Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Devil's Partner (1962)

Devil's Partner is a little unusual for a 1962 American horror movie in being a supernatural horror setting in a contemporary setting. When you see a small town on dusty highway in movies of this era you’re always expecting giant bugs to appear, but this one is about black magic.

Pete Jensen is a bad-tempered and very much disliked (and very scruffy and dirty) old man living in a shack on the outskirts of a miserable little town named Furnace Flats. As the movie opens he’s performing some kind of ritual that leads to his death. Shortly thereafter his nephew Nick arrives in town. He seems a harmless enough sort of guy, although he is curiously unaffected by the stifling heat in this desert town.

He becomes friendly with Nell, the daughter of Furnace Flats’ lovable old doctor (played by Edgar Buchanan who was a specialist in annoyingly loveable roles). Nell is engaged to be married to David Simpson who owns the gas station. Some unexplained odd events start to occur. An elderly patient of Doc Lucas dies after drinking goat’s milk from Pete Jensen’s goat. David is mauled by his beloved pet dog and left horribly disfigured. Nick volunteers to take over the running of the gas station while he’s recovering. Everyone agrees that Nick is a remarkably helpful young man, although David seems to think he’s a little bit too nice. Especially towards Nell.

When the town drunk becomes very friendly with Nick and is then discovered dead, in puzzling circumstances, the suspicions of the sheriff and Doc Lucas are aroused. Where exactly did this Nick character come from? Why have odd things been happening since he arrived? And why on earth is he never affected by the heat even on the hottest days?

There’s a very low budget feel to this production, the pacing is a little off at times, and some of the acting is pretty wooden. Ed Nelson though brings a very effective and very subtle creepiness to the mysterious Nick.

The combination of the black magic storyline with the stark desert landscape and the sleepy dusty small town environment of Furnace Flats is interesting and unusual. That’s probably the movie’s biggest strength. The script avoids most of the expected cliches associated with witchcraft. There are no sexy female witches. No decadent aristocrats. No crumbling gothic mansions. It has a very seedy feel to it, an air of boredom and desolation, of black magic as something a person would turn out to out of hopelessness, frustration, bitterness and anger. The entire motivation for the villain seems to be a kind of despairing spitefulness.

Horror movies often rely on atmosphere or gore to compensate for the deficiencies of the screenplay, so this movie is unusual in that the script is its strongest feature. There’s no gore at all, not much violence, no sex. There is a certain amount of atmosphere, and the setting in some ways anticipates the way American horror would go in the following decade with its emphasis on horror in decaying rural settings.

It was directed by Charles R. Rondeau about whom I know nothing apart from the fact that he mostly worked in television. And it does have a bit of a TV movie feel.

The public domain print I saw was extraordinarily bad, which is a pity because the movie has enough original features to make it worth checking out. It can be downloaded legally for free, so for that price it’s worth a look!

And the amazingly lurid poster has nothing whatsoever to do with the content of the movie!


Samuel Wilson said...

I think you nail the appeal of this neglected little nugget of nastiness. The very grunginess of it all makes it almost plausible, and white trash witchery seems like a natural avenue of exploitation for the period.

dfordoom said...

It is actually surprising that the combination you describe, white trash and witchcraft, wasn't explored more often.