Playgirl After Dark / Too Hot to Handle (1960) ***

Passable British crime B-picture, mainlining on sleaze, plot as flimsy as the costumes of the dancers, rescued by, flipping her screen persona on its head, a heartfelt performance by Jayne Mansfield.  Career tumbling spectacularly after her Frank Tashlin heyday (The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, both 1957) she was loaned out to any outfit that would have her. Director Terence Young’s (Dr No, 1962) career was also at a low ebb after Safari and Zarak (both 1956) while Carl Boehm (Peeping Tom, 1960) and future Carry On stalwart Barbara Windsor, minus trademark Cockney accent, were on the way up.

Ostensibly an expose of the Soho strip club business, invests too much time in cabaret, though Midnight Franklin’s (Jayne Mansfield) number is surprisingly well done. Parallel plots see journalist Robert (Carl Boehm) investigating the industry while rival night club owners Johnny Solo (Leo Genn) and Diamonds Dielli (Sheldon Lawrence) duke it out over the spoils.

As you might expect, such clubs are populated by seedy customers, some harmless like a Leipzig salesman falling for disinterested showgirl Lilliane (Danik Patisson), others on the creepier side like Mr Arpels (Martin Boddey) who tempts unwary girls with talk of setting them up in the movie business. Naturally, so many girls together, jealousies simmer and tensions flare, resulting, as you might expect, in a catfight. But that’s nothing compared to the beating handed out to Johnny by Diamonds’ thugs. Matters aren’t helped by Johnny’s manager Novak (Christopher Lee) being in the pay of the opposition.

Apart from wearing outfits that would give the censor of the time a heart attack, Midnight is really a sensible girl, hating violence, warning boyfriend Johnny to get out of the business before he ends up dead. She’s got few illusions left, hardly expecting Johnny to pop the question, but like Richard Widmark in yesterday’s Two Rode Together (1961) gradually becoming repelled by his actions.

For the most part she accepts that Johnny effectively pimps out his acts to wealthy customers like Arpels but recoils when he attempts to do so with Ponytail (Barbara Windsor) whom most people believe to be under-age. However, when Ponytail’s attempted rape turns into murder and the police turn up at the nightclub, Midnight, initially obeying the laws of omerta, turns on Johnny after she discovers his gun. But in a wonderful closing scene, she picks up the discarded flower he wore in his lapel and kisses it.

There’s some surprisingly potent dialogue and sharp one-liners – “that’s a very nice dress you nearly got on” / “I had a friend once but it didn’t take”/ “there’s not enough milk of human kindness around here to fill a baby’s bottle” / after a date with Arpels “some girls came back with promises…one came back with a baby.” A good bit more of such zingers and the movie would barrel along regardless of limp plot.

Energy is lost by focusing too long on the cabaret acts and on the growing romance between Robert and Lilliane. As glamorous fading nightclub star, Midnight provides the necessary oomph in more ways that one, but the movie would have benefitted by concentrating more on her ruefulness and self-awareness. Though besotted by Johnny, she knows he’s no lifetime ticket, tries to keep from herself as long as possible acknowledgement of his more sinister side, not so much knowing her place but aware which barriers not to cross. There’s a terrific scene in the middle of the night when she guesses he might be in trouble but hesitates over telephoning him in case this would be deemed over-familiar intrusion. Even she doesn’t know why she still hangs around a joint like this except “fish gotta swim, bird gotta fly.”

Bombastic on stage, she’s subtle off. You will come away believing Jayne Mansfield can actually act. But there’s nothing much to get excited about from the other performers, mostly in the stolid category, though it’s interesting to see what Barbara Windsor can do without  reverting to a Cockney accent. Oscar-nominated Leo Genn (55 Days at Peking, 1963) proves that even crooks can possess a stiff upper lip. At this point with only a couple of horror pictures to his name Christopher Lee (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) could still be found in dramatic fare, but this is no break-put role.

Herbert Kretzmer, credited with the screenplay along with Harry Lee (All That Heaven Allows, 1955), would go onto worldwide fame and enormous wealth for Anglicizing French hit musical Les Miserables. While posters boast of Eastman color, which would have added to enjoyment of the dance routines, you can pretty much only find this in black-and-white and with ten minutes lopped off.

Wanna feel sorry for Jayne Mansfield, this is for you.

The Oblong Box (1969) ***

Vincent Price and Christopher Lee – two scions of 1960s horror – together, yet anyone expecting a clash of the giants would be sorely disappointed as they only share one short scene. This is a typical American International Pictures venture, based even more typically on an Edgar Allan Poe story, with some stylistic direction – the extreme close-up never more effectively utilized – from Gordon Hessler in his third feature.

Given that German-born Hessler (Catacombs/The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, 1965) was a last-minute substitute for English director Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General, 1968), he made an exceptionally good job of a complicated plot. The production was even more complicated than that since it was originally intended as a Spanish co-production to be shot in Spain. And at one point writer Lawrence Huntingdon (The Vulture, 1966), who did have form as a director (Death Drums Along the River, 1963), was reportedly also carrying out producer-director duties.

What seems like a mishmash of different stories – African sorcery, grave-robbing, disfigurement, forgery, blackmail, lifetime imprisonment, medical experiment, buried alive, a monster in a scarlet mask – soon comes together in a tense tale of retribution and revenge.

Nineteenth century English aristocrat Julain Markham (Vincent Price) has withdrawn to his country manor, for unknown reasons distancing himself from his fiancée Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer), but in reality to conceal from the world the fact that he has locked up his own brother, Sir Edward (Alister Williamson). When the brother, a disfigured monster, escapes he embarks on a murder spree.

The various storylines keep the narrative sufficiently entangled to sustain tension. Despite what may appear to a modern audience as primitive special effects, several scenes are bone-chilling largely through directorial manipulation. The Gothic look – graveyards, castles, the village – adds to the atmosphere. The violence was trimmed in America to avoid an “R” rating, but led to the film being banned in Australia.

There is more overt sexuality than normal, a scheming whore Heidi (Uta Levka) tempting a man with her bare breasts, and maid Sally (Sally Geeson) entranced by the monster.

The various plot strands appeared to confuse critics at the time and even now the film receives comments that it is “vague” but at a time when Hammer’s output usually comprised a straightforward – and somewhat limited narrative – I found AIP’s approach to this picture a welcome development. The slowly emerging story set the film up as much as a thriller as a horror.

It’s a bit of a reversal for Vincent Price (Witchfinder General, 1968) to be playing the good guy but that works to the movie’s advantage because you spent most of the time thinking this is just a scam and at some point he will show his true colors. Hilary Dwyer (Witchfinder General) is excellent and Sally Geeson (What’s Good for the Goose, 1969) is an example of the type of woman attracted to rather than revulsed by a killer.

Well worth a look if only to enjoy the distinctive Hessler style.

Night of the Big Heat/ Island of the Burning Damned (1967) ***

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) meets War of the Worlds with a nod in the direction of Star Trek.  In the absence of a decent budget director Terence Fisher (Dracula Prince of Darkness, 1966) loads the movie with decent actors and relies of suspense rather than revelation. Ignoring the obvious opportunities for beefcake, partially embraces cheesecake.

While you might anticipate a horde of sweat-soaked men you will be taken by surprise by that most un-English of scenes – delight in a downpour. This is more sensibly located on a remote island rather than a big city and dials down on the preachy stuff, nothing to do with  atomic bombs, but still alien invasion.

Instead of The Old Dark House it’s a very hot English pub in winter – a time when the rest of the country is freezing – where all the characters congregate. We’ve got author Jeff (Patrick Allen), wife and pub landlady Frankie (Sarah Lawson),  local doctor Vernon (Peter Cushing), mysterious guest Godfrey (Christopher Lee), mechanic Tinker (Kenneth Cope) and newly-arrived secretary Angela (Jane Merrow) who has been having an affair with Jeff. 

It’s so hot Angela has to cool off with a lager and lime. The women appear to withstand the heat better than the men who are all in shirtsleeves and soaked through with sweat. Angela’s got the right idea, nipping down to the sea in her bikini, cooling her neck (and cleavage as it happens) with an ice cube.

As well as the unseasonable weather there’s a high-pitched eerie noise that especially afflicts automobile drivers, forcing them off the road. Various characters are despatched before disclosure. There’s a surprisingly vivid slice of sexual competition between the two women for Jeff’s attentions. In an excellent scene the wife works out what’s going by Jeff’s attitude towards Angela.

Naturally, Jeff has little idea how to retrieve the situation and maybe it’s just the acceptable misogyny of the period or maybe Frankie is just a bit dim, but I doubt if many women would be happy to hear husband describe lover as a “common slut” without wondering how often he attracted to such. Luckily, the crisis is much bigger than a marriage being potentially wrecked.

The sight of the eventually sweat-soaked Angela is too much for Tinker resulting in a brutal scene of attempted rape. While the males, except for being overcome by the noise, tended to remain cool, Angela turns hysterical, threatening suicide and murder in turn, but in the context of being shunned by Jeff and attacked by Tinker it’s hardly surprising she’s at the end of her tether.

Turns out the aliens have taken a leaf out of the Star Trek playbook and can beam themselves to Earth and dematerialize and that the endless human search for life among the universe has prodded an alternative life form into action. Seeing Earth as one giant platter of energy, they have landed and started sating their appetites.

It’s a fairly standard premise and exposition is left to Christopher Lee (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) rather than the more obvious choice of Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965). Audiences expecting Lee and Cushing to be on opposite sides, with the former cast as villain, will be disappointed. Lee takes on the role of scientist that would normally fall to Cushing. He makes a good boffin, snappy, abrupt, remote and luckily without the slightest interest in any of the disporting damsels.

Patrick Allen (Puppet on a Chain, 1970) who spent most of the decade in television, the movies generally only interested in utilising his voice for narration duties (Carry On Up the Khyber, The File on the Golden Goose etc) takes the opportunity to grab the dramatic center, the character who has to work out what’s going on, while given a pair of conflicting love interests to increase the tension.

Jane Merrow (The System/The Girl Getters, 1964) is the surprise. Provided with the only genuine character arc in the picture, she goes from cool, confident, teasing chick to all-get-out-hysterical, but still with several ounces of sense, able to beat off her attacker, and willing to embrace the suicide option rather than being burned alive by invaders. The aliens, you won’t be surprised to learn, are not, despite the build-up, in the slightest bit scary.

But Fisher does a good job and the reason is a watchable low-budget sci-fi shocker.

The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll / Jekyll’s Inferno / House of Fright (1960) ****

One of the most shocking films of its day with its unusual focus on sex and violence, this takes the famed Robert Louis Stevenson tale down a different direction in that Dr Jekyll enjoys the base animal instincts he has unleashed with his experiments rather than expressing remorse or guilt. Evil has never been more demonstrably enjoyed.

Dr Jekyll (Paul Massie) is a shy cuckolded scientist when he takes the magic elixir that diverts his dull personality towards a more dynamic, if ultimately perverted, destination. From being fearful of life, he begins to sample its more exotic pleasures under the guidance of louche best friend Paul (Christopher Lee) who is carrying on an affair with the good doctor’s wife Kitty (Dawn Addams).

Not only does the reincarnation of Jekyll as the lusty Hyde consort with prostitutes and manage to snare exotic dancer Maria (Norma Marla), a beautiful woman who would normally be way out of his league,  he develops a fetish for violence, almost beating to death a hooligan (Oliver Reed) in a dodgy club, only prevented from committing his first murder by the intervention of his friend.

Sure, there’s some philosophising about the nature of good and evil and whether violence is inborn or nurtured and there are moments when guilt rears its ugly head, but these are pretty fleeting to be honest, and most of the time he can hardly wait for another draught of his poison in order to shake off his insipid persona and revel in the new creation.

But magic will only take you so far. Believing he is now irresistible to women he fancies his chances with Paul’s amour, who is of course none other than his wife, but she will have none of it, finding him a poor alternative to the charming Paul. In one of the most controversial scenes of the day, and perhaps only ironically acceptable at the time, Hyde proceeds to rape the resisting Kitty. This skirts so close to the edge of taste, not just the worst type of domestic abuse (though husband assaulting wife would be no less unusual in Victorian times than it is now), but almost the neanderthal man taking what he wants, that it makes for uncomfortable viewing, especially as it is presented as a come-uppance for the adulterous hoity-toity Kitty.

Perhaps more interesting is that having won over the cold Maria, a trophy lover on a par with the higher-born Kitty, that’s not enough for Hyde.

Also, for the time, is an extremely risqué scene involving Maria and her snake, especially when having completed the usual survey of her curves, the reptile ends up down her throat. That the Victorians were masters of the art of hypocrisy comes as little surprise, but the extent of it takes the viewer aback.  

There’s another twist. When it becomes apparent that his crimes are about to catch up with him the cunning Jekyll attempts to blame Hyde.   

Sumptuously mounted by Terence Fisher (Dracula, Prince of Darkness, 1966) and with nary an attractive character in sight – none of the innocent victims of the vampire sagas, for example – to leaven the sight of such unmitigated wickedness, the director offers an unique vision of how easy human beings will degenerate given the chance. At the outset Paul appears the most obvious villain, leeching on his friend to pay his gambling debts, while at the same time making hay with his wife. But initial audience sympathy for a wife, presented as a beautiful woman who for the sake of security has made a bad marriage and who needs an outlet for passion, soon dissipates as her true character is revealed.

The refusal to temper the ongoing degeneracy with one good character is a bold choice. Budgetary restrictions eliminated the usual transformation scene but that was probably for the best, since Hyde merges as though from a chrysalis into a stronger personality rather than undergoing some body-wracking physical change. It’s almost as if the director is determined to show how easy, given opportunity, a good but essentially weak man will embrace the dark side.

Accusations that Fisher has failed to bring sufficient suspense to the film I find unfair. Certainly, there’s not the tension of the will-he-be-found-out vein, but since the story is so well-known that appears a redundant course sensibly avoided. The director replaces that with ongoing friction between Jekyll and his friend on the one hand and his wife on the other, both of whom are unaware that the man they know as Jekyll is aware of just what a fool has been made of his alter-ego.

The emphasis instead falls on how and when the cuckold will take his revenge. And although the rape scene is unwelcome, there’s a certain ironic sadness for Jekyll to discover that his new persona is no more attractive to his wife than his old one.

Paul Massie (Call Me Genius, 1961) is of course far removed from an actor like Spencer Tracy (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1941) and he relies overmuch on rolling the eyes but even so this is a decent performance. Christopher Lee (Dracula, Prince of Darkness) is the revelation, creating a very believable insidiously charming man who never quite approaches outright villainy. Dawn Addams is excellent as the spoiled entitled wife.

One of the unusual aspects of the picture is that where Hammer had been and would remain a breeding ground for new stars – Christopher Lee a most obvious example – everyone else featured here came to, in cinematic terms only I assure you, an untimely end.

This turned out to be Paul Massie’s only starring role – he only made another three films during the entire decade – and was soon relegated to television. Dawn Addams only managed another nine and, apart from House of Sin/The Liars (1961), spy flick Where the Bullets Fly (1966) might be counted the peak.

David Kossof only made another four, and none beyond 1964. And this was the final film in an extremely brief two-picture career for Norma Marla. Only the uncredited Oliver Reed (Women in Love, 1969) and of course Christopher Lee (Dracula, Prince of Darkness, 1966) went on to bigger and better things.

As did Terence Fisher who helmed most of the best Hammer pictures of the decade. Wolf Mankowitz (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961) wrote the script.

Generally dismissed at the time, this has for good reasons acquired a substantial following and is well worth a look.

Night of the Blood Monster / The Bloody Judge (1969) ***

Handsomely mounted historical drama set in 17th century England on the brink of revolution  meets Son of Witchfinder General. An uprising headed by the Duke of Monmouth in the south-west threatens to overthrow King James II. Involved in the plot are Harry Selton (Hans Hass), son of suspected agitator Lord Wessex (Leo Genn), whose beloved Mary Gray (Maria Rohm) is in the sights of Judge Jeffreys (Christopher Lee) after he has condemned her sister Alicia (Margaret Lee) to be burned as a witch.

The minute witchcraft enters the equation the narrative thrust is constantly interrupted by scenes of nudity, blood and torture, mostly involving women, but actually the film does attempt to cover the rebellion and its notorious aftermath when hundreds of rebels were executed, the “Bloody Assizes” with “Bloody Judge” Jeffreys to the fore. Conflating witchcraft with a genuine historical episode does not work very well and unlike Witchfinder General (1968), the murder of innocent women is more of a sideshow, despite the brutality involved, and you get the impression the story has been hijacked to accommodate supposed witch Mary in the interests of adding titillation.

Even as the story of the rebellion unfolds, the threat to the crown spelled out, the origins of the revolt mostly made clear (Monmouth being the illegitimate son of Charles II, and nephew to James II) although the sectarianism behind the rebellion is ignored, the narrative keeps jumping back to the witch element. Jeffreys connects the parallel narratives, hunting down rebels and witches, while handling most of the exposition. Given the budget, there’s a surprisingly good battle sequence, cavalry charging cannon. Given his later reputation, Jeffreys also reflects on the meaning of justice.

And while there are some camp moments – Jeffreys playing the organ while attired in grand robes, dancing girls sticking pins in his effigy – the twists and turns (Mary captured and rescued, captured again)  are effective enough. Despite the copious nudity, there a couple of low-key love scenes and, oddly enough, a touching moment when Mary licks the blood from a dead prisoner. And for all the blood, that is effect rather than cause, nothing too gory.

But with the powerful all-mighty, and investigators able to plant evidence, and the innocent forced into immoral acts to save their loved ones, lawlessness is apparently next to godliness. But in reality the wicked did not get away with their crimes so various villains get their come-uppance.

Most peculiar sight is Christopher Lee in a love scene where he is not about to sink his incisors into a neck. Occasionally, the film bursts into German with English subtitles – as if various versions were pillaged to produce this copy – or has lines like “you turn me on.”

However, fans of Spanish cult director Jess Franco (The Girl from Rio) who expected something more along the lines of 99 Women (1969) and Venus in Furs (1969) may be disappointed that he spends so much time on the historical elements and less on the random T&A. You might not be surprised to learn of the involvement of ubiquitous producer Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967).

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 Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) ***

Despite the title and Hammer’s penchant for the unholy, there is nothing satanical about this picture. Christopher Lee (The Whip and the Body, 1963)  less cadaverous than in his better-known incarnation as Dracula, plays the captain of ship called Diablo, part of the defeated Spanish Armada, who lands in 1588 on British shores and by convincing the locals that the British have been defeated  imposes an occupation.

Writer (and later director) Jimmy Sangster’s clever premise works, the lord of the manor (Ernest Clark) immediately surrendering and befriending the invaders, most of the villagers succumbing, a few more doughty lads (Andrew Keir and son John Cairney to the fore) rebelling. 

Running alongside its regular horror output, Hammer had a sideline in swashbucklers, the Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Scarlet Blade (1963) – aka The Crimson Blade – preceding this, and all, interestingly, aimed at the general rather than adult market. Australian director Don Sharp, in the first of several teamings with Lee, does extraordinary well with a limited budget. Although the village square was a leftover from The Scarlet Blade, there is a full-size galleon, swamps, fog, floggings, a hanging, fire, chases, a massive explosion, and a number of better-than-average fencing scenes.

In other hands, more time could have been spent exploring the psychology of occupation, but despite that there is enough of a story to keep interest taut. Lee has a high-principled lieutenant who secretly subverts his master’s wishes. Tension is maintained by Lee’s ruthlessness, the efforts of captured women to escape, and attempts to seek outside help. While the intended audience meant toning down actual violence, Sharp creates a menacing atmosphere. The final scenes involving sabotage are tremendously well done.

A rare outing for Lee outside of the horror genre, he truly commands the screen, an excellent actor all too often under-rated who holds the picture together. Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Ernest Clark (Masquerade, 1965) provide sterling support. Suzan Farmer (The Crimson Blade, 1963) plays the requisite damsel in distress.  Director Don Sharp (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) was another horror regular responsible for, among others, Curse of the Fly (1965) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), the latter reuniting him with Lee.

I should acknowledge a vested interest as John Cairney was a distant relative and I do remember as a child being taken to see his previous outing Jason and the Argonauts (1963) but, strangely enough, this one was given a miss by my parents. I wonder if the title put them off.

CATCH-UP: Christopher Lee was so prolific I have only so far reviewed a fraction of his 1960s output: Beat Girl/Wild for Kicks (1960), Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), The Whip and the Body (1963), The Gorgon (1964), She (1965), The Skull (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967). The Devil Rides Out (1968),  The Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult (1968) and The Oblong Box (1969).  Quite enough to be getting on with if want an idea of this fine actor’s range and ability.

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).

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.

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