The Wicker Man (1973) **** – Seen at the Cinema

I first saw The Wicker Man in 1973, dismissed by critics on release, on the lower half of a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s ecstatically-reviewed Don’t Look Now (1973), the films connected less by the horror elements than that they both made by British Lion. t’s now rubbing shoulders with the most superior kind of cult picture, the ones that the public will actually fork out hard-earned cash to see on the big screen, as was my experience this week. Some clever marketing person had the bright idea, given the picture concerns May Day activities of a dark nature, of running a special revival on May Day. What surprised me more was that the cinema was full (on a Monday night, no less), the audience was 20- and 30-year-olds and younger, and judging from overheard chatter afterwards they clearly enjoyed the experience.

What struck me most when watching this was the clarity of the pagan worship, compared to, for example, The Northman where I had no idea what they were worshipping beyond a rough notion. The procreation element was very well thought-out, the idea that such paganism should be taught in schools the way in the era when the film was made religion was on the curriculum. Most horror films do not take religion seriously, But here, even if it’s not your idea of true religion, the entire community invested in the symbolism of animals and trees and fertility rites such as jumping over a fire naked (otherwise your clothes would catch fire) in order to become pregnant. A naked woman weeps over a headstone in a graveyard. You can cure a cough by letting a toad sit in your mouth. And the entire soundtrack, often performed by folk singers in the pub, is filled with songs where the emphasis is on sex. But the detail is really quite extraordinary. Beyond The Wicker Man itself which I understand comes from the Druids, I’ve no idea if this is patchwork of other religions imbued with fictional elements, but it doesn’t matter because, no matter how fantastical it appears, it all rings true.

Policeman Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) pilots a small seaplane to Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison. At first the villagers deny knowing about the girl’s existence, and then provide conflicting reports, even going so far as to claim she is dead, or has transmogrified into the hare that lies in her supposed coffin. The villagers appear to either discreetly or openly mock him and certainly find much humor in his steadfast Christian beliefs. The schoolteacher Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) denies that the empty desk in her classroom belongs to Rowan. Island chieftain Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) debates Christianity. Landlord’s daughter Willow (Britt Ekland) and the librarian (Ingrid Pitt) are on seduction duty.

Frustrated, and threatening to return with more officers, Howie intends to leave but his airplane engine has broken down and soon he is convinced Rowan has been kept alive for ritual sacrifice on May Day as a way of providing rebirth for the island’s failing crops and fruit. In disguise as Punch, he joins the villagers in their parade only to discover that is the hunter who is hunted and that he has been tricked into coming onto the island.  The climax is horrifying, in part because the lack of CGI or a bigger budget, in part down to the delight of the observers, has meant that most of what occurs is left to the imagination.

What at one point appeared an idyllic spot populated by relatively harmless if somewhat wayward people with a highly-developed sense of community and none of the infighting that might common in such a remote location. In another reversal to audience expectation there was none of the bloodlust surrounding the burning of a witch or monster. The smile on the face of a killer indeed!

The audience is brilliantly enmeshed. The investigation appears to drive the narrative, the various obstacles in the way of  the policeman just par for the course in this kind of mystery. Just as we are beginning to become more enchanted by this community’s open attitude to sex especially when compared to Howie’s repressed Christianity, the story takes a sudden switch as the deeper level of meaning is revealed, that fertility actually means rebirth and that the ancient ways of achieving that are not for the faint-hearted.

Edward Woodward (File of the Golden Goose, 1969), making a debut as the star after hitting the television ratings heights as Callan (1967-1972), is excellent as the stern God-fearing policeman who gradually loses his power in a community where there is no tolerance for his kind of law. Christopher Lee (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) breaks out of his typecasting, especially with the wigs, with a very affable performance as a benevolent landlord. It’s hard to view him as an outright villain his actions are for perceived betterment.  Britt Ekland (The Night They Raided Minsky’s, 1968) is convincing as the free-as-a-bird aphrodisiac-on-legs damsel with vulnerability to the fore. Diane Cilento (Negatives, 1968) and Ingrid Pitt (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) have little to do but keep the plot ticking.

Robin Hardy, on his debut, does a remarkable job of setting the seductive atmosphere although the film’s box office failure meant he only made two further films. Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, 1972) adapted the novel Ritual by David Pinner.

The movie celebrates its 50th anniversary next year so look out for more showings especially if it becomes inextricably linked to the May Day festival the way Casablanca had been adopted by St Valentine’s Day marketeers.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die/Catacombs (1965) ***

Gordon Hessler (The Oblong Box, 1969) makes his directorial debut with this neat horror thriller. It starts with a twist exceptional for the times.  Ellen (Georgina Cookson) is the shrewd and shrewish millionaire businesswoman, her husband Raymond (Gary Merrill), from whom she demands frequent sex, the eye candy, a kept man. “I married a lover, not a businessman,” she retorts when, bored out of his mind, he asks for the opportunity to play a  role in her business. In a further twist on the norm of the damsels decorating 1960s movies by displaying cleavage or disporting themselves in bikinis, Raymond is often seen with his chest bared in all its hirsuteness. In a further gender twist her secretary is also male, Dick  (Neil MacCallum), a former, unknown to her, jailbird.

Tall, beautiful, dominant and domineering Ellen appears to have occult power, able to read minds, which keeps the larcenous-minded Dick in check, and has command of her own physical frailty – she walks with a stick – and can put herself in a trance to overcome occasional pain from her injured hip.

Conspiracy of fear: Raymond (Gary Merrill) and Alice (Jane Merrow).

But when Raymond falls for Ellen’s niece Alice (Jane Merrow), an artist returned from a year in Paris, he puts into action a plan that had clearly only been a pipe-dream, blackmailing Dick into participating. It’s quite clever as murderous plans go. He hires an actress to impersonate Ellen, known to go off to Italy on her own for spa treatments and with a knack for reckless driving, various driving charges over the years. Meanwhile, he strangles Ellen, allows Alice at a distance from an airport viewing terrace, to see her aunt, complete with walking stick, climbing up the steps of a plane. Faked cables and postcards arrive from Italy purportedly showing Ellen enjoying herself, even visiting the famous catacombs. In Italy Dick fakes a car accident to kill the actress.

However, twist number one comes at the reading of the will. Raymond and Alice split the million-pound bounty but while the latter is given custody of the big house the former is condemned to live for life, on pain of forfeiting the inheritance, in the cottage, in whose potting shed Ellen’s body lies. Further twists naturally follow. The maid (Rachel Thomas) doesn’t quite so much smell a rat but adds to the killer’s incipient discomfort by proclaiming that with her hip problem and claustrophobia that Ellen would never descend into the catacombs.

Entitled “Catacombs” in the U.K. after the novel by Jay Bennett on which it was based, it was retitled
“The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die” for the U.S. market.

And Raymond might have lived happily ever after with Alice except for his guilt. Several creepy incidents, knocking, tapping, door handles turning, shadows, a depression the shape of a body in a bed, cigarettes smoking in ashtrays, lights going on and off indicate to the already nervous Raymond and the visibly frightened Alice that Ellen may not be dead after all. Virtually the entire third act is the pair of them reacting to real or imagined fears. Alice has a good line in looking scared witless. But Raymond, while trying to contain his inner demons, is equally rattled.

As you might expect there are further excellent twists to come. In fact, they are soon piling up and even at the very end the screen freezes on a final twist.

Georgina Cookson (The Picasso Summer, 1969) steals the show as the imperious businesswoman, with everyone cowering under her glare and not above stating the obvious, “I bought you body and soul,” she reminds Raymond. I’m not sure Gary Merill (The Power, 1968) is quite as good in the second half as he is in the first. Initially, he exudes charm, physical prowess, and, while under his wife’s thumb, still emotes a certain measure of confidence. He doesn’t appear to me to quite frightened enough in the second half as his plans go awry. Jane Merrow (The Lion in Winter, 1968) is excellent as the young woman caught in a mental trap and Neil MacCallum (The Lost Continent, 1968) is surprisingly effective.

But this is a low-budget B-picture that was destined for the lower half of a double bill so there was no particular reason why it should be as good as it is. Except for the Italian sequence, the action takes place on just two sets and for most of the time it’s a three-hander. But Hessler has a keen eye for composition and in a number of critical scenes makes bold choices. For Ellen’s murder, he concentrates on Raymond’s face rather than the victim’s, only showing her feet. There’s one super-shocker with a mirror. But mostly he is content to built up the tension, either by the various noises or by the reactions of Raymond and Alice. An old-fashioned gem of a picture.

Available on DVD from Network.

Amulet (2020) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Succession has a lot to answer for. Even demons stuck in the attic are now looking for an heir. Even demons who either puke up or give birth to hairless bats – it’s unclear which. A lot is unclear here, deliberately opaque, artistically opaque or, worst, carelessly opaque, like someone who can’t be bothered to join up any dots. Horror films rich in atmosphere are often short of the elements that make a good horror film.

Eastern European (no clue as to which country) Tomas (Alec Secareanu) who was once a border guard (or two miles away from the border and no clue as to why two miles away from the border was important) is working on a London building site when a fire renders him homeless. Spotted on the street by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), she provides him with shelter in a run-down house inhabited by Magda (Carla Juri) on the assumption he can spruce the place up a bit. Although a handyman, he does nothing, doesn’t scrape down any walls, fix a roof, or anything sensible. Instead, he takes a chisel to the ceiling (reason unexplained) where he uncovers something only he can see.

Magda is clearly unhinged, though she is a good cook. The longer the film went on I was hoping she was secretly poisoning him because the movie takes too long to go anywhere and by that time you’re already far ahead of the film. One of the reasons the movie is so reluctant to engage in a proper narrative is that the director delights in loitering over images of a snail, or the inside of a gutted fish or pans with what appears longing to the tops of very tall trees.

Occasionally, we get a flashback. Let me tell you how important this guard post is. It’s in a forest road in the middle of nowhere (all right then, two miles from the border). Tomas guards it during the day, but at night anyone could walk past. He’s not one half of a shift. He spends his time reading philosophy which makes him an “interesting character.”

Given he’s got nothing else to do all day it eventually occurs to Tomas there’s something odd going on what with banging on the ceiling and the occasional eye appearing through the cracks and someone nasty stabbing Magda when she peers through a keyhole. Turns out she is “looking after” her dying mother, although her definition of care leaves a lot to the imagination. When not adding to the world’s supply of bats, her ancient crone of a mother crawls around in a bare attic.

Not surprisingly, the good nun turns out not to be even a bad nun but not a nun at all – who would have guessed it? But in on the whole Succession business.

All this would have been fine – many horror films are pure barmy – if there was even one tiny scare, even an inkling of one. Horror movies, in case anyone has forgotten, are meant to scare the living daylights out of you. Either you get to jump in the cinema or if it’s the more subtle kind of horror picture it keeps you up at night worrying about the potential implications. The amulet turns out not to be a red herring as such but definitely not up to scratch.

I’m sure Carla Juri and Alex Secareanu are good actors, but the material here is so scant you never get the chance to find out. I never believed for a minute that Imelda Staunton was a nun, whether good or bad.

I thought we might at least be able to blame the National Lottery, the British Film Institute, the BBC or Channel four – the most common funding sources for stinkers – but it seems this was independently made. Debut director Romola Garai can’t even blame the script since she wrote the damn thing. Her talent as an actor (Miss Marx, 2020) hasn’t been duplicated here though she may improve given a second chance and a better script or script editor.  

In cinemas now – where I saw it. I should point out that I pay for my cinema ticket.

Orgy of the Dead (1965)

The cult of Ed Wood has a lot to answer for. A complete chapter is no doubt devoted to him in the history of the so-bad-it’s-good genre. His masterpiece, if you would call it that, was Plan 9 for Outer Space (1957) but more likely these days to attract attention for the cross-dressing Glen or Glenda (1953). Johnny Depp embellished the legend in the 1994 Tim Burton biopic.

Even so, little can prepare you for the likes of Orgy of the Dead, nowadays sold on Wood’s name, but to which he only contributed the screenplay based on his own novel. Not that, given his mesmeric incompetence, he would have done any better in front of the camera. It’s trash, but it’s a hoot, especially when The Mummy (Louis Ojena) and the The Wolfman (John Andrews) enter proceedings in costumes that would have been ridiculed on the domestic Halloween scene.

Bob (William Bates), a horror writer seeking inspiration, and girlfriend Shirley (Pat Barrington), drive out in the country. When their car crashes they end up in a cemetery and tied to stakes watch the dead, ruled by the Emperor (Criswell), come to life. Except the departed all look as they are auditioning for a job in a strip club. So what you get is one scene after another of nearly-naked girls gyrating for the camera. That’s pretty much it, until the sun comes up and the obvious occurs.

This marked the directorial debut of A.C. Stephens whose company Astra had started off with different intentions, buying up the rights to five films by French comedian Fernandel which would have been destined for arthouses. Criswell was a famed seer, appearing on countless television programs, who predicted the death of President Kennedy. Ed Wood – or Edward D. Wood Jr as he was known then – had made a television series Criswell Predicts (1953) and Criswell acted as narrator of Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Given the battles Hollywood had with introducing snippets of nudity in the 1960s I wondered how such blatant nudity got through the censor. Well, quite easily actually. Films with such high skin quotients simply did not apply for a rating. The Production Code was a self-funded censorship scheme operated by the studios. They submitted their films to this board and received an official rating. But if you did not submit your picture – foreign filmmakers also got round the censor by not applying – you didn’t get a rating and unless some officious local censor came after you then the pictures would play wherever cinemas would book them.

The case against wholesale nudity, such as the plethora of nudist camp movies that appeared in the 1950s, was torn apart by a ruling from the New York Court of Appeals in 1957 which declared, in relation to Garden of Eden (1954), that “nudity in itself” was not covered by “obscenity in law.” That opened the door for the likes of Russ Meyer and The Immoral Mr Teas (1959).  

The drawback for moviemakers entering this new subgenre was the lack of movie houses willing to show such films. Arthouses that might take a racy Ingmar Bergman or Fellini drew the line at treating their patrons to such overt fare, although The Orgy at Lil’s Place (1963) set records at the 390-seat World arthouse in New York where it ran for 29 weeks taking an average $10,000 per week at a time when tickets cost around a dollar.

Tracking box office figures through Variety, I was surprised to discover that some major cinemas in major cities were happy to screen Orgy of the Dead. It played in Chicago at the 1,100-seat Monroe and pulled in a “merry” $6,000 in a double bill with Jungle Street Girls (1960) which, despite the title, was a B-picture crime drama starring David MacCallum and then-wife Jill Ireland.

Orgy of the Dead was far more popular in Boston where it played both the 1,909-seater Pilgrim and the 625-seat arthouse Symphony Two. In its first outing at the Pilgrim it collared $5,500, returning six months later supported by nudist feature Adam Lost His Apple (1965) to pull in another $5,000. It made more – $6,200 – on its third appearance there after another six months. Following that it ran for two weeks at the Symphony in a double bill with Russ Meyer’s Lorna (1964) for a grand total of just under $5,000.

SOURCES: Variety box office figures – December 14,1966, August 17 1966, February 1 1967, August 23 1967, October 4 1967, October 11 1967; “NY Art Sites Favor U.S. Pix,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p155; “Astra Gets Rights to Five Fernandel Films,” Variety, September 1, 1965, p16.

Seconds (1966) *****

John Frankenheimer’s censor-baiting and game-changing paranoia drama was decades ahead of its time – it created the template for Blade Runner (1982), The Swimmer (1968), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Parallax View (1974) and The Truman Show (1998) to mention just a few –  and underneath the sci-fi surface asked deeper questions about identity, reality and depression. And it might well qualify as reaching for the impossible dream. Kafkaesque aspects intrude. It’s as much an essay on hopelessness as it is on hope, a scorching portrayal of the human condition. Unusual camera angles and depth of field make this a visual, if occasionally challenging, delight.

Disillusioned banker Arthur (John Randolph), marriage off-kilter, reacting to a call from someone he believes is dead, gets hooked into a deal which promises rebirth. After plastic surgery and a faked death, he is reborn as a much more handsome figure (Rock Hudson), pursues a new career as an artist, is sexually re-born during an orgy, but finds memories of his old life resurfacing at  inopportune moments and takes against the notion that he has to recruit friends or colleagues to go through the same process.

Although audiences had been treated to some paranoid impulses like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and films dealing with mental health such as Lilith (1964), this was the first film to touch on paranoia about big business, the unseen conglomerates controlling lives in unseen ways that directors in the 1970s pounced upon. Although a piece of breakthrough technology, the rebirth business is now just that, a business, wherein an anonymous  corporation, known here only as The Company, seeks to maximize profit from human misery.  

You could almost view the men who had more successfully undergone the experiment than Arthur as Stepford Husbands, guys who had created an ideal version of themselves. They could be body snatchers who have stolen a more convenient body. In another respect, the conventional Arthur turns into the rebel in society, refusing to accept this new creed. And he is gullible enough to believe his employers will accommodate his demands.   

On the one hand it is a self-destructive horror story. Arthur willingly gives in to his desire for a better life regardless of the emotional cost and is somewhat surprised to find that the community in which he lives is a construct, almost as fictional as any computer game.

It is an amazing mixture of sci-fi and horror. But the sci-fi has the bleakness of Blade Runner,  the hospital and offices where the future unfolds are drab, while the beach locations have an uncanny unreality. The horror is for the most part confined to two scenes – the new Arthur waking up swathed in bandages and later, strapped to a gurney, realizing too late his destiny.

But mostly what I found resonating was the examination of male psyche and its inability to deal with adversity and depression. Arthur isn’t so much desperate to wake up as a handsome hunk as to enter a new existence where he does not feel so lonely and displaced, where he can discover the humanity he has lost. It is not that he wants to be absolved of all responsibilities but wishes to be free of his current joyless life. While he becomes an improved physical specimen, he finds to his consternation that he has not shaken off the gloominess lurking in his brain.

The futuristic aspects are compounded by brilliant down-to-earth scenes. Company executive Ruby (Jeff Corey) goes into all the details of their contract while eating a chicken dinner, an old friend Charlie (Murray Hamilton) is deskbound, when Arthur arranges in his new skin to meet wife Emily (Frances Reid) he discovers his old true self had been only too apparent, cursed with unspoken longing and divorced from reality. Even romance with the outgoing Nora (Salome Jens) only offers brief reinvigoration after he partakes in an orgiastic grape-stomping event.

This is Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, and given he also directed The Manchurian Candidate, that is some accomplishment. He exercises total control in a film about total control but he is indebted to cinematographer James Wong Howe for developing new techniques to achieve a quite different, often austere, look.

It incurred the wrath of the Production Code – the U.S. censor – with scenes of full-frontal female nudity. These were all cut (though you will find them on the DVD). Whether their inclusion would have turned the film into a hit – rather than being booed at the Cannes Film Festival and a big flop at the American box office – is a moot point since, at that time, films as obscure as Blow Up (1966) had attracted big audiences due their more permissive approach. This should have been a late career transition for Rock Hudson (Strange Bedfellows, 1965) into more mature work but his excellent and brave performance was dismissed by the critics.

Book Into Film – “The Devil Rides Out”/ “The Devil’s Bride” (1968)

Dennis Wheatley was a prolific bestseller producing three or four titles a year, famous for a historical series set around Napoleonic times, another at the start of the Second World War and a third featuring the “four modern musketeers” that spanned a couple of decades. In addition, he had gained notoriety for books about black magic, which often involved series characters, as well as sundry tales like The Lost Continent.  Although largely out of fashion these days, Wheatley set the tone for brisk thrillers, stories that took place over a short period of time and in which the heroes tumbled from one peril to another. In other words, he created the template for thriller writers like Alistair MacLean and Lee Child.

The Devil Rides Out, his fourth novel, published in 1934, featured the “musketeers” involved in his phenomenally successful debut The Forbidden Territory (1933), and introduced readers to his interest in the occult. Although of differing temperaments and backgrounds his quartet – the Russian-born Duke De Richleau (Christopher Lee in the film), American aviator Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) and wealthy Englishmen Richard Eaton (Paul Eddington) and Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) – are intrepid. And while screenwriter Richard Matheson stuck pretty much to the core of the Wheatley story, the film was hampered by the actors. The laid-back Paul Eddington hardly connects with the Wheatley characterization and Patrick Mower is too young for Aron.

Original British hardback cover.

As with the book, the story moves swiftly. Worried that   Aron is dabbling in the black arts, De Richleau and Van Ryn go haring down to his country house where they meet black magic high priest Mocata (Charles Gray) and discover tools for satanic worship.  And soon they are embroiled in a duel of wits against Mocata, climaxing in creating a pentagram as a means of warding off evil.

In order not to lose the audience by blinding them with mumbo-jumbo the script takes only the bare bones of the tale, bringing in the occult only when pivotal to the story, and that’s something of a shame. A modern audience, which has grown up on enormously  complicated worlds such as those created for Game of Thrones and the MCU, would probably have welcomed a deeper insight into the occult. While out-and-out thrillers, Wheatley’s novels often contained copious historical information that he was able to dole out even when his heroes were in harm’s way. The Devil Rides Out is not a massive tome so it’s a measure of the author’s skill that he manages to include not just a condensed history of the occult but its inner workings. Every time in the film De Richleau goes off to the British Library for some vital information, his departure generally leaves a hole, since what he returns with does not always seem important enough to justify his absence.

Author Dennis Wheatley.

But then the screenwriter was under far more pressure than a novelist. In some respects, this book like few others demonstrates the difference between writing for the screen and writing for a reader. With just 95 minutes at his disposal, Matheson had no time to spare while Wheatley had all the time in the world. Wheatley could happily leave the reader dangling with a hero in peril while dispatching De Richleau on a fact-finding mission, the action held up until his return. It’s interesting that Matheson chose to follow Wheatley’s characterization of De Richleau, who didn’t know everything but knew where to look. Matheson could easily have chosen to make De Richleau all-knowing and thus able to spout a ton of information without ever going off-screen.

But here’s where the book scores over the film. The reader would happily grant Wheatley his apparent self-indulgence because in the book what he imparted on his return, given the leeway to do so, was so fascinating. There are lengthy sections in the book which are history lessons where De Richleau supplies readers with the inside track on the satanic. In the opening section, once De Richleau and Van Ryn have rescued Aron, the author devotes a full seven pages to a brief introduction to the occult that leaves the reader more likely to want more of that than to find out how the story will evolve.   He has hit on a magic formula that few authors ever approach. To have your background every bit as interesting as the main story is incredibly rare and it allowed Wheatley the opportunity to break off from the narrative to tell the reader more about the occult, which in turn, raised the stakes for the characters involved.

Effectively, there was too much material for a screenwriter to inflict upon an audience ignorant of the occult. Some decisions were clearly made to limit the need for lengthy exposition. But these often work against the film. For example, Mocata wants the Talisman of Set because it bestows unlimited power with which he can start a world war, but in order to accomplish that he needs to find people with the correct astrological births, namely Simon and Tanith. But this element is eliminated from the story, making Mocata’s motivation merely revenge.  Matheson also removed much of the historical and political background, replaced the swastika as a religious symbol with the more acceptable Christian cross, and deleted references to Marie’s Russian background. Her daughter Fleur becomes Peggy. Matheson also treats some of the esoteric light-heartedly on the assumption that seriousness might be too off-putting.

Overall, the adaptation works, you can hardly argue with the movie’s stature as a Hammer classic, but the more you delve into the book the more you wish there had been a way for much of the material to find its way onscreen and to inform the picture in much the same way as the depth of history and character backstory adds to Game of Thrones.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Devil-Rides-Out/dp/B00B1U3FPK/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=devil+rides+out&qid=1637411453&qsid=257-2054786-9327728&s=books&sr=1-1&sres=1448213002%2CB00I628KRY%2CB002SQ7XSG%2C0553824635%2CB00I60ZHNG%2CB09KH2QQVL%2CB00CJB9CVQ%2CB0018H7LPG%2CB07VQ8RZBJ%2CB003Z0IJKA%2C912409160X%2CB07N94V4ZM%2C0241476178%2C1734704144%2C0571311458%2CB092RHPZ93&srpt=DOWNLOADABLE_MOVIE

The Devil Rides Out / The Devil’s Bride (1968) ****

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.  

The title was changed for American audiences.

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.

In Britain it was double-billed on the ABC circuit with Slave Girls.

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).

Last night in Soho (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Genre mish-mash – sci-fi time travel time (sort of) and horror – just doesn’t come off and Anya Taylor-Joy blows the acting kudos she acquired for the Queen’s Gambit Netflix series. Honestly, we don’t care how people are transported to the past or the future but the journey has to be somehow worthwhile. If there is a such a thing for a fashion student, Eloise (Tomasin McKenzie) is somewhat on the nerdy side and when she ends up in an attic flat near London’s Soho she begins to inhabit the body of wannabe singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose ambitions over half a century previously took her no further than the seediest pockets of seedy crime. Eloise’s visions of recreating 1960s glamour disintegrate and she’s soon slap-bang in the middle of a horror story with leering men bursting out of the walls.

It’s always difficult to keep focus on two storylines, even when they appear to converge, but when they are over half a century apart the constant jumping back and forth is just irritating. The seediness is realistic enough, punter response to learning Sandie’s real or fake name is invariably “that’s a nice name.”  There’s a dodgy boyfriend (Matt Smith), mean girl (Synnove Karlsen) and an odd landlady (Diana Rigg) and that’s about as far as this stretches in terms of characterization. And if your bag is to spot the old-timer, then you will get glimpses of Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963) and Rita Tushingham (The Knack, 1965) not to mention The Avengers (BBC, 1965-1968) television series reincarnation Rigg.

It’s not scary enough, fashionable enough, seedy enough, or 1960s enough – only a token nod to the period with a soundtrack from the decade and a few scenes with characters in the correct clobber or cars. It might just have worked if it had been the one actress playing both female parts because that at least might have been interesting to observe. Thomasin McKenzie (Old, 2021) is passable as the naïve young thing called upon to mostly look petrified. Anya Taylor-Joy (The New Mutants, 2020) brings nothing to a role that is just a cliché. Point the finger at Edgar Wright, whose Baby Driver (2017) I thought was a sign of him having turned a corner from previous misfires.

The Whip and the Body / The Whip and the Flesh / What? (1963) ****

Has there ever been actress so skilled at displaying fear as Daliah Lavi? Where the female stars of horror movies too quickly succumbed to the scream and goggle eyes, Lavi could run a whole gamut of terror without uttering a sound and continue doing so for virtually an entire picture. Top-billed ahead of the reigning king of British horror Christopher Lee, this is another acting tour de force, not quite sustaining the intensity of The Demon (1963) but at times not far off it.

Italian director Mario Bava (Black Sabbath, 1963), here masquerading as John M. Old, has stitched together a mixture of horror and an early form of giallo, the picture taking place in the classic old dark house, in this case a castle perched on a rock above the sea, the deaths grisly, and almost fitting into the “locked room” subgenre of the detective story, where the murders appear impossible to carry out.

Originally released as The Whip and the Body, it underwent some title changes, first to The Whip and the Flesh, the German title translated as The Devil and the Young Woman and while in the U.S. it was shown as What?

The disgraced Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) returns to his ancestral home, begging forgiveness from his father Count Vladimir (Gustavo De Nardo) and hoping to reclaim his inheritance and his betrothed Nevenka (Daliah Lavi). While his father exonerates him, Kurt is denied the rest, Nevenka already committed to marriage to his brother Christian (Tony Kendall). Other tensions are soon evident: the housekeeper Giorgia wants revenge on Kurt for the death of her daughter and Christian is in love with another, Katia (Evelyn Stewart).

Nevenka who outwardly protests how much she hates Kurt quickly reveals masochistic tendencies as she gives in to a whipping. But Kurt’s sudden inexplicable murder instigates an investigation, suspicion falling firstly on the father, then Christian and finally Giorgia.

But Nevenka is not convinced Kurt is dead, although his body has been entombed in the castle crypt. Torment creeps into her face at his funeral and we can almost see her grow gaunt in front of our eyes. In a brilliant scene where she tracks what she imagines to be the sound of whip it turns out to be a branch lashing a window in a storm. Some of her supposed visions are easily explained, muddy footsteps leading from Kurt’s tomb actually belonging to the limping manservant Losat (Luciano Pigozzi). But how do you account for the hand, in an almost 3D shape, reaching out to her in the darkness or her ecstasy in still being whipped, her nightdress stripped from her back?

Although sometimes relying too heavily on atmospherics – windows swinging open at night, storm outside – Bava brilliantly marshals the real and the imagined, until the investigation into murder involves all the characters. Once the film begins, the drawbridge in a sense comes down, and nobody else enters the castle, and so we move from one character to another, each with their own motive for possibly committing dire deed. And with each passing moment we return to the demented Nevenka, who wishes Kurt dead but cannot live without him, and, craving the whip, cannot escape his sadistic power. Her faith in Kurt’s resurrection is so intense that the others are soon seeking signs that the dead man is still alive.

This is superior horror to Hammer. Using the same leading man, the British studio generally expected Lee to be over-the-top, his innate malevolence very obvious from the start. Here, he is at his most handsome and although definitely sadistic, the emphasis is less on his pleasure than that of his victim. And while Bava resorts to a similar kind of Hammer set, this castle is remote, has no relationship with villagers, and exudes regal dominance rather than just the normal fear of a Dracula picture. Bava employs a more subtle color palette and the piano theme tune by Carlo Rusticelli has a romantic tone.

But for all Bava’s proven skill, this would not be the same without Lavi. I doubt if there is a single actress in the horror domain throughout the 1960s who could match the actress for portraying fright, as she marches up the scale from mere anxiety to full-blown terror. And although women in Dracula movies succumbed to vampire teeth with more than a frisson of sexuality, there is a different deeper sensuality at work here, in what must rank as one of the greatest-ever portrayals of masochism embedded in love.

As noted previously, Lavi, in stepping onto the bigger Hollywood stage of Lord Jim (1965) and The Silencers (1966), lost the intensity she displayed here and never came close to matching this performance or that of The Demon. Christopher Lee, although claiming to dislike his experience, continued to rule the horror world until afforded a wider audience through James Bond, Star Wars, J.R.R. Tolkien and Tim Burton. 

Tony Kendall made his debut and soon graduated to the Kommissar X series, spaghetti westerns (he played Django twice), horror (Return of the Evil Dead, 1973), and thrillers such as Machine Gun McCain (1969). Evelyn Stewart went down much the same route, her long career sprinkled with gems like Django Shoots First (1966), The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968) and The Psychic (1977).

Mario Bava continued to exploit the horror vein including Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Lisa and the Devil (1973) with Telly Savalas and Elke Sommer.

Censor (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

From video nasty to video laughty in one easy move. I was laughing out loud when the picture started to get nasty and I doubt this was the intention of director Prano Bailey Bond, making her movie debut. The movie is set in the uber-drab 1980s, where color was apparently in short supply, and all the characters inhabited offices or houses that appeared to belong to the black-and-white era.  The notion that iconic characters like Boy George, Madonna and Princess Diana might have been around at the same time is largely ignored in the bid to make every character flat and conformist.

In fairness, working in the British film censorship department was hardly likely to provide a bundle of laughs. As well as being as being as buttoned-down as they come, Enid (Niamh Algar) is also riddled with guilt since she was in charge of her younger sister when she went missing two decades previously. A chunk of the film is almost a spoof of The Office, with characters hidebound by officialdom.

And there are a few excellent set pieces. As with The Night House, the scenes that deal with grief, Enid’s parents finally coming to terms with their daughter’s disappearance, are very well done. The dialogue among the various censors, judging whether to reject movies or heavily edit them, rings very true and there is a terrific scene involving film-making where the director is kept off-camera while an actress is literally standing in the spotlight.

Tight-lipped Enid becomes obsessed with the idea that her sister is not only alive but actually an actress in a video nasty.  To that end, she tracks down smarmy producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley). As I said, it may have been the director’s intention that Smart is killed by ironically managing to have an award statuette rammed down his throat, but I’m not so sure and at that point I began to lose faith in the picture. It goes on to a perfectly bonkers climax which had me in stitches, again not entirely a recommendation.

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