Devils of Darkness

So let’s say, just for the sake of argument, you’re a vampire. Not one of those post-Anne Rice vampires with the leather trenchcoat and the bad poetry and the ill-advised appreciation of Pigface. No, I’m talking about one of those older, more distinguished vampires. Not too bad, huh? I mean, yeah, there are drawbacks. I, for one, would miss the sun and a good day’s surfing. On the other hand, if you were to become any monster, a vampire would be pretty sweet. A mummy or Frankenstein monster would be the worst, of course. Mummies only have one outfit, and they have to spend the entire afterlife shambling around in pursuit of some dame who looks like some other dame the mummy loved back in ancient Egypt, and then a dude in a tweed jacket sets you on fire. And Frankenstein monsters have to do pretty much the same thing in terms of shambling, though at the very least they get to smoke cigars and drink wine. As for werewolves — sure, cool power, but you have no control over it, it only happens once a month, you can’t remember anything afterward, and your clothes are constantly getting ruined by your transformations.

But vampires — vampires are all right. Yeah, there’s the sun thing. And you’re going to have to put up with the occasional fat goth girl who calls herself Cassandra and wants to read you her Lestat fanfic. But luckily, when that happens, all you have to do is turn into a bat or some mist and get out of there. And like Keifer Sutherland, or maybe Wilford Brimley, said, you won’t get any older and you won’t ever die. Not unless someone kills you in one of the various ways a vampire can be killed — but honestly, what are the chances of that? Have you seen the people who believe in vampires? They’re not all Blade-y and full of kungfu fury. They’re fat goth girls who call themselves Cassandra and want to read you their Lestat fanfic they wrote in their notebook with the Sisters of Mercy logo drawn on the cover. And what’s the deal with all the kungfu fighting with vampires? Seriously, who fights a vampire with kungfu? All the vampire has to do is turn into some fog and wait it out while the vampire killer spin kicks himself into a state of exhaustion. Plus, you’re like ten times stronger than a human anyway, so big deal with your kungfu.

So let’s say you are a vampire who has survived through the ages. Also, your name is Sinistre. That would be a pretty cool name, at least until you realize that a vampire might have trouble being named Sinistre, because it’s the kind of name that sticks out. You might as well be called Spooky McGhoul or Gregor O’Bloodsucker. I think if I was a vampire named Count Sinistre, no matter how cool that would look in album liner notes, I’d probably change my name to Steve Smith or Mike McGill in order to maybe not stand out as much and attract the attention of Cassandra. But that’s neither here nor there, and I’ve been over the territory of fruity vampire names before (hint for all vampires: no one is named Tristan anymore except for porn stars). You’re a vampire, and your name is Count Sinistre. Pretty cool, right? But no, you’re not satisfied with just being a vampire named Sinistre with all your vampire named Sinistre powers like flying and commanding the will of rats. Like a greedy corporate raider, you want more, more, more. And so you also appoint yourself the head of a Satanic cult comprised largely of mod young hipsters and sophisticated older folks who, when they aren’t busy gadding about in bright red devil cloaks, like to talk about antiques and collectibles, sort of like if The Monkees, Anton LaVey, and Antiques Roadshow all got in a car wreck.

But such is the ambition of Count Sinistre, menacing vampire leader of the Satanic cult in Devils of Darkness, a previously forgotten horror film in the vein of AIP’s Poe films or Hammer fare like The Devil Rides Out. Devils of Darkness pits our sinister Sinistre against — well, basically, it pits him against a dad from some early 60s sitcom in a veritable whirlwind of opera capes and devil cloaks versus cardigan sweaters and well-pressed slacks. This is the sort of movie where square-jawed everymen sit on couches with their legs crossed and stare intently at their cigarettes while saying things like, “Vampires? But this is the 20th century!” and everyone seems to know a guy who happens to be a professor of the occult. You know, I went to college, and all I learned about was physics and John Adams and whatever the hell it was I didn’t pay attention to in that macroeconomics class everyone was required to take to get into the school of journalism. As far as I know, there were no professors whose entire tenure at the university involved them sitting around giving speeches about Pazuzu and magick circles, but maybe I just didn’t take the proper classes. Or maybe by going to a public university in America, all I got to learn about was the coefficient of friction and the tragedy of the commons while guys at upper-crust British colleges got to learn about wizards and Ouija boards and how to set rampaging mummies on fire.

Lucky for me that I love movies where guys in sweaters sit around in well-appointed dens, smoking cigarettes and saying, “But you can’t entirely discount the stories of vampires” as they drink brandy or some other beverage only Peter Cushing drinks. Lucky for me that I love movies where people put on bright red devil cloaks and hang around in old basements, drawing circles on the floor and lying out scantily clad kidnapped women on stone altars. Devils of Darkness is exactly the kind of fun, old fashioned horror film that makes me happy, so I was pretty happy watching it.

William Sylvester stars as the aptly named Paul Baxter — these guys always have exactly the sort of name you expect them to have — on vacation with friends and loved ones in some remote part of France where gypsies frolic and dance and emerge from the shadows to point at you and administer ominous proclamations regarding your fate. You know — the usual gypsy stuff. It turns out that this quaint little vacation village is lorded over by the sinister Count Sinistre, played with Udo Kier-like effete weirdness by Hubert Noel. The exact nature of the seemingly benign Sinistre is called into question when all of Paul’s friends start vanishing or turning up dead. Unfortunately, the local police are no help, and when Paul attempts to have the bodies returned to England for examination, all the coffins go missing. Luckily, while all the French are busy being hypnotized and submitting to the will of Sinistre, Paul and some other guys in England are on the case.

But then, so is Sinistre, who trails Paul to England to retrieve a talisman and set up a new cult with acolytes culled from the bored and decadent fringes of wealthy society. When Paul falls for an aloof model, Sinistre targets her to become his next bride, something vampires are always doing. How many times did Dracula try to seduce the daughter or granddaughter of some rival? These guys would die a lot less often if they could lay off trying to marry the daughter or girlfriend of their arch enemies.

If you like the old style horror of Roger Corman’s Poe films, or if you like what I’ll call the Hammer B-Team (meaning, not Dracula or Frankenstein) movies from the 60s, then I think Devils of Darkness will please you. It’s brightly colored, especially when everyone throws on their devil cloaks, solidly lensed, and ably acted by a cast of B-movie stalwarts who never turn in anything less than a professional performance. William Sylvester is a bit stiff as Paul, but since Paul is a bit of a stiff, that suits him well. Sylvester was a veteran television actor with some notable appearances in a couple B-movie faves, including Devil Doll and Gorgo. His role with the highest profile was probably as Dr. Heywood Floyd, creator of HAL, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, though honestly, who remembers any of the human characters besides Dave from that movie? As the straight man fighting the occult and going to the library to look up ghoulish subject matter, he’s all right.

The star of the film is the villain, of course, and as Sinistre he’s perfectly creepy and menacing even though he doesn’t have the sort of build one would consider menacing. Hubert Noel. Noel was an accomplished actor in France with appearances in a ton of films, often period pieces, that I’ve never seen but would like to, because they all seem to be full of cavaliers and highwaymen. Like many continental actors tapped to play vaguely menacing, vaguely effeminate villains, the strength of their native career doesn’t really translate into international stardom, unless you count the apt appearance of Noel as “Citroen Driver” in an episode of CHiPs. Still, as Sinistre, he’s pretty great, and he’s convincing as a guy who could work some magic on ladies, especially when he backs it up with his vampiric mojo.

The female spotlight is on two actresses: Tracy Reed plays Karin, the model for whom Paul falls, and Carole Gray plays Tania, the gypsy woman who was Sinistre previous main squeeze until Tania came along. Karin barely registers, as she shows up, wears some sunglasses, then spends the bulk of the film lying in a bed or sitting listlessly in a trance. But Carole Gray’s gypsy Tania is a fireball of beauty and rage, introduced to us via one of those colorful gypsy dance numbers that are always happening. She didn’t have much a career — a couple appearances here and there on television shows like The Avengers and The Saint, a role in Brides of Fu Manchu — and I can’t understand why, because she’s quite engaging in her role here as the vampire woman scorned.

The rest of the cast is comprised largely of people who have to chant about Satan and wear devil cloaks, or make speeches about the possibility or improbability of vampires in modern society. The basic philosophy is summed up by Paul Baxter’s professor friend, played ably by Eddie Byrne (The Mummy, Hammer version). As he explains, there were trials for witchcraft up until the 1920s, and in many places, belief in the supernatural remains the mainstream rather than a fringe belief as it would be in modern London. Vampire movies that attempt to transport a basically Victorian character into modern times have to tackle the “unstuck in time” aspect of their character in a variety of ways. Dracula A.D. 1972 does it by confining Dracula to a single location, which happens to be Gothic in design. Satanic Rites of Dracula does it by dropping pretty much everything that made Dracula Dracula and turning him into a pulp novel style super-villain straight out a James Bond movie. Devils of Darkness takes the same route as the American Count Yorga films, allowing Sinistre to operate first in a somewhat small (though by no means remote) village where he can exercise his will over the locals and leverage the innate superstition of the local gypsy population. When he comes to London, he survives by moving in relatively small circles on the fringe of polite society — rich decadent freaks, the kind I want to be friends with so I can sit around in posh dens, smoking hookahs and debating philosophy and the supernatural in a bored tone as a naked girl covered in body paint flowers dances on a table in front of me. I have failed at so many of my former life goals.

Sinistre covers his vampire tracks, more or less, by becoming a member of a social circle that values odd behavior and late nights. Anything out of the ordinary he may say or do is casually disregarded (yes, this means that those vampires who hang out in industrial clubs are a logical evolution of guys like Sinistre, but there’s still no excuse for their woe-is-me self-ildulgences). He is an artist, after all, and an eastern European. He further controls his environment and expands the power of his influence by tightly controlling where he is seen and by whom. He hangs round an antique store, goes to parties at the pad above the store, and holds his Satanic rituals in an old, remote farmhouse near a cemetery. By and large, he has adapted well to his surroundings — it is unclear whether he has been around for hundreds of years, changing with the times, or whether he has recently been resurrected by some ritual that involves, frankly, little more than the lighting of a candle that causes his stone sarcophagus to collapse, presumably on Sinistre’s face. What parts of modern society to which he has not been able to adapt he has keenly excised from his life. Once again, you find a similar evolution of the vampire in Count Yorga, who hangs around a remote farmhouse and befriends people who are already flaky and into the occult.

As with many B-movies, there are points at which you can poke around and find some flaws in the film. In particular, the script by Lyn Fairhurst places an undue amount of importance on Sinistre’s talisman. It is pegged as the source of the vampire’s influence over others, so valuable to Sinistre that he would risk coming all the way to London and exposing himself on order to retrieve it. And yet, the loss of the talisman doesn’t seem to have any impact whatsoever on his power. He still manages to hypnotize and convert a whole room full of revelers in a remarkably short period of time, and once he fixates on Karin, he forgets the talisman almost completely. I think he just thought it was cool and was afraid Paul would pull some nonsense like putting it on a thick gold chain and wearing it around. And as is often the case, everyone from Paul to the police are pretty quick to shrug their shoulders and go, “Yep, must be a Satanic cult lead by a vampire.” Additionally, Baxter and Sinistre never really go toe-to-toe. There is no battle of wits or battle of fists, and when the final showdown does come Sinistre is quick to turn and run. Dracula usually turned and ran, too, but he would hiss while he was doing it, and usually take at least a little time out to throw Peter Cushing across a table.

But all in all, I think the story for Devils of Darkness is well written and executed. It could be simply because I like movies of this sort, but even though much of the film is research and guys sitting around, smoking cigarettes, and talking about vampires, I didn’t feel the movie dragged. The tight direction by Lance Comfort (sounds like a character from a romance novel, the less threatening cousin of Rock Slabchest) adds to the feeling that something is happening even when very little is. There is almost no on-screen violence and very little blood, but Comfort’s eye for composition is great, and he creates an otherworldly atmosphere that carries the otherwise dialog-heavy film. Additionally, though this was a low-budget affair, Comfort had access to Pinewood Studio’s massive pile of old sets, and so he could pilfer the goods from much more expensive films to dress him own modest production in much fancier duds than it might otherwise have had access to.

Although the main villain is a vampire, this is much more like Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out than it is any vampire film. Sinistre feels similar to Charles Gray’s ominous Mocata than he does Dracula. He’s sort of like a dry run for Mocata. Not nearly as imposing but still ominous enough despite his slight build. William Sylvester’s Baxter is certainly no Duc de Richleau, but then Duc de Richleau was one of Christopher Lee’s best roles. It’s also very similar to AIP’s color horror output, both in look and execution. Corman’s Poe films were always heavy on dialog and atmosphere, and the juxtaposition of bleak, decaying sets with vivid colors. Like the Poe films, Devils of Darkness moves slowly until the enthusiastic finale when all hell — literally, more or less — breaks loose.

Ultimately, it may be a lesser devil cult film, but it was one of the earlier “vampire in post-war times” movies, and one of the only “vampire leads a Satanic cult” movies. It may far short of the mark set by two of the best examples of occult thriller’s — Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out and Jacques Tournier’s Night of the Demon (which I would assume was a major influence on Devils of Darkness), but I still think Devils of Darkness, especially if you like the AIP Poe films or don’t mind lots of dialog, is a good old-fashioned occult thriller that winds up being a great way to spend midnight, provided you don’t have any decadent rich parties that devolve into an orgiastic ritual lorded over by a vampire to attend at midnight.

Release Year: 1965 | Country: England | Starring: William Sylvester, Hubert Noel, Carole Gray, Tracy Reed, Diana Decker, Rona Anderson, Peter Illing | Writer: Lyn Fairhurst | Director: Lance Comfort | Cinematographer: Reg Wyer | Producer: Tom Blakeley | Music: Bernie Fenton | Alternate Titles: Talisman