Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Devils of Darkness (1965)

Devils of Darkness was made in Britain in 1965 by Planet Pictures, one of a number of small companies trying to jump on the gothic horror bandwagon that had proved so profitable for Hammer. It has black magic, vampires, sultry gypsy maidens and decadent arty thrill-seekers but although all the right ingredients are there it just doesn’t quite make it.

The movie opens with an apparent flashback to an earlier period of history where a gypsy wedding is disrupted by the revivification of the sinister Count Sinistre, your standard local evil aristocratic vampire. Then we’re in contemporary times, with a party of British tourists in a remote French village. An expedition to explore some local caves goes badly wrong, one of the men is killed and soon afterwards one of the female members of the party disappears. The locals, including the doctor and chief of police, are oddly unconcerned. They give the impression of wanting the tourists to depart as soon as possible and they evince little interest in any in-depth investigation. This is not good enough for Paul Baxter (played by William Sylvester) who arranges for the bodies to be flown back to England for detailed post-mortem examinations. Unfortunately the bodies never arrive in Britain.

Near where the woman had vanished Baxter had picked up a strange object which we later earn is a magical talisman, and on his return to Britain he continues to brood over these strange events. Like all good horror movie heroes he happens to be well acquainted with a scientist who has a knowledge of the occult, and he begins to suspect that the French villagers had been involved in witchcraft. What he doesn’t know is that it’s not just witchcraft, it’s a coven led by the vampire Count Sinistre and that the vampire is now in England. The decadent arty thrill-seekers mentioned earlier are mixed up with a local
antiques dealer, Madeleine, who had been a member of the party of British tourists involved in the fatal events in France. Our noble hero Baxter becomes infatuated with a member of this circle, an artist’s model named Karin. The artist for whom she has been posing recently is none other than Sinistre himself!

The movie dates from those long-vanished days when censorship still prevented horror film-makers from relying on large helpings of sex and violence and gore. Atmosphere and suspense were crucial because you simply didn’t have anything else to work with to create the necessary horror. This limitation on what could be shown could be a weakness or an asset. A director with sufficient ability would use all his skills to build up a mood of dread and foreboding that could be considerably more effective than throwing buckets of blood at the audience. Devils of Darkness is an example of what could happen in the hands of a less skilled director.

The plot is reasonable enough. The movie is polished and the production values are fairly high. The acting is competent. It’s photographed and directed quite competently. The settings have the necessary atmosphere to them. But no actual horror eventuates. Hubert Noël looks the part as the vampire but he lacks any real menace. A couple of scenes are slightly spooky, but there are no real chills, no sense of evil or of any real cosmic wrongness. Director Lance Comfort just doesn’t seem to know he’s making a horror movie.

William Sylvester is a very dull hero. The female characters are potentially a lot more interesting. Tracy Reed as Karin has the same sort of strange exotic beauty that Gloria Holden and Carroll Borland brought to Dracula's Daughter and Mark of the Vampire respectively, but there’s no chemistry at all between her and Baxter or between her and the Count. There’s no erotic charge at all. And that means that Baxter’s obsession with her makes no sense. The idea that the Count uses hypnotic power to exercise control over his followers and victims is a good one, and it’s a useful way of explaining how he’s able to movie in the modern world without attracting undue attention, but it’s not executed convincingly. Hubert Noël lacks the charisma to make those hypnotic powers believable. The members of the wicked decadent circle centred around the antiques shop don’t seem especially wicked or decadent. The vicar could walk in on one of their conclaves without being shocked.

The whole exercise is simply too bland and too genteel. If you compare it to the movies Terence Fisher made for Hammer at around the same time and under the same censorship constraints the difference is startling. It’s easy to see why Hammer had prospered while Planet Pictures made very little impact.

It’s not a terrible movie, it’s just a trifle dull and that’s something that a horror movie can’t afford to be.

No comments: