Monday, July 1, 2024

The Devil's Mistress (1965)

Let us now return to the 1960s to appreciate the forgotten supernatural Western The Devil's Mistress (1965), in which a band of cowboys encounter an unusual couple in the middle of the desert. Written and directed by the wonderfully named Orville Wanzer, whose only film credit this is, The Devil's Mistress is a bleak and creepy account of a really bad journey over the mountains.

As usual, some of your universe's critics are harsh when reviewing The Devil's Mistress. For example, CinemaSerf writes, "though only an hour or so long, it seems longer and really does quickly fall into the realms of films best avoided. This is poor, sorry." Reviewer I_Ailurophile writes, "The concept is solid enough; the cinematic expression of that concept basically amounts to the bare minimum, and it's hard to muster enthusiasm for what little plot we get." And reviewer jennycallahan writes, "the camera work is the worst. It feels like a random person off the street was hired for Cinematography."

Read on for the truth about The Devil's Mistress...

In the New Mexico high desert, four cowboys ride horses while a narrator intones, “In the Book of Deuteronomy it is written ‘They sacrificed unto the devil and not to God. And the Lord said ‘They shall be burned with hunger and devoured with passion and a bitter destruction. I will also send the poison of the serpent and the mouth of the beast upon them.’‘“

The cowboys, who soon reveal themselves to be bandits running away from the law, sit around a campfire and reveal themselves to be horrifically racist and sexist as they talk about finding “squaws” up on the mountain that they can have fun with, whether they are willing or not. Joe says vilely, “We ain’t talking about no girls. We’re talking about squaws. Stinking squaws. A girl you gotta marry and pay. A squaw you have your fun and you stick your knife in their belly.”

Frankie, the youngest of the cowboys, says, “Come on, you’re just kidding.”

“Wait and see,” Joe says ominously.

Will, an older cowboy, says Joe and his friend Charlie are not kidding, but they won’t make trouble in these mountains because the Indians here are Apaches. 

The next day, the bandits find a cabin sitting at the base of some rocky hills. They decide to check out the cabin because they are running out of food before a four-day trek over the mountains. They believe the cabin is empty, but they are startled when they are greeted by a large bearded man wearing black at the front door. “Greetings, brothers. You are more than welcome.”

The slightly more racist bandits, Joe and Charlie, enter the cabin at the promise of food, while the slightly less racist bandits, Will and Frankie, are hesitant because there are no livestock or indeed plants around the cabin to provide food. Nevertheless, everyone but Will enters and, in a disgusting scene of excess, the criminals eat everything in the cabin. When the food is gone, Charlie burps.

After dinner, the man introduces the men to his wife, the mute Liah (short for Athaliah). Joe and Charlie are disgustingly intrigued by her muteness (“You mean she can’t even…grunt?”). The man also explains that he and his wife travelled to escape religious persecution from Salem.

The cowboys are curious why their new acquaintances live in a cabin in Apache country. The man explains, “We have no quarrel with the savages and we fear nothing. You seem frightened by the heathens.”

Frankie admits, “You damn well know we are. Scared to death of them. We’ve all seen what they can do to a white man and it ain’t pretty neither.”

Suddenly, Will, who did not partake in the meal, draws his gun. He asks Frankie how the stew tasted, and Frankie says he never tasted meat like that before. Suspicious, Will asks the man in black, “How come you and her don’t eat no stew?”

The man replies that they weren’t hungry, and that Will’s weapon means nothing to him.

Will pressures the bandits to back out of the cabin, saying there is nobody and nothing here, perhaps implying the man and woman are ghosts. Will and Frankie get on their horses and leave, but Joe and Charlie remain behind, believing they can extort something, possibly gold, from the couple. “Old man, come on out.”

The man and woman meet Joe and Charlie in front of the cabin. Joe draws his gun and shoots the man.

Charlie, the giggling joker of the bandits, takes a crude wooden cross from inside the house and drops it onto the dead man. Then Joe and Charlie grab Liah and begin to rip off her clothes. 

After their horrible deed is done, Will and Frankie sit around a campfire. They are surprised when Joe and Charlie ride up on horseback with Liah, whom they have kidnapped and intend to bring with them. “She can’t even scream,” Charlie says.

In the first sign that these horrible people might get their comeuppance, when Charlie kisses Liah at night, she returns the kiss aggressively. Charlie pushes her away and falls against a tree, all his energy drained. Minutes later, at the campfire, Liah secretively smiles and licks her lips.

The next day, the bandits ride with Liah through the mountains. When they stop to eat, they are surprised when Charlie’s horse rides up and Charlie slumps off, falling to the ground, dead.

Assuming Charlie’s death was due to some kind of illness, the three remaining cowboys sit on a riverbank, soaking their feet. Will admits that the idea of being hanged riles him up because he saw a man die by hanging once.

Eerily, as the cowboys speak, Liah sits on a rock and looks at the distant mountains, where we see a tiny figure that resembles her husband watching over her.

Later, Frankie injures his foot, so after some discussion and charades by Liah, Joe volunteers to climb halfway up a mountain to find some herbs so Liah can make a poultice. Shockingly, when Joe finds the right plants, he uncovers a rattlesnake den! A snake strikes Joe and he falls backward, sliding down the mountainside.

Will finds Joe dead at the bottom of the mountain.

Later, Will sends Liah away to get water so he can speak with Frankie. “I got a strange feeling I ain’t gonna make it…through these damn mountains. Something’s happening to us. Something’s in the air. I got a feeling somebody’s…always watching us.”

“Aw, come on, Will. You’re kidding.”

“I ain’t kidding. But if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then forget it.” Will makes Frankie promise that he’ll bury Will if Will dies; Will doesn’t want to die without being buried like Joe and Charlie.

In the film’s most visually dramatic shot, Frankie climbs a mountain to join Will, a lone figure looking out over the high desert. (Will’s foot appears to have healed completely.)

With Will staying atop of the mountain, Liah gently seduces Frankie into kissing her. The film cuts to later, when Frankie is asleep.  Liah walks to Will’s horse and whispers something into the horse’s ear. Then Will returns from the mountaintop, tells Frankie he has decided to leave by himself, mounts his horse, and departs.

Minutes later, Will has trouble controlling his horse.

Later, Frankie and Liah ride their horses, attempting to follow Will’s path. They come upon a shocking and horrifically ironic scene — Will has been hanged from a tree!

In the film’s climactic scene, Liah lies with Frankie next to a campfire. She leans in and begins biting his neck playfully but he pushes her away. She looks off in the distance and sees the man in black far away.

“Why you?” Frankie asks, as if Liah has not just attempted to bite his neck. “What did he think you were doing? Tomorrow maybe we’ll be out of these damn hills once and for all, thank God. Maybe then things will make more sense.”

He walks to the side of a hill so he can think by himself, but Liah follows him and puts her arms around him. “I can’t seem to catch my breath,” he says, but he allows her to kiss him. Then he stumbles away from the hillside and lies down, splaying across the dirt.

In the end, Liah takes Frankie’s knife and stabs him. In the film’s only moment of gore, she removes his heart, tears it in two, then drops it into the campfire.

The man in black walks to her. She kneels in prayer before the fire, obviously practicing the religion for which she and the man in black were persecuted. 

Then the man in black reveals himself not to be the man from the cabin but someone else who looks slightly different.

The End 

I must admit I complain occasionally about films, great as they are, not matching their titles, and The Devil's Mistress shares that weakness to some extent. The Devil's Mistress must refer to Liah, but does that mean her companion, the man in black, is the devil? That idea matches much of his behavior, such as his bemoaning about being chased out of Salem for religious beliefs, but surely the devil cannot be killed with a single bullet. Perhaps he is the devil and Liah is his mistress, and his death was a ruse to lull the bandits into a false sense of security. Of course, the real question the film poses is "What is Liah?" She appears to have supernatural powers. She can drain men's energy, talk to horses, and apparently cause a man to be hanged from a great distance. Is she a succubus? Some reviewers of the film believe she is a vampire, but she never sucks anyone's blood. She merely kisses men and bites at their necks, draining their energy. I confess to being flummoxed.

As usual, however, ambiguity makes a film more interesting. The real star of The Devil's Mistress is the bleak desolation of the New Mexico desert. Nothing in the film is even slightly comforting. The cowboys wander through the sand and the rocks, even walking barefoot through brush that must be extremely uncomfortable. Shots of the man in black standing mysteriously in the distance are eerie because of the barren geography. The single structure shown in the film, the man in black's cabin, is nearly as desolate as the landscape outside, and the suggestion that the bandits are eating stew made from the flesh of local Apaches makes the cabin even more forbidding. All in all, The Devil's Mistress is its own stew of rocky desolation, and it makes for a fine if creepy treat.