31 Days of Horror: Satan’s Slave

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a member of the British aristocracy is involved in a satanic cabal up to nefarious schemes involving black magic rituals and necromancy. Sound familiar? But now what if I told you the aristocrat was…Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred!!!

The fifth film in this year’s watch-fest is Satan’s Slave (1976). I picked this one up on Blu-ray some months back after reading a write-up about it the Wyrd Britain website, one of my go-to places for 1970s weirdness across the Atlantic. The name Michael Gough caught my eye, and, sure enough, that’s the same Michael Gough who played Alfred in the 1990s Batman movies. That, plus the fact that it was a British film from the Satanic Panic period of the ‘70s, made it a must-see.

The film concerns Catherine Yorke, a 19 year old woman who tragically loses both her parents when they visit her estranged uncle Alexander. In the days after her parents’ death, she becomes a guest of Uncle Alex (played by Michael Gough), her nephew, Stephen, and Alex’s secretary, Frances. Catherine is prone to premonitions and starts picking up some weird visions in the woods behind the estate: images of a woman, clearly a witch, being tortured and burned at the stake. She seeks comfort in the company of Stephen, who has previously displayed some murderous tendencies during the film’s opening. Complicating matters is the fact that Frances is in love with Stephen and that Alexander has plans for Catherine on her 20th birthday. These plans involve raising the murdered witch from the grave and he need a young woman’s body to do so. Oh, lookie over there…

Satan’s Slave is pure exploitation, or “hexploitation” as we call it around these parts. There’s plenty of naked female flesh on display (did you know that medieval witches had bikini tan lines?) and the violence towards said women is rather shocking. I’m pretty alright with pretend movie violence, but this film pushed my limits—especially Stephen’s antics in the film’s opening. Sensitive viewers may want to skip this one. If one didn’t know better, you might think it was an American film. In addition to the nudity and violence, you get some old fashion ‘70s satanic set dressing, including hooded robes, cups and daggers, snakes, and spiders.

This makes Satan’s Slave a difficult film to evaluate. The acting is solid, but the pacing is slow. You can tell this is a film cribbing from the Hammer and Amicus playbooks, but the violence is more over the top than you’d find in even a late period Hammer film. Considering all those factors, I give the film 2.5 skulls out of five. Add another half a skull if you’ve got a stronger stomach for pretend misogynistic violence and pass on the film entirely if you’ve got no place for it.

31 Days of Horror: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

Me being me, if you told me you had a movie about Connecticut vampires, I’d think you were about to show me the story of the Great New England Vampire Panic. That’s just who I am. Instead, I get a movie about white flight, back to the land commune life, and the fragile sanity of the titular woman. The story of Mercy Brown, this is not.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) is the tale of Jessica and her husband, Duncan, who, along with their friend Woody, decide to put New York City behind them for a life of apple farming on an old Connecticut orchard. Jessica has been institutionalized for the previous six months and the escape to calm country living will hopefully do her well. Jessica, Duncan, and Woody are quirky; these personality traits demonstrated by the fact they drive an old hearse instead of a station wagon and that Jessica has a love for doing grave rubbings. In fact, while doing one, she glimpses a young woman dressed in white, who swiftly vanishes from sight in the cemetery. This leaves Jessica questioning her own delicate sanity, laying the groundwork for a theme that runs throughout the film.

Upon reaching the farm, the trio discovers it’s not empty. Emily, a young drifter, is squatting in the house and, although they initially intend to evict her (after she stays for dinner, of course), they soon open up their home to her in communal fashion. Like a lot of communes, this turns out to be a poor idea for several reasons.

When Jessica and Duncan bring some old antiques they find to a secondhand dealer, they learn they’re in the “Old Bishop Place,” where tragedy struck years ago. The Bishop’s daughter, Abigail, drowned in the lake by the house before she could be married and legend has it that she still roams the area as a vampire or a ghost. It’s about this time we start noticing that all the very unfriendly locals sport a lot of bandages for some reason…

Before too long, Jessica observes that Emily and Duncan are getting a little too friendly, that the photograph of the Abigail Bishop has an unsettling resemblance to Emily, and that people start turning up dead around them. Is this her madness creeping back in or is there something more supernatural at play here?

I wanted to like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death more, but it was a tough go. Zhora Lampert, who plays Jessica, is not the strongest actress to hang the role of protagonist on. Or maybe it’s just that the script wasn’t meaty enough for her to work with. The locals are all clearly that, and there’s nothing less terrifying than a seventy year old man in a VFW windbreaker as one of your sinister vampire minions. The fact that Woody shares an unfortunate resemblance to Ron Jeremy doesn’t help the movie much either.

I’ve read that Stephen King loves this film and that some scholars compare it to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. I can’t say anything is Steve’s defense, but I can say I’d rather reread Carmilla. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death isn’t particularly bad, but it’s neither particularly good in my opinion either. And for a vampire film, there’s a stunning lack of vampire tropes. All in all, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death earns a modest two skulls out of five, making it an average 31 Days of Horror movie.

31 Days of Horror: Tower of Evil

Day Three takes us to a craggy island (but not Craggy Island) off the coast of England, the site of a derelict lighthouse and horrible murders. The film is Tower of Evil (1972) and it contains a ton of stuff that’s right in my wheelhouse.

“It’s just a model.”

The story begins with the discovery of a triple murder on the island, the so-called Snape Island, which is going to elicit chuckles from Harry Potter fans. The three dead are touring Americans, and the sole survivor has been driven mad by what she witnessed. She kills one of her rescuers in her insane state, which gets her committed to a mental hospital while the police decide what to do with the case.

Curiously, one of the murdered Americans was slain with a ceremonial spear made of solid gold, a type of spear found only at Phoenician burial sites (although closed captioning kept render this as “Venetian,” so I was wondering why he wasn’t strangled by a set of blinds). This piques the interest of a British museum—maybe the British Museum, but it’s unclear—who puts together a team of professional archeologists to explore the island and find evidence of Phoenician visitors to England in the dim past. It goes without saying that these professional archeologists are all in their mid-to-late-twenties, are engaged in adulterous affairs with one another, and don’t seem particularly good at what they do. You know: movie archeologists. Coming along for the ride is an American private investigator hired by the insane girl’s family to clear her of the three murders. The team picks up some additional future body count—I mean help—in the guise of a local fisherman and his nephew, who looks like he’s at least Mick Jagger’s second cousin.

Once on the island, it’s clear that just about everyone has something to hide and soon everyone is up to something shady. Some vanish for a time, while others are just trying to get another team member into the sack. Strange flute playing and ghastly laughter suggest that the group may not be alone on Snape Island, a fact that’s confirmed when the first murder happens. There’s somebody out there in the dark, and that somebody has sharp implements.

Tower of Evil crept onto my Amazon watchlist and I frankly have no idea how it got there. I’m nevertheless grateful it did as I found it surprisingly entertaining. The movie ticked off a number of my “Yes, please” boxes, including but not limited to: maritime themes, ancient cults, Baal worship, C-grade British film studios, Chekov’s paraffin tank, and many, many dubbed actors for a movie filmed in English. All that was missing was some good ol’ Sawney Bean cannibalism and the film would have hit all the sweet spots. It does though feature the goofiest demonic idol I’ve ever seen. I’m truly not sure if it’s just being friendly or flipping me off.

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

For a movie I had no memory of choosing and no reason to expect anything good of, Tower of Evil was a pleasant surprise and is the best film I’ve seen so far this month (he says on Day Three). It even begins with a credit sequence filmed over an old school miniature model as a practical effect, and I love me a good movie model. The movie appears to have gained an underground following and the plot would make for a good role-playing game scenario if you’re into investigative horror. Likely, your players will be unfamiliar with is so you can use it “as is” just as easily as inspiration for another story. All this means I’m giving Tower of Evil a solid four out of five skulls. Deduct ½ a skull if you’re not into model lighthouses.

31 Days of Horror: The Legend of Blood Castle

The second night into this year’s watch-feast takes us to Spain, most famous for its blind dead. No zombies for us tonight, though. Instead it’s a retelling of the Elizabeth Bathory legend in the form of The Legend of Blood Castle (1973).

The film opens with a vampire hunt underway in a small village. Peasants scour the cemetery with horse and virgin, seeking the vampire’s grave. This is observed by the noble occupants of the local castle, Countess Erzebeth Bathory and her husband, Karl. The Countess, however, is more concerned with her fading beauty, while Karl spends most of his time thinking about his hunting hawks. When the vampire hunt turns up the relatively fresh body of Dr. Plojovitz in his coffin, it’s time for a good old fashioned vampire trial! The first third of the movie becomes a courtroom drama—except the accused is dead, has a stake through his heart, and is lying in a casket. Let’s see Law & Order do that!

As the trial proceeds, the Countess discovers that blood from one of her virginal servants beautifies her skin. Encouraged by her oldest and most trusted servant, who reminds the Countess of her ancestor who once bathed in virgin’s blood, it’s not long before accidents are being staged to collect children’s precious life-giving fluids for her beauty regimen.

Meanwhile, the trial has concluded and it’s revealed that the good undead Doctor (no, not Dr. Acula) had an acquired a medallion before he died, and it’s this cursed piece of jewelry that’s blamed for his vampirism. Karl, who already displayed some psychotic tendencies, claims the medallion for himself and pretty soon he’s dropped dead—allegedly.

Despite presenting several supernatural elements, the movie plays coy as to whether there’s anything supernatural actually going on. Karl rises from his coffin and starts hunting virgins to bring back to the castle, but is he a vampire or was he only buried alive? The Countess starts spiraling further into madness and sees apparitions, but are they ghosts or are they delusions of a guilt-ridden psyche? It’s an interesting choice by the film, but it works more in concept than execution.

I watched this on Amazon Prime and the version they have on streaming is dreadful. The print is muddy, random alphabetical characters show up on screen for periods of time, and its 4:3 aspect ratio. But I’d already paid my money so I might as well watch the thing.

Ultimately, I found the movie uninteresting despite its efforts. The vampire trial was the highlight, but more for its farcical nature than any drama. I did learn that Dr. Plojovitz was based on the very real Petar Blagojević, however, so I got something out of the movie. Combine this with the terrible streaming quality, and The Legend of Blood Castle gets a mere 1.5 skulls out of 5.

31 Days of Horror: The Mephisto Waltz

Four years ago, I started the tradition of watching a horror movie every day in October. Besides being the season for the scary, doing this also helps clear my backlog of “watchlist movies” on various streaming platforms. The only rules are that I have to watch 31 films by Halloween, they must be scary (or at least have scary or suspenseful themes), and they can’t be movies I’ve already seen.  This year I’m adding a fourth criteria to go along with the overall theme of this blog: the film must have been made in the 1960s or 1970s. I’m partial to horror movies from this period anyway, so why not indulge myself?

With the rules out of the way, let’s dive in with probably the only horror movie Alan Alda ever made: The Mephisto Waltz (1971).

Alda plays Myles Clarkson, a unexceptional music journalist who is somehow married to Jacqueline Bisset. When Myles interviews renowned pianist Duncan Ely, Ely becomes fixated on Myles’ wonderful hands, perfect for playing the piano. Ely quickly brings Myles and his wife Paula (Bisset) into his inner circle, which includes his daughter, Roxanne – who is probably more than just his daughter if you get my creepy drift.

Ely is dying from leukemia and has a strange collection of occult paraphernalia lying about in his chicken-wire protected cabinet up in his studio, along with some life masks made from various unnamed people by Roxanne. Before you can say “Freaky Friday,” it’s pretty clear that Ely plans on swapping bodies with Myles and continuing his music career in a sensitive Alan Alda form. Can Paula figure out what’s going on before she too becomes the victim of Satanic Black Magic in 1970s Los Angeles? And who the hell names their demonic hell hound “Robin”? Only one way to find out!

The Mephisto Waltz was clearly produced in the wake of Rosemary’s Baby to capitalize on the satanic cult film’s popularity. Alan Alda is at his full Alda-ness in this movie, so it’s somewhat disconcerting to see him parading his way through a horror film. And someone really needs to make a catalog of evil pianists in film. I’m thinking that’s a long list waiting to be drawn up.

Overall, it’s a mediocre film but, hoo boy, is it a ‘70s movie, complete with a fur rug in front of a beach house’s fireplace. All this gives is a solid two out of five skulls rating. Watch it for the dog in a William Shatner mask if for no other reason.