Tuesday, 9 October 2018
October Horrors # 5:
Incense For The Damned
([no credited director], 1971)
AKA ‘Bloodsuckers’, ‘The Freedom Seeker’.
It has been many years since I last watched ‘Incense For The Damned’, and although – uh, spoiler alert? - it is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination, I still think of it fondly, recalling the time I stayed up until 2am to see it, back in the glory days when BBC2 in the UK used to screen double bills of random British horror films in the early hours of Saturday morning.
How well I remember those evenings in my rented attic room; limited to half a bottle of wine (because I could only afford one per weekend), watching Tom Paulin moan his way through Newsnight Review, wishing they’d bloody well get it over with. Blu-tacing the aerial for my tiny TV set to the best possible position on the wall, turning out the lights, and – crucially - having absolutely no idea what I was about to be presented with.
I had no background in horror movie fandom at this point in my life, and no reference works to guide me. All I had to go on was the film’s title, and perhaps a three line synopsis in the newspaper listings. On that basis, you can appreciate that the name ‘Incense for the Damned’, year 1971, Peter Cushing, plus some slightly garbled copy involving vampires, Greece, hippies and Oxford University sounded absolutely unmissable. Could I have another ‘Psychomania’ or ‘Horror Express’ on my hands…? (1)
Well, needless to say, I didn’t. I chiefly remember being staggered by how shoddy and disjointed the film seemed. I probably fell asleep a few times, but nevertheless, I got some eerie psychedelic thrills from the acid trip sequence, and some bad movie chuckles from seeing Patrick Macnee out of ‘The Avengers’ getting pushed off a cliff by a witch on a donkey (so funny).
Not a total write off then, and in fact I welcomed the experience as a necessary reminder that I shouldn’t expect to win out every time in this strange new hobby I’d developed – after all, watching stuff like this in bored bafflement is very much part of the deal one strikes with the Horror Movie Gods, and what value the wheat without the chaff etc, right?
Returning older and wiser, I now of course have some background to help me make sense of the cinematic train-wreck that is ‘Incense for the Damned’. Most pertinently, I am aware of the dread fact that Robert Hartford-Davies – the man who happy signed off on 1964’s ‘Gonks Go Beat’ – actually demanded that his name was removed from this film, leaving many prints without a credited director. If that’s not a bad omen, I don’t know what is.
In fairness, Hartford-Davis’s argument was simply that the film he had intended to make was never finished. Beginning life in 1969 as a straight adaptation of Simon Raven’s novel ‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’ with location shooting in both Greece and Oxford, the project that eventually emerged as ‘Incense for the Damned’ was abandoned prior to the completion of shooting when financing fell through.
Two years later, some nefarious producer (I’m currently unable to ascertain WHICH nefarious producer), presumably in search of an easy way to complete a double-bill, disinterred the raw footage from this unfinished project and had it cut together into ‘Incense for the Damned’, possibly incorporating some newly shot material, possibly not [see speculation below].
The result is, indisputably, a complete dog’s dinner. In the opening minutes alone, voiceover narration and heavy-handed montage are used to graft a narrative onto what seems very much like a series of unconnected fragments, and throughout the film, shots that most professional filmmakers would have abandoned due to photographic gaffs or muffed performances are proudly displayed, in-between long stretches of what seems like unedited master-shot / coverage footage.
Although few are liable to hail Robert Hartford-Davies as an overlooked cinematic visionary, the best films he directed (I’d nominate ‘The Black Torment’ (1964) and ‘Corruption’ (1967)) are actually quite accomplished, and it is easy to imagine his anger and embarrassment at seeing his dirty laundry publically aired here without his permission – especially given that the footage incorporated into ‘Incense..’ strongly suggests that it may not have just been money trouble that shut down the original production.
Seemingly shot in great haste, much of the material from Greece is so flat and muddled that it is difficult to imagine even the most sympathetic editor pulling anything reasonable out of it, whilst the cast (particularly Macnee) look confused and unhappy throughout.
As you might expect, the storyline of the film that eventually reached cinemas is fairly incoherent, leaving ‘Incense..’ feeling chronically uncertain of what kind of film it is actually supposed to be. Is it a ‘Devil Rides Out’-inspired black magic movie? (Patrick Mower plays exactly the same young-man-fallen-prey-to-evil-cult character as he did in that film.) Is it a vampire movie? (Well, there’s a vampire in it, but she’s also a witch, so..) A jet-setting travelogue / missing person thriller? (Much of the film proceeds in this vein, with a flustered Macnee holding tedious meetings with Greek Colonels and traipsing around rural areas on a donkey, etc.) (2)
Or, is it simply a ‘60s social fable about a privileged young Oxford scholar who turns his back on the establishment after discovering sex, drugs and ancient mysticism? In many ways, this seems like the most convincing interpretation of what is on offer here, with the film’s finale – in which Mower delivers an outrageous, counter-cultural “fuck you” address to the University’s assembled provosts before murdering his shallow, status-hungry fiancée and escaping across the college rooftops – feels more like a weird exploitation homage to Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If..’ (1969) than anything that belongs to a horror movie.
It is worth noting here that the Oxford-shot footage in the film’s last few reels feels a lot stronger and more ‘together’ than much of what precedes it, and indeed, this memorably off-beat conclusion is one of several isolated bits and pieces that are diverting and/or strange enough to make ‘Incense for the Damned’ worth watching at least once.
The first of these is the hippie cult “drug orgy” sequence early in the film, which made quite an impression on me during that long-ago TV viewing, and indeed remains pretty cool. Looking as if it was properly edited as a stand-alone sequence (presumably at the time of Hartford-Davis’s original production?), it sticks out like a sore thumb from the drab padding that surrounds it, with full-on, hallucinatory application of warped reflections, fish eye lens and kaleidoscopic what-nots, crazy focus pulling and some ragin’ sitar-infused psyche rock on the soundtrack, all leading up to the surprisingly explicit murder of fully nude sacrificial victim. (3)
A fine example of the kind of post-Kenneth Anger psychedelic freak-outs that so often found their way into late ‘60s / early ‘70s horror films, this sequence gives us a tantalising glimpse of the direction ‘Incense..’ might have taken had actually been made properly… even whilst our psyche-horror buzz is comprehensively harshed by the subsequent, shakily rendered daylight scene in which the victim’s mutilated body is discovered on a hillside by her mother and fellow villagers. (I’m fairly certain that all of this nudity and bloodshed must have been excised from the version of the film I originally watched on TV, by the way.)
Another definite highlight is a one-scene-wonder cameo from Edward Woodward, who appears here as an eccentric Oxford academic with a special interest in the occult. Striding purposefully around the Ashmolean Museum, Woodward enthusiastically appraises our nominal protagonist Alexander Davion of his own personal take on vampirism, which he rationalises as a kind of sexual fetish. This scene calls upon Woodward’s talents to put across a few handfuls of the most jaw-droppingly bizarre dialogue I’ve ever heard in a horror movie, and he accomplishes the task with admirable gusto.
“Are you telling me that a girl sucking the blood from a man’s neck could induce an orgasm?” Davion asks him at one point. “Now, come, come, Tony, don’t be naïve,” he replies, sounding positively thrilled by this line of chat. “Man works and loves in many ways. Some men, for instance, get excitement only from statues – the ‘Pygmalion Syndrome’. Other men can only make love in coffins. You have voyeurs, transvestites, narcissists, bestialists. Ah, it’s a funny old world we live in!”
Isn’t it just? Davion’s character, by the way, seems to have been one of the biggest casualties of this film’s unfinished/cobbled together status, in that, although he delivers the narration that ties the film together and ostensibly leads the search for Mower’s character that the opening two thirds of the movie revolves around, his performance is entirely wooden, and he basically does absolutely nothing, remaining almost invisible through much of the run-time.
In the absence of a strong lead, the role of ‘protagonist’ instead getting pushed onto other characters, with much of it landing in the lap of Senegalese actor Johnny Sekka, whose character (another gifted Oxford graduate) provides an extremely rare example of a black hero in British horror, in an era when black actors were still only liable to make an appearance in the genre as servants or voodoo cultists.
Although Sekka’s character to some extent resembles one of the heavy-handed “look, a black man can be cultured and educated too” gestures common to liberal-minded British film and TV of the ‘60s and ‘70s (see Dennis Alaba Peters’ character in ‘Department S’ for example), hints of a little more nuance still remain in the scripted dialogue that made it to the screen.
For one thing, Sekka is not terribly likeable – his character is annoyingly highly-strung throughout, and seems particularly touchy with regard to his race (“should I wear feathers and a head-dress?!” he explodes at one point when his companions question his unverified insistence that Mower has fallen under supernatural influence).
Perhaps he is right to be defensive however. In his absence, Macnee and Davion are heard to mutter darkly about how Sekka’s ‘background’ gives him a special understanding of mystical mumbo-jumbo – this despite the fact that he has presumably spent much of his life engaged in legitimate scholarly pursuits in the heart of England, and that the mumbo-jumbo they are currently investigating originates in Greece.
As in most other respects, it is difficult to figure out quite what ‘Incense for the Damned’ is trying to say here, so muddled is the film’s construction. More than anything in fact, watching it again this month makes me want to track down Simon Raven’s source novel.
There is clearly a good story with some interesting characters buried in here somewhere, if only we could piece it together, and Raven is an author I’ve been meaning to investigate for a while, so ‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’ might be a good place to start, even though the title makes it sound like a medical comedy.
In closing, you will no doubt have noted from the poster and text above that Peter Cushing appears in this film. Well, indeed he does. As the senior Oxford provost who has sponsored the career of Mower’s character, Cushing has limited screen time prior to the film’s conclusion, playing the kind of “stone-faced, conniving patrician” role he could probably do in his sleep by this point. All in a day’s work.
In the film’s final scene however, Cushing’s character addresses an internal University inquest, and makes a report on the circumstances surrounding the death of his daughter, who was killed by Mower. This speech is played out in a fixed close up on Cushing’s face, and, in stark contrast to just about everything else that has happened in this silly and blundering film, he looks absolutely distraught, barely making it through his dialogue before breaking down in tears. Genuine emotional pain seems deeply etched upon his face, and though brief, the scene is starkly upsetting. If Cushing was indeed acting here, he was doing so with an intensity that seems wholly inappropriate to the film in which he was appearing.
So… it pains me to do this, but I had to check the dates. According to IMDB, the original shoot for what became ‘Incense of the Damned’ took place in April 1969. I believe that this was before Cushing’s wife Helen became seriously ill, but I could be wrong (those more familiar than I with the details of his biography can perhaps advise).
If, however, this concluding scene was actually shot later, whilst the film was being prepped for release during 1971, that would place it in the months immediately following Helen’s death, and horror fans will not need to be reminded of the effect that this had upon her husband. If my speculation here is correct, then including this footage in the final film feels like a deeply callous and irresponsible decision on the part of whoever was in charge at this point, and I rather wish I hadn’t seen it, to be honest.
But – this is only speculation. Perhaps Cushing was simply demonstrating his prowess as an excellent actor, giving his sketchily written character a redemptive emotional arc similar to the one he played out in films like ‘Cash On Demand’ and The Flesh & The Fiends (both 1960)? Perhaps if Hartford-Davies had actually been able to put this damn thing together in the way he’d intended, we might have seen a bit more of his character, and it might have all made sense? But then again, perhaps not.
I’m not sure if anyone on the British horror scene has ever really dug into the history of this production, or whether or not there are any books or articles I could track down that might help to fill in the gaps, but there seem to be a lot of unanswered questions here. And, as the tone of this review will probably have made clear, the answers to these questions hold the potential to be considerably more compelling than the film itself.
(1) A gold star for whoever came up with the ‘Incense for the Damned’ title, incidentally. Second only to ‘The Bloodsucker Leads The Dance’ with regard to really awful vampire movies with richly evocative titles.
(2) I was happy to note that the Greek Colonel who lends Macnee a helicopter is played by David Lodge, an actor who seems to have made a running joke out of appearing in extremely unlikely roles in Robert Hartford-Davis films.
(3) I initially suspected that the whole drug orgy sequence might have been shot at a later date, to liven up the film when it was prepared for release in ’71, but the cross-over of personnel and locations seems to suggest that it must actually have been shot alongside the other 1969 Greek footage.