Friday, June 8, 2018


     One of the countless low budget Satan based occult films that proliferated in the 70's this slow- moving oddity was released numerous times over that decade under various titles usually meant to cash in on whatever movie was popular at the time such as 1973's THE EXORCIST. It's best remembered today as an early work for cinematographer Jordan Cornenweth who later shot BLADERUNNER and had just completed BREWSTER MCCLOUD for Robert Altman. Director Robert Henderson also directed the Crown drive-in classics THE BABYSITTER (1969) and WEEKEND WITH THE BABYSITTER (1972) and there've always been persistent rumors that it's Tom Laughlin (BILLY JACK) working under a pseudonym.
    In a prologue where shown what appears to be an elderly woman with a horrifically scared face killing a farmer with a pitchfork and setting his house on fire. Stumbling home, she's meet by her family consisting of an elderly couple and a young girl who argue over the best course of action and allude to the fact that this has happened before.

     Nice guy Jodie (Michael Berry) is rambling about the USA in his new Ford Mustang when he stopping to eat he meets Melissa (who was the young girl from the prologue and his played in all sorts of beguiling 70's cuteness by Emby Mellay (BLACK JACK 1972). Instantly attracted to each other Melissa explains that she lives on a nearby "walnut ranch" (??) and invites him home for dinner.
     Her parents (the couple from the prologue) while initially hesitant about his presence soon warm to and discuss among themselves how it'll do Melissa good. Jodi who's under pressure from his father to settle down accepts their invitation to stay on for a few days with the burgeoning romance with Melissa also factoring in. His first night there the elderly woman from the initial killing scene wanders into his room and warns him to leave after which Melissa explains her away as her grandmother.
     There's a flashback sequence showing the burning of a with during the 1800's which ties into modern times regarding Melissa and her "grandmother" which shouldn't be too hard for most viewers to see coming, but the ending does have a bit of a twist and 70's downbeat vibe. The juxtaposition of New England folk-horror and witchcraft into sunny California is an inter sting idea but the movie spends way too long on the romance between Jodie and Melissa and too little in the witchcraft side of things. The script is full of odd little phrases and asides including the above mentioned "walnut ranch" and Melissa pointing to a pond and saying, "That's the pond where the fish lives".

     Some more fleshing out the supernatural/witchcraft elements would have helped, and if you want to see just how effective a story of an outsider blundering into a modern witchcraft setting can be just watch 1960's CITY OF THE DEAD (1960) or THE WICKER MAN (1973) - although to be fair the British do have a knack for this type of thing. Several bloody killings help elevate it above 70's TV fare and Emby Mellay is good in her role as the mysterious child-like Melissa. Although she has zero chemistry with Jodie,  it's easy to see how a young man could fall for her. Not a great movie (or as some would argue not even a good one) it consistently falls into one of those "worst movies ever made" discussions and it even had the requisite MST3K drubbing. I find those low budget oddities from the 70's & 80's endlessly fascinating and there always seems to be one more of these weird little "gems" waiting to be discovered with each having their own little charms.
    Cornenweth's work as DP helps elevate the film a bit including some beautiful shots of the sun dappled California countryside (in was filmed in Santa Ynez which is near Santa Barbara) and an impressive 360 degree shot as it circles Melissa when she slowly realizes the true horror of her grandmother.
    Under various times this has been released as THE TOUCH OF MELISSA, THE CURSE OF MELISSA, PITCHFORK and it even popped up in the early 80's as NIGHT OF THE DEMON (not to be confused with the 1957 Jacques Tourneur classic or James Wasson's 1980 bigfoot gore film). It's been released on various budget labels and is paired with James H. Kay weird SEEDS OF EVIL (1974) on a Code red DVD with the colorful, but emulsion scratched TOUCH OF SATAN (bearing a NIGHT OF THE DEMON title card) looking like it was dragged through the parking lot of a drive-in which does add a nice bit of grindhouse flavor to the proceedings.

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