Way up in the Appalachian Mountains we learn, by way of affable if mysterious narrator Mr. Marmaduke (Severn Darden), that the Devil roams the woods. Known by many names and many faces he threatens the rural folk, driving ageing balladeer Grandpappy (Denver Pyle) to take a stand with his silver-stringed guitar. Alas, Grandappy had no idea his strings were not made of true silver. His epic battle ends in tragedy, but inspires his brave young grandson John (Hedges Capers) to take up the quest. And so, wielding a guitar newly-armed with true silver strings, John embarks on a string of strange adventures, fighting supernatural evil with his spiritual songs.
Prolific pulp writer Manly Wade Wellman's evil-slaying minstrel hero Silver John, a.k.a. John the Balladeer or Hillbilly John, first appeared in a series of early Sixties short stories published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Reprinted initially in a 1963 collected volume Who Fears the Devil? with subsequent outings released well into the mid-Eighties, these horror-tinged rural fantasies drew considerable praise for both Wellman’s evocative prose style and compelling allusions to Appalachian folklore and culture, in which he was well versed. Wellman's quirky characters, mannered though literate dialogue and eccentric melange of the lyrical, metaphysical, surreal and satirical seem like ideal material for the Coen Brothers to adapt someday. However the first and thus far only screen treatment of Who Fears the Devil?, later re-released as The Legend of Hillbilly John after the original title proved unmarketable, was this low-budget oddity from John Newland, co-creator and host of cult sci-fi television show One Step Beyond.
Comprised of three Wellman stories (including an origin tale, "Oh, Ugly Bird" and "Desrick on Yandro") plus an original voodoo themed time-travel yarn, Who Fears the Devil? has its charms and inspired moments. Among them John's encounter with a demon bird strikingly stop-motion animated by effects legend Gene Warren. Equally memorable is a brief moment when Grandpappy sings a high-note that splits the cinematic frame. Yet for the most part Newland's prosaic handling saps the magic out of material that remains frustratingly earthbound when it ought to spellbind. It needed a filmmaker somehow able to fuse the best elements of Sam Peckinpah and Mario Bava. Seemingly in an effort to strike a chord with the early Seventies counterculture crowd, Newland refashions Wellman's stoic, fiercely self-educated Korean war vet and sharpshooter into a wide-eyed innocent hippie lad more often an observer than protagonist. Newland also layers the stories with right on socio-political (it ends with John marching on Washington presumably to sort the Nixon administration out) and ecological undertones. In the opening narration Mr. Marmaduke draws a parallel between the Devil and progress, as represented by a newly constructed "super highway", in a manner that will strike some as problematic. To say nothing of the script's patronizing attitude to women. John's girlfriend Lily (otherwise well-played in a naturalistic manner by Sharon Henesy) tries to draw him away from his quest and into a life of peaceful domesticity. It speaks to the counterculture's suspicion of bourgeois ideas like marriage and home ownership along with an ill-concealed contempt for women as a conduit to bogus stability, social inaction and stagnation.
Despite the above flaws and slack storytelling the stories themselves are intriguingly odd while Wellman’s rich Appalachian dialogue remains compelling. While lacking the presence necessary to carry the film, Capers remains a fine singer performing likable country-tinged songs penned by character actor country music star Hoyt Axton (Billy's dad in Gremlins (1984)!). The film also has the benefit of a vivid supporting cast including an all too briefly featured Denver Pyle, Harris Yulin as the greedy Yandro, R.G. Armstrong as a farmer beset by a demonic old coot and Susan Strasberg as mesmerizing witch Polly Wiltse (who lands a Bava-esque moment). If nothing else Who Fears the Devil? at least captures a flavour of Wellman's intriguing supernaturally-tinged backwoods milieu until one day hopefully a superior adaptation comes along.