Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bloodsucking Freaks

INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED (1970)

In a non-speaking role, Imogen Hassall is bewitching as the leader of a perversion-driven vampire cult.

DIRECTLY after THE BLACK TORMENT in 1964, director Robert Hartford-Davis and cinematographer Peter Newbrook quit Compton and formed Titan. After making the musical GONKS GO BEAT, Michael Bentine's THE SANDWICH MAN and Norman Wisdom vehicle PRESS FOR TIME, the studio turned out their lasting legacy in 1968 with the seedy CORRUPTION. A brutal picture which sees Peter Cushing as a surgeon killing in order to restore his young fiancée's facial tissue, Cushing departed to make another low point in his filmography with Tigon's THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR. Titan, however, went on to nearly complete their greatest folly, a take on Simon Raven's novel Doctors Wear Scarlet - INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED.

If you ever wanted to see Patrick Macnee and Imogen Hassall ride donkeys in a British vampire picture, then INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED is the film for you. Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower) - an Oxford don and the Foreign Secretary's son - falls into the clutches of Chriseis (Hassall) while researching ancient Minoan rites in Greece. Chriseis heads a non-supernatural bloodsucking cult of socialites who murder innocents as a form of sexual perversion. In an attempt to avoid a scandal, a search party flies to the island of Mikonos in a desperate search for Richard, which contains Major Derek Longbow (Macnee), British Foreign Office assistant Tony Seymore (Alexander Davion), friend Bob Kirby (Johnny Sekka), and Fountain's somnambulant fiancée Penelope (Madeleine Hinde). After apparently halting the cult's influence over Richard, the don returns to his sheltered life, but we discover that the marks left by Chriseis still resonate.

Also known as BLOODSUCKERS and FREEDOM SEEKER, INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED is based on Simon Raven's 1960 novel Doctors Wear Scarlet. Raven - a Luciferian provocateur who was also a journalist and television writer - rejected faith and possessed a deep contempt for the English unwillingness to offend.

According to David Pirie's The Vampire Cinema, INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED was a long-gestating project of Terence Fisher, who was never able to interest Hammer in its subversive content. With the rights acquired by Titan and Hartford-Davis at the helm, it was the beginning of a painful production and editing process. While shooting in Cyprus funds were exhausted, leaving the picture unfinished. With a compressed narrative and lame narration introduced to cover the cracks, the director disowned the picture and prints only exist under a directorial psydonym (Michael Burrowes) or with no director credit at all. The ending was also shot against Hartford-Davis' wishes, where Kirby and Seymore go to Fountain's coffin to administer a stake through his heart. This climax vilifies the rest of the film, which had explained vampirism as a psychological distortion, rather than reverting to cliché. Also jarring is an extraordinary six-minute sequence of a hallucinogenic orgy, which was either cut or excised completely for overseas prints.

Mower’s character is revealed as impotent - and possibly bisexual - making vampirism his only means of satisfaction. Richard's liberating climactic outburst at a Oxford dinner not only frees him from the stifling academic system championed by provost Dr Walter Goodrich (Peter Cushing) - Penelope's father - but also plays as a rousing counter-culture statement of the times ("the thieves who come to take our souls ... smooth deceivers in scarlet gowns.") As Tim Lucas points out in his Video Watchdog review, INCENSE would play well with Fisher's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, where Mower plays another privileged upper class individual who falls under the power of persuasion. As well as Cushing - who is used far too fleetingly - Edward Woodward appears as an anthropologist who tries to explain vampirism where the drinking of blood serves as surrogate orgasm.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Fordyke Saga

THE BLACK TORMENT (1964)

A panting Edina Ronay makes for a memorable opening to THE BLACK TORMENT. The Anglo-Hungarian daughter of food critic Egon and mother of actress/writer Shebah, Edina was noteworthy for her fleeting turns in A STUDY IN TERROR and PREHISTORIC WOMEN. In the mid-70's she retired from the screen to take up fashion design, specialising in knitwear.

TAKING its cue from Hammer's costumed gothics, Compton's THE BLACK TORMENT is an underappreciated gem that also draws upon the aura of Mario Bava and the eloquent staging of Roger Corman's Poe pictures. Set in the spring of 1780, the film opens with a young woman fleeing across a nocturnal wood, as a murderous assailant gives chase. After being attacked and left to die, she utters the name ... Sir Richard! Days later, Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) returns to his Devon estate with second wife Elizabeth (Heather Sears). Although he has been away in London for three months, villagers claim to have seen the aristocrat riding through the woods, chased by the spirit of his first wife Anne, who supposedly committed suicide four years previously. With Sir Richard increasingly being manipulated into an alleged ancestral madness - including finding his crippled father hanging - he turns to magistrate Colonel Wentworth (Raymond Huntley) to help him solve the mystery. The final revelation is less a surprise more a sign-posted but illogical confirmation: this particular backward "evil twin" brother can not only rape and pillage, but place detailed orders to a Tiverton saddle maker.


The posters for THE BLACK TORMENT went into hyperbolic overdrive: "terror creeps from the fringe of fear to the pit of panic"; "the screen shudders with raw and violent savage suspense!"; "...by the screaming terror of a woman's fear" et al. Underneath this barrage you actually get a richly rendered production filled with solid performances (though Turner often subscribes to Elizabeth's line "Oh Richard, you're overwrought") and meticulous supporting players such as Peter Arne (whose trademark swarthy villain is a role identical to his appearance in THE HELLFIRE CLUB) and Patrick Troughton (who appears as a stable groom). A colour long associated with sensations of infinity and imagination, cinematographer Peter Newbrook smothers the film in languorous blue, and as Jonathan Rigby argues in English Gothic, perhaps a more apt title would have been THE BLUE TORMENT. Known for his moving camera and zooms, director Robert Hartford-Davis was indulging in his lush sets and costumes - including the obligatory low-cut frocks - until an on-set visit from the studio's wheeler-dealer partners Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser. Compton had already committed to a number of projects so budgets were tighter than ever, and after running three days behind schedule, allegedly Tenser ripped out ten pages from the shooting script in front of the director and proclaimed "there you are, you're back on schedule."