Directed by Piers Haggard
Written by Robert Wynne-Simmons and Piers Haggard
Starring Patrick Wymark, Linda Hayden, Barry Andrews, and Anthony Ainley
Tigon had the distinction of not being Hammer Studios. It wasn’t even Amicus, which produced movies that casual viewers mistook for Hammer. Still, with modest budgets Tigon was able to make a few of the more memorable British horror films of the 1960s-1970s. Witchfinder General showcases Vincent Price in his most purely villainous role, and The Creeping Flesh is an enjoyable monster flick featuring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as scientists combating evil itself. In my opinion, the studio’s greatest achievement was the 1971 satanic thriller Satan’s Skin, aka The Blood on Satan’s Claw.
Set during England’s interregnum, the action of the film takes place in a secluded village. An eerie humanoid skull, covered in clumps of fur, turns up when farmland is plowed. The bones go missing, and soon the youth of the village begin acting strange. They stop attending religious instruction and begin playing deadly games in the woods. Strangest of all, several grow odd patches of fur on their skin. It’s up to The Judge, local representative of order and modern society, to stop the Devil from assembling a new body on Earth.
This isn’t a perfect movie. The music is irritating and often at odds with the mood of the moment. While stalwarts like Patrick Wymark and Anthony Ainley anchor the cast, the many children are of wildly varying ability. The pacing compares unfavorably to glaciers. Yet there is much that works in its favor. Unable to afford the lush sets of richer studios, much of this film was shot in actual locations — locations that, by and large, were cramped and decayed. The dinginess of the movie, the claustrophobic rooms in the open countryside: it all sets a mood of fear and decline that fits nicely into the themes of ancient evil and religio-political upheaval.
The setting of the film is perfect. With the established power structures disrupted by the Interregnum, it’s unclear who can address the contamination of the youth. The local representative of the church is only barely able to resist temptation himself, and the only law presence is a judge who spends most of his time in London and considers the rural people to be ignorant and superstitious. The order of the land has been upset, and evil will make use of the disruption to gain a foothold.
All in all, it’s a nice little apocalyptic movie that shows what can be done within the constraints of a meager budget.
Directed and written by Eric Weston
Starring Clint Howard, R.G. Armstrong, Joe Cortese, Richard Moll
The decade is changing over from the 70s to the 80s, and Happy Days is still on the air and a big part of the American mass media consciousness. Every knows who Ron Howard is, and he’s just started dabbling in movies. Problem is, you can’t get him for yours. What do you do? Hold on. Doesn’t he have a brother?
He does indeed. Clint Howard is Ron’s younger brother, and in my opinion the better actor. He takes more interesting roles anyway. Case in point: Evilspeak, in which he plays an unpopular cadet in a military academy. That’s an understatement. Stanley is despised by some of the other students. He’s an easy target — orphaned, poor, clumsy, short, a bit chunky, and already balding. All of that except for orphaned, poor, chunky, and balding applied to me as a kid, so of course I identify with Stanley.
That’s what makes this film so interesting. Because this is one of those horror films were the protagonist is the monster. Like poor Lawrence Talbot, you just can’t side against him even as he’s killing people. Unlike the Wolf Man, Stanley thinks he knows what he’s doing.
Let me back up. See, Stanley gets punished for being the target of bullies, and he’s ordered to clean the cellar of the church on campus. Nothing good comes from cleaning church cellars, and sure enough Stanley finds a hidden room and an ancient tome. Fortunately it’s in Latin, so he can’t do anything stupid like read it aloud. Too bad he’s a geek, who can make a crappy terminal computer translate it. It is, of course, a book of dark magic; left in this case by Father Esteban (Richard Moll), excommunicated from the Catholic Church and exiled from Spain centuries ago. Stanley’s terminal plugs into Esteban, and before you can say “angry nerd” Stanley is a dark sorcerer unleashing unholy Hell on campus.
Evilspeak attained some notoriety from being on England’s “Video Nasties” list of banned films. It’s bloody and Satanic, and it’s impossible to take seriously. It is also quite a bit of fun, and better than you might expect from such an oddity. Just don’t watch it on your computer, though. You never know.
Directed by Curtis Harrington
Written by Stephen and Elinor Karpf
Starring Richard Crenna, Yvette Mimieux, Kim Richards, and Ike Eisenmann
In August of 1977, David Berkowitz was arrested for the “Son of Sam” murders — so-called due to a bizarre note found at one murder scene. He admitted to the killings, claiming that his crimes were ordered by a demon (a black lab named Harvey) kept by his neighbor (Sam). The outlandish confession caught the public’s attention by the throat, fueling debates about legal insanity and inspiring laws to prevent convicted criminals from selling their stories.
I would contend that it also planted the idea of demonic canines in the fertile imaginations of writers. The following year saw the release of Albert Band’s Dracula’s Dog, and only three years later Stephen King unleashed Cujo. Yet the most explicit connection to Harvey the demon pooch is Lucky, the cuddly threat of Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell. Filmed for television, Devil Dog first aired on Halloween in 1978. It’s a good feature to hand out candy during, being both fairly ridiculous and sporadically interesting.
The premise is that a satanic cult distributes demonic puppies to unsuspecting suburban families. Once established within middle-American families, the pups corrupt their homes. The details are vague, but somehow this scheme aims to break the Beast’s 1,000 year confinement. I took careful notes, but I’m afraid it defies all attempts at logic.
The cultists first acquire a proven breeder dog. They want her immediately, and she must be in season as it were. They’ve had an entire millennium to prepare for this, but some people will always leave everything to the last minute. The next step is to summon a barghest in a dark ritual. (A barghest is a mythical creature from Northern England that takes the form of a large black dog.) From such humble beginnings, more barghest pups are sired. Once weaned, the creatures will spread corruption. There’s a missing step that connects that to the final step in their plan, wherein the Beast roams the Earth. More on this confusion later.
The film follows the Barry family, who’ve taken a young demon puppy into their home after the suspiciously-timed death of the family dog. Specifically it follows Mike Barry as Lucky collects the souls of his family. Mike is played by veteran actor Richard Crenna, whose professionalism helps ground the film. The Barry children are portrayed by Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, the young stars of Escape to Witch Mountain and Return to Witch Mountain. Their comfort with each other and experience working with animals come through here, lending credence to some rather unusual moments. Indeed, the pair of them are often more threatening than the barghest.
The family barghest is first played by an absolutely adorable puppy. Despite the best efforts to splice shots of Lucky into horrific events, it only serves to undercut the tension and danger. Sure, someone’s burning to death, but look at that sweet face! The adult Lucky is a little less cute but still appears friendly. There’s hardly a shot of the dog where its tongue isn’t hanging out, and sometimes the embodiment of evil sits on its right haunch as though unwilling to fully commit to the corruption of the nuclear family. When the barghest’s true form is revealed to be Lucky in dark paint and a black feather boa, you have to give credit for simply trying anything.
Part of the difficulty of making the dog scary also lies with the jumbled mythology that’s presented. The use of a barghest is pretty cool and should be enough to carry a horror movie in itself, but the demon litter is supposed to lead to the release of the Beast. At times this seems to be the Beast from Revelations, but it’s also a non-specific 3-eyed demon. The children draw it in blood, but when shown this portrait an occultist’s only observation is that 3-eyed ones are clever. A photo of an entirely dissimilar demon drawn on a cliff sends Mike to Ecuador, where a shaman ties it all back to Revelations again. What nobody manages to do is explain what the barghest has to do with anything. A less apocalyptic plot could have helped focus the story and create some actual tension.
Another detriment to establishing any sense of danger is that nearly every event in the movie is completely self-contained. Aside from the presence of the barghest and the corruption of the family, much of the film is comprised of plot chunks so complete and modular that they could be removed without any damage to the structure. One notable example is the matter of the school election. In one scene, we learn that young Charlie is running for class president. In the next scene, a teacher comes to say that he’s concerned about how Charlie won (by framing his opponent for stealing). Then Lucky kills the teacher. Most of the supporting roles follow this pattern, with the characters being introduced and discarded within minutes.
While this doesn’t add up to a good movie, it is an enjoyable one. The episodic construction means that something new and different happens every ten minutes, which helps keep it fresh. It also allows whole sections to be missed with little cost to comprehension. Watching the actors come and go is entertaining, and it’s just plain fun to see the dog be utterly harmless.
I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the scene that directly connects the film to David Berkowitz’s confession. While Mike is considering whether he can actually believe that the family dog has been turning everyone into Satan’s tools, he catches an item on the news that seems connected. A reporter is interviewing a woman whose husband has just been arrested for murder. According to her, her husband had claimed that the dog next door had made him do it. Airing just over a year after Berkowitz’s arrest, this is no coincidence. Ultimately, that may be the most compelling reason to watch this — to see the slap-dash TV cash-in of the “Son of Sam” confession.
Directed by Terence Fisher
Written by Richard Matheson, from a novel by Dennis Wheatley
Hammer Films dominated horror in the 1960s, with their stylish Gothic approach and stable of charismatic actors. Their Dracula and Frankenstein franchises were particularly lucrative, and while it would be stretching things to say that they could do no wrong during this period, it’s reasonable to expect a certain high degree of quality. The stakes get raised when considering the creative team behind The Devil Rides Out.
Terence Fisher had directed several of Hammer’s hits, including The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Richard Matheson had helped turn his own book I Am Legend into the famed movie The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. He’d written the screenplays for Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, and Tales of Terror. Between them, Fisher and Matheson brought an impressive resume to the table.
Then there’s Dennis Wheatley, an English author whose writing influenced Ian Fleming. His first published novel, The Forbidden Territory (1933) featured the Duke de Richleau. The following year saw the release of both a movie version and the second in what would be an 11 book series of the Duke’s occult adventures, The Devil Rides Out. Still a best-selling author in the 1960s, it could be assumed that Wheatley’s works would have been familiar to British audiences for this adaptation.
It’s clear that Matheson relied on this familiarity. Characters have relationships that are glossed over, as though unnecessary to explain. The Duke just happens to know everything about the occult, and his knowledge is explained with a terse comment about his studies. It feels like several scenes are missing, and in fact there are — an entire book’s worth! The result is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s kind of realistic that we don’t get a lot of context. People are busy fighting Satan and don’t have the time to re-establish their relationships. Yet it distances the viewer a bit as well. There’s a tight central group of characters, and we’re on the outside. It’s frankly a little off-putting.
Fortunately, the film stars Christopher Lee in the crucial role, here very slightly renamed as Duc de Richleau. Lee’s authoritative manner makes de Richleau seem more than capable of besting Lucifer at anything from magic to snooker, which somewhat mitigates the absence of back story. On the downside, he frequently leaves to conduct research, and nobody he knows can follow simple instructions. This allows the dastardly Mocata (played by the deliciously fiendish Charles Gray) to do pretty much anything he wants.
What Mocata wants is to add two members to his coven to bring their number up to the requisite 13. He’s accidentally selected Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), who de Richleau and his close friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) have sworn to watch over. The other recruit turns out to be the fetching Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi), with whom Van Ryn falls madly in love. Aron and Carlisle’s minds are already under Mocata’s control, so there’s nothing for it but that de Richleau and Mocata battle for their souls. It’s all very much like a serial, with the villains and heroes dashing after each other fruitlessly until the climax.
So how does a giant spider figure into this movie? Simon is placed under the protection of de Richleau and the Eatons (a nice couple, related to somebody) inside of a magic circle. If they can prevent Mocata from claiming Simon overnight, he’ll be safe. The first gambit Mocata tries is to send a giant tarantula to prowl the edge of the circle. When that somehow fails to make anyone leave the protection of the circle, young Peggy Eaton enters the room for the spider to menace.
The approach chosen was a mixture of filming a tarantula on a miniature set and matting it in when it needed to be seen with the actors. This is a difficult trick for color film, and the complicating factors of the lighting in the room do not work in the effect’s favor. Nonetheless, it’s largely effective. In most of the sequences, it works well. The worst lighting problems occur when interacting with Peggy, when suddenly the tarantula is too bright. It could have come off as a game attempt if not for the inclusion of footage of the spider “rearing”. While tarantulas will rear up, it’s generally because they feel threatened. This one seems to be merely testing the glass wall in front of it. Much like the ants climbing into the air in Empire of the Ants, it re-engages disbelief with a quickness.
Also quick is Mocata’s escalation of attacks, but that’s getting into spoiler territory. Let’s just say he jumps straight from “dare” to “triple-dog dare” in direct violation of the Queensbury rules. He’s sort of a jerk that way.
It’s a pretty neat movie. I understand why many people consider it to be one of Hammer’s best. Lee and Gray, though sharing only a few scenes, ground the film with the power of their palpably clashing wills. Although the effects are sometimes less than spectacular, the menace they serve to reflect is stronger than in most plots about Satanism. Partly, this is due to Mocata’s mental dominance over all but de Richleau, but really it’s how far Mocata is able and prepared to go for victory. I refer to the aforementioned untoward escalation. This isn’t your garden-variety cultist.
The biggest problem I think the movie has is its ending. Without revealing anything, I’ll just say that it doesn’t make immediate sense. Just as with his script for the excellent The Legend of Hell House (based on his own novel Hell House), Matheson underplays the critical part of the reveal. One or two more sentences from the Duc de Richleau would put it all together, but while the explanation we get is reasonable, it isn’t until ruminating over it much later that I came to accept it as more than a flimsy cheat. Maybe I’m inordinately dense, but while the conclusion makes perfect in a 1930s adventure sort of way, it just doesn’t seem direct enough for the style of story it is.
The film as a whole is enjoyable, and I recommend it particularly to fans of Hammer or of old-fashioned adventure films. Just stay on your toes and repeat to yourself “it all makes sense” until you understand why. Or, you know, understand it the first time. Whatever works.