the two and Katherine Houghton discussing the production (Houghton points out that the filmmakers did not seem able to decide what kind of film it was meant to be). The disc also included a vintage documentary by Kay about independent filmmaking, highlighting the marketing of PHANTASM. Code Red’s progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) may be the shorter cut (82:15) – which deletes some dialogue, references to Jinny’s disappearance (already underplayed in the original cut), and Dallesandro’s nudity (what one can see anyway since it’s a dark film and he may be wearing shorts most of the time) – and lacking the extras of the Subversive release; but it is definitely the superior transfer or a film that has never looked particularly good. The Subversive transfer has had its colors pumped up to the point where the flora really pop offscreen while the actors all look sunburned, and the image is slightly less detailed in general (looking like a Xerox copy). Code Red’s source has more damage throughout, but the print has likely had more projection than the source of the Subversive disc. If you actually liked SEEDS OF EVIL, and bought the Subversive disc because you did, then Code Red’s release should still be of interest for the transfer. Even if you’re not a fan of the film, Code Red’s version is the only place you can currently see the original non-MST3K version of THE TOUCH OF SATAN.
Aimless motorist Jody Lee Thompson (Michael Berry, BEYOND THE LAW) wanders into a small, idyllic California town of Santa Cota only to be warned off by the local gas station attendant who tells of a “bromicidal maniac” picking off farmers with a pitchfork. Not heeding the warning, Jody wanders onto the walnut farm of the Strickland family and meets lovely but lonely Melissa (Emby Mellay). She asks him to stay for dinner and then to stay the night. Her parents Luther (Lee Amber, WHITE HOUSE MADNESS) and Molly (Yvonne Winslow) are apprehensive but strangely acquiescent about having a houseguest; and Jody learns why when Melissa’s badly-burned, elderly crone of a grandmother Lucinda (Jeanne Gerson, THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST) also tries to warn him away. Jody agrees to stay a few more days and discovers that not only do the townspeople think Melissa is a witch, but Melissa believes it as well and that her family is cursed. When Lucinda murders a local deputy (Lew Horn, THE GREAT SANTINI) investigating the murders, Jody finds himself a prisoner on the farm, but he is also unwilling to leave Melissa who believes the devil will soon come to collect his due.
THE TOUCH OF SATAN was the third and last directorial effort of Don Henderson, whose previous efforts had been THE BABYSITTER and WEEKEND WITH THE BABYSITTER both feature vehicles for TV actor George E. Carey – who served as producer here – as married men becoming involved with the babysitter (Patricia Wymer in the first film, and Susan Romen in the second). The three films also share in common screenwriter James McLarty (MISSION OF DEATH). Henderson’s horror effort has a nice lazy seventies feel, but the relationship between the young lovers takes up a lot of screen time despite not being particularly well developed (a better double bill with the film might have been Brianne Murphy’s BLOOD SABBATH). Like SEEDS OF EVIL, THE TOUCH OF SATAN does save a shockingly bloody set-piece for its third act; but Henderson’s film is better at creating doubt in the viewer’s mind as to the reality of the supernatural aspect. The film’s make-up effects were designed by Joe Blasco (Cronenberg’s SHIVERS) who also created Lucinda’s burn make-up. The film was photographed by future BLADE RUNNER cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, and it’s subject to the same limitations of low-budget horror films – murky night scenes – but he manages some gorgeous views of the countryside as well as a neat circular pan around Melissa in numbed reaction to the deputy’s murder. The score was an early yet atmospheric work by Robert O. Ragland, who started on Henderson’s THE BABYSITTER but would move on to memorable genre works like MANSION OF THE DOOMED, GRIZZLY, Q, and DEMONOID: MESSENGER OF DEATH.
Released on VHS by King of Video, the company that also released Amando de Ossorio’s TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD and later became Paragon Video Productions, THE TOUCH OF SATAN is presented here in a progressive, anamorphic (1.78:1) widescreen transfer of 1980 re-release version with the title NIGHT OF THE DEMON – not to be confused with Code Red’s other, more entertaining 1980 film NIGHT OF THE DEMON. Much of the transfer is marred by vertical green scratches, but the image underneath is colorful and well-detailed (at least in the daylight scenes). The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is as crackly and buzzy as the print is scratchy, but it never disrupts the dialogue. “Maria’s ‘B’ Movie Mayhem” hostess Maria Kinellis concisely introduces SEEDS OF EVIL – which she, in a sundress and holding a rake, “unearthed” – and does her usual shtick reacting to the film afterwards, with an offscreen Bill Olsen promising THE TOUCH OF SATAN is “a good one”. The two films are also viewable with an alternate “deleted” version of the intros and postscripts in which she and Marc Edward Heuck puzzle over the plots of both films. Besides a trailer for SEEDS OF EVIL (2:06), the disc also includes trailers for DEVIL'S THREE, CAGED MEN and THE VISITOR. (Eric Cotenas)
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