Monday, October 24, 2022

“You Don’t Have to Wear a Loincloth or Beat a Tom-Tom to be Primitive” - Devils of Darkness (1965) - Film #240

It is time to travel to 1965 France for the British vampire film Devils of Darkness, a late-career film directed by Lance Comfort, who had been directing British films since 1942 (and who directed a non-vampire film named Daughter of Darkness in 1948).

Of course, many of your universe's critics fail to appreciate, apparently, non-Hammer vampire films from the 1960s. Reviewer bjon1452 writes, “I'm at a loss as to how the actors were able to go through with this film with straight faces.” Reviewer pninson writes, “It's not exactly excruciating to sit through, but it's one of those films that makes you feel you could be doing something better with your time.” And reviewer The_Void writes, “There's far, far too much talking and none of the horror elements are even bordering on being frightening, or even interesting.”

Read on for the truth about Devils of Darkness...

The film begins, appropriately, in a cemetery. A narrator intones over a tomb in a thick French accent: “Count Sinistre. Born 1588. Condemned for his infamous and barbaric crimes to be buried alive. Because thine eye be evil, thy whole body be full of darkness.”

A man in a red cloak carries a black candle to Count Sinistre’s tomb. He turns to the camera, then leaves the cemetery. Seconds later, the stone tomb cracks open.

The film cuts to a daytime scene of gypsies playing music and dancing in what some might call a stereotypical manner. This scene of gaiety becomes even more celebratory when a man marries a woman named Tanya and a man named Bruno. The officiant says, “As is our custom, the mingling of the blood will join you as one.” (When a person says “as is our custom” or something similar in a movie, the audience knows they are being treated to a scene that is particularly authentic.)

The officiant raises a long knife to draw the young lovers’ blood, but before he can do so we see a bat flying through the daylight and Tanya falls to the ground, suddenly dead. One of the villagers in attendance cries out “Sinistre!” as the bat attacks.

Later, the bat hangs from a tree while the gypsies bury Tanya’s dead body.

When the gypsies leave Tanya’s burial, Count Sinistre attacks the gravedigger and opens her coffin. “Awaken,” he says. “Arise from your sleep.” He shows her his bat-shaped cane topper (not a euphemism).

Tanya’s eyes open. In his attractive French accent, Count Sinistre tells her, “You will follow me until the end of time.”

Years later (presumably), a young man drives to an inn in the French countryside. The inn is full of British tourists, some of whom plan to go spelunking. There is also an American named Madeline. As a trio of tourists get drinks at a table, Madeline explains that tonight is All Souls’ Eve, a “big religious ceremony.” 

The film cuts to the interior of a cave, where the two British spelunkers climb down a shaft (also not a euphemism). Just outside the cave, we see a stone carving of a bat.

Meanwhile, the French villagers walk through the forest with torches as they celebrate All Souls’ Eve by walking to the cemetery. Of course, the two British tourists, Paul Baxter and Anne Forest, want to observe the solemn (and, from their perspective, misguided) ceremony, while the American tourist Madeline goes to her taxi to leave for the airport. 

Down in the cave, one of the two British spelunkers (repeatedly referred to as “the boys,” though they are at least as old as all the other tourists) finds a frightening sight — a hand reaching out of an ancient coffin buried in the cave! He is soon strangled and dragged away by a black-robed arm.

The spelunker is almost immediately dragged out of the cave by the villagers. “Nothing can be done, I’m afraid,” says the local policeman. “He’s dead.” They surmise the other spelunker died in the cave as well due to a cave-in, and Paul sees a strange bloody mark on the dead spelunker’s throat.

In the evening, Anne is charmed by Count Sinistre. She walks with him to his garden, though she is a bit uneasy, saying rapidly, “There’s something strange about this place. I feel it. There’s a…there’s a fragrance…a sickly fragrance that reminds me of death. My father, when he died, the room where he lay. It’s like that.”

In a chilling scene, she looks down at the pond they are standing next to d sees only her own reflection. Count Sinistre grabs her and struggles with her, though Anne puts up a strong fight. Eventually, the count carries her away, but he drops a gold bat-shapedmedallion that is soon found by Paul, who is searching for Anne.

The next day, Paul meets with the local police inspector at the inn. The inspector is more interested in croissants and coffee than the case of Anne’s disappearance. As he drinks his coffee, the inspector says, “I understand you are a writer, monsieur. What do you write? Fact? Or fiction?”

Paul responds, “What are you suggesting? I imagined all this?”

Tragically, a phone call settles the investigation. The inspector tells Paul, “Her body was discovered in the lake. It seems she took her own life.”

At night, Paul tries to sleep in his room, but he is interrupted by the hotelier, who tells him a visitor is calling. Perhaps predictably due in part to the late hour, the visitor is none other than Count Sinistre, who wants to offer condolences about Anne’s death. “If there is anything I can do, you have only to ask,” says the count.

“Well, these people…this village…”

“Village?” the count interrupts, sharply and loudly. “What do you mean? I don’t understand, monsieur.”

“Something they’re afraid of.”

“Oh, monsieur, it’s your imagination.” The count tells Paul the villagers are simple, superstitious peasants.

“I tell you there is something wrong, and I’m going to prove it.” He says he will get Anne’s body inspected (medically) back in England. “There’s something else…” He fiddles with the count’s bat-handled cane, which reveals itself to be a sword-cane as a blade snaps out of the bottom. “I might have killed you,” Paul says.

The count smirks knowingly. “I doubt it.”

Paul (who has kept the bat-shaped amulet in his cigarette case) asks about the bat-shaped crest on the cane’s candle, but Count Sinistre says it’s simply an antique. Paul takes his leave, telling the count he’s going back to England, but the count says he is certain the two will meet again.

When Paul returns to his room, the innkeeper sneaks past him, now wearing a jaunty beret (presumably because he didn’t look French enough previously).

In the next scene, the filmmakers decide to remove any mystery about the count’s status in the village. A group of villagers surrounds the count with torches near a rock formation where a rooster has been sacrificed. There are also two coffins on the ground with two young people in them.

The villagers (the innkeeper and the police inspector among them) helpfully chant, “Sinistre! Sinistre! We await your command!”

The count says, even more helpfully, “I, Sinistre, leader of the living dead, summon you and others who follow, both near and afar, to pledge allegiance to the devil of darkness.”

The villagers chant, “We follow, o master. We are your slaves. We obey without question.”

“They who were chosen to submit to servitude must be cast out. The stranger who threatens to expose us must be struck down. We will go in their place. The talisman—the all-powerful symbol that protects us—must be restored.”

For unknown reasons, Sinistre’s slaves drag the couple out of the coffins and kill them, to the delight of Sinistre and his undead wife.

Back in England, Paul talks to his American friend Madeline about the autopsy he has ordered on Anne and her spelunking brother. Then he picks up the evening newspaper, which reveals in its massive headline, with a loud musical sting, that coffins have disappeared before reaching England.

Paul visits his veterinarian friend Bob at his clinic. Sensibly enough, he is asking the veterinarian casually about primitive superstitions. “Bob, you must have come up against some weird superstitions in your travels.”

“Many times.”

“Now,” Paul says with an air of casual, smug racism, “I don’t mean amongst primitive jungle tribes.”

“Look now,” Bob responds, also with the same air of casual, smug racism, but with a bit more insight, “you don’t have to wear a loincloth or beat a tom-tom to be primitive. Or for that matter superstitious. You walk under ladders?”



“Take witchcraft,” Paul says spontaneously. “Everyone knows that went out with the middle ages.”

Bob counters Paul’s misunderstanding of history: “You know when the last witchcraft trial took place? 1926. France.”

Bob examines Paul’s bat-shaped medallion and identifies the evil eye in its design, along with the bat symbol, to which he says some cultures attribute occult powers, not to mention rabies. After Bob does some more research at the British museum, he reads from a manuscript: “Here we are. A talisman. Your medallion. A talisman, an object which is said to possess a supernatural power. See ceremonial magic.” (Of course, in 1965 the only way to find the definition of the word “talisman” was through a visit to the British Museum.) Bob also explains to Paul, a propos of nothing, why grooms carry brides over thresholds: “The door was where the devil, or those with the evil eye, were said to congregate. Just a little something I thought you might like to know.” (Oddly, Paul doesn’t object that Bob in truth explained nothing about the practice.)

Paul takes his leave, and Bob quips as he leaves, “Quite an eye-opener, in an evil sort of way. Back to the bunsen burner.”

As soon as Paul leaves, Bob is attacked by an unseen force that disturbs his many, many caged animals.

Later, at a Bohemian London party, Madeline introduces a young woman named Karen as “my gal” (Karen actually works at Madeline’s antique shop). Madeline tells an older woman that Karen just turned twenty, prompting a younger woman to quip a bit confusingly, “Must have been a U-turn.”

When Paul arrives at the party, Madeline introduces him to Karen. Their witty banter is truly cinematic dialogue of the highest order. For example, the late-forties Paul subtly suggests the younger Karen spend the night with him: “I know a place where the scrambled eggs are great.”

“I never eat breakfast,” Karen smiles. “Still, if it’s as good as you say, maybe.”

“I cook in a non-stick frying pan.”

She grins. “Well, eggs make a change from head cheese.”

Karen follows Paul downstairs into Madeline’s antique shop, where Paul, for unknown reasons, walks straight out the door. We see, however, that Count Sinistre is in the shop, and he catches Karen’s attention. “My apologies for stalking,” he tells her.

Meanwhile, Paul returns to his apartment, which has been ransacked, but the ransacked did not not find the bat amulet, which he hid inside his typewriter. 

Later, we watch Count Sinistre as he paints Karen in a seductive pose, and then he introduces Karen to his wife, Tanya.

When Karen pops off to the pub (not a euphemism), Count Sinistre helpfully explains his plan to his wife: “Tanya, you know the reason why this girl was chosen. She will be the hostage. The talisman must be given back to us.”

In another strikingly cinematic sequence, we find out that Tanya has stolen the only copy in England of a book called Talismans, the Power of Magic from the library. She sets the book on Sinistre’s coffin and the wind blows it open to a page describing Count Sinistre himself.

Then the book closes by itself.

At night, Paul is startled when his doorbell rings but nobody is at the door—except a small voodoo doll that swings down from the ceiling (the doll is mentioned again one time, but does not figure into the narrative at all).

Elsewhere, Count Sinistre seduces Karen, who appears to enjoy becoming a vampire.

After the count’s followers relocate him from an apartment to a country estate, Tanya confronts her vampire husband, accusing him of bringing Karen in to replace her. He slaps her and dismisses her, then watches as Karen descends the stairs. He pulls off her black choker, revealing her vampiric bite marks.

Back in Paul’s apartment, Paul speaks with a Scotland Yard detective. He describes the count and his wife: “His wife was very attractive. Kind of…gypsyish.”

As soon as the detective leaves, Paul gets a phone call from Madeline. He rushes to the antique store, where Madeline shows him a painting of Karen with a small image of the bat-shaped amulet in the corner. Immediately, they infer that Karen has been kidnapped and the amulet is the ransom. Instead of attempting to get the amulet back from the police, Paul storms out with the painting, frustrating Madeline, who appears to be in cahoots with Sinistre and his wife.

After Paul goes to sleep, Tana enters his apartment (though she has not been invited) and stabs the painting of Karen. Like most paintings in films, Karen’s painting bleeds, and Tanya uses the blood to write out an illegible note (writing only THE O) on the page from the stolen book that describes Count Sinistre.

Paul deciphers the unfinished note in blood, inferring that it means The Odd Spot, Madeline’s antique shop. 

The film’s finale occurs not at The Odd Spot, however, but at the country house, where Madeline puts on a Bohemian parody of the party she threw at her place, all in preparation for Karen’s initiation into the vampiric cult at midnight. After the count kills a troublesome guest with his sword-cane, he leads his red-cloaked followers into the cave underneath the house. 

Paul and the inspector drive to the house to interrupt the ritual, due in part to news of the arrest of half the French village where Sinistre used to live. The inspector says smugly but wisely, “Fear can be a terrible thing, Mr. Baxter. And when you’re monkeying with black magic, who knows what you’re up against.”

In the ceremony, Sinistre cuts Karen’s wrist, but in a twist, Tanya reveals that Karen has the mark of the cross on her back, caused by an earlier mishap with crucifix jewelry, so she cannot be initiated.

Meanwhile, Paul and the inspector arrive to punch out a few of the Satanic cultists. Everything is destroyed when lightning strikes the country house. Madeline and Tanya are separately crushed by falling stone, while Sinistre drags Karen away. In the final confrontation, Sinistre foolishly climbs into the sunlight, where he dissolves into a skeleton, and Paul embraces Karen.

The End

Hammer Studios seemed to have a monopoly on Gothic vampire films in the 1960s, but Devils of Darkness proves that other studios could contribute to the cultural conversation as well. In 1965, when Devils of Darkness was released, Hammer had released only (Horror of) Dracula (1958) and Brides of Dracula (1960). Lance Comfort's film brings Count Sinister into modern France and Britain, an idea that Hammer wouldn't begin to explore until Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). Of course, Hammer had Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as the iconic vampire and vampire hunter--a difficult team of actors to replace. Fortunately, Lance Comfort was lucky to have Hubert Noel and William Sylvester to take on similar roles. Both actors bring a great deal to this film. They might not have the intensity of Lee and Cushing, but Noel has an authentic French accent and Sylvester has...well...a pretty good haircut. Important attributes indeed!

In the end, Devils of Darkness is a worthy effort at bringing the vampire mythology into the 20th century. It might not have much blood or any nudity (attributes Hammer would soon begin to explore), Lance Comfort's film features a hero with a pretty good haircut and a vampire with an excellent name: the immortal Count Sinistre.

(Not actually immortal.)