|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Dec 23, 2005)
DEVILS OF DARKNESS
Alternate Title: TALISMAN.
RT: 88 mins
Pro Co: Planet Film Distributors
Dir: Lance Comfort;
Pro: Tom Blakeley;
Wr: Lyn Fairhurst.
Phot: Reg Wyer;
Film Ed: John Trumper;
Mus: Bernie Fenton;
Art Dir: John St John Earl.
Pro Man: John Comfort;
Assist Dir: Roy Baird.
Choreog: Leo Kharibian.
Make-Up: George Blackler.
Cast: William Sylvester, Hubert Noel, Tracy Reed, Diana Decker, Rona Anderson, Victor Brooks, Peter Illing, Gerard Heinz, Brian Oulton, Eddie Byrne, Geoffrey Kenion, Rod McLennan, Walter Brown, Marie Burke, Marianne Stone, Avril Angers, John Taylor, Julie Mendes.
After some 30 years of working for his father John E. Blakeley in various capacities at regional British studio Mancunian Films, producer Tom Blakeley, together with movie director Lance Comfort, established Planet Films in 1962. For just over five years Planet acted as a distributor of independent features not just of British product like Max Varnelís The Silent Invasion (1962) and Peter Sykesí The Committee (1968), but also foreign imports including Harald Reinlís Der Schatz im Silbersee (1961), Norman Fosterís Indian Paint (1965) and Antonio Margheritiís A 007 Sfida a Killers (1966).
Planet also acted as producers or co-producer on a number of minor B-pictures, usually employing Lance Comfort to helm them, as was the case with the highly regarded The Painted Smile (1962) and Tomorrow at Ten (1964). Several of these titles were distributed under the Mancunian banner.
In the hope of gaining wider distribution than was usually the case for low-budget independent works, not just domestically but more importantly internationally, Blakeley followed the lead of other autonomous studios like Tony Tenser and Michael Klingerís Compton (The Black Torment 1964) in taking advantage of the boom in horror filmmaking being led by companies such as Hammer and Anglo-Amalgamated in the UK and American International Pictures (AIP) in Hollywood. To this end, Planet had screenwriter Lyn Fairhurst draw up a screenplay which resulted in the production of the first British vampire movie set in modern times, Devils of Darkness.
Rural Brittany. In a graveyard located within a deep forest, a hooded figure is seen holding vigil over a stone sarcophagus belonging to notorious vampire and Satanist Count Sinistre. As the figure leaves the graveyard, the stone casing around the tomb is seen to collapse. A while later a bat emerges and flies off into the night. A nearby gypsy wedding is disrupted when the bride is struck dead and the wedding part terrorised by the bat which they recognise as being the symbol of Sinistre. After the funeral ceremony for the girl, the gravedigger is attacked and killed. The Count, now in human form, removes the lid from the coffin to reveal that the gypsy is not really dead. Using his own personal talisman, he orders her to rise form the coffin and become his bride. This she does. Some time later at a hotel, the local police chief and the owner discuss the presence of some American and British travellers staying at the establishment. The policeman is unhappy at their presence but the hotelier tells him that the severe storm the night before meant that they could not travel any further. The Americans are a writer, Paul Baxter, and an antiques dealer called Madeline Braun, while the British contingent is headed by Anne Forest along with her brother Keith and his friend Dave. The latter two are both keen potholers and are making preparations to explore some caves they have discovered nearby. The remaining three travellers take breakfast in the dining room. There, Baxter remarks on how quiet the place is and how unfriendly the locals appear. To live things up, Madeline suggests that he and Anne observe a local religious ceremony that night which happens to be All Souls Night. Meanwhile the cavers are making their way underground with Keith in the lead. Near the entrance to the caves is a stone copy of the talisman owned by Count Sinistre. Back at the hotel, the trio observe a torch lit procession by the villagers toward the forest. The antiques dealer is just about to move onto her next destination but suggests that the writer and Anne should go and watch the rest of the ceremony at the nearby graveyard, suggesting that it would be an ideal subject for a book. Anne becomes reluctant to travel outside after she experiences a weird sensation but Baxter convinces her otherwise. The two cavers make their way deep underground into some sort of chamber where Keith finds two coffins. He is horrified to see a hand emerge from one and is attacked from behind by someone wearing gloved hands. A rock fall-in occurs at the same time. Walking through the forest with Baxter, the Englishwoman is accosted by a gypsy who tells her not to go any further. She then announces that Anne has been cursed by the ďevil eyeĒ and nothing can save her. Suddenly locals start running in all directions. Worried for her brother, the two tourists make for the caves. There they find the dead body of Keith, over which is standing Count Sinistre. He offers his condolences. Later at the village morgue, Baxter is arguing with the police chief about the circumstances surrounding the two menís deaths. He is particularly concerned by two marks found on the neck of Keith and informs the policeman that he intends to have the bodies flown back to England for a second post-mortem. Back at the hotel, the distraught Anne is being comforted by Count Sinistre who suggests that they take a walk outsideÖ
As can be seen in Alan Gibsonís unfortunate late-period Hammer effort Dracula AD 1972 (1972), there are many pitfalls to be avoided when relocating a supernatural entity from the distant past into modern times, not least having to avoid making its appearance and habits seem ridiculous against a contemporary background.
A few Hollywood ventures did succeed in taking their vampires in to the modern world. Among these are Lew Landersís Bela Lugosi vehicle Return of the Vampire (1943), whereby the title character impersonated one of his fellow East European countrymen, luckily finding that his odd habits could be used to cover his own. Another example is Paul Landresí The Return of Dracula (1958) in which the Count escapes to a remote Western desert town, where the he plays upon the fact that he is considered exotic and strange, and where he can continue his activities largely unfettered.
In Lance Comfortís Devils of Darkness, the credibility of Count Sinistre, portrayed by Noel Hubert, within a modern environment is largely retained. This is due to a number of factors, especially that he only makes appearances to small groups of people in locations that are remote or can be easily controlled. Thus, he is seen overseeing an occult ceremony in a remote part of Brittany, attended by superstitious locals and a few highly placed corrupt officials. When he does encounter outsiders, such as William Sylvesterís writer and British tourist Rona Anderson he uses the force of his personality along with control of their personal space to restrict any threat they pose.
When in England, the Count appropriately enough takes up residence in a place with strong connections with the past, an antiques shop. Another safe location is the crypt under an ancient stately home, another connection to earlier times. The overall setting for the movie is interesting in that while the film takes place in the mid-1960s, even with the presence of modern trappings like telephones, motor cars and laboratories, there is nothing to identify the exact period in which the story takes place. Much of the art direction by Earl St John Earl features fixtures and fittings along with decoration and art that belong to a far earlier place in time. The decadent parties held by Diana Deckerís hedonistic friends seem to hark back to the 1920s, the presence of Bernie Fentonís jazz music notwithstanding. Within such an undefined era, the Countís presence would seem all the less incongruous. This also means that Lance Comfortís picture has dated less badly than many of his contemporaries.
More importantly for the Countís credibility is that his influence is so powerful that he has others carry out his bidding without question. In France he has various members of the local establishment, including the police chief (Peter Illing, Escapement 1957) and various dignitaries, in his thrall. In England, meanwhile, he has a motley group of upper class thrillseekers (including a duchess played by Marianne Stone, The Curse of the Mummyís Tomb 1964) provide him with shelter, the quorum needed for a black mass and the supply of a sacrificial victim for that purpose. In some ways this situation looks forward to Peter Sasdyís Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) in its depiction of corrupt aristocracy. Antiques store-owner Madeline Braun (Diana Decker), meanwhile, seems to be acting as some sort of emissary for Sinistre, travelling from town to town, seeking out like-minded individuals who can be further debased.
Harking back to Jacques Tourneurís classic occult thriller Night of the Demon (1957), the belief system and arcane practices that both created Sinistre and sustain him have survived into the late 20th century. The heroís scientist friend (Eddie Byrne, The Mummy 1959) explains that witchcraft trials were still being held in some parts of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and that the previous year someone had hired a man purportedly having the evil eye to do an enemy great harm. Also in the last few months there had been a growth in the number of activities associated with the occult, including grave robbing and animal sacrifices. Sylvesterís character, meanwhile that he harbours his own superstitions, especially about walking under ladders. Finally, Byrne suggests that his own work in medical research, whereby he transforms deadly snake venom into vaccine, could be construed as a form of sorcery in some parts of the world. He argues that several of the more esoteric branches of science cannot yet be fully explained in rational terms.
A big drawback for the film is that, unlike Dana Andrewsí leading man in Tourneurís work, William Sylvesterís character proves not to be a particularly firm sceptic. In fact from rather early on he becomes convinced that dark forces are at work in the apparent deaths of fellow traveller Rona Anderson (The Black Rider 1954) along with her brother (Geoffrey Kenion, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde 1971) and his caving companion (Rod MacLennan). His being so easily persuaded robs the film of a great deal of dramatic conflict and narrative drive. This is compounded by his belief that if he goes to the authorities he will be thoroughly ridiculed, although the detective in charge of the case (Victor Brooks, Witchcraft 1964) proves to be remarkably receptive to the writerís bizarre theories.
Lyn Fairhurstís screenplay instead tends to concentrate its attention on two other areas. The first is the Countís attempts to retrieve an amulet that he lost while struggling with Rona Anderson. According to the script the object, which William Sylvester now has in his possession, is the source of much of the vampireís power over others. There is some inconsistency regarding the status of this talisman, not least the fact that its absence does not seem to really inconvenience Sinistre to any great degree, with him carrying on much as before with the recruitment of new members for his cult and the selection of a sacrificial victim. Indeed, at the climax, the vampire seems unconcerned that the police now have the amulet and appears content to settle for the death of the hero in its place.
Also proving problematic is the way in which the vampire is revived. Apart from the presence of a solitary individual silently placing a candle on the sarcophagus of the Count, there doesnít appear to be any ceremony or incantation invoked to revive the character, making the sudden collapse of the masonry covering the tomb seem a totally random event. Of course the explanation for this could be that the pre-credit sequence in which this occurs could be taking place in the distant past, well before the action depicted in the rest of the film (no dates are shown onscreen) and possibly only a short time after Sinistre was put to death for his crimes. Of course this theory is slightly undermined by the fact that the cemetery where the Count is incarcerated has obviously been abandoned for many decades, probably centuries.
The other main area of concern for Fairhurst is the plight of the artistís model Karin, played by Tracy Reed (Casino Royale 1967). Here, Reed performs two functions, firstly as bait to lure hero William Sylvester, who has recently fallen for her, into a trap, and secondly as a companion for the Count, whose current one (Carole Gray, The Brides of Fu Manchu 1966) has fallen out of favour with him. Gray, a hot-blooded Gypsy, of course does not take kindly to this proposed state of affairs and plots to rid herself of Reed while punishing Sinistre for his cuckolding of her.
On paper, Devils of Darkness looks suitably melodramatic for a horror movie with some interesting plot twists to maintain audience attention. Unfortunately compared to the best full-blooded examples of the genre from the period, it proves rather wanting in either macabre incident or salacious content. Fairhurstís screenplay is very dialogue-heavy with characters explaining things at length to each other, rather than having them shown. There is also little in the way of crowd-pleasing violence and sex. On-screen neck-biting is conspicuous by its total absence, while the only overt scene of violence takes place when the Count stabs a drunken old colonel (Brian Oulton, Kiss of the Vampire 1962) in the throat with a retractable blade, leaving a bloody wound. The supposedly decadent parties organised by the antiques dealer for the coven members turn out to be very timid affairs, with the merest hint of Sapphic activity and minor substance abuse. Patrons at these functions tend to look tired or bored rather than depraved.
A major factor in the success or failure of a horror picture is the quality of its chief villain. Here Count Sinistre is portrayed by French import Hubert Noel. While the actor does effectively convey the suave and exotic nature of the part, especially for the benefit of the repressed British characters he encounters, physically he proves rather slight and on occasion if dwarfed by some of his female co-stars. Ultimately, he has little in the way of genuine screen presence and fails to convince as a powerful personality who easily dominates others.
Although he gets to punch out one of the villainís henchmen at the climax, William Sylvesterís hero is more stoic than someone like Peter Cushing, Clifford Evans or Andrew Keir in Hammer vampire movies. He rarely comes into direct contact with Hubert Noelís character, and certainly never has an ultimate confrontation with him, even at the climax where Sinistreís demise is largely engineered by others. This lack of dramatic fireworks from the two leading antagonists is keenly felt and helps undermine audience enjoyment of the overall work. It should be said that, even with the paucity of the material provided for Sylvester, an American who worked almost exclusively in the UK throughout the 1950s and 1960s, usually in thriller and horror potlboilers, he remains a curiously likeable presence in the picture.
Of the rest of the cast, the female performers provide the most interest. Actresses like sometime songstress Diana Decker, Marie Burke (The Terror of the Tongs 1960) as an ominous old Romany woman, and Avril Angers as a coven member all seem to have been chosen because of their striking physical characteristics as well as their obvious thespian talents. This is also true of Tracy Reed as the plotís damsel-in-distress. Appearing very mysterious and very sexy at the same time, initially sporting a pair of dark sunglasses, her later appearances exploit her most prominent features such as her hair, eyes and height, along with a distinctly off-kilter general appearance which adds to her allure. Equally striking is Carole Gary as Sinistreís long-time lover. Using her eyes, lips and posture she conveys well her characterís tempestuous, passionate nature. For a venture with such meagre resources Devils of Darkness features a superior cast.
Director Lance Comfort had helmed some major of significant pictures during the 1940s for companies like Paramount British, RKO and Associated British but by the mid-1950s he was toiling away at Butcherís and other low-budget specialists. Despite this, in recent years, his output has attracted some serious critical attention with at least one book devoted to his career. Here, his direction is overall rather pedestrianm with little in the way of genuine creativity, as befitting the generally mediocre material he has to work with. Having said that there are a number of occasions when he does inject some style into the proceedings, with some interesting composition and inventive use of camera movement, as evidenced by the opening shot featuring a close-up of a sepulchre which then dollys out to reveal a very atmospheric wide-angle view of a decrepit graveyard. Comfort then follows this up with a surprisingly elaborately and energetically staged dance routine performed by Carole Gray and choreographed by Leo Kharibian.
Among the more macabre material contained within the picture, Comfort pulls off at least a couple of very efficient shocks, one featuring a squealing rat in a cave, another where a wax effigy is dropped into frame. The director also has a good eye for a striking image, notably a torch-lit procession reflected on the still waters of a lake, Carole Grayís hourglass figure silhouette seen against a backlit open window and, most memorably of all, an oil painting of Tracy Reed which is cut with a knife and seeps blood. Devils of Darknessís climactic ritual and its eventual destruction are also handled with vigour, especially when the sacrificial altar is struck by lightning and those present caught up in a violent maelstrom. It all ends rather abruptly with the vampire stumbling through a graveyard and being exposed to the first rays of dawn sunlight. He is reduced (by means of lap dissolve optical work) to a mouldy skeleton.
Special mention should be made of the filmís visual style, courtesy of art director Earl St John Earl and cinematographer Reg Wyer (Unearthly Stranger 1963). St John Earl was fortunate in that he was able to exploit the practice of British studios like Pinewood whereby the stored sets used on productions rather than disposing them as was the norm in other countries. As a result the sets in Devils of Darkness are surprisingly busy, with lots of decorative and furnishing details and features which often give the film the look of something which was far more generously resourced than was the case.
The sets used for Lance Comfortís work emphasise pale colours and pastel shades, meaning that any primary colours which appear tend to stand out quite markedly. This is especially true of the garish red cloaks worn by Sinistreís followers and adds some additional visual depth to the proceedings. Similar stylistic approaches were also adopted by Giorgio Ferroniís Il Mulino delle Donne il Pietra (1960) and Roger Cormanís The Haunted Palace (1963).
Surprisingly, Planet did not manage to secure theatrical bookings for this title in London and the Home Counties, instead having to rely on the provinces to generate income. It did manage to obtain a release by 20th Century-Fox in the UK, on a double-bill with Don Sharpís Lippert production Curse of the Fly (1965).
Planetís next two genre ventures as producers were both sci-fi shockers from Hammer regular Terence Fisher, Island of Terror (1966) and Night of the Big Heat (1967). The latter is credited as being the very last release under the Mancunian banner.
Assistant Director Roy Baird later went into production where he worked on a number of projects with Ken Russell including his breakthrough work Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971) and Lisztomania (1974). Amongst his other credits as a producer or executive producer are Robert Fuestís The Final Programme (1973) and Franc Roddam and The Whoís joint venture Quodrophenia (1979).
©Iain McLachlan 2005