1/31/07

908 The Touch of Satan

(1971, Horror, color)

This is where the fish lives.

Rating: ***

In a nutshell:

A young man falls in love with an immortal witch.

Summary:

She's hundreds of years young.An aged crone skewers an avuncular farmer with a hayfork. A few weeks later, a young man named Jodie brushes off the malapropian warnings of a prophetic gas station attendant to drive his Maverick through the interminable opening credits. He stops for lunch at a pond, where he meets the lovely Melissa. She invites him back to her family’s walnut ranch for supper.

At the ranch house, he meets middle-aged couple Luther and Molly, whom he presumes to be Melissa’s parents. After supper he walks with Melissa, who convinces him to stay the night. Later, the aged farmer-skewering crone creeps into the guest room to scare the willies out of him.

The next day, he takes Melissa grocery shopping, during which she off-handedly confesses to being a witch. He does not believe her, so she takes him to her witch shack. Before she can conjure anything impressive enough to convince him, she has a sudden feeling of foreboding. They rush back to the ranch house.

A random sheriff has come to the ranch to search for evidence of farmer-cide. He finds the discarded bloody hayfork tangled up in a fence, but the aged crone stabs him to death with a hay hook before he can report his findings. Jodie and Melissa arrive just in time to see her finish the deed. Luther chains Jodie in the barn while he and Molly dispose of the body.

Later, Jodie has been released, and consents to stay another night while Melissa tries to explain. She uses her witch powers to show him a vision/flashback/dream sequence of her pre-witch youth. Many years ago, a laconically angry mob arrived at the ranch house to kill her father and burn her sister Lucinda as a witch. In desperation, Melissa gave her soul to the devil to save Lucinda. But Lucinda really was a bloodthirsty witch, who aged into a murderous burn-scarred crone over the subsequent century. Melissa remained young and beautiful, but was cursed to watch over her violent sister forever after.

Jodie comes to see Melissa at the witch shack, and has almost accepted this supernatural account when Lucinda breaks out of her room to attack him. He knocks over a hurricane lamp as he flees, and Melissa locks her sister in the shack while it burns. Jodie leaves the next morning, but returns almost immediately to confess his undying love for Melissa. They make love, which somehow saves her from the devil, who takes back her eternal youth. She ages into a withered crone. Jodie gives his soul to the devil to make her young again.

Introduction:

Is Crow in league with the unholy powers of hell, or is he made of molybdenum?  Probably both.Tom and Crow dress in winter garb to sing, “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” Mike admits he has no wassail to give them, so the ‘Bots launch into the second verse. “If the person who you sing to can’t provide the wassail / You are entitled to his debit card and PIN number / Love and joy come to you / Unless you can’t provide the wassail / Then severe financial penalties will come unto you / Then severe financial penalties to you.”

Host Segment One:

Mike prevents the misuse of his debit card with canned wassail, much to the ‘Bots’ disappointment. Down in Castle Forrester, Pearl has gone away, leaving Bobo and Brain Guy with a babysitter. Babysitter Steffi bullies Brain Guy (whom she calls Brian) into playing with letter blocks and disciplines Bobo for chewing her slippers. She calls up Mike, Tom, and Crow (whom she calls Cow) to tell them about their movie.

Host Segment Two:

Mike tries his hand at walnut ranching and immediately becomes filthy and drenched in sweat. Meanwhile, Tom dons a white suit and pith helmet; he sips a martini while farming pecans.

Host Segment Three:

Crow has Mike pile rocks on his chest. It causes him no pain, which leads him to believe he is a witch. Mike disagrees, opining that Crow feels no pain because he’s made of Molybdenum. Mike goes on to note the difficulty of proving a negative; Crow could just as easily ask him to prove he’s not a frog. Crow immediately convinces himself that he’s a frog. “Ribbit,” he says.

Host Segment Four:

Tom introduces Mike to his aged, murderous grandmother, and leaves Mike to fend off the white-haired Grandma Servo’s vicious hayfork attacks.

Host Segment Five:

Crow sells his soul to Satan, hoping to receive vast, otherworldly powers. Mike reads over the contract and points out Crow’s error—he has, in fact, sold his soul to Stan. They call Stan to reverse the deal, but Stan apologetically explains he’s already resold Crow’s soul to Citicorp. Quoth Crow, “I am going to have to make so many phone calls to get my soul back.” Down in Castle Forrester, Brain Guy suffers through story-time, occasionally stopping Steffi’s reading to decry Sam-I-Am’s bizarrely insistent behavior. Steffi gives him a blankey, binky, and teddy bear and sends him to bed. Bobo tries to comment from the inside of his pet taxi. Quoth Steffi, “No! No bark!” Bobo tries to explain that he is not barking, but is, in fact, talking. This earns him a rolled-up newspaper to the face.

Stinger:

Melissa says, “This is where the fish lives.”

Thoughts:

Grandma Shrunken Apple Head.Okay, I know the title of the movie is “The Touch of Satan,” but I’m curious: where does God fit into this kind of theology? Like the aphorism about always picking up both ends of the stick, you can’t admit to one without acknowledging the existence of the other. The Touch of Satan makes us listen to Amazing Grace at least four times, so we know the film allows for a Higher Power, but how does it manifest Him? With that sleepy, murderous lynch mob? Are we meant to believe that Our Lord has sanctioned the use of deadly force against the innocent father in His zeal to rid the world of bloodthirsty witches? I mean, granted, some Christians are narrow-minded zealots who use their faith as an excuse for the commission of heinous acts, but this isn’t The Crucible. This movie doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is—a religious horror flick. Both its protagonists are basically good people who, at different times, see someone they love in dire trouble, and the first person they turn to is the devil? It’s a point that bugs me, not just for this film, but all its brothers and sisters across the various mediums. The religious horror genre as a whole reduces God to a spectator, while implying that Satan and his followers are the only ones left in the world who are capable of miracles. Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits is a very, very odd fantasy film that pits a little boy and a crew of time-traveling dwarves against the Evil One, but I respect it on the basis that the Supreme Being (played by Sir Ralph Richardson) steps in to kick Satan’s derriere the instant he oversteps his bounds.

Leaving my pet peeves aside, it’s not that bad a film. This brings on my standard caveat that it’s not that good a film either, but then, good films don’t find their way onto this show. It has an engrossing story that borrows more than a little from the works of H.P. Lovecraft (substituting its own strange version of Christianity for that author’s fixation with demonic extraterrestrials) and works its own curious little mood, a gradually sickening sense of dread that it manages to build right up until the brief end credits. The word “gradually” also describes the movie’s downfall. The pace is consistently slow; I’m not sure how it’s possible to have more pauses between lines than actual lines of dialog, but somehow the actors manage it. Even the lynch mob is casual to the point of dispirited. This feature-length film would have worked much better as a short story.

The babysitter storyline in the host segments works very well. It continues several trends in the host segments, most notably implying that even the semi-omnipotent Brain Guy is lost without Pearl telling him what to do, and that Bobo, for all his education and experience, is no better than a pet. My favorite bit is Brain Guy’s tirade against Sam-I-Am, whom he describes as “so bloody repetitive I could scream.” Beez McKeever does a decent job as Steffi, but, like so many of those guest stars on the Muppet Show, she gets a little lost among the manic antics of the show’s regular performers. The introduction is great as well; the rewording of the popular Christmas carol is inexplicable, but expertly handled.

The tremendous silent gaps in the various conversations give the Satellite crew plenty of time for commentary in the film segments, and they do their best to fill the spaces. When Melissa tells Jodi about her walnut ranch, Tom asks, “How many head of walnut do you have?” Later, as Jodie and Melissa walk together through soft-focus fields while tender piano incidental music plays, Crow says, “Hallmark Hall of Fame presents: The Touch of Satan.” Near the end, as Jodie’s predicament becomes clear, Mike says, “My mom had a little saying: It’s just as easy to fall in love with a girl who’s not possessed by the devil.” Ultimately, the film lacks the substance to hold up the mockery the Satellite crew heaps upon it, and in the final film segment Mike and the ‘Bots are reduced to speculating about the possible length of each pause as it happens. It’s a good, funny episode, if you have the patience for it.