I think it’s a safe bet that Devils of Darkness was Stanley Kubrick’s favourite low-budget British vampire movie of the 1960s: it stars William Sylvester (2001 A Space Odyssey) and Tracy Reed (Dr Strangelove) and features Marianne Stone (Lolita), Diana Decker (Lolita) and Aileen Lewis (The Shining). It’s the first British vampire movie with a contemporary setting, though its snide French aristo vampire doesn’t mingle much with his late-in-the-trend Chelsea beatnik followers and even the token scientist (Eddie Byrne) is only to happy to ditch rationality to mutter that there’s probably something to all these superstitions after all. Another modest innovation is that this features a red-cloaked (but not fanged) Count who leaves marks on his victims’ necks, apparently manifests as a giant bat, shrinks from the cross and turns into a skeleton at dawn … but no one mentions the v word (though it is written in a handy tome that provides what amounts to the villain’s wikipedia entry).
Slight, sallow Hubert Noel (one of the voice cast of the French release of Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio) plays Armond du Molierè, aka Count Sinistre – a mediaeval artist who was buried alive for Satanic crimes and vampirism but bursts out of his tomb in Pinewood’s version of rural France to claim gypsy Tania (Carole Gray) as his bride/minion. Holidaying writer Paul Baxter (Sylvester) gets mixed up in the mess when his friend Anne (Rona Anderson) supposedly commits suicide after the death in a cave of her spelunking brother (Geoffrey Kenion). Sinistre is, of course, responsible for both fatalities, but while biting Anne drops his talisman (a chuky gold bat/snake amulet), which Paul picks up and takes back to London.
As the vampire movie struggled (not very hard) to escape from Bram Stoker’s plot, it became a challenge for screenwriters to find something worthwhile for their undead villains to do. Lyn Fairhurst constructs most of Devils of Darkness around the Count trying to get his talisman back, which he does by mesmerising gorgeous pale redheaded model Karen (Reed) and sending Paul a painting that symbolises a willingness to exchange the girl – who Paul has only just met, but is understandably keen on – for the lump of tat. A side effect of this is that his last bride gets jealous of the new victim and betrays him, which sort of happens in a couple of the later Christopher Lee Dracula movies. Also relatively fresh is the notion of a vampire as head of a Satanic cult, complete with pentagrams, robes, chants and sacrifices. This is perhaps a borrowing from Hammer’s The Kiss of the Vampire, where Dr Ravna (Noel Willman) has a cult of robed acolytes mostly because the script is a light rewrite of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat with the Karloff character reimagined as a vampire. After Count Sinistre, quite a few screen vampires – including Lee’s Dracula in The Satanic Rites of Dracula – take to conducting seances and presiding over Dennis Wheatley-type sacrifices.
Directed by B specialist Lance Comfort (Daughter of Darkness, The Ugly Duckling) for the minor Planet outfit (Island of Terror, Night of the Big Heat), Devils of Darkness has gorgeous EastmanColour and the occasional decent shot from cinematographer Reginald H. Wyer – a track that begins with Reed’s red hair splayed on a tomb, a sudden shock drop of a voodoo doll into the frame – but is pretty stodgy overall. The French sections are replete with Clouseau accents and sinister folks in berets while the Chelsea stuff – Madeleine (Decker) holds wild parties above her antique shop, the Odd Spot – is almost sweet in its tame decadence. The Duchness (Stone) dances while cuddling a milk bottle and her butch girlfriend Midge (Avril Angers) pushes suspect cigarettes on goateed youth, while a lecherous inebriate Colonel (Brian Oulton) breathes booze fumes over young models he fails to cop off with. Parties seem to be a bit of a theme – with a big gypsy wedding dance (interrupted by the apparent death of the bride) at the beginning and an orgy complete with that 1960s indicator of decadence a snake dancer (Julie Mendez) to warm up for whatever Sinistre wants to do when he gets his medallion back at the end.
Some obvious shortcuts – large newspaper headlines, characters who die offscreen, reams of exposition from a librarian (Billy Milton) and a plodding police inspector (Victor Brooks) – don’t paper over gaps in the budget. Sylvester was better served by the much more unusual, North African-set vampire movie The Hand of Night while Marianne Stone, an amazingly prolific actress, ought to rate goth immortality because of her role as Peter Sellers’ vamprish muse Vivian Darkbloom in Lolita, modelling a look that prefigures Morticia Addams. I’ve watched (and enjoyed) this thing about five times – a handy side effect of it being so unmemorable, perhaps. Gray and Reed have astonishing faces, which suit even low-rent vampire film imagery.