Devils of Darkness (1965)
"He's a vampire with a cult following"
A secret vampire cult, which has its headquarters beneath the cemetery in a town in France, searches for victims for its human sacrifice rituals. When English tourist Paul Baxter picks up a strange talisman, he returns to England unaware that it belongs to the cult who follow him across the Channel to begin their Satanic practices there.
An obscure British horror from the 1960s, Devils of Darkness is one of the few horror films to emerge from this era that was not produced by the big hitters Hammer or Amicus. Made by Planet Film Productions, who made a couple of sci-fi horror films during this time with Hammer director Terence Fisher at the helm (Night of the Big Heat and, one of my favourites, Island of Terror), Devils of Darkness does hold the distinction of being Britain’s first vampire film set in modern day, with Hammer keeping their fanged fiends firmly in the historical until the 70s. That’s about the only remarkable thing about this dreary vampire film which lacks any sort of engagement or excitement. It is by-the-numbers without the faintest hint of horror or terror.
Devils of Darkness tries desperately to pass itself off as a Hammer flick, with the lavish Technicolour details matched by some nice sets and general sense that a lot of money went into making this look good. However, the writing is so dull and boring and there is zero atmosphere from start to finish. There is no real sense of focus to the story and the plot shuffles along from scene to scene with no real direction or excitement. It’s almost like they had a beginning and finale mapped out but just winged it throughout. The main character, Baxter, spends too much time hanging around waiting for stuff to happen and then when he’s back in London, he spends his hours researching in the library. Whilst he’s doing this, the Count is simply shadowing him, waiting for a moment to strike. I mean come on, the guy is bookworming it 24/7 and all this Count wants to do is sit and wait until he’s finished? As a result, the ‘hero’ spends the bulk of the film simply skirting around the periphery of the story when he should be the main focus. The talisman becomes the Macguffin of the story, with Sinistre desperate to get his hands on it for some reason (he seems able to do everything he wants without it) but then coming up with a convoluted way of slowly bewitching a woman in order for her to then slowly seduce Baxter and steal it off him. With a whole cult behind him, there are probably quicker, easier and more violent ways to get the job done.
Devils of Darkness has this massive problem of not really knowing how it wants to get to its end game because there is no real central focus to keep things glued together. For all stories, the finale is where the payoffs lie and how the audience will remember it long after watching or reading. Devils of Darkness doesn’t even build towards the finale well, so when it arrives and Baxter and the police gate-crash the cult about to sacrifice a woman, there’s literally nowhere for it to go. There’s no dramatic tension. No cliffhangers. No sense that anything is on the line. The film ends rather abruptly with a ‘we’ve only got ten minutes to shoot this so hurry up’ mentality that literally smacks the audience in the face. We’ve invested our time in this, unwisely on hindsight, so the least they could have done is provide a more satisfying ending. Still, Devils of Darkness is not alone in this and many of the British horrors from this period suffer from endings which leave a ‘is that it?’ sensation tingling all through the body. Not only that, but the finale kind of renders Baxter’s contributions to the story almost non-essential. Just what his purpose in the film if not to be the protagonist and the one to defeat the antagonist at the end?
French actor Hubert Noel is given the unenviable task of trying to pull off a suave and sophisticated vampire – by this point, Christopher Lee had nailed the role of Dracula to a tee and any other male trying to emulate was falling well short and simply coming off as an cheap imitator. Hammer found that problem when they featured other male actors as the main vampire: David Peel in Brides of Dracula, Mike Raven in Lust for a Vampire, Noel Willman in Kiss of the Vampire, Robert Tayman in Vampire Circus and John Forbes-Robertson’s ill-gotten attempt to replace Christopher Lee in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. They just failed to replicate the same gravitas and attraction to the role that made vampires so cool and popular thanks to Lee – Noel falls at the same hurdle. He looks like a dodgy wife-stealer but has little charisma or screen presence to hold the film. It would be unfair to single out Noel for criticism though: William Sylvester fares little better in the ‘hero’ lead role as Baxter (though ‘hero’ is using the term loosely here) and the females Carole Gray and Tracey Reed are little more than eye-candy. How this film ached for someone of the calibre of Peter Cushing or Barbara Shelley to liven up proceedings.
Incredibly dull and ultimately a slog to sit through, Devils of Darkness might be on your radar if you’re into obscure British horror from this golden era but it’s not exactly a shining example of the genre at it’s most energetic and satisfying.
Devils of Darkness
Director(s): Lance Comfort
Writer(s): Lyn Fairhurst (original story and screenplay)
Actor(s): William Sylvester, Hubert Noël, Carole Gray, Tracy Reed, Diana Decker, Rona Anderson
Duration: 88 mins