One appeal of archaeological searches for lost cult gems — such as those undertaken by the Vinegar Syndrome label — is finding something cast aside upon its initial release for being too savvy for its own good. Another one is uncovering the unexpectedly timely — or perhaps, sadly, still timely.
The Devonsville Terror straddles the line of both such appeals. Released in 1983, it chronicles 300 years of forward-thinking women punished by piggish, puritanical and closed-minded men in the small town that each calls home. Even despite the financial success of 1980’s The Boogeyman, a previous film from German director Ulli Lommel, Devonsville went straight to VHS. Nowadays, the rhythm of its commentary could reverberate across any rendition of daily news in our nation.
At the same time, Devonsville is also deeply silly and borderline incoherent. It barely introduces two pivotal characters. Its pendulum swings between vigorous feminism and gratuitous nudity. And it’s likely Donald Pleasence was only on set for one day, given how his physician / hypnotherapist never steps outside his office where he also fishes worms from his forearms.
You could throw in that the upstate-Wisconsin filming location looks nothing like the New England territory Lommel and company are attempting to reference. But so goes the perhaps accidental charm and complexity of The Devonsville Terror: Anywhere in America now, someone is saying as does one denizen of Devonsville: “How come every single President of the United States has been a man? That’s because God is and always will be a man!”
Back in 1683, the entirely male Devonsville Inquisition executed three women they found to be perpetuating wickedness in town. They fed one woman to hogs. They trampled another by strapping her to a wheel rolled down a hill. They burned the last one at the stake. They all got off on it. But the burn victim’s body disappears in a lightning storm and her spirit vows revenge.
Jump to 1983, where a glowing PBR sign is the only glimmer of successful commerce and the times they are a-the same. Devonsville men are still killing women, as shopkeeper Walter Gibbs smothers his sick wife as though she were a pesky fly. He’s one of the closed-minded city fathers keeping a tight clutch on this tiny town.
Enter Jenny Scanlon (Suzanna Love, also the film’s co-writer), a teacher transplanted from New Jersey to guide Devonsville’s youth. Ah, but the curriculum doesn’t include Jenny’s lesson about God’s more traditionally feminine incarnations. Neither do the Devonsville dudes particularly care for the other new women in town — an environmental-studies student who warns that the planet is being destroyed and a DJ who promotes female independence while playing the hits. Could these three be the reincarnations of the women killed all those years ago?
Jenny suffers a recurring nightmare about being burned at the stake that turns into an unintentionally hilarious spitting match. It’s amusing to watch Paul Willson — one of the disingenuously gregarious Bobs from Office Space — putter around as the gross, mumbly Gibbs. Pleasence’s penchant for regressive hypnotherapy is there purely to move the plot forward. However, The Devonsville Terror boasts genuine concern for the way journalism, science and education remain similarly exploitable points of vulnerability in America — particularly among women in each respective field. And whether in its immediate era of Reagan or as a retroactive warning given his party’s onslaught of idiocy today, that plays pretty well even if it’s not quite a full-blown face-melter.
I’ve mentioned before that Vinegar Syndrome’s so-sorry preludes about the limitations of its remasters are often overblown. The label’s 2K restoration of The Devonsville Terror on this region-free Blu-ray is certainly watchable, but it’s still one of the rougher sources with which Vinegar Syndrome has had to work. Their reliance upon a 35-millimeter internegative (often a last-resort source for restorative work) almost certainly owes to the film’s initial lack of theatrical release. Plus, you may wish to employ subtitles, as some of the dialogue on the English mono track sounds as though it were initially recorded in a giant, empty pool. Considering what they have to work with, this is still impressive wizardry.
Special features include a copious amount of new, in-depth interviews for which Vinegar Syndrome is known. The subjects here are Love, Willson, special effects artist Matthew W. Mungle, makeup artist Erica Ueland and camera operator Jürg V. Walther. An archival interview with the late Lommel is also included, along with a theatrical trailer and behind-the-scenes stills. Packaging is once again outstanding, with a spot-gloss slipcover designed by Haunt Love and reversible sleeve artwork.