This is definitely one of Hammer's best films, featuring a bravura performance by horror icon Christopher Lee playing against type as the good guy, and is about as close an adaptation of a Dennis Wheatley novel possible given the late sixties context and the tight grasp the BBFC had over public morals at the time.
|Director: Terence Fisher
Starring: Christoper Lee, Charles Gray, Nike Arrighi, Leon Greene, Patrick Mower, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Sarah Lawson, Paul Eddington, Rosalyn Landor, Russell Waters
Screenplay: Richard Matheson
Duc de Richleau (Christoper Lee) and his campadre Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) are concerned about their rather impressionable young pal Simon (Patrick Mower), who appears to have fallen under the sway of an odd astronomical group led by the sinister Mocata (Gray – Mocata's role is based rather heavily on the Great Beast himself, Aleisteir Crowley, Wheatley's occult supervisor on the original text itself). They've decided to turn up to Simon's manor house and put things to rights, and get their friend back. An occult intervention, if you will. Oh, worth pointing out at this point that this isn't a traditional Hammer period piece per se, although it is set in the 1920s.
Richleau knows that something is deeply wrong, and that Simon has fallen in with a very bad crowd indeed. This is no astronomical society – when it becomes apparent that only 13 members are allowed, de Richleau rightly assumes that this is some black magic badness right here, and that poor old Simon is right up to his neck in it, clueless bastard that he is. So is poor young Tanith (Arrighi), who Rex seems to be holding a torch for that would dwarf the Statue of Liberty's.
The Duc and Rex kidnap Simon, for the sake of his own good, although Simon's not best pleased about it when he comes to, tearing off the cross that's given him for protection, and buggering off instead to the dubious protection of Mocata. Mind you, he has been brainwashed by a bunch of Satanists, so he's not exactly master of his own domain at the moment, to put it mildly. The Duc and Rex immediately set about trying to rescue their chum (the whole thing is so dreadfully English, even down to the colonial-style casual racism), and that's when the dark forces first start to come out to play.
It's worth talking about the occult accuracy of Wheatley's original novel at this point (if you make even the most casual research into Satanism – not LaVey's nonsensical pop-version of it – you'll see what I mean), and the adherence to it that this movie has, although it does mean that occasionally the action gets a little bogged down in expository dialogue to sort it out for the layman. Wheatley definitely knew his stuff, and Richard Matheson obviously knew this himself, and so kept much of the fine detail in, much to the film's benefit. It certainly becomes much more sinister when this stuff is made known; it benefits the interior logic of the film greatly, and makes it more credible. It also helps that many of these lines are spoken by Christopher Lee, who brings an extraordinary amount of gravitas to the roles he portrays in films he has an interest in, or is knowledgeable about (check out the Marquis de Sade and Sax Rohmer Jess Franco films he was in, or say The Wicker Man, for example, let alone his stellar turn as Saruman in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings).
Rex kidnaps Tanith, who it turns out has not yet been re-baptised into the Church of Satan, and takes her off to his friends' Marie and Richard's (played by Yes Minister's Paul Eddington) place in the countryside – unbeknownst to him, she's been hypnotised on the way by Mocata. They pull up; she fucks off with the car, rather surprisingly. This leads to a car chase of old school Bentleys and Hispano-Suizas, kind of like if James Bond was around in the between-wars period. But – Tanith has the upper-hand, given that she's being given the supernatural edge by the evil Mocata.
And so we move into one of the film's great set pieces, the Sabbat, which is where Simon and Tanith are meant to be re-baptised under the auspices of the Devil. Rex has smuggled himself into the area, in the middle of Salisbury, in the trunk of one of the occultists cars, but without Richleau's help, he'd have no more idea of what to do than any other regular fella off the street. Rex gets word back to Richleau, who turns up just in time to help. The bacchanal is in full swing by this time, although all of the participants are clothed, thanks to the BBFC and their prudish ways. Mocata has not only instigated what looks to be the lamest orgy on the planet, he's also managed to summon up Baphomet – the Goat of Mendes (incidentally the demon the real Knights Templar were meant to have been worshippers of), who certainly seems to approve of the proceedings (for a better version of a Sabbat, check out the 1920s Danish silent film Haxan, it's totally perverse, and a lot more raunchy than this rather tepid affair).
A poorly choreographed escape is made, and there's a brief breather at Richard and Marie's. Cue: Christopher Lee in expository dialogue mode. Rex has certainly proven himself so far to be every bit the blunt instrument he is in the novel (and a monumental thicky, as well), as much as Richleau has the enigmatic scholar and man of action. Richard is about to prove himself the upper-class twit much satirised by the likes of Monty Python's Flying Circus (do the upper classes in England actually use the expression, "I say"?), and Tanith, well…
Mocata pays a visit to Marie and Richard's house, every part the English gentleman, with his greeting card, his impeccable manners and excellent taste in suits, not to mention mouthing a whole bunch of very Crowley-esque dialogue. It's in this scene that we can see the director's good judgement in casting Charles Gray in the role, sandwiched in between two roles as arch-villain Ernst Blofeld in the James Bond films You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever. He, like Julian Glover (as in the Doctor Who story City of Death), can portray a charismatic, urbane, suave and charming evil, and is a believable uber-villain. It's only due to the timely intrusion of Richard and Marie's daughter Peggy that Marie does not become one of the Devil's unwilling helpers.
Mocata leaves, the broken tension having become positively electric, stating with deadly seriousness: "I am leaving. I shall not be back. But something will. Tonight – something will come for Simon and the girl." It's cold and evil delivery, spoken only the way a truly class actor can, and not make it sound like idle braggadocio. He means it.
Richleau knows that steps have to be taken, although Rex, gallantly and stupidly has taken Tanith away to try to keep her safe, although as Mocata is using her as his medium, a way to focus his powers against his enemies and harness her own innate skills and inner powers, it doesn't seem very likely to be terribly efficacious. Richleau prepares a magic circle against Mocata's powers to protect himself, Richard, Marie and Simon, knowing that the Ipsissimus (the highest level of magickal achievement or awareness) will undoubtedly attack them magickally in order to regain Simon and Tanith, likely to throw at them everything he's got. And he does, leading us to the second best known set piece in the film, Mocata's magickal attack with a giant tarantula to begin with and then some very dodgy effects masquerading as the Angel of Death. This scene, depending on where your level of willing suspension of disbelief stands could either work well or fail dismally.
Richleau dispels the Angel of Death with the last two lines of the Susamma ritual (not a figment of the scriptwriter's imagination, but an actual magickal ritual, and one that Lee studied, given his dedication to movies about the black arts, for some time in order to get the intonation right) which is meant to alter time and space. But as the Angel of Death can't go home empty handed, he takes Tanith's soul, seeing as how she was kinda sorta responsible for his being there in the first place. Me, despite budgetary setbacks, I buy the sequence wholeheartedly, as much as I did when I read the novel many, many years ago.
Mocata has kidnapped Peggy while all this is going on. Simon, believing himself to be Sir Galahad (despite having been worse than useless for the entirety of the film so far), travels after her. Richleau, being of a more sanguine temperament tries to think of other ways to save her, and by extension, themselves, via a little casual necromancy. The location of the little girl is discovered, and then you'll have to watch the rest of the film yourself to see how the whole thing pans out. You will not be disappointed.
This film cuts out all of the flab of Wheatley's admittedly quite bloated novel, but it also cuts out a fair amount of the original plot, especially in the second half, and definitely in the climactic moments of the story. Admittedly, it's a pretty unfilmable book, and Fisher (and Matheson as scriptwriter) has done one of his better jobs here, being more often than not a director who did what he had to and no more. His level of engagement with the film is palpable, and has provided Hammer with one of the best Satanic films around, knocking such loads of old tripe as The Exorcist into a cocked hat. It's a real shame this film was never the success it deserved to be.