I’ve been head over heels for this dazzler ever since I first saw it on regional ITV in about 1991 (a cut BBFC print, as I was later to discover). It’s cracking entertainment, as far as I’m concerned, a continuation of that kind of sub-Hammer (i.e. sometimes better and more entertaining than a lot of Hammer) brand of horror such as Horrors of the Black Museum, which came along not long after Hammer rejuvenated the genre with The Curse of Frankenstein.
Jack Palance plays antique dealer Neil Mottram, who dabbles in black magic on the side. When he wants money, he kills suitable candidates for worm food and sacrifices them to an idol. Good God, what a performance! Jack alternates between bug-eyed ham and wooden I’m-just-here-for-the-paycheque inexpressiveness. Palance had something of a reputation for being scary and, according to Jonathan Rigby in Crazy Days (a documentary included on the DVD) director Freddie Francis – notable for his work with Hammer, of course – couldn’t or wouldn’t rein in his performance. Apparently, he tried to get in some extra time offscreen with sexy Euro-starlet and co-star Julie Ege – but while her character Helena might respond to his creepy advances in the film, she was sensibly having none of it off camera.
Martin Potter’s always great to have along in one of these shows, excelling in, for example, another sub-Hammer sordid sickie, Satan’s Slave (will the BBFC finally trust grown adults with the notorious export-only ‘scissors’ scene for the upcoming Blu-ray release? Let’s hope so). Here, he’s Ronnie, an employee of Mottram’s who finds out the truth about his boss’ murders. The older man controlling younger man scenario was employed in quite a few of producer Herman Cohen’s films (I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, How to Make a Monster, Horrors of the Black Museum, and had a sex-change twist for Blood of Dracula, which – as Rigby points out – should have been called I Was a Teenage Vampire) , and is here given a more explicitly homosexual emphasis , as Mottram reminds the younger man that he saved him from an existence of “hustling old queens when you could turn a trick!”. One assumes that Mottram had an ulterior motive for letting Potter move in with him, as he doesn’t exactly seem overly enthusiastic at the prospect of having to seduce Diana Dors – part of his attempt to have an alibi ready when the police come knocking on the door after he murders his aunt (a slumming Dame Edith Evans); however, as someone points out about the gone-to-seed Dors’ character, “One would have to be pretty desperate to sail into that port” (one wonders what Dors herself thought of that line, if, indeed, she knew about it).
The someone in question is a good, old-fashioned, no nonsense, Sweeney-style copper, played by Michael Jayston. He’s got some classic 1970s cop show lines of dialogue; after taking a visceral dislike to Palance at their first meeting, he tells his superior, “Guilty or not, I still don’t like that arrogant bastard”. He later becomes convinced of Mottram’s guilt, and when the latter is asked to identify his aunt’s body, he sarcastically snipes, “That’s unless, of course, the sight of your aunt’s dead body would shock you”.
So, loads to enjoy here in this cheerfully sleazy slice of Seventies Brit horror, which also includes appearances from Euro-cult favourites david Warbeck and Suzy Kendall, alongside Trevor Howard. And with trailers for every film that Freddie Francis directed included on the disc, as well as the great documentary, this is an essential release.