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January 2010

Satan's Slave

cast: Michael Gough, Barbara Kellerman, Candace Glendenning, Martin Potter, and Michael Craze

director: Norman J. Warren

86 minutes (R) 1976
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
BCI NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 4/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Satan's Slave

"It's Catherine's birthday," blabs the original poster tagline, "you're invited to her torture party." Except that all parties aren't quite what they're cracked up to be. It opens promisingly enough with a tarot credits sequence, leading directly into a satanic ritual straight out of Dennis Wheatley or the Hammer studios genre where "the fire of torment is ablaze" as "this lowly vessel" is sacrificed by a goat-masked coven. So far there are anticipatory flashes of flesh, and cult weirdness to establish its provenance, then it jump-cuts to nubile Catherine (Candace Glendenning), with live-in boyfriend John, in her bleak 1970s' tower-block, grounding it firmly in now.

Or at least, now as it was then. Not some fantasy Balkan medievalism. It's just that these encouraging premises never quite resolve the way they should. She leaves her apartment to accompany her parents on a visit to family members she's never met. So why is she travelling, as her low-rent boyfriend puts it "two-hundred miles to be bored out of your mind." Because Catherine hears voices - no, not voices, but 'premonitions'. "As a matter of fact I have had a strange feeling about this trip," she admits, "it's one of the main reasons I've decided to go." Until their Rover auto-wrecks after Daddy's brainstorm and, following a suitable pause, it bursts into flame.

With her parents dead, Catherine is left alone with her creepy widowed uncle Alexander (Michael Gough with cheesy moustache) in his rambling Tudor country pile hung with gilt-framed art. By now we've seen enough to know the acting is less than convincing - "everything seems... so unreal. Like a dream," Catherine admits, as though confessing to its limitations, "I can't accept the truth, I can't accept that the car blew up before my eyes." And it seems Gough has his own agenda for her. There's also charming-but-sinister Stephen. And Frances, Alexander's attractive 'secretary', who suspects Stephen's motives in regards to the girls he picks up. As already trailered in a sequence with him and an American tourist, she first complains that Stephen's "English reserve strikes again" - just before he attempts to rape her. Different movie-edits involve different levels of gratuitous slasher-violence, so it depends which cut you're watching as to how nasty this scene gets.

"It's difficult to know what to say to relatives you never knew you had," Catherine tells Stephen, as he makes a move on her. She tosses her long black hair as he shows her around the grounds. Uncle has his wife's grave in the grounds of the house. The headstone reveals she died 20 years before. Catherine has a disturbing vision of what else went on in these woods. A priest directs the beating and branding of a gratuitously naked girl - the witch Camilla. The tree to which she was tied is now just a stump. Catherine also sees the burning car again, only this time with her inside it. Meanwhile, her parents are being discretely buried in the grounds. Playing doctor, Uncle feeds her "a rather powerful drug," tranquiliser pills to help her sleep. But they induce weird dreams, this time it is her naked on the altar, as another equally nude girl paints a pentangle on her bare stomach and kisses her way down her body into close-up pubes.

As if this girl-on-girl action is not sufficiently titillating, a crucifix is forced between her splayed legs. And snakes slither and squirm across her body... Awaking, Stephen is there to comfort and then shag her. "I feel marvellous today," she says the following morning. Despite the sudden death of her parents the quick bonk has had a curatively narcotic effect. Is Stephen a total creep? He's a mystery even to Uncle Alexander, and Frances who - even though she sleeps with him, wouldn't trust him. Or is it all part of Uncle Alexander's supernatural plan coming together?

Her boyfriend John gives her a bracelet - which belonged to his mother - and it's stolen from her bedside by a masked figure. "To past affairs," toasts Stephen with hidden subtext, as the amulet is used in an incantation, and simultaneously John severs his hand on a broken glass. He suffers a brainstorm in the tower-block lift, and gets out on the roof, from where he jumps to his death´┐Ż as wine spills in a blood-metaphor. Things start to get nastier. "Have you ever heard of necromancy?" enquires Frances, before Stephen butchers her with a sliver of broken glass. Catherine finds her impaled to the door by a knife through her mouth.

Uncle Alexander arrives in his crimson robes for Catherine's 'special day', and from her prison room, she's dragged to where the witch was tortured and executed. Seizing her opportunity she impales a well-aimed nail-file into Stephen's eye, and escapes. Running through the trees she collides with... her father! He explains yes, there was a car-crash - yesterday afternoon, but no, she was the only person hurt, and everything that's happened to her since has been a dream experienced in her coma. She's almost persuaded. Wrong, the truth is that the witch Camilla is straining through time for a new body to reincarnate into, and the only way is through the body of a direct blood-descendent. It was Alexander sacrificing his own wife in an earlier failed attempt - in the introductory sequence. Child Stephen witnessed the ritual, which explains his cold oddness. Now it must be done again, on Catherine's 20th birthday, which is tomorrow! And daddy Malcolm is part of the hooded coven. The ritual is about to begin. "It's Catherine's birthday, you're invited to her torture party."

Unlike the Hammer genre-movies of a decade earlier, evil is not vanquished. There is no escape. So what else is there to recommend it? Satan's Slave (aka: Evil Heritage) is a serviceable, if not an exactly inspired plot, multiply let down by flat cinematography lacking depth or any imaginative use of lighting or perspective. There's decorous-nude prancing around thrown in for good measure, on the Russ Meyer "tits are the cheapest special effects" unprincipled principle. And although the gratuitous nudity is not unpleasing to the prurient eye, it is contrived and... well, gratuitous. Yet even here, all is as not what it seems. It is Gloria Maley's body you see standing in for Candace Glendenning in the snake scene. The action was filmed in Pirbright, Surrey from a screenplay by David McGillivray, a former critic whose writer-CV also boasted collaborations on softcore S&M-shocker The House Of Whipcord, and as a bit-part actor of such classic silliness as I'm Not Feeling Myself Tonight. Director Norman J. Warren also had roots in sexploitation with Her Private Hell and so-so sci-fi sex-comedy Outer Touch. He went on to work on cheapo-SF romp Inseminoid, cashing-in ineptly on Alien-style bio-horror. Which all goes to prove, all parties aren't quite what they're cracked up to be.

DVD extras include All You Need Is Blood a 12-minute making-of documentary, originally made, then not used, by the BBC in the USA.



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