Strong contender for Hammer’s film of the decade, a tight adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s black magic classic with some brilliant set pieces as Nicholas de Richleau (Christopher Lee) battles to prevent his friend Simon (Patrick Mower) falling into the hands of satanist Mocata (Charles Gray).
Initially constructed like a thriller with Simon rescued, then kidnapped, then rescued again, plus a car chase, it then turns into a siege as Richleau and friends, huddled inside a pentagram, attempt to withstand the forces of evil. Sensibly, the script eschews too much mumbo-jumbo – although modern audiences accustomed to arcane exposition through MCU should find no problem accommodating ideas like the Clavicle of Solomon, Talisman of Set and Ipsissimus – in favour of confrontation.
Unlike most demonic pictures, de Richleau has an array of mystical weaponry and a fund of knowledge to defend his charges so the storyline develops along more interesting lines than the usual notion of innocents drawn into a dark world. In some senses Mocata is a template for the Marvel super-villains with powers beyond human understanding and the same contempt for his victims. And surely this is where Marvel’s creative backroom alighted when it wanted to turn back time. Though with different aims, De Richleau and Mocata are cut from the same cloth, belonging to a world where rites and incantations hold sway.
While special effects play their part from giant menacing tarantulas and the Angel of Death, the most effective scenes rely on a lot less – Simon strangled by a crucifix, Mocata hypnotizing a woman, a bound girl struggling against possession. Had the film been made a few years later, when Hammer with The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1971) increased the nudity quotient, and after The Exorcist (1973) had led the way in big bucks special effects, the black mass sequence would have been considerably improved.
The main flaw is the need to stick with the author’s quartet of “modern musketeers” which means the story stretches too far in the wrong directions often at the cost of minimizing the input of De Richleau. In the Wheatley original, the four men are all intrepid, but in the film only two – De Richleau and American aviator Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene) – share those characteristics. At critical points in the narrative, De Richleau just disappears, off to complete his studies into black magic. Where The Exorcist, for example, found in scholarship a cinematic correlative, this does not try.
Christopher Lee (She, 1965), pomp reined in, is outstanding as De Richleau, exuding wisdom while fearful of the consequences of dabbling in black magic, both commanding and chilling. Charles Gray (Masquerade, 1965) is in his element, the calm eloquent charming menace he brings to the role providing him with a template for future villains. The three other “musketeers” are less effective, Patrick Mower in his movie debut does not quite deliver while Leon Greene (A Challenge for Robin Hood, 1967) and Paul Eddington (BBC television’s Yes, Minister 1980-1984) are miscast. Nike Arrighi, also making her debut as love interest Tanith, is an unusual Hammer damsel-in-distress.
Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher (The Gorgon, 1964) creates a finely-nuanced production, incorporating the grand guignol and the psychological. Richard Matheson (The Raven, 1963) retains the Wheatley essence while keeping the plot moving.
Catch-Up: far from ubiquitous and with a wide range of roles Christopher Lee has appeared several times in the Blog – for Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), The Whip and the Body (1963), The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), The Gorgon (1964), She (1965), The Skull (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967), The Curse of the Crimson Altar / The Crimson Cult (1968) and The Oblong Box (1969).