Code Red // 1974 // 88 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // January 5th, 2007
Who survives? Who would want to survive?
A sleazy grindhouse gem from the everything-goes 1970s, Devil Times Five in one of the more unsettling "killer kids" films ever produced. Relentlessly seedy in its execution, this low-budget horror film may be far more likely to make your flesh crawl rather than creep, but it's still a worthwhile slice of schlock that has been salvaged from the cinematic dustbin by Code Red, the latest sub-label of genre specialists Media Blasters.
Domineering businessman Papa Doc (Gene Evans, Shock Corridor) and his sexually promiscuous wife Lovely (Carolyn Stellar, Cry Blood, Apache) decide to head out to a remote mountain lodge for a few days of relaxation among the snowy pines. Along for the ride are a couple of Doc's work associates and their wives, Rick (Taylor Lacher, Mr. Majestyk) and Julie (Joan McCall, Grizzly), and the meek Harvey Beckman (Sorrell Booke, Dukes of Hazzard) and his not-so-better half Ruth (Shelley Morrison, The Flying Nun). While Harvey struggles to build the confidence needed to tell off his employer and Lovely makes googly-eyes at mentally handicapped handyman Ralph (screenwriter John Durren, The Gumball Rally), a group of troubled young children arrive unexpectedly at their door, victims of a school bus crash that left their driver dead. Doc and the others graciously offer the kids shelter and medical care, but they soon regret their decision. When Ralph is found strangled in the woodshed, and a rack of shotguns mysteriously disappears from the wall, the adults start to wonder if these angelic-looking kids are more sinister than they appear.
A troubled film production that almost didn't see the light of 42nd Street's flea-bitten projectors, Devil Times Five is a roughly-hewn but ultimately entertaining horror flick that, like many of its grindhouse contemporaries, is steeped in a misanthropic sordidness that makes it a blast to watch.
Given its history, it's amazing that Devil Times Five turned out as well as it did. The trouble began when the film's original director, the notoriously unreliable Sean MacGregor, managed to get only 40 minutes in the can before abandoning production. To bulk the film up to feature length, hired gun David Sheldon was brought in for a second shoot. While it's obvious where the film has been padded -- most notably in the early dramatic conflicts that build to the much-touted massacre ending -- former Roger Corman associate David Sheldon manages to turn MacGregor's leftovers into a (more or less) cohesive and compelling B-film that has never gotten the respect it truly deserves.
A wonderfully claustrophobic winter backdrop provides the perfect setting for the film's intermittent blasts of malicious violence, but Sheldon keeps the first half of the film very low-key, padding out the running time with clashes between the cranky Papa Doc and his guests. Though the melodrama is occasionally trying, it does give a certain depth to the potential victims, and makes their deaths all the more horrifying. You've got to feel at least a bit for the nebbishy Harvey Beckman, who is repeatedly crushed under his boss' thumb and can't find solace from his alcoholic wife, who starts making plans to leave him after he clumsily and unsuccessfully tries to initiate some romance on their weekend getaway. For all its unorthodox character-building melodrama, however, Devil Times Five wouldn't be worth anything without Sean MacGregor's original sleazy climax, and this is where the film truly stands out. Patient viewers are rewarded with a flame-licking, chest-stabbing, bear trap-snapping finale that is as dreadfully shocking as it is inventively bleak.
As opposed to the adults, the film's pint-sized murder squad is made up of decidedly one-dimensional characters. Escapees from some sort of juvenile detention center, the group is headed by future teen idol Leif Garrett (Macon County Line) who stars as the cynical David, a smart kid with a penchant for dressing in women's clothes. His cronies are likewise defined by their singular fascinations -- wannabe nun Sister Hannah (Gail Smale), fish freak Moe (Dawn Lyn), army-obsessed Brian (Tierre Turner, Friday Foster), and pyromaniac Susan (Tia Thompson). Not surprisingly, each gets a chance to use their fixations to dispatch an adult in a creatively gruesome way, from dumping piranhas in a bathtub to setting a gasoline-soaked victim ablaze. Despite a title obviously meant to cash in on the demonic possession of The Exorcist and some allusions to Village of the Damned, what's really disturbing about the film is that the psychopathic children in Devil Times Five aren't the tools of some evil force, they're just vicious little monsters that feed off the alcoholic despair and contempt of their hosts.
Veteran character actors Sorrell "Boss Hogg" Booke and Gene Evans are the main attraction here, and they play off each other wonderfully, lending the film's dramatic build-up a bit of class missing from other Deuce staples. It was truly a family affair for Carolyn Stellar, who brought in her two children, Leif Garrett and Dawn Lyn to play two kids -- in fact, Dawn even gets to slaughter her Mom, dumping a thankful of piranhas in the tub while her mom leisurely takes a bath! John Durren is the only weak link here, turning in a cringe-inducing performance as handyman Ralph that has to be seen to be believed. He talks to his chickens, muses aloud about the sexual "games" initiated by Lovely, and becomes smitten with Sister Hannah.
Code Red has done a pretty good job with the elements for Devil Times Five, turning in a consistently watchable DVD. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is a little soft and a little washed out, but it looks far better than the film's earlier VHS incarnations. Audio artifacts pop up on the Dolby 2.0 soundtrack, but they're not too distracting. Make sure you crank the sound up though, because it's been recorded at a low volume. There are a handful of extras on the disc as well, staring off with a 20 minute documentary featuring interviews with David Sheldon, producer Michael Blowitz, and stars Tierre Turner, Dawn Lyn, and Joan McCall. None seem particularly fond of the film, but they offer their memories about the stressful shoot and the conflict between Blowitz and the original director, MacGregor, who is MIA on this release. Blowitz, Sheldon, McCall, and Lyn also return for a feature-length audio commentary, again laying bare notorious production anecdotes for moderator Darren Gross. It makes for an interesting listen, though most viewers will probably be satisfied with just watching the interviews. Finally we have a poster gallery, an alternate title sequence that lasts only a few seconds, and trailers for Devil Times Five and a smattering of other Code Red releases.
A long lost grindhouse curio that depicts children as the ultimate evil, Code Red's DVD of Devil Times Five is a must-see for aficionados of offbeat 1970s horror.
Innocent times five!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Code Red
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio commentary
* Interviews with actors Tierre Turner, Joan McCall, and Dawn Lynn; producer Michael Blowitz; and co-director David Sheldon
* Alternate main title sequence
* Original theatrical trailer