Monday, December 10, 2018

"An Autopsy Doesn't Do Anything for Their Looks" - Enter the Devil (1972)

On our tour of unheralded classics now moves to Southwest Texas and 1972's Enter the Devil, a chilling film that revolves around a Satanist (or possibly Christian) cult that makes nightly human sacrifices outside a sparsely populated desert town.

Reviews of Enter the Devil from your universe, surprisingly, are not entirely negative. Reviewer coventry writes, "The pacing of 'Enter the Devil' is very slow, with one too many romantic sub plots and some bizarre (and unsuccessful) attempts inserting humor." Reviewer tvm-LiveForever calls the film a "just very average movie." Reviewer oslog says, "the movie is incredibly low budget and it shows through and through." Let us look at the film in more detail. Please read on...

A man drives through Texas, listening to a country song. Unbeknownst to the mustachioed driver, he is being targeted by a rifle scope.

Suddenly, there is a shot! The man drives off the road, but he survives. His tire has been shot out, so instead of replacing it with a spare, he grabs his canteen and walks into the desert.

(Interestingly, the radio station he listens to identifies itself with call letters beginning with W, though the announcer also identifies the station as being in Texas. In the USA of your universe, since 1928, stations west of the Mississippi River have call letters beginning with K.)

A pickup picks up the man when he asks to be driven to a service station.

In the next shot, we watch a group of monks carrying torches through the darkness while someone chants about Satan.

As Satanic monks will be, these monks are involved in some kind of blood ritual inside a cave, which we see for a few seconds as someone drags a knife across someone else’s stomach.

The story proper begins when a small-town sheriff assigns a mustachioed car mechanic named Jace to track a rockhound (perhaps slang for an amateur geologist, or a convict) named Ozzy Perkins who has disappeared.

Jace, now wearing a deputy’s uniform, drives his tiny, red, six-wheeled Jeep along the Texas highways.

Filling up at the local gas station, Jace speaks with the proprietor, who complains about living in South Texas. “There’s lots of folks from the nuthouses. I guess what comes down here is the overflow.”

Jace drives to a motel run by his friend Glenn, where they trade semi-racist, more-than-semi-sexist comments and leer at the two young Mexican women Glenn has hired. Jace stays overnight because the sheriff has told him he must solve the mystery of Ozzy Perkins’s disappearance.

While our heroes display their prejudices, a hunting party in the desert stumbles onto a gruesome discovery: a burnt-out car harboring an even more burnt-out body. “Hey, there’s something in there,” says a hunter, referring to the body.

Jace discovers that the burnt car’s license plate identifies the victim as Ozzy Perkins. The police espouse the theory that Perkins, being an amateur geologist, drove his car into a deep riverbed and the car exploded, causing the fire. “You’d be surprised where some of these rock hounds and spee-lunkers’ll take an old jalopy like that. Guess he didn’t see what was ahead until it was too late to do anything about it.”

“Fire,” says Jace. “It’s a hard way to go.”

In addition to seeing the scene of the burnt car, we watch the coroner and the sheriff at the autopsy. The coroner explains, “One thing about it, an autopsy doesn’t do anything for their looks. Nothing will, when they’re this far gone.” He also discovers that Ozzy Perkins probably did not die in the car crash because he had puncture wounds in his ribs and his palms and his feet.

Back at the motel, one of the hunters tries to force himself on the waitress Maria, but she is rescued by another employee of the lodge.

Meanwhile, the coroner has called Dr. Leslie Culver, an anthropologist studying “weird cults” from the University of Texas, El Paso, to continue the investigation of Ozzy Perkins’s murder.

Speaking of “weird cults,” the hunter who tried to rape Maria is stalked in the desert and set upon by Satanist monks dressed like Jawas.

The cult members throw the man into a pit filled with rattlesnakes. (Ironically, I believe though I cannot prove, all the snakes are named Maria.) The hunter is bitten by at least two snakes while begging the people who threw him into the pit to let him out of the pit.

The hero of the film, Jace, appears after fifteen minutes of absence from the narrative to help the other hunters search for the missing rapist. The group traces the man’s tracks and find him dead in a riverbed, where the motel owner Glenn must rescue Deputy Jace from a rattlesnake calmly sunning itself on a rock.

Back at the lodge, Glenn strikes up a friendship with Dr. Culver, who has done nothing in particular since arriving. He tells her that he moved to Southwest Texas a few years ago.

“I would have thought you were a native,” says Dr. Culver.

“The only natives down here are the Mexicans,” he replies, purposefully ignoring any Native Americans indigenous to the area.

Later, Dr. Culver explains to Glenn that she believes the Penitentes, a sect of Christians who annually selected one of their members to crucify, are still practicing their strange rites out in the desert.

He responds by saying, “A man could sure get lost in those eyes.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” says the doctor, perhaps unwisely.

“No, ma’am,” Glenn replies. “That’s a fact, pure and simple.”

The next day, all the people in the area drop their responsibilities at the motel and become miners at a nearby mercury mine. The unlucky Jace is assaulted by a runaway ore cart. He falls down a hill and must be rescued yet again by Glenn.

As the film enters its final act, its two stories—the leisurely friendship between Jace and Glenn, and the leisurely human sacrifices of the cult—come together as Jace spots, through binoculars, cult members carrying torches through the desert. The modern-day Penitentes have kidnapped poor Maria. They bind her to a cross with barbed wire to complete their nightly ritual of crucifixion.

They also burn the cross along with Maria, in a new twist, but the smoke alerts Jace even more than the torch-bearing monks marching through the desert had alerted him. He climbs down into the mine where the cult members are performing their ritual.

Then he climbs back out, sensibly.

Unfortunately for Jace, a few of the monks remain outside the mine, and he is forced to shoot them. He drives back toward Glenn’s place, but he proves incompetent at night driving and his Jeep explodes at the top of a cliff.

With the film’s hero dispatched, we follow Dr. Culver to her train back to El Paso. However, we find out that Dr. Culver fooled the coroner and the sheriff by not getting on the train. She schemes with Glenn to return to Glenn’s motel, intent on proving her theory about religious cults.

The next night, the cult comes out again with their torches.

This time, Dr. Culver and Glenn watch the monks make their way to the mine. They follow, and we watch in real time as they enter the cavernous place. “This is going much further than the Penitentes, much further,” says Dr. Culver. “Sacrifice! They’re going to kill someone. Here. Now.”

At that moment, she slips, calling attention to Glenn and herself. They run through the mine, chased by the monks wielding torches. Dr. Culver is suddenly surrounded.

Once Dr. Culver is chained to a rock, the main monk gives a long speech accusing her of intending to unmask their holy order. “For this, she must die,” he says. “But I say, she must see, she must know and understand the power of the Disciples of Death. I say let her see, let her know that we are not afraid.”

The monks unmask themselves. I will not give away the secret of the Satanists, but I will say that one of the men is quite recognizable. And also that the climax involves machine gun fire inside the mine, a blow to the head, and a rattlesnake pit.

“Maybe dynamite’ll put an end to all this foolishness,” is the sheriff’s final line.

It would be uncharitable to note the deficiencies of Enter the Devil, given its classic status, but it must be mentioned that one of the film's unexplained mysteries is how the cult is able to make nightly sacrifices when the population of the entire region they inhabit appears to number in the lower dozens. Counting tourists, hunters, and immigrants, it is difficult for the rational audience to understand how the group could make 365 sacrifices every year. Perhaps, however, there is no rational explanation. Perhaps the cult is reviving its victims somehow and sacrificing the same people over and over again. While this horrific idea is not supported in the film, it bears contemplation.

I should also note the participation of a famous name: Byron Quisenberry, actor and stunt coordinator in Enter the Devil, credited as Byron Quesenberry. The late Mr. Quisenberry, who died in 2017, is perhaps best known for writing and directing Scream (1981), the atmospheric horror movie about killings in a ghost town, but Mr. Quisenberry was also a prolific stuntperson and stunt coordinator with credits on films such as the anthology film Nightmares (1983), Sole Survivor (1984), and Return of the Living Dead (1985), not to mention Mannequin: On the Move (1991).

If for nothing else, Enter the Devil deserves to be remembered for its shots of Jace driving around in his little red Jeep, shots that bring to mind the travel method of the protagonist of another horror classic: the great Hugo Stiglitz and his tiny helicopter in Night of 1,000 Cats, released in 1972, the same year as Enter the Devil. Coincidence?

Yes. Of course.