Yes, I know it’s no longer October and Halloween has long been and gone, but - would you believe that, on the same night that I watched The Flesh & The Fiends last month, I took another random pick from my pile of unwatched British horror films and *accidentally* managed to cue up a Peter Cushing & Donald Pleasence double bill? I didn’t get a chance to finish my review of the second feature in time to slot it into October’s marathon, but, in light of such a splendid synchronicity, it would seem a shame to leave the second Don & Pete extravaganza un-reviewed, so here we go.
A long, drifting, rather sun-dazed expanse of nothing of particular importance, ‘The Devil’s Men’ (released in the USA under the somewhat more instructive title ‘Land of The Minotaur’) forms part of a small sub-set of ‘70s horror films that attempted to relocate the familiar atmospheric traits of gothic horror to the more ‘exotic’ terrain of Greece - a country that had recently become a lot more accessible to foreign visitors as a result of the contemporaneous boom in package holidays.
Sitting in a loose triumvirate of “Hellenic horror” alongside Robert Hartford-Davis’s troubled ‘Incense For The Damned’ (1970) and Julio Salvador & Ray Danton’s ‘Hannah: Queen of The Vampires’ (an American/Spanish co-production, aka ‘Crypt of the Living Dead’, 1973), I'm sorry to have to report that, even when placed in this less than august company, ‘Land of the Minotaur’ probably stands as the weakest entry in this most marginal of sub-sub-genres, despite being the only one actually directed by a Greek, and the only one to make use of the opportunities presented by Greek mythology and culture.
The story here posits an island (Crete presumably, although I’m not sure where the film was actually shot, and an exact location is never specified in the script) on which a remote, mountainous town has rather unfeasibly fallen under the control of – wait for it - Count Corofax, an exiled Carpathian aristocrat, played of course by Cushing.
In his new home, Corofax (did he live in the next valley over from Count Filofax or something?) has seen fit to revive an ancient Minoan fertility cult, convincing the local populace to join him in a kind of Lord Summerisle-type arrangement that sees them assist him in sacrificing wandering tourists to a fire-breathing Minotaur statue(!) located in a secret chamber beneath the town’s (extremely impressive) ancient ruins.
For some reason, the sacrificial victims must always take the form of a male/female couple, which would rather seem to contradict the conventional notion of the Minotaur being offered an annual selection of virgins, but… well, as you’ve probably already gathered, this is not the kind of movie in which attention to such historical detail plays a big role.
On the other side of the island meanwhile, Father Roche (Donald Pleasence) is an irascible but good-natured Irish priest with a penchant for befriending the happy-go-lucky, hippie-ish traveller types who seem to keep crossing his path in their VW camper vans. Several of the Father’s young friends have already gone missing after venturing into Corofax’s realm, and being at heart a priest of the old fashioned type, he needs little encouragement to begin ranting about how said land belongs to the devil and no god-fearing person should go near it etc etc.
Early on, ‘Land of the Minotaur’ pulls a bit of a ‘Psycho’ by initially presenting some of Father Roche’s archaeology student chums as our protagonists… only to see them fall victim to the Minotaur cult in pretty short order after they disregard the priest’s advice and start mooching about in the cursed ruins.
The girlfriend of one of the missing men (Luan Peters, from ‘Twins of Evil’ and ‘The Flesh & Blood Show’) is subsequently left high and dry at the airport when her beau fails to meet her, and, after she hooks up with Father Roche and explains that their mutual friends have disappeared, the latter decides the time has finally come to take action.
Somewhat surprisingly, Roche’s first step in this direction is to get on the blower to his buddy Milo (Kostas Karagiorgis), a jet-setting New York-based Private Investigator who takes the call whilst hanging out in the nude with a young lady in his swanky Manhattan penthouse apartment.
One might well wonder how on earth swinging fellow ended up being close friends with a cranky old priest on a remote Greek island, but 21st century viewers in the British Isles at least will have no time to ponder such questions – they will instead be busy trying to recover from the revelation that Milo looks almost exactly like Father Ted Crilly, as played by the late Dermot Morgan.
Now, based on the above plot synopsis you’d be forgiven for thinking that ‘Land of The Minotaur’ sounds like quite a lot fun, and I dearly wish it were so, but… well let’s start off looking at the positives, at any rate.
Karagiannis’s film does at least come through with some nice atmosphere. The genuine ancient ruins and authentically down-at-heel mountain-side town in and around which much of the film is shot convey a slightly different feel from more familiar euro-horror settings, simultaneously sun-dappled and haunted by weird ghosts of classical antiquity. There is a lot of creepy stuff with KKK-hooded cultists lurking around the village and hunting Peters’ character that, though not terribly well accomplished in the technical sense, nonetheless oozes menace in a manner slightly reminiscent of the same era’s more strung-out and poverty-stricken U.S. horror films.
The cave-set cult ritual scenes are pretty great too, with some beautiful lighting, lots of colourful robes, gouts of flame and psychedelic super-imposition effects, all as Cushing’s none-more-cadaverous visage presides over things in an appropriately authoritative manner. (These sequences are significantly undermined however by the use of some deeply unconvincing English language incantations, and the inclusion of an absolutely absurd disembodied voice that is apparently supposed to represent that of the minotaur itself. Really an awful decision on someone's part.)
The film’s soundtrack meanwhile is provided by no less a personage than Brian Eno, undertaking what was apparently his first ever work on a film score. One suspects that Brian – who by my calculations must have been somewhere between ‘Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy’ and ‘Another Green World’ at this point - must have smelled a cheque for a new hair-piece or some shiny shoes in the offing when he turned in this “will-this-do” concoction of eerie, pulsing synths and discordant string-plucking… but it’s groovy stuff nonetheless, a nice example of an early electronic horror score might well serve to induce some low level psychotropic flutter in late-night viewers.
And on the negative side meanwhile, he have… just about everything else in ‘Land of the Minotaur’, I’m afraid. The film’s pacing is slack as hell, full of long, dry passages of tension-free meandering, whilst the editing and direction feel shockingly rudimentary for a film with such a high profile cast, perhaps reflecting Greek crew’s relative lack of professional experience.
It would have been difficult to imagine Cushing or Pleasence appearing in a film this rough n’ ready even a few years earlier, which serves to emphasize ‘Land of the Minotaur’s position as one of the very last gasps of the more traditional British (or UK-financed, at least) horror film. And, sadly, the sense of dwindling enthusiasm for this kind of caper is perhaps reflected in the performances of the two leads.
Though it is rare indeed to find a film in which either of these gentlemen could be accused of ‘phoning it in’, I’m afraid we have one here – a problem that perhaps arises in part from the fact that most (if not all) of the film’s dialogue seems to have been post-dubbed without a great deal of skill or enthusiasm, resulting in uncharacteristically bland and one-dimensional turns from both of these great screen actors.
Pleasence spends a lot of his time getting comically agitated and shouting in heavily-accented single syllables, and in this sense his role here could perhaps be seen as a warm up for the avalanche of “cranky powers of good” roles he would play in horror films in the wake of ‘Halloween’, but if so, it’s not a terribly memorable one in truth.
Cushing meanwhile puts on his faux-charming “come into my parlour..” routine for the film’s young ladies, and it’s always nice to have him around, but, as with some of the other projects he appeared in during the mid-‘70s, precious little of the spark that animated his best performances shines through, and it is painfully clear that, by this point in time, his heart was no longer in these kind of routine assignments.
In spite of all this though… I kind of enjoyed ‘Land of the Minotaur’. To get the most out of it, viewers may have to recalibrate their expectations somewhat – certainly anyone anticipating the relative professionalism and narrative logic of a classic British horror film is going to be in for a shock, but, as mentioned above, the vibe really swings far closer to one of the less note-worthy entries in the wave of hippie-inclined indie horror films that emerged from America in the early 1970s (think ‘Blood Sabbath’, Death by Invitation’, ‘The Velvet Vampire’ – stuff like that).
There’s a whole lot of eye-rubbing, sun-dappled wooziness, a great deal of aimless wondering around and plenty of nice local colour - a stoned, “sea breeze and grimy youth hostel” kind of feel that undoubtedly has a certain appeal. It may be strange to encounter Cushing and Pleasence under such circumstances, but if you can dig the resulting cognitive dissonance and get with the vibe, I think this one can make for an extremely pleasant early hours drifting-off-to-sleep kind of flick. Ambient horror perhaps… a concept I’m sure Mr. Eno might have appreciated.
Actually, reviewing a film like this makes me realise just how heavily my view of cinema is dominated by nostalgic/retro tendencies, and how cruelly unfair I am to more recent films as a result.
Just think, last month I watched The Void – a movie full of nail-biting set-pieces, impassioned direction and superb special effects – and did nothing but bitch about it. Today I consider ‘Land of the Minotaur’, a film that does pretty much EVERYTHING wrong, whose few good elements are largely accidental, and I can give it a pass because…. hey, come on. It has Donald Pleasence running around on a Greek island with some hippies. In the ‘70s. It has Peter Cushing wearing a nice robe, sacrificing people to a fire-breathing minotaur statue, and squelchy synth noises on the soundtrack. The place it was shot in looks lovely. What more could you ask for? A good film? Gedouttahere.