When is a Hammer film not a Hammer film? When it’s made by Planet Film Distributors of course, purveyors of low budget fare who wanted in on that horror coin and so produced Devils of Darkness (1965), an entertaining homage to their bigger brethren. If you’re plum out of Hammer’s to watch, this will do quite nicely.
Released by Planet in its native U.K., Devils of Darkness found U.S. distribution from Twentieth Century Fox as the second half of a double bill with The Curse of the Fly, and made its rounds on the drive-in circuit. Critics liked the aesthetic much like they did Hammer’s, but mostly found the story flat and convoluted. But buried within its (I think) interesting mixology of sub-genres is the story of a vampire going through a midlife crisis that I wish was explored in more depth. Oh well; what’s left is a gorgeous looking pastiche of bodice-ripping melodrama mixed with the modern age, a first for British horror.
The film opens in Brittany, France in the 1700’s; a band of gypsies are having a wedding in the forest when they’re interrupted by Count Sinistre (Hubert Noel – Cathy’s Curse), a 200 year old vampire looking for a bride. He shows up in wire bat form and swoops the betrothed Tania (Carole Gray – Island of Terror) from her husband’s arms. Fast forward 200 years to the present, and a group of British and American tourists (necessary for those foreign sales) are lodging at a resort in the same region. Two spelunkers from the group come across a cache of coffins and are summarily disposed of by the inhabitants within; when two of the guests Paul (William Sylvester – 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Anne (Rona Anderson – A Christmas Carol) investigate, they meet Sinistre and his bride who just happen to be at the scene of the crime. When Anne’s body is found in a lake and he finds a bat-shaped amulet nearby, he begins to suspect foul play.
Once he arrives back in England (a Yank abroad, he is, he is) he hits up his antique dealer friend Madeline (Diana Decker – Lolita) for more info on the amulet. (Keep in mind that Madeline just so happened to leave France the day before the murders.) She tells him it’s nothing more than a curiosity; he doesn’t buy it, nor should he as Sinistre has relocated to England in search of Paul and the medallion. While he’s there, Sinistre falls for one of Madeline’s workers, Karen (Tracy Reed – A Shot in the Dark), and sets his sights on making her his new bride, much to the chagrin of Tania. Can Paul save Karen from the clutches of the vampire, or is she destined to become the new Mrs. Sinistre?
Devils of Darkness came at an interesting time in horror; unless you were Hammer, vampires were becoming passé, hence their own move to head for the modern age later on in the decade. One could not live by castle alone, nor continue to make rather old fashioned pictures for a society perched on the cusp of loosening its tie and kicking off its heels. The earliest scenes in Devils definitely adhere to the aesthetic and mood of the better known studio; gorgeous Eastman Colour cascades off the screen, from the costumes of the villagers to the forest surroundings. It’s more than just the look though; the film right out of the gate goes for chills (wire-bat aside) and achieves them.
It’s when the film shifts to the present day that it has to find its own legs, and generally succeeds; there’s only one party scene, so prevalent in films from the time period, and it does help to establish a relationship between Paul and Karen. What’s left after that is Paul’s investigation, Sinistre’s resistance to said prying, and some mildly tense moments until a rather rushed finale; without Hammer money, big special effects are laid by the waste side in favor of a reliance on atmosphere and performance, of which there is plenty of both.
Well, with one exception. Lead William Sylvester is as charismatic as a three day old bowl of pudding; luckily he’s saved by Noel and all of the female actors, especially Gray and Reed, the Count’s bride and bride-to-be, respectively. Director Lance Comfort (Murder Can Be Deadly) should be credited with giving his regular collaborator Lyn Fairhurst (Be My Guest)’s script some semblance of unity through the overall mood and energy of (most of) the leads.
You see, Devils of Darkness isn’t really a vampire film; yes Sinistre is one (although not explicitly stated), but he and his followers are disciples of Satan. Instead it’s an examination of cult behavior and the feelings that can inspire, such as jealousy.
I should say this is what I wished it dove deeper into; its mélange of devils and vampires isn’t too puzzling (they aren’t strange bedfellows at all), and offers just enough totemistic detail to pass muster for horror fans. But had it looked at the deception on the part of Sinistre towards his wife and mistress it would have added a dimension of amusing marital discourse not found in films like this.
But at the end of the day, we’re left with a pleasant derivation of Hammer’s strengths: strong characters, suggestive lasciviousness, and gorgeous photography. Devils of Darkness may not have the grandeur and scope of the best of British horror, but you get Satanists, vampires, and gypsies offering up dire warnings. The only thing missing are werewolves. It’s never too late for a sequel.
Devils of Darkness along with Witchcraft is available on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox as part of their Midnite Movies Double Feature Collection.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: BODY COUNT (1986)