‘The Devil’s Men’ (1976) reviewed

❉ This ‘70s Euro-horror curio is boosted by the presence of Donald Pleasance and Peter Cushing plus a score by Brian Eno, writes Jon Dear.

The breakout success of Dogtooth (2009) and the subsequent career of Yorgos Lanthimos lead to an unprecedented level focus to Greek cinema in the Anglophonic film markets, and it’s doubtful whether recent efforts like London Film Festival winner Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2015) would have received the recognition they deserve without it. But then the Greek film industry has always been defined by struggle. After the end of the Second World War, Greece was freed from Nazi occupation only to collapse into civil war. Some respite was achieved in the 1950s and ‘60s, and filmmakers such as Nikos Koundouros and Michael Cacoyannis started to make their mark only for a 1967 military coup to put paid to free expression in filmmaking for the best part of a decade.

It’s unlikely the works of directors like Kostas Karagiannis or Nico Mastorakis, will be mentioned in the same breath as the ones in the previous paragraph, or indeed their contemporary, Theo Angelopoulos. His films, in particular The Travelling Players (1975) and Voyage to Cythera (1984) would certainly form part of Greece’s film canon, but as the BFI’s Flipside range reminds us, there are always various alternative canons to be explored if you want a fuller flavour of a country’s film culture. Karagiannis directed nearly 200 films between the early ‘60s and early ‘90s, and Porno Games at the Casino and The Rape Killer (both 1978) give an idea of the level we might be operating at, although I was surprised to discover The Dwarf and the 7 Snow Whites (1970) was actually a romantic comedy. He was a journeyman, seemingly able to turn his hand to anything. The Devil’s Men (released in the US as Land of the Minotaur) was his only foray into horror, and you occasionally detect his naivete with certain shots, although all the ceremonial sequences are well staged.

The Devil’s Men was produced by Poseidon Films, a small independent outfit run from London by Greek-Cypriot Frixos Constantine. He formed an unlikely partnership with legendary director Michael Powell, who’d found himself largely ostracised from the British film industry following the release of Peeping Tom (1960). They came together in a hope of getting an adaptation of The Tempest off the ground, in the end they had to setting for more modest fayre. The Devil’s Men also had funding from Getty in the US and experienced TV writer Arthur Rowe was brought on to provide the script.

The cold opening of the film is rather effective, showing an elaborate sacrificial ceremony involving a stone minotaur, whose sound effect appears to have been lifted from Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) (the image of the minotaur is effectively used a proxy for the Christian Devil throughout the film, and its domain is accessed by descending into an underworld, it’s not subtle. It also seems to be able to speak and affect people’s minds. Sadly these interesting concepts are not explored further) flames shooting out of his nose (so in a minute, will the film’s title) and the different coloured robes of the congregation providing even more visual diversion. However the decision to show the faces of the antagonists before they don their hoods robs the rest of the film of any sense of mystery, particularly when you see one of them in the next scene as the local Police chief (Dimitris Bislanis, although dubbed by legendary voice actor Robert Rietty). Imagine having the climatic scene of The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) at the start, and you can see how different this Pagan Village Conspiracy plays out. Nevertheless it still benefits from that eerie ‘70s European style found in de Ossorio’s Blind Dead films or Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? (also 1976). What The Devil’s Men does have, that makes it stand out from most of its contemporaries, is the presence of Donald Pleasance and Peter Cushing, as well as a score by Brian Eno.

This was the eighth time the two leads had appeared before the camera together, going back to Rudolph Cartier’s seminal production of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1954 (by the way, that comes out on Blu Ray and DVD next month, you should get that, I hear it’s got a decent commentary…) but their careers were going in different directions. Pleasance, in his mid-50s but still a couple of years from John Carpenter redefining how he would forever be remembered, plays a world-weary priest, Father Roche, a possible progenitor for his role in Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)? If so I’m glad he dropped the Irish accent. He seems world weary because a succession of young people keep passing though his doors and disappearing as they go to investigate ancient Greek sites in a slightly ill-defined but remote area. Perhaps he’s worried people will start blaming him.

By contrast Peter Cushing has the best years of Hammer behind him, and although George Lucas and Star Wars will soon come calling, that will be the final real highlight of a legendary career. The heart had gone out of much of his performances since the death of his wife and this is as close to Cushing phoning in a performance as we get. Of course a below par Cushing is still better than most on screen but his role as a Carpathian (?) noble relocated to Greece and seemingly in total control of the town has more than a touch of Lord Summerisle about him without any real sense of mystery because we’ve already seen him sacrificing people.

The rest of the cast aren’t much to write home (or indeed on We Are Cult’s website) about either. Kostas Karagiorgis (here credited as Costa Skouras) is an insipid as his character, Milo. Brought in as a private detective to aid Father Roche for reasons that are never adequately explained, he provides no positive influence on the plot and nor does Karagiorgis seem either willing or able to wring much tension from what he’s given. Perhaps you can’t blame him too much, Karagiannis makes several missteps. Worst of which is a scene where Roche and Milo are attempting to escape from a barn they’ve been locked in with a truck (ummm) and rescue some more sacrificial victims. Lots of close cutting as Roche urges Milo to hurry. Will they get there in time? Well no, because we’ve just seen both victims get the knife before our heroes get the engine ticking over. No hurry now, lads. The film also suffers the cliché of the main villain having the opportunity to kill the hero and passing it up via a curious countdown that’s equally lacking in tension and logic. Also, look out for the lamest slow mo this side of Kareteci Kiz (1974).

It’s not a total loss however. There are some interesting dream/hallucination sequences involving Roche being sacrificed. The female characters are, to a woman, badly served. Laure (Luan Peters) would have made a far better partner for Roche but throughout she’s infantilised and side-lined. Still, at least she gets to keep her nipples covered (with soap suds), unlike the other young women featured, and Karagiannis doesn’t let things like death get in the way of titillation. Also, the fact that every female victim is young, short and blonde does make them feel rather interchangeable. Eno’s score, however, is a triumph. Electronic whispering and murmurings that unnerve and dislocate. Without question, it’s the highlight of the film.

Ultimately The Devil’s Men is diverting if disposable fun, even if big stars can’t hide a weak and undeveloped plot. It’s worth watching as part of Greece’s entry into the rough and ready world of ‘70s European rural horror bit it will never rise beyond cult curiosity. The pick of the Blu-ray extras is a 1973 audio interview with Cushing. There’s a short interview with Fixos Constantine (yes he’s still going) and a commentary.

❉ ‘The Devil’s Men’ (Limited Edition Blu-ray) was released via Picturehouse/Indicator, 22 February 2022. Cat. No. #PHILTD242. BBFC cert: 15. REGION FREE. RRP £15.99. Click here to buy.

❉ Jon Dear is a writer and critic on tv and film. Forthcoming work includes the third volume of Play for Today on Blue Ray and the Blu Ray/DVD release of the BBC’s original production of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He is the co-host of BERGCAST – The Nigel Kneale Podcast and Due Signori in Giallo. Jon has also curated the forthcoming Nigel Kneale – A Centenary Celebration on 23 April in London.

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