Prime in the Dustbin: ‘The Devonsville Terror’ (1983)

On video store shelves during the Eighties, The Devonsville Terror stood out like a nun during spring break, sporting one of the most lurid VHS covers you could find outside of the adults-only back room. A redhead with a Gozer the Gozerian haircut tied to a tree being threatened by robe-wearing, torch-bearing goons? That photo promised extreme terror, a Rollerball level disdain for environmental issues, and maybe some hot witchy action. It looked like everything a hormonal teenage boy could want. And while it certainly does deliver on the brief nudity, graphic violence, and adult situations, there’s more to The Devonsville Terror than naughty thrills and gallons of crimson corn syrup.

The film opens in the sleepy New England town of Devonsville (unsurprisingly) 300 years ago. It’s a normal night. A woman is stirring a cauldron over a fire in the woods. She might be making soup, she might be doing laundry. It’s hard to discern. Another woman sits in her home, divining the future for a gentleman with cards. In another cottage, a man and woman are making out in the most sinful and offensive way possible. They are touching each other’s faces.

There’s a lot of face touching in this movie. It’s weird.

Nobody expects the Devonsville Inquisition, least of all these three women, all of whom are accused of witchcraft and disposed of in creative ways. They protest their innocence, but that doesn’t matter to these guys. One woman is eaten alive by ravenous hogs. The second woman is strapped to a burning wheel and sent rolling down a hill. Out of ideas, the men burn the final woman at the stake. As her charred body falls to the ground, mysterious lightning strikes her. The ghost of her face appears in the sky, uttering a curse upon the town.

In the present day, the descendants of the leaders of the Devonsville Inquisition still have the event, and the attitude that allowed it to happen, forefront in their minds. After all, it’s been three centuries and that curse hasn’t come to fruition. Because of this lack of repercussion for their actions, folks in Devonsville are still jerks. A prime example of this is when Wally (Paul Willson), who runs a local shop for local people, murders his wife because she has pneumonia and can’t stop coughing. He’s a bit touchy.

Soon after, three women move into town. One of them is a new DJ who loves to give relationship advice in between songs, encouraging callers to dump their lazy men for someone who treats them with respect. Her name is Monica, but she’s really a knock-off Stevie Wayne. Chris not only commits the sin of having a non-gender-specific name, but she’s also studying the effects of years of waste dumping into the local aquifer. Then there’s Jenny, the new schoolteacher. She has crazy ideas about the nature of God, daring to mention to the children that other cultures embrace the concept of Goddess.

The presence of these women unsettles the men of Devonsville. They think for themselves, they won’t be quiet, and they won’t put out. With it being so close to the anniversary of the Devonsville Inquisition, the men start to believe that these women are the reincarnations of the women their ancestors murdered.

That makes sense, right? Because when a woman opens her mouth and dares to challenge the status quo, she must be a witch. She’s definitely a whore. And she needs to be silenced so that men can feel superior and continue to achieve erections which, by the way, need to be worshiped and adored the second they occur. DJ Khaled can’t be wrong, can he?

The impact of the script lies in its insistence that these women have done nothing wrong. There’s no reason for them to be ostracized. They go to work, they do their jobs, they go home. Yet they are constantly harassed and harangued, made to feel inferior, and threatened. There’s also a ton of non-consensual face touching, so there’s your trigger warning.

The Devonsville Terror may be 35 years old, but it feels like it could have been made yesterday. The depictions of uncomfortable male behavior predate the rise of 4Chan, incels, or Gamergate, but feel terribly familiar to anyone who has spent even ten minutes scraping the dark underbelly of Reddit. How depressing to realize that, historically, men have always treated women like property, taken advantage of them, and felt no remorse about it.

Really, what better vehicle to show this disparity than a movie about witches? And I don’t mean those hook-nosed, wart-faced Hollywood witches that ride vacuum cleaners or turn meddlesome children into talking mice. I mean real witches, the wild women who wear their hair how they want, won’t sit down when told, keep talking even when their silence is demanded, and don’t give a tinker’s damn what grumpy old men say about them. If you’re of a “smash the patriarchy” mindset but don’t know any witches, then rectify that immediately. They are disrupters, full of knowledge and glory. No wonder they’ve been pissing men off for hundreds of years!

Director Ulli Lommel, who worked with Andy Warhol and is best known for the films The Tenderness of the Wolves and The Boogeyman, does a fantastic job of building empathy instead of sympathy for the women in this film. When the males in this film inflict their own insecurities on the females, the disgust engendered in the viewer is real and palpable. The Inquisition scenes are horrifying. The men are painted as human, yet deeply flawed by awful thinking, restrictively conservative religious beliefs, and a sense of entitlement that oozes like slime throughout their interactions. You know these guys. You’ve sensed their gaze upon you in the supermarket, at the bank, in church.

And it’s gross.

The ending is a little wonky, but not enough to deflate everything that came before. You can absolutely look at The Devonsville Terror as another cheap Eighties horror flick, and it works on that level. But there are some harsh examples of male culture and glimpses of awful truth in this movie.

Forget the blood and fire; the real terror in Devonsville lives in its men.

And all that icky face touching.

You can watch The Devonsville Terror on Prime Video, and there are worse things you could do.

 

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