So let’s say, just for the sake of argument, you’re a vampire. Not one of those post-Anne Rice vampires with the leather trench coat and the bad poetry and an appreciation of royalty-free industrial music. No, I’m talking about one of those older, more distinguished vampires. Not too bad, huh? Yeah, there are drawbacks. I would miss Korean BBQ, and I do drink wine. But if you were to become any monster, a vampire would be pretty boss, compared to becoming a mummy or a werewolf or a Frankenstein. Mummies only have one outfit, and you have to spend your entire afterlife shambling around in pursuit of some dame who looks like some other dame you loved back in ancient Egypt, and then a dude in a tweed jacket sets you on fire. And Frankensteins have to do pretty much the same thing in terms of shambling, though at least they get to smoke cigars and drink wine. So, better than mummies, but still. And as for werewolves — sure, cool power…but you have no control over it! Plus, it only happens once a month, you can’t remember anything afterward, and your clothes are constantly getting ruined.
But vampires? Being a vampire could be all right. Yeah, there’s the sunlight thing, but the sun’s rays are pretty bad for everyone anyway. And you’re going to have to put up with the occasional vampire fan wanting to read you their fanfic, and everyone is going to want to take you out to EDM clubs when you want to stay at home, surrounded by your candelabras, reading from some dusty old tome and listening to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But luckily, when that happens, all you have to do is turn into a bat or some mist and get out of there. And like Keifer Sutherland, or maybe Wilford Brimley, said, you won’t get any older and you won’t ever die. Not unless someone kills you in one of the various ways a vampire can be killed — but honestly, what are the chances of that? Have you seen the people who believe in vampires? They’re not all Blade-y and full of kung fu fury. They want to read you fanfic they wrote in a notebook with a Sisters of Mercy logo drawn on the cover. For that matter…hey Blade! What’s the deal with all the kung fu fighting vampire hunters? All the vampire has to do is turn into some fog and wait it out while the vampire hunter spin kicks himself into a state of exhaustion.
So let’s say you are a vampire who has survived through the ages. Also, your name is Sinistre. That would be a cool name…until you realize that a vampire might have trouble being named Sinistre, because it’s the kind of name that sticks out, and part of a vampire’s key to success is, if not keeping a low profile, at least keeping a lower profile than being a vampire named Sinsestre. You might as well be called Spooky O’Ghoul or Gregor McBloodsucker. If you are a vampire named Count Sinistre, no matter how cool that would look in album liner notes, you should consider changing your name to…I don’t know. Bill Jones or Mike McGill in order to maybe not stand out as much. Pro tip for all vampires looking to choose a less conspicuous name: no one is named Tristan anymore except for porn stars.
So…you’re a vampire, and your name is Count Sinistre. You should be happy with that, right? But no, you’re not satisfied with just being a vampire named Sinistre with all of your “vampire named Sinistre” powers, such as flying and commanding the will of rats. You want more. And so you convene a Satanic cult composed largely of mod young hipsters and sophisticated older folks who, when they aren’t busy gadding about in bright red devil cloaks, like to talk about antiques and collectibles, sort of like if the Monkees, Anton LaVey, and Antiques Roadshow all hung out. Such is the ambition of Count Sinistre, menacing vampire leader of the Satanic cult in Devils of Darkness (1965), directed by…Lance Comfort. And I thought Tristan was a porno name!
Devils of Darkness, an oft-forgotten horror film in the vein of AIP’s Poe films and Hammer horror, pits sinister Sinistre against…well, basically, it pits him against a dad from some early 1960s sitcom in a veritable whirlwind of opera capes and devil cloaks versus cardigan sweaters and crisply-pressed slacks. This is the sort of movie where square-jawed everymen sit on couches with their legs crossed and stare intently at their cigarettes while saying things like, “Vampires? But this is the 20th century!” and everyone seems to know a guy who happens to be a professor of the occult. You know, I went to college, and all I learned about was physics and John Adams and whatever the hell it was I didn’t pay attention to in that macroeconomics class everyone was required to take. As far as I know, there were no professors whose entire career at the university involved them sitting around giving speeches about Pazuzu and magick circles, but maybe I just didn’t take the right classes. Or maybe by going to a public university in America, all I got to learn about was the coefficient of friction and the “tragedy of the commons” while guys at upper-crust British colleges got to learn about wizards and Ouija boards and how to set rampaging mummies on fire.
William Sylvester stars as Paul Baxter, on vacation with friends and loved ones in some remote part of France where gypsies frolic and dance and emerge from the shadows to point at you and administer ominous proclamations regarding your fate. You know, the usual gypsy stuff. It turns out that this quaint little village is lorded over by Count Sinistre, played with Udo Kier-esque effete weirdness by Hubert Noel. Sinistre’ benign veneer shows cracks when Paul’s friends start vanishing or turning up dead. As usual, the local police are no help, and when Paul attempts to have the bodies returned to England for examination, the coffins go missing. Could the mysterious, staring guy named Sinestre have something to do with it???
Luckily, while all the French are busy being hypnotized and submitting to the will of Sinistre, Paul and some guys in England are on the case! But then, so is Sinistre, who trails Paul to retrieve a talisman and set up a new cult with acolytes culled from the bored and decadent fringes of wealthy British society. The script places an undue amount of importance on this talisman. It is pegged as the source of Sinestre’s influence over others, so valuable to the vampire cult leader that he would risk coming all the way to London and exposing himself to retrieve it. And yet, the loss of the talisman doesn’t have any impact whatsoever on his power. He still manages to hypnotize and convert a whole room full of revelers in a remarkably short time. I think, in the end, Sinestre just thought it looked cool.
When Paul falls for an aloof model, Sinistre targets her to become his next bride, something vampires are always doing to piss off the Jonathan Harkers and Paul Baxters of the world. How many times did Dracula try to seduce the daughter or granddaughter or niece of a rival? Once Sinestre has the model in his sights, he forgets that talisman almost completely. Yet Baxter and Sinistre never really go toe-to-toe. There is no battle of wits or battle of fists, and when the final showdown comes, Sinistre is quick to turn and run. Granted, Dracula usually turned and ran too, but he would at least hiss while he was doing it and usually would at least make an effort to throw Peter Cushing across a table.
If you love movies where guys in sweaters sit around in well-appointed dens, smoking and saying, “But you can’t entirely discount the stories of vampires” as they drink brandy or some other beverage only occult detectives drink, then you are in luck. If you love movies where people put on bright red devil cloaks and hang around in old basements, drawing circles on the floor and lying out scantily-clad women on stone altars, you’re also in luck. Devils of Darkness is exactly the kind of fun, old fashioned horror film that revels in such classic horror imagery.
Vampire movies that attempt to transport a Victorian character into modern times have tackled the “unstuck in time” aspect of their character in a variety of ways. Dracula A.D. 1972 did it by confining Dracula to a single location, which happens to be Gothic in design. Count Yorga, Vampire also operates within a small, controlled circle of people for whom the vampire’s anachronistic idiosyncrasies are regarded as either a plus or, at least, just a weird dude being weird. Sinistre covers his vampire tracks by becoming a member of a social circle that values odd behavior and late nights. He hangs with rich, jaded freaks — the kind I want to be friends with so I can sit around in posh dens, smoking hookahs and debating the supernatural in a bored tone as a naked woman covered in body paint dances on a table in front of me.
Within this controlled environment, anything out of the ordinary he may say or do is casually disregarded. He is an artist, after all, and an Eastern European at that. He hangs around an antique store, goes to parties at the pad above the store, and holds his Satanic rituals in a remote farmhouse near a cemetery. The parts of modern society to which he has not been able to adapt he has excised from his life. You find a similar situation in Count Yorga, Vampire, in which the titular bloodsucker hangs around a remote farmhouse and befriends people who are already flaky and into the occult.
Although Sinestre is a vampire, he spends more time doing devil cloak stuff than he does vampire stuff. As such, Devils of Darkness is more like Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out than it is a vampire film, and Sinistre is more like Charles Gray’s ominous Mocata than he is Dracula. It’s also similar to Roger Corman’s Poe films, which were low on action and heavy on dialog. As was the case with Corman’s films, there is a lot of talking and very little doing in Devils of Darkness. It moves slowly until the enthusiastic finale when all hell — literally, more or less — breaks loose. Lance Comfort and cinematographer Reginald H. Wyer have a great eye for composition. And although Devils of Darkness was a low-budget film, Comfort had access to Pinewood Studios’ collection of old sets, and so he could pilfer the goods from more expensive films to dress his modest production in fancy duds, like a hobo who finds a box of tuxedos — or perhaps red devil cloaks — down by the tracks and knows he can get free food if he wears one around town.