By JENN ADAMS
Movies featuring witches as protagonists tend to be quite progressive but few wear their feminism on their sleeve quite like THE DEVONSVILLE TERROR. Ulli Lommel’s 1983 film tells the violent story of a town built on torturing women and the witches who vow to destroy it. At the culmination of a deadly inquisition, a woman burned at the stake places a curse on the Devonsville men that will follow their descendants for the next 300 years. Following these murders, Lommel jumps to the present day where very little has changed. Like their ancestors before them, the modern men of Devonsville find satisfaction in torturing the women who will not submit to their sexual advances. Whether witches or merely headstrong feminists, an unfortunate trio becomes the new targets of murderous men who would rather kill than suffer rejection.
The story begins with the original terror. In 1683, a woman dries herbs in the forest over a moonlit kettle. From the shadows, a puritan man attacks while other villagers hold torches to light the way. They drag this woman into the mud and bind her next to hungry and squealing pigs while relentlessly accusing her of murdering children. She pleads for her life, but the men leer at their struggling victim as the women look on with discomfort. When the pigs tear into the unnamed woman’s flesh, the accuser licks his lips and grins.
Next we cut to a cabin in which an unnamed brunette woman is kissing a man while a blonde woman gives a tarot reading in another room. As the same mob gathers outside, they burst in and drag the accused witches out into the night. We next see the brunette tied backwards to a breaking wheel and accused of consummating with the incubus. Her pleas and rebuttals fall on deaf ears and they light the wheel on fire, sending her rolling down the hill to an unthinkable death. Once again the men derive sick pleasure in watching her suffer while the women silently watch. Perhaps they’re wondering what “sins” lurk in their own past that might earn them similar treatment.
The third attack is perhaps not so gruesome, but it is the most revealing of the mob’s true motivations. We join the villagers gathered around the blonde woman who’s tethered, nearly nude, to a post in the middle of a bonfire. One man approaches and cuts away her top, spitting on her and caressing her bound body with the blade of a knife. Men and women surround her chanting “burn, burn” as her flaming body falls into the ashes. At the moment of her death, lightning illuminates the sky and her charred head appears to the frightened people of Devonsville, screaming a curse that will echo through the generations. The only woman of the three shown to do any actual witchcraft, she vows that the descendants of these killers will pay for their heinous crimes.
We then cut to present day Devonsville. Sitting around a dinner table, the town elders reminisce about the inquisition while a man named Walter (Paul Willson) toasts the 300th anniversary of the murders. Walking home with a friend, he complains about being punished for something he didn’t do. Unfortunately his own sin is just around the corner. While doing paperwork later that evening, Walter’s sick wife calls out to him from bed. Fed up with having to care for her, Walter smothers the poor woman with a pillow. As he washes his face in the bathroom the charred head of the blonde witch appears to him in the window. It seems his own act of violence has reignited the centuries-old curse.
Just days after the funeral Wally sets his sights on the town’s new school teacher, Jenny (Suzanna Love). Brothers Matthew (Robert Walker Jr.) and Ralph (Michael Accardo) also take notice and attempt to chat her up when they see her around town. Jenny can barely buy groceries or walk home without a man bombarding her with questions or advice. In an echo of the past two other women attract similar attention. Monica (Deanna Haas) is the DJ from a neighboring town who gives progressive advice to her female callers and Chris (Mary Walden) is an environmental researcher conducting experiments on the local water supply. Young, single and independent, the three women bond with each other while fending off constant harassment from the town’s men.
After meeting Jenny at his grocery store, Walter knocks on the schoolteacher’s door bearing a gift of herbal tea. She pours him a cup then listens as he rambles on about his purpose in life. Walter follows this monologue by pulling out a violin and serenading her with a song she never asked for. Jenny sits patiently and sips her tea as he dominates her living room with complaints about his recently deceased wife. One can almost feel Jenny dying inside as the blissfully unaware man goes on and on. He asks her nothing about herself and seems genuinely unaware of her lack of interest. Walter does later apologize, but follows it by propositioning her again and implying that she’s not capable of expressing her feelings. Jenny politely declines and that night, Walter dreams she knows the truth about his wife’s murder. He can’t imagine that she simply might not be interested. Clearly she is a witch sent to town with a vendetta.
Though Jenny wins some admirers, she quickly angers others in town. When a student named Angel (Angailica) asks if God is a man or a woman, Jenny tells the class that some ancient civilizations believed that God is female. Chris angers the men by studying the toxic effects of their dumping in the local lake and Monica encourages her listeners to demand better treatment from their husbands and boyfriends. The men are all fascinated by these women and intrigued by their independent spirit–to a point. Aaron (William Dexter) is curious about Chris’s experiments until she balks when he strokes her cheek without consent and Ralph professes to like Monica’s radio show before she politely runs away from him in the parking lot. It’s not until they’re romantically rejected or find their authority questioned that they view the women as a threat. They further enrage the men by enjoying a nice afternoon at the lake together. Ralph and a friend watch from the shadows, furious that the ladies could have a good time without involving them.
It seems the spirit of misogyny has been thriving in Devonsville since the inquisition. The town is run by a shadow group of influential men who’ve descended from those who murdered the witches. They frequently discuss town business while sharing a meal around Aaron’s table. This domineering man frequently insults or ignores his wife Myrtle (Priscilla Lowe), the only woman present, as the other men watch on in approval. These scenes are always framed with young Angel sitting with her back to the camera, indicating that she makes up part of the audience as well. This impressionable girl watches authority figures insult and belittle one woman while fondly reminiscing about the murder of others, sending the clear message that women are bad unless they submit to male authority. A later scene shows Angel blatantly disrespecting and even threatening Jenny during class. Further hinting at the strong streak of patriarchal indoctrination is the town’s school house, formerly the town’s house of worship.
At this point the men decide that Jenny, Monica and Chris are dangerous. Not only are they corrupting the town, it’s likely they are reincarnations of the three witches their ancestors killed. Ralph complains that they only ever seem happy when they’re with each other or alone, failing to see that they just don’t want to spend time with him. A chilling scene around the dinner table sees the men imply that the women of harming children. Walter accuses Jenny of taking her students home with her and suggests that she is teaching them lessons on sexuality–an eerie parallel to claims frequently heard in right-wing media today. He also confesses to the murder of his wife, but Ralph insists she deserved to die for the crime of being a nuisance. The town minister suggests convening a council meeting, but the men insist they can handle the matter on their own.
We learn more about the original inquisition from the town’s doctor. In a bizarre plot line, Donald Pleasence plays Dr. Warley, a Devonsville son whose family has been cursed with a hideous disease. As punishment for what his ancestors have done, his body is plagued with worms slowly eating away at his skin from the inside. The only way to relieve this painful death is to do something positive to help end the town’s misogynistic corruption. Though Lummil essentially abandons this character in the final act, Dr. Warley is able to uncover the root of the horrors unfolding in town. By hypnotizing Ralph, he transports the man back 300 years to the mind of his ancestor, the man receiving the ill-fated tarot reading. Channeling his forefather, Ralph claims that the blond witch allowed him to see her naked, but refused to let him touch her. There’s no way to know if she intentionally revealed her body to him or if he was merely peeking through her window, but we do know that her refusal to consent to a physical relationship leads to brutal torture and death.
With this revelation, we see the inquisition in a new light. We now know that these heinous murders were sparked by sexual rejection. Rigid patriarchal norms give the Devonsville men absolute control over the town’s women and they believe this should entitle them to unquestioned love as well. The women have two options: they can give in to the men’s advances, going along willingly to avoid angering the town’s source of power, or they can reject them and face sexual assault and murder. Either way, the men will make sure to get what they want.
Even more upsetting, they can’t see anything wrong with their own actions. If the women won’t love them, it must be because they’ve already given their hearts to satan. Taking these beliefs a sinister step forward, they can’t simply be angry at the women, they must destroy their lives. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, the modern Devonsville men kidnap the trio and subject them to brutal torture. They bind Chris by the lake where she is mauled to death by their dogs. They tie Monica to the bumper of their truck and drag her along the road. Attacking Jenny in her home, they bind her to a post in the middle of a bonfire. Ralph caresses her nearly nude body with a pitchfork while he, Walter and Aaron shout accusations of witchcraft.
It’s worth mentioning that all of the deaths involve some sort of restraint. With ropes holding them just inches from a deadly threat, the women can no longer ignore the men who’s advances they’ve spurned. Licking their lips and practically drooling, the men derive sexual enjoyment from the debasement of their victims and gain by force what they’ve been longing for all along: the women’s attention. If Jenny, Chris and Monica want to survive, they must submit to the men’s authority and beg for their lives. These awful deaths not only force the women to give up their autonomy, but they allow the men to delight in watching them suffer for daring to reject them.
While the men taunt Jenny, Myrtle grabs an ax and sneaks up behind her husband. As lightning flashes in the sky, Jenny causes the ax to come down on Aaron’s head, splitting it in two. It’s unclear if this was Myrtle’s intention, but it seems this small act of rebellion has sparked another miracle. An earlier session with Dr. Warley has revealed that Jenny is a messenger sent to root out the evil lurking in Devonsville. The post begins to spin as she channels the spirits of the women before her and kills them men with psychic power. Shaking off the ropes, she steps out of the fire and walks into the safety of the forest. The next day Jenny boards a bus out of town never to return.
A final credits page tells us that all has been righted in the town of Devonsville. The misogynistic men have been removed and the women no longer need to fear for their lives. Unfortunately this comes after the brutal deaths of five women. With parallel timelines Lummil reminds us that this spirit of deadly misogyny is alive and well today. Women who don’t respond to the advances of men are called “no fun,” or told that they can’t take a joke. Women hit on in the workplace must often choose between submitting to unwanted advances or losing their jobs. Rapes and sexual violence occur every day, often committed by men who believe they deserve attention from anyone they set their sights on. The Devonsville witches turn out to be the avenging angels saving future generations like Angel from a life of misogynistic violence. The real Devonsville terror is a community of men raised to believe they deserve full control. Unfortunately, it’s a terror that still rages on 40 years later.