DEVILS OF DARKNESS. Planet Films, UK, 1965. 20th Century Fox, US, 1965. William Sylvester, Hubert Noel, Carole Gray, Tracy Reed, Diana Decker, Peter Iling, Eddie Byrne, Geoffrey Kenson, Rod McLennon. Screenplay: Lyn Fairhurst. Director: Lance Comfort.

   Devils of Darkness is a much better suspense film than horror film, a function of the supernatural thriller, which is what I would label this rather than horror. There is very little suspense in most horror, because we know the gruesome ending. Even if the heroes win, it will be short term and at too high a price. Supernatural thrillers, a form practiced by Dennis Wheatley, Sax Rohmer and Russell Kirk, tend to take a more optimistic view of the clash with evil.

   Paul Baxter (William Sylvester) is a writer on holiday whose car breaks down near a small hotel in an isolated village in Brittany. We already know something is up thanks to a prequel in which in the 16th century a vampire (Hubert Noel) escapes from his tomb and claims a Gypsy bride, Tania (Carole Gray), on her wedding day.

   We also know it because the owner of the hotel and the local police inspector are none too happy to see Baxter there. Sinister whispering in the bushes and concerned looks abound.

   Baxter befriends two women, one of whom, Madeline (Diane Decker) an antiques buyer and expert on the place, is leaving, but suggests Baxter and the other girl stay for the ritual the locals put on every year; a sort of local Day of the Dead. Since the girl’s brother has gone spelunking with a friend, they attend, only to have a Gypsy woman warn them the girl is marked for “the Black Death.”

   At the ceremony, they discover the girl’s brother and companion died in a rock fall (we know better), and meet the mysterious Armand de Bouvier (the vampire from earlier) and his wife — Tania.

   In short order Baxter runs afoul of the obtuse local policeman, and the sister disappears. When she shows up drowned, it seems a tragedy followed by suicide, but Baxter isn’t buying that. For one thing, he saw bite marks on the brother’s body, and for another the sister was too determined to find out how her brother died to commit suicide.

   Before he goes home Baxter finds and takes a talisman, a snake entwined with a bat, with him little knowing it is the key to the satanic cult practicing in the village and priceless to de Bouvier, who is really the immortal Satanist Count Sinistre.

   Back in London Baxter arranges for the three bodies to be brought back to England as he explains to Madeline, who can’t believe him, about the strange marks and why he wants an English autopsy. But when the bodies are stolen, and a scientist he enlisted to help, Professor Kelsey (Eddie Byrne), dies suddenly and unexpectedly, Baxter turns detective.

   Meanwhile even a sleuth needs downtime, and at a swinging party in Chelsea Baxter meets Madeline’s latest discovery, the beautiful Karen (Tracy Reed). He falls instantly, but so does Count Sinistre, who plans to use Karen to get the talisman back from Baxter before he kills them both.

   But our Satanic leader is only human, however inhuman, and is falling for Karen, something all too obvious to Tania, who sees she is about the be replaced as her master’s concubine. It all wraps up rather neatly, and pleasingly enough that you shouldn’t ask too many inconvenient questions (like the police buying all this in the first place).

   Devils of Darkness is no Hammer film. The heaving bosoms are kept to a minimum with only a bit here and there, the atmosphere is done on the cheap with the bats no better than those in the 1931 version of Dracula, the lighting is too good, and there is little imaginative use of shadow. While Noel is handsome and hypnotic, he is far too slight a man and an actor to suggest the old-World Mesmerism of Lugosi or the lustful vitality of Lee. He is capable and a good enough actor, but he lacks presence.

   The acting is overall good, nothing notable, but certainly competent. That said, I would give the film a positive rating as a good example of a supernatural thriller and because director Lance Comfort, whose career includes The Courageous Mr. Penn, Hotel Reserve, Bedalia, and Daughter of Darkness, still knew how to helm a picture even on his last film.

   I suspect this didn’t do all that well in theaters or with critics and would not be surprised to learn it has a bad reputation simply because it isn’t a Hammer-style fang-baring bosom-heaving Gothic extravaganza, but more a thriller of the kind made in the thirties and forties.

   It must have seemed all too tame for the time with its middle-aged hero and rather wan vampire, but it comes across much better on television. The women are pretty, the sets don’t fall, save on cue, the acting is competent, and it makes an effort not to be stupid, which is already far ahead of most of its contemporaries.