Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Touch of Satan (1971) - MST3K Review


Jodie (Michael Berry) is on a journey to find himself. On his journey he stops by a nice little pond and meets a nice young lady named Melissa (Emby Mellay). The two have an immediate connection and soon he goes to her family owned walnut farm to meet the folks. But something mysterious is afoot in the small town. Seems like the locals think Melissa is a witch. On top of that old granny Lucinda (Jeanne Gerson) may be creeping into yards and killing farmers. Will Jodie wise up in time to escape – or is he already contaminated by “The Touch of Satan”?


Ready for a rich and creamy helping of the 70’s? This movie provides it in spades. From Jodie’s Ryan O’Neal looks, to potholders on the Strickland’s fridge, this little movie just hits you upside the head with malaise. Of course there’s a lot more to the movie than sideburns and soft focus shots.

In many ways this isn’t a technically bad film. It’s made in a mostly competent manner. It just has a couple of points that end up sinking it. The first is the script. There are some bad lines in this film and maybe they were improvised, but in either case they should have been edited. The most famous is Melissa’s random declaration – “This is where the fish lives”. This fish is never shown, or discussed or hinted at ever again. But she feels the need to point out his home to Jodie. I think it was supposed to be a nervous cute moment a shy girl may use to distract a boy. But it doesn’t play that way. And that’s just one example, there are lots of odd lines in this film. It actually reminded me of “The Incredible Melting Man” which had a long conversation about crackers – for no reason at all.

The plot itself is an odd mix of a love story and a witch story. This could have been a great plot for an 80’s late night soft core flick on Skinamax. But for a 70’s drive in flick, it actually tries the serious route. I don’t think that Michael Berry was hired by accident. He looks like Ryan O’Neal if you squint during a soft focus scene and have had a beer or two. And there are other moments that attempt to channel “Love Story”, which had come out the year before. The witch tale should add a sinister edge, but only ends up making things seem odd. Soft focus at one moment and bloody chunks the next.

Pacing is the other big bane of this film. A line is delivered, there is a long pause, up to thirty seconds (an eternity in screen time) and then another line. And these aren’t dramatic pauses or weighty pauses. They are just long gaps of silence. For the some of the early scenes where Melissa and Jodie first meet, I can understand the technique. But it carries over the entire movie. And these add up to making the movie just crawl along slower than molasses. Now, 70’s movies didn’t really have quick pacing until “Star Wars” hit in 77, so that is part of it. But it is also editing and directing issues. The movie needed to be tightened up a bit, especially if some kind of horror was going to be generated. But hey man, maybe I’m just missing the mellow vibe of 1971. Either way, the movie’s pace suffers, and that makes the audience suffer too. Just how long is this movie and when will it end?

MST3K Review:

The crew tackles this movie with gusto and there is a lot to work with. The screenplay feeds them plenty of gems. They take the “This is where the fish lives” line and turn it into a great running joke throughout the film, inserting concerns about the fish when you least expect it. The use of the song “Amazing Grace” provides plenty of comic moments, especially when Tom decides to modify the lyrics to suit the film.

The actors all provide riffing material too. From Melissa’s eternally sweaty father who makes moonshine, to the super wrinkled and mumbling Lucinda. There’s even a special appearance from the actor in “The Giant Spider Invasion” who played the disgusting, cheating husband with the back brace. He appears in this film during a flashback to what looks like the late 1800’s. This gives Mike and bots fuel for some call backs to the spider movie as well.

The pauses could prove the death of the riffing, and they do provide a challenge, but everyone seems to boost their energy and just go for broke. They start commenting on the pauses, timing them and even betting on how long the next one will be. This turns the pain into some fun and they really make it work.

The host segments are some of the funniest of the Sci-fi Channel years. Pearl ends up leaving Bobo and Brain Guy alone in the castle – with a babysitter named Steffi. Steffi calls Brain Guy, Brian and is convinced that Professor Bobo is a dog. It’s all silly fun, that had me laughing. Mike and bots attempt to obtain wassail, try their hands at walnut farming (Mike becomes immediately sweaty like the dad in the movie). Then Crow thinks he might be a witch and has Mike bury him in rocks. Then Servo’s deadly grandma appears and tries to kill Mike with a pitchfork. The final segment has Crow selling his soul to Stan, instead of Satan, and Steffi tries to get Brian and the dog to go to bed.

For me this is a fun episode, not top tier, but one of the better ones of this season. Fans of 70’s flicks will find lots to enjoy, but others may find the movie too slow moving. I think the riffing makes up for the slow film and the host segments make the whole thing fun. I give it four sweaty walnuts out of five.

This episode is included in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume 5.

MST3K Introduction can be found here.

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