Three hundred years ago in the early Christian settlement of Devonsville, there was a panic about witchcraft being used by three local women there, with dreadful consequences. When the elders of the village got together to do something about this perceived threat, they dragged them from their homes and in order, had one of the women eaten by ravenous pigs, another tied to a burning wheel and rolled down a hill, and the third torched at the stake, though she mysteriously disappeared once she was dead, leaving the vision of her face vowing revenge in the minds of the men for she had been the only one of the executed to practice witchcraft, even if it was simply using the Tarot cards. Now, in the present, it seems old habits die hard...
Once he had left Rainer Werner Fassbinder behind, writer and director Ulli Lommel embraced the horror genre with great enthusiasm, churning out a number of such low budget productions as this though not often to much acclaim. The Devonsville Terror was one such chiller, co-written with his wife and leading lady Suzanna Love (and George T. Lindsey) apparently as a feminist reading of the infamous Salem witch trials that were the obvious inspiration. That event has been the basis of many a horror movie down the years, though almost always presenting the murdered women as actual witches rather than innocents caught up in a scapegoating that got seriously out of hand, and though this seemed to be resisting that, it fell into the trap by the finale.
Before we reached those concluding scenes, we had an unexpectedly interesting yarn that was only undone by Lommel's rather haphazard approach born of not enough money to fuel his ideas. Devonsville is painted as a hotbed of raging misogyny from the start, what with the "witch" death and all, and we see that has not died out in this community when the modern day business kicks off with the general store owner Walter Gibbs (Paul Willson, best known as Garry's neighbour in eighties cult classic sitcom It's Garry Shandling's Show) smothering his ailing wife with a pillow, all the better to open the door to the possibilities of gaining a spouse who can bear him a son. He gets away with this crime because the local doctor, Dr Warley (Donald Pleasence), allows it.
He has been afflicted with a disease passed on down generations, not of the mind but of the body, where worms eat the flesh of the victims, and he stoically puts up with it as if it is a curse placed on his ancestor that he must bear, sins of the fathers and all that. This does not stop him keeping the worms he extracts from his skin in test tubes, quite what he was planning to do with them is a mystery, but he's big on self-flagellation (figuratively, not literally), hoping against hope for his curse to be broken within his lifetime. Who can help with that? Step forward new schoolteacher Jenny Scanlon (Love) who had ancestors herself in this area and has arrived to fill in for a staff member at the schoolhouse, though the problem with that is as an attractive young woman most of the men around there are creeps.
Robert Walker Jr played Matthew, who comes across as the sole decent man in the area, which may be why Lommel didn't have much use for him and leaves him out of the action well before the credits rolled, but there are three females there who echo the three executed women we saw at the beginning - will history repeat? This was not exactly an accomplished effort in some ways, yet the sense of injustice is always a strong basis for a movie, and The Devonsville terror had that in spades as it tried to get even with the real life terrors who would victimise innocents to their doom, all on the premise of a moral crusade dripping in hypocrisy. That it was put across in awkward fashion was not enough to sabotage that message, and while there were trappings of the genre as it was in the early eighties, especially the reliance on setpiece gore effects (Raiders of the Lost Ark, anyone?), though maybe not enough for some fans, Jenny was a strong character who we want to see avoid the fate of what has gone before. Bear in mind this was far from slick, and you might find it surprisingly absorbing. Synth music by Ray Colcord.