Remember last month when I said Angelica De Alba and Paul Ragsdale’s Murdercise was my favorite indie flick of the year? Sadly, their slasher romp has been knocked down to second place in this running. That’s nothing to cry home about, though! It’s still a fun flick worth watching. Unsadly, a new successor has taken the throne in my blood-soaked heart… but first, some history!
We barely talk about 1600s America when covering basic history, if at all. What do you remember about it? Wait, let me guess—the Pilgrims arrived in the New World around 1620, founded Plymouth, and got their asses kicked by a New England winter, only to be saved by the local Wampanoag in what is remembered as the first Thanksgiving. Pretty wholesome, good story, I wish that’s how things had kept going. Want to take a guess about how the other 99% of that period went? I’ll give you a hint—about as well as the rest of our history.
You see, there was a little historical hiccup called “King Philip’s War”, which happened in the late 17th century—June 20, 1675 to April 12, 1678, to be exact. The conflict was the final attempt to run colonists out of the Americas, an effort headed by Wampanoag chief Metacom, who was known to the settlers as “King Philip”. What ensued is considered “the deadliest war America has ever seen”, with “the highest loss of life per capita of any war in colonial or U.S. history”. Huh, that’s not really a hiccup at all, is it? More something we should’ve been taught about, right?
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Alright, after that lesson, I think we’re due for a break. How about a movie? Remember my new favorite indie-horror flick? The one I mentioned before all the atrocities? Remember the witches? Well, I saw Andrew Rakich of Atun-Shei Films at the Devil’s Sacrament and he presented just the film to quench our thirst for colonial terror. It’s titled The Sudbury Devil!
In the film, “In the late 17th century, two Puritan witch hunters travel to a small Massachusetts town investigating rumors of devil worship, and are irrevocably transformed by the ungodly forces they encounter.”
The colonial/witch horror movie is nothing new. There’s been plenty throughout film history, old and not-so-old. However, The Sudbury Devil manages to solidify itself as a unique entry to the subgenre by keeping true to the tone these flicks usually present, while shamelessly exposing all of its exploitative cinematic roots. However, it never does so just for exploitation’s sake. I mean, what are witches all about? That’s right! Like most things of this nature, it all comes down to taboo. Sex, medicine, alternative religion, being a woman; all qualify as Satanic behavior in the eyes of the Lord.
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Rakich takes this into account, showing these aspects as such, but only because our main point-of-view is that of good ol’ Puritan witch hunters, who are known for being the purest of souls. From their “sanctified” perspective, these acts are nothing short of consorting with the Devil. However, after taking the (un)reliability of our “protagonists” into account and a gander at the larger narrative, one could come to the conclusion that the behavior of the witch-hunters isn’t all that different from that of the witches… and may even be worse.
In the film’s context, witchcraft is a reaction to the brutality of early America, whose settlers wanted to take as much as they could carry, have as much power as they could muster, and leave little else to anyone who wasn’t an ideal person. The feature presents witchcraft as a sound survival solution in a cruel, ever-degrading world. This doesn’t mean said sorcery isn’t fucked up, though.
Rakich mentioned there was some exploitation inspiration mixed into the cauldron, which I completely underestimated the amount of. What’s shown is gnarly, with a capital G-N-A-R-L-Y! Given the low budget allocated to the crew, it’s particularly impressive how they were able to get so much in with such high quality. For the Gorehounds out there, you won’t be disappointed, especially since the gore is all practical FX. For those thinking, “That’s great, but what about us who want to see someone go nuts and vigorously jack it to some sort of mysterious — yet unnaturally sexy — arcane object of great eldritch power?” Don’t worry, Rakich took y’all into account. Be sure to give your thanks whenever you pass him by on the street.
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The acting is CHOICE, all the performances so worthwhile, it elevates the feature to the Judeo-Christian heavens. Whether it’s Benton Guinness as the battle-worn witch hunter John Fletcher, Matthew Van Gessel’s portrayal of the one-armed tormented soul Isaac Goodenow, or the wicked devilishness Linnea Gregg brings to Patience Gavett, everyone gives their all and it shows. That includes the rest of the cast, too: Josh Popa as by-the-book Puritan Josiah Cutting, Kendra Unique Willis as chaotic-yet-sympathetic witch Flora, Carl Sailor as pompous local preacher Thomas Russell, and—of course—he one and only Andrew Rakich as Patience’s sinister spouse Mr. Gavett. Not to mention, they did it all while putting on period-accurate accents. No one can say they’re not dedicated, that’s for sure.
On a smaller, yet still important note, I’m compelled to mention how the film serves as a spiritual successor to Antonia Bird’s Ravenous. There are plenty of callbacks and similarities between the two if you know what to look for. Makes sense, given how much Rakich loves that film.
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When it comes down to what’s in the witch’s brew, there’s not much else to say other than The Sudbury Devil is the best historical/folk/witch horror movie ever made now and forever. OK, maybe that’s a bit overdramatic. It’s still pretty damn good, though. Best folk horror flick I’ve seen since A Field in England, which would be a fantastic pairing for a double feature.
In my original article covering the film, the creators described it as “a no-holds-barred folk horror gem and mischievous indictment of America’s foundational rot.” Honestly, I’d say that’s dead on. Beautifully shot, well-performed, suitably eerie, and appropriately grotesque, any other indie flick will be hard-pressed to surpass The Sudbury Devil by this year’s end, at least in my grimoire. I don’t know, maybe I’m just bewitched.
The Sudbury Devil is premiering at The Satanic Temple in Salem, Massachusetts on September 9th, 2023. The show’s sold out, so if you don’t already have a seat, better luck next time. Rakich’s hard at work getting everything set for a wider release, so when I hear more, so will you!