By Jackson Cooper
With its barren roads, dimly lit sheds, and gravel dust, it feels like you could almost taste the atmosphere of 1961’s Devil’s Partner. Equal parts supernatural thriller and small-town domestic drama, the film has been a forgotten gem of the atom age era, praised by filmgoers and cult movie lovers who, no doubt, caught it on television late at night or were intrigued by its sumptuously colorful poster of a centaur being rode by a beautiful woman. It is a film that provides a unique snapshot of B movie filmmaking of its era—a blend of television drama combined with a very real threat of supernatural possession and murder.
The film begins with a stark cold open as Peter Jensen, an old, decrepit looking man played by veteran character actor Edgar Buchanan, slaughters a goat in his shack, spreading its blood on a chalk-drawn hexagon on the floor. Time passes and a mysterious stranger named Nick, played by Ed Nelson, arrives in town to reunite with his uncle, Pete. The sheriff in town tells Nick that Pete has died, and Nick begins to move into his uncle’s shack. We follow Nick as he engages in rituals like his uncle's: drawing hexagons on the floor and slaughtering goats, resulting in odd occurrences for the townsfolk. Several strange occurrences happen involving animal attacks and the townsfolk begin to put together that Nick is not who he says he is—or what he is. It is revealed that, at the beginning of the film, Pete sold his soul to the devil to return as Nick to seek vengeance on the townsfolk who wronged him.
The plot of the film and its inevitable twist is admirable and interesting for its time. B movies were continuing to cash in on the space craze of the late 40s, early 50s era as well as the rise of supernatural thrillers and the trope of the narrative “twist” perfected through television’s twist master, Rod Serling. At times, the movie feels like a feature film version of a lost Twilight Zone episode, the tone fluctuating between eerie small-town thriller and domestic drama. The residents of the town are innocent enough, feeling plucked out of Mayberry or Hooterville, which grounds the movie within a sense of realism, making the threat of Nick’s possession of animals even more threatening (and shocking) to us. At times, I yearned for some more development of the town’s paranoia of Nick. He is vacant and quite creepy thanks to the casting of Ed Nelson. When Nelson is in the scenes, they are tense and even, at times, terrifying, as in the scene with Papers, the town drunk, who observes Nick sacrificing a goat and performing the same Satanic ritual Pete performed at the beginning of the film. In scenes like this, the film is the most effective, heightening the tension through creative lighting and committed, terrifying performances from its cast.
The occult aspect of the film is an interesting component of the film. Occult horror movies were a developing subgenre as the 1960s approached. Movies like Curse of the Demon (1957), The Seventh Victim and I Walked with a Zombie (the latter two both released in1943) laid the groundwork for aspects of occult films including scenes of rituals, the threat of possession by supernatural figures both past and present, rampaging nature (animals on the loose or spontaneously erratic weather). The threat in these films is not only the supernatural but the one who conjures it. These films were rarely set in America---Curse of the Demon takes place on an English campus, I Walked with a Zombie in Haiti--so for Devil’s Partner to place the horror of occult possession square in small-town America is a gleefully dark feat and positions the film as ahead of its time.
Occult films often carried a deep emotional center to them in investing in the personal lives of the characters who are witness (and, subject) to the occult’s rituals. This allows the threat of possession to be more dangerous to any character in the film's world because suddenly we have a stake in the lives of these characters. Devil’s Partner does that quite well, spending an ample amount of the film’s brisk 61-minute running time to dive into the characters’ relationships and tensions that arise from them. Where the film succeeds is in elevating its tension in both the occult aspects and the relationships between its characters when Nick transforms into different animals to attack the townsfolk including David, Nell’s fiancé, who already suspects Nick is not who he says he is. The emotional core of the film lies in Nell taking an interest in Nick even though she is engaged to David. And while many of the scenes involving the three of them feel ripped out of a soap opera from the era, it enhances the film’s ethos for the very real danger Nick and his possession powers hold.
The influence of television thriller programs and soap operas can be felt throughout the film, due impart to the movie’s brisk pacing. Many of the stars of the film were already veteran TV stars or would be fledging ones including Ed Nelson who would go on after this film to star in an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1962 and, in 1964, originate his most famous role to date as Dr. Michael Rossi on the TV soap series Peyton Place. Nelson began his career as a stunt man for Roger Corman and played supporting roles in several films produced and directed by him, including Night of the Blood Beast and A Bucket of Blood. His most significant role with Corman came in 1958, acting in and producing the film The Brain Eaters the same year he was cast in this film. Both movies were produced under the auspice of Corman’s Filmgroup which produced memorable B movies like High School Big Shot, The Little Shop of Horrors, and the gleefully cheesy Creature from the Haunted Sea.
Devil’s Partner was made in 1958 but released in 1961 for the drive-in crowd, paired with Corman’s Creature from the Haunted Sea, an entertaining cheeseball Corman picture that, personally, I have such fun watching whenever it is on. Interestingly, 1961 was a renaissance for horror moviemaking, with films like Night Tide, The Curse of Frankenstein, Mr. Sardonicus, and The Innocents showing the vast range of storytelling present with filmmakers. Corman himself was reaching a new height-- dominating drive-in and B movie box offices with his enormous output of films and on the precipice of furthering the horror genre with the release of 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum, sparking a near-decade long relationship with Vincent Price and the works of Edgar Allen Poe.
Devil’s Partner deserves a small place in the decade’s film history for taking concepts of ordinary small-town America and combining it with new tropes of occult horror films. The film boasts worthy performances by everyone, and it gives flashes of atmospheric creep, namely in the ritual scenes. This disc from Film Masters restores both Partner and Creature to their stunning black-and-white glory, pairing the two together as a thoughtful romp through early 60s B-Movie horror. Devil’s Partner may not creep you out as much as other films released during this period, although it is a worthy visit down the desolate desert roads of New Mexico if you are a fan of this era of filmmaking.
And to be clear, no goats were harmed in the making of this film.
The Devil's Partner comes soon to Blu-ray and DVD! Get more info here.