Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Satan's Slave (1976)

Back in the days when it seemed impossible to actually see, I remember that Satan's Slave had something of a bad reputation, seen as a prime example of how the once mighty British horror genre had declined to the level of threadbare B-movies made by low-rent movie makers more at home in sexploitation.  (All of which conveniently ignored the slide into sexploitation territory of the last Hammer Gothics, which were sold as much on the promise of naked female flesh as they were horror).  Consequently, when Satan's Slave turned up on the BBC some years ago, becoming, for a while a regular fixture in the late night schedules, along with a couple of other Norman J Warren horror films, I recall being pleasantly surprised at the fact that it was actually a pretty decent horror film.  A more recent viewing on the Horror Channel left me slightly less enamoured than before, but still feeling that it has, in the past, been an unfairly maligned film.

While there's nothing especially innovative about the plot (young girl manipulated by evil relatives in attempt to resurrect her burned at the stake witch ancestress), but it does sport a decent enough twist (on the first viewing, at least) toward the end, and is all played with conviction by a decent cast.  This is headed by Michael Gough in an a remarkably restrained performance, (although he does sport dome alarming facial hair, as if in compensation for his uncharacteristic restraint), as the heroine's evil uncle.  Eschewing the sort of bizarre performance he generally specialised in when appearing in low budget horror films, Gough makes Uncle Alexander a deceptively charming  character, the archetypal kindly uncle, (of course in this sort of film, that tells the audience that he is bound to turn out to be part of a coven of Satan worshiping necromancers), whose avuncular exterior is inevitably revealed to be concealing a ruthless and homicidal cultist.  The supporting cast includes Candace Glendenning and Martin Potter, both actors who, for a while seemed to be perpetually on the verge of becoming something big, but instead had careers which petered out in low budget movies and supporting roles.  (Both had been in the historical epic Nicholas and Alexander, while Potter had also appeared in Fellini's Satyricon and had just played the title role in the BBC's memorably violent and revisionist Legend of Robin Hood).   Both give decent performances here, particularly Potter as Gough's psychopathic son.

Shot mainly at the same country house in Surrey previously used as the main location for Virgin Witch, director Norman J Warren makes the most of the Wintry colours of the locale to help create a suitably dank and brooding atmosphere.  The often visible frosts on the lawns and the gathering shadows of the grounds build up a sense of menacing isolation as Glendenning finds herself progressively cut off from her former life.  Warren, who had hitherto been known primarily for sexploitation films, is a more than competent director who makes the most of his meagre resources.  (On the basis of interviews with him that I've read and seen, he comes over as just about the nicest person to have worked in British exploitation films).  There's no doubt that his direction brings a certain style to the film which belies its low budget and the shock sequences are all handled very effectively with, in places, some genuine suspense.

Like many similar films of the era Satan's Slave was made so cheaply that, at various points, members of the crew appear as extras, often as hooded cultists, although script writer David McGillivray (another sexploitation veteran) appears twice, once in a dream sequence as a puritan priest supervising the torture of a naked young woman, then again as a modern day vicar presiding over a funeral.  While this seems to be underlining one of the film's themes of events of the past reflecting those of the present, it was, according to McGillivray, completely unintentional, the dream sequence being part of a reshoot conducted over several weekends some time after the main shoot - he was simply the only person available to play the puritan.

The dream sequence is significant, as it ties the film, thematically, to other British horrors of the seventies, presenting the idea that more often than not, the supposed forces of 'good' use fighting evil merely as a pretext to subjugating and abusing attractive young and sexually active women, (making them no different to Potter's present day character who opens the film with the attempted rape and murder of a young woman).  (Hammer's earlier Twins of Evil is probably the prime example of this theme, with its puritan witch hunters burning at the stake every young woman possessed of a cleavage that they can find).  In this respect, 'good' is revealed a being merely the flipside of 'evil' which, in the case of Satan's Slave, at least, is intent upon suppressing youth, in the form of Glendenning, by using her as a means to resurrect the past, in the form of her evil ancestor.  Or perhaps I'm reading too much into cheap B movies?

Subtexts aside, Satan's Slave provides a solid enough eighty six minutes of exploitation and stands as a superior example of the independently made horror films which sprang up in the UK in wake of the demise of Hammer, Tigon and Amicus.  It also stands as a fine example of Norman J Warren's directorial abilities - a director who, if he had been active ten years earlier or even ten years later, might well have enjoyed a higher profile career.  But such was the nature of British film making in the seventies that even the most talented of directors found exploitation as the only outlet for their creativity.



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