September 23, 2013

Spelunking in the Cave of the Vampires: A Devilishly Dreadful Double Feature

I haven't done much cave exploring in my lifetime. Once, a long, long time ago, the family stopped at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. I remember part of the passage narrowing to the point where even a human string bean like myself just barely fit through, and coupled with the dark and the damp, it was an uncomfortable, if not exactly terrifying experience. (Come to think of it, I wonder how the park handles today's plus-sized tourists? Do they sit and watch a movie while the select few who are thin enough go slipping and sliding in the real caverns, or do you suppose the park people have drilled out that area to accommodate everyone?)

Colossal Cave, Tucson, Arizona
This is one of the few decent photos I took at Colossal Cave.
Hey, they kind of look like vampire teeth, don't they?
My next most uncomfortable cave experience was years later at Colossal Cave in Tucson. The uncomfortable part was trying to figure out how to take decent pictures with my new point-and-shoot camera. I was so obsessed with the stupid camera that I forgot to appreciate the beauty in front of me. To date, that's been it for me and caves.

We normally associate vampires with dark, decaying castles. But dank, dripping caves would also seem to be a natural habitat for these night creatures. After all, bats love caves, and vampires love to turn into bats, ergo, vampires should love caves. (I guess that philosophy of logic class wasn't such a waste after all!)

If at this point you're saying to yourself, but I don't remember ever seeing a flick about cave-dwelling vampires, rest your weary mind. I've got two (count 'em!) B horrors with vampires hanging out in caves. And I just happened to stumble upon them recently. One dark and stormy night, I was mindlessly going through my Netflix Instant watch queue and finding nothing appealing, when I remembered I also had access to "free" videos through my Amazon Prime account. (Disclaimer: Your humble host does not accept gratuities or other compensation to promote any particular entertainment/media services, nor will I ever, unless they make it really, really worthwhile. However, since these services are an omnipresent fact of entertainment life, I reserve the right to mention them, and even praise or excoriate them, as appropriate.)

So I started mindlessly browsing through the Amazon Prime catalog. Given my affinity for B horrors and sci-fi, you can probably guess what kinds of titles ended up on my watchlist. And wouldn't you know it, the first two things I watched featured vampires in caves. (Okay, so the title of the first movie is a real tip-off, but I had no idea that the second movie in the queue, Devils of Darkness, also featured vampires in caves. Weird, huh?)

Poster - Double Feature: Tomb of Torture (1963) and Cave of the Living Dead (1964)
Now Playing: Cave of the Living Dead (aka Night of the Vampires, 1964)

Pros: Invents wacky new additions to vampire lore; Long on atmosphere
Cons: Too much time devoted to spooky talk and secondary characters, and not enough to the vampires themselves

In brief: Inspector Dorin (Adrian Hoven) is sent to a remote village to investigate the suspicious deaths of 6 young women in the last 6 months. Arriving at the outskirts of town around midnight, the electrical system in his car suddenly goes out, and even his flashlight won't work. He hoofs it to the local inn, where the power is out as well. The rough-looking innkeeper tells him spooky stories about vampires lurking in the grottos (a fancy-a** word for caves) outside of the village. Dorin goes to bed.

In the morning, the local Keystone Constables bang on his door. It seems the inn's maid, Maria, has become the latest victim in the room right next door to the inspector's. How embarrassing! Dorin talks to the village doctor (Carl Mohner), who has to be the most dim-witted, complacent M.D. in all of horror film. He casually informs Dorin that all the healthy young women died naturally of heart failure. When Dorin points out the marks on Maria's neck, he dismisses them as superficial scratches.

Karin Field and Adrian Hoven in Cave of the Living Dead (1964)
"Okay, take a left at the stalactites, go a hundred yards,
turn right at the stalagmites, and if you come upon
a bunch of vampires' coffins, you've gone too far..."
The innkeeper insists that Dorin see Nanny (Vida Juvan ?), the resident white witch. She fills him in all the habits and haunts of the area's vampires, who, due to their evil deeds, were cursed and exiled to the dank grottos. Next, Dorin is invited by the mysterious Prof. von Adelsberg (Wolfgang Preiss) to visit him in his decrepit castle on the hill. It seems the good professor laid claim to the castle and moved in about 6 months ago (hmmm…) and is obsessed with research on blood (hhhmmmmmmmm….!!) Fortunately, he has a beautiful blonde assistant, Karin (Karin Field), who seems very normal and level-headed, and, well, beautiful.

Dorin investigates the ghastly grottos with von Adelsberg's black servant John (John Kitzmiller), who is a decent, if superstitious fellow. John ends up saving the inspector from a falling stalagmite (or is it stalactite?). Before it's all over, Dorin will deal with missing bodies, hostile villagers, more midnight power outages, secret passageways, and beautiful, buxom vampires. All in a day's (and night's) work for a Eurohorror inspector!

Like most Eurohorror, Cave is long on atmosphere and short on any logical narrative sense or structure. Like a dream (or nightmare), characters react to missing bodies and vampires living in caves with a disquieting complacency. The dream atmosphere is further reinforced by the murky black and white photography. Hammer proved that vampires and technicolor could coexist, but to me night creatures are most at home in black and white worlds.

Finale of Cave of the Living Dead (1964)
It's lights out for the Master Vampire!
There are a couple of shots of elongated, human-shaped shadows with arms extended and hands clutching that could easily have been inserted into a much earlier film like Murnau's Nosferatu (1922). The eerie quirkiness is taken a step further when the inspector meets the village witch. If nothing else, Cave adds some amusing bizarro rules to vampire lore: they can only come out at midnight for 1 hour minus 1 minute to do their nefarious work; they can shut off all electric power, including battery power, during their jaunts; powder ground from the thorns of mountain roses and sprinkled on a vampire's victim's wound can restore the person to life; and so on.

But for all its inventiveness, Cave wastes too much time on rather mundane secondary characters like the dimwit doctor, an ignorant, thieving villager, and (even though he is a sympathetic character), von Adelsberg's servant. Although the aristocratic Von Adelsberg himself is given relatively short shrift, there are hints of a much deeper, darker character. It's as if the film's editor perversely chucked a bunch of his scenes in favor of filler with lesser characters.

Wolfgang Preiss as Prof. von Adelsberg
Prof. von Adelsberg (Wolfgang Preiss) burns the midnight
oil studying blood... and more blood...
Key player: Wolfgang Preiss, like many sophisticated-looking German actors of his generation, made something of a career playing Nazi officers in such films as The Longest Day (1962), Von Ryan's Express (1965), Anzio (1968) and Raid on Rommel (1971). Perhaps more interesting to thriller and horror fans is his appearance as the sinister master criminal Dr. Mabuse, first in Fritz Lang's The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), and then again The Return of Dr. Mabuse (1961), The Invisible Dr. Mabuse (1962), The Terror of Dr. Mabuse (1962), and finally as the Doctor's ghost in Dr. Mabuse vs. Scotland Yard (1963). Born in 1910, he worked right up to the mid-1990s, and died at the ripe old age of 92 in 2002.


Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Instant Video


"Beyond the black mouth of the cursed cave lurk the unfleshed..."





Poster - Devils of Darkness
Now Playing: Devils of Darkness (1965)

Pros: Lush color photography; Attractive actors and actresses; Hammer-like look and feel
Cons: William Sylvester is a rather dull hero; Final scene "cheat" is lazy and unimaginative

In brief: In a pre-title scene set somewhere in the 19th century, we see a colorful group of gypsies joyfully celebrating the betrothal of beautiful Tania (Carole Gray) with a handsome, strapping young man. On her wedding day, joy turns to terror as a giant bat invades the encampment and strikes Tania. Some of the older gypsies blame Count Sinistre (Hubert Noel), who was condemned to be buried alive for his great crimes, and has returned as a vampire. Tania is buried by her disconsolate family and fiancee, but they don't take precautions to see that she stays put. Uh-oh!

Flash forward a hundred years or so, to a group of English tourists who are taking in the sights of Brittany (that's in the northwest of France, for those of you who are geographically-challenged). The vacation takes a turn for the worse when two of the party, Keith and Dave (Geoffrey Kenion and Rod McLennan), decide to explore some of the nearby caves. Keith discovers a vast cavern housing a group of mouldering coffins. To his horror, he sees a hand emerge from one of the coffins, and before he can react, he's grabbed by something from behind. Later, locals find Keith's body, but buddy Dave is still missing.

Carole Gray as Tania, Devils of Darkness (1965)
"Wake up sleepyhead, and follow me to the end of time!"
A gypsy warns Anne, Keith's beautiful sister (Rona Anderson), that her life is in danger. Heedlessly, she goes for an evening stroll with a suave member of the local upper crust, Sinistre. They pause on a scenic bridge. When Anne looks down at the water, she can see her reflection, but not her companion's-- double uh-oh! Sinistre abducts Anne, but carelessly drops a curious-looking medallion in the shape of a bat in the process. The alpha male of the touring group, Paul Baxter (William Sylvester), finds the medallion while looking for Anne. He is frustrated when the local police inspector (Peter Illing) won't take the disappearance seriously. Later, when Anne's body is found in the lake, the inspector blithely concludes it was an accident.

After one of the worst vacations ever, Paul gives up on the local authorities and takes the survivors and the bodies back to London. But that's not the end of it. Upon arrival at the airport, the bodies mysteriously disappear. Paul starts to think that maybe the superstitious Brittany local-yokels aren't so crazy after all. He enlists the aid of an open-minded scientist friend, Dr. Kelsey (Eddie Byrne), who suggests some reading material on black magic and talismans like the one he found on the bridge. Later, Paul finds his apartment ransacked, and learns that Kelsey is dead. It seems as if the tour group has stirred up an ancient, evil hornets' nest.

Hubert Noel and Carole Gray, Devils of Darkness (1965)
Even vampires have domestic
squabbles now and then.
Even in the middle of all the chaos, Paul finds time to attend the party of his quirky antique-dealer friend Madeleine (Diana Decker). There, he's introduced to an alluring artists' model Karen (Tracy Reed). Little does he know that he will soon be competing with the sinister Sinistre (is that redundant?) for the soul, so to speak, of the beautiful Karen. And little does Sinistre know that soon he will be dealing with the wrath of his current vampire squeeze, Tania, as he prepares to make Karen his new bride.

Tiny Planet Film Productions, which produced a handful of films in the '50s and '60s and distributed a handful more, got a lot of bang for their buck (or should I say pound sterling) with Devils of Darkness. It has the sumptuous technicolor look of a Hammer film, interesting sets and locations, and some bewitching actresses, particularly Carole Gray (Tania) and Tracy Reed (Karen). Hubert Noel, who reminds me of a French version of Udo Kier, is suitably suave and menacing as Sinistre. The main problem with the cast is American TV actor William Sylvester, who is a colorless, plodding fish out of water surrounded by far more interesting, quirky and attractive players. If you've seen any U.S. television from the '70s, you've probably seen William. At best, he was a "yeah, that face looks kind of familiar"-type of actor. English B producers often employed American actors to secure financial backing and make their product more attractive in the all important American market (Devils was released in the U.S. on a double bill with another British B, Curse of the Fly, with… you guessed it… an American actor, Brian Donlevy. Somehow, I doubt the kids making out at the drive-ins where it played came up for air long enough to think to themselves, "where have I seen that guy before?)

"Bleeding" painting of Karen
Apparently the artist put his blood, sweat and tears into
this painting... but mostly blood...
The few kids at the drive-in who were paying attention saw a pretty competent, if somewhat slow-moving Hammer horror imitation. Its combination of vampirism and a devil-worshipping cult menacing innocent tourists is very reminiscent of Hammer's Kiss of the Vampire (1963). There's also a touch of The Brides of Dracula (1960), with its emphasis on women as predators as well as victims. There's even what seems to be an homage to one of the UK's all-time greats, Curse of the Demon (aka Night of the Demon; 1957), when Kelsey and his laboratory are destroyed by an unseen demonic presence that first announces itself by the chattering of nervous lab animals, then literally blows into the place to claim the terrified scientist. Another scene in which a character slashes at a painting of Karen, and it starts bleeding, is, if not exactly original, nevertheless effective.

The final scene has a "we ran out of money, had an unfinished script, and couldn't pay anyone to finish it up"- kind of feel to it. Still, if you've seen all the Hammers multiple times, but want to see something new with that Hammeresque ambiance, Devils of Darkness might just be a Prime (as in Amazon Prime) candidate.

Diabolic Detail: IMDb's trivia section states that Devils was the UK's first vampire film set in the present day. While the U.S. had beaten Britain to the punch with John Beal as the scientifically-produced The Vampire (1957), and even had Count Dracula haunt a modern California town (The Return of Dracula, 1958), in the mid-'60s Hammer was still plugging away with Gothic settings in things like Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). Hammer wouldn't get around to updating the Count to the present day until Dracula, A.D. 1972 (1972).


Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Instant Video


"The mysterious cult of Count Sinistre has arisen!"

2 comments:

  1. Hi Brian,
    If you're looking for another film with vampires and caves, see Alfonso Corona Blake's 1961 "El Mundo de los Vampiros". I've only seen K. Gordon Murray's imported version, "World of the Vampires" but it has more vampires and caves than either of these two films.
    Hope this helps!

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    1. Thanks Darci for the suggestion-- this is one classic Mexican horror that has escaped me!

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