Sunday, 10 June 2012

Gothic Horror Round-Up II:
Devils of Darkness
(Lance Comfort, 1965)

One of the more rewarding fly-by-night horror pictures that flooded the UK’s less salubrious screens through the early/mid ‘60s as independent producers tried to catch a ride on Hammer’s coattails, ‘Devils of Darkness’ is brought to us by the mysterious Planet Film Productions, from a script provided by Lyn Fairhurst, who had previously worked as production manager and “stunt supervisor” on the American drive-in classic ‘The Flesheaters’. It turned out to be the swan-song of its director, British b-movie veteran Lance Comfort, who died the following year, having signed his name to no less than forty-four features since 1942.

Ironically for a film that is chiefly notable for the ‘continental’ sensibility it brings to British horror, the opening twenty minutes here are mostly memorable for their jaw-droppingly awful portrayal of the French. As our petulant/loud-mouthed Anglo-American protagonists pitch up in a rural Gallic village where *nothing is quite as it seems*, they find themselves surrounded by a gaggle of underpaid British character actors, all suitably outfitted with the inevitable berets and black moustaches, giving us their very best shifty mannerisms and out-rrrageous ac-cents. Needless to say, and with all due respect to the French people and their culture, as a native-born Briton I found this hilarious (the tolerance of other nationalities may vary).

I particularly liked the scene in which the pigheaded American hero (William Sylvester, who later turned up in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’) confronts the crooked chief of police, who lazily refuses to begin investigating his catalogue of mysterious disappearances and attempted murders until he's enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of black coffee and croissants. Sacre bleu!

Even my tolerance for such deplorable ethnic stereotyping has its limits though, and I’ll admit that it came as a great relief when the action promptly moves to London, saving us from the prospect of another hour of that sort of thing. As it transpires, the plot-line of ‘Devils of Darkness’ is a catch-all assortment of Satanic cult clichés wrapped up in a bit of bonus vampirism, rendered interesting due to the fact that, by my reckoning, none of them were really clichés yet at this point. Most witchcraft-related British movies of the early ‘60s (cf: ‘Night of the Eagle’, Don Sharp’s ‘Witchcraft’) take the lone witch / folk magic / vengeance-from-beyond-the-grave angle, with only John Llewelyn Moxey’s decidedly weird ‘City of the Dead’ really springing to mind as an example of a movie from this period that features a full-on devil cult, and as I recall even they more or less kept themselves to themselves, rather than jetting between countries and using an international network of bourgeois followers to persecute a designated victim, as is portrayed here. In fact, ‘Devils of Darkness’ manages to take on board many of the elements that became commonplace in post-‘Rosemary’s Baby’ Satanist movies, despite pre-dating that “trigger film” by a number of years.

And whilst we’re giving Comfort’s film the chance to call ‘shotgun’ on stuff, it can also proudly stake its claim (sorry) as the first British vampire movie with a contemporary setting, and perhaps also as the first film anywhere to explore the inexplicable idea of a vampire leading a Satanic cult (hey, why not, right?). Additionally, the ritual scenes in ‘Devils..’ seem directly to pre-empt (in terms of framing, colour scheme etc) those later seen in ‘The Devil Rides Out’, whilst the film’s plotline, visuals and even locations all exhibit a veeery strong similarity to Sergio Martino’s supernatural giallo ‘All The Colours Of The Dark’, released almost a decade later.

So.. there ya go. Put that in yr pipe and smoke it, genre historians. As such a catalogue of unintentional ‘firsts’ might imply, Fairhurst’s script is actually a bit of an eyebrow-raiser within the repetitive constraints of the ‘60s gothic formula, rambling hither and yon across all manner of slightly unusual territory, and, unfortunately, suffering under the accompanying yoke of severe pacing issues, arid plains of meandering exposition and some truly dismal performances. All of which merits pointing out in passing, but I mean, we’re not watching a ‘60s gothic horror for the tight plotting and dramatic intensity, are we?

If we’ve got any sense, what we ARE watching it for is primarily the film’s wonderful visual sensibility. Probably one of the most brightly-lit gothic horrors ever made, Comfort and cinematographer Reg Wyer here take the more extreme elements of Hammer’s technicolor style and run wild with them, crafting a blunt but beautifully realised tone poem of blinding reds, mossy greens and oceanic blues that, aided by the loose and rambling narrative and excellent use of set dressing, costumes and props, helps mark the film out as a an interesting halfway point between the meat n’ potatoes approach of traditional British horror, and the kind of dreamy thrills purveyed by such decadent continental types as Bava, Freda and Vadim.

Particularly notable in this regard is the fairytale-like pre-credits sequence, in which a red robed, hooded figure strides through a mist-strewn woodland graveyard holding a black candle aloft, ready to oversee the resurrection of the recently deceased ‘Comte Sinistre’. Meanwhile, Carole Grey (from ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Brides of Fu Manchu’) appears as some kind of wild gypsy girl, performing an uninhibited bare-footed dance for her fiancée… until she’s struck down by the malign influence of the Comte, marking her for death as he flies overhead in the unmistakable form of a big ol’ rubber bat.

The fantastical, hyperreal quality of these sequences is startling – a feast of absolute prime Satanist / witch cult imagery, ready to be plundered, boiled down and filtered through the depths of popular culture over the following decade or so, making their way onto paperback covers, tabloid exposes and porno photo-shoots. Oh, and did I mention there’s a scene with a snake dancer later on too, and some pretty broad implications of lesbianism, including an obvious sub/dom couple in supporting roles? That always helps.

Another highlight is a great decadent bohemian party scene in London (I think the implication is supposed to be that it's a pot party, but it seems more like a party for people who just really like smoking), which introduces us to the astonishingly beautiful Tracey Reed (a relative by marriage of both Carol and Ollie, she’d achieved immortality of a sort as General Ripper’s secretary in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ the previous year). Reed’s presence, along with a plot-line that sees her working as an artist’s model, provides Comfort and Wyer with all the excuse they need to indulge in a feast of Pre-Raphaelite style ‘painterly’ mise en scene, framing her against couches, silk sheets and – naturellement – sacrificial altars in a manner that would do the aforementioned Euro-directors proud.

Though subject to some of the regrettable drawbacks you’d expect of an unheralded ‘60s schedule filler (in particular, Sylvester’s gormless leading man and charisma-free vampire mastermind Hubert Noël drain the picture’s energy so badly you’d suspect they were sneaking it home at night in plastic bags), ‘Devils of Darkness’ is still a beguiling oddity within the canon of ‘60s gothics, well worth tracking down for fans of this-sorta-thing.

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