Sunday, 21 October 2018

Skyscraper (1996)

I hereby predict that in a few years from now, once people have exhausted 1980s nostalgia and moved on to getting all misty eyed over the direct to video action films and erotic thrillers of the 1990s, then Skyscraper will be worshipped in the same way that people today queue up to worship at the altars of Ninja 3: The Domination and The Miami Connection. Like those films, Skyscraper is very era specific in its ludicrousness, actors who look like Fabio, the use of pagers, purportedly ‘erotic’ sex scenes that will make you laugh out loud and Eurotrash villains who quote Shakespeare and speak pidgin French….N'est-ce pas. Skyscraper’s day as a cult item must surely beckon.

Nothing- not even exposure to the likes of Nai Bonet, Julie Lee and Renee Harmon- can quite prepare you for the experience that is an Anna Nicole Smith acting performance. Yet had this film been made with a B-level male action star in the lead it would probably be just another forgettable, cheap, by the numbers Die Hard imitation, whereas Anna Nicole Smith could never be accused of being forgettable, paradoxically she is the worst thing about this film and the most memorable thing about this film too. God bless her and her melon heavy breasts. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Carnivore: Werewolf of London (2017)

Not the most original of film, Carnivore: Werewolf of London clearly…badly… wants to be Dog Soldiers, and proudly slaps a quote proclaiming it “very similar to Dog Soldiers, but with civilians” over the DVD cover. Carnavore is more ‘very similar to Dog Soldiers, but with characters straight out of a Red Shoe Diaries sequel’, as lovebirds Abi (Atlanta Johnson) and Dave (Ben Loyd-Holmes) attempt to work on their relationship with a romantic trip to an isolated rental home in the country. She is an American with commitment issues, he is a British bulldog who despite his cage fighter/Jason Statham’s stunt double appearance is a romantic at heart and wants to make an honest woman out of her. Their arguments, bad dancing and softcore lovemaking (scored to saccharine, acoustic love songs) have to be put on hold though once the green eyed monster rears its ugly head. No, not jealousy, but a green eyed werewolf, whose appearance leads the couple to some laughably illogical behaviour. Trapped at a remote woodlands house, with a rampaging werewolf outside? Why not sit in a bathtub and arm yourself with a rolling pin? (the scene where the werewolf is clobbered about the head with said baking instrument must surely be a cinematic first). While macho Dave can’t resist antagonising the werewolf by stripping off his shirt and running through the forest with a lit torch, presumably meant as a homage to Schwarzenegger in Predator.

Against considerable odds Carnivore: Werewolf of London is surprisingly likeable, Atlanta Johnson is easy on the eye, the low budget part practical, part CGI effects aren’t the disaster area that they can be, and to give credit where its due Carnivore is the most entertaining 21st century British horror film I’ve seen in a long while. No genre game changer by any stretch of the imagination, just an unapologetically dumb monster-on-the-loose movie. A Rawhead Rex for the supermarket DVD era if you will.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Deathsport (1978)

According to IMDB trivia “David Carradine smoked a lot of marijuana while shooting this film”. Gee, you don’t say...cause I’d never have guessed that going off how clean-cut and sober he looks in this film.

The various remakes, prequels, rip-offs and ‘thematic’ sequels to Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 do seem to split into two different groups. Some like Death Race 2050 try to recapture the black comedy and satire of Bartel’s film but fall of their asses when it comes to being an action movie, others like the Statham/Luke Goss movies press down hard on the action movie pedal but leave the humour in the dust. 1978’s Deathsport, Roger Corman/New World’s sort of follow-up to Death Race 2000, is very much of the latter camp, its action packed yet all rather po-faced and lacking much of a personality. The barely coherent plot of Deathsport, set "a thousand years from tomorrow" involves nomadic psychics played by David Carradine and Claudia Jennings being rounded up and imprisoned by cruel dictator Lord Zirpola. Since the death penalty has been abolished a thousand years from tomorrow, Carradine and Jennings are forced to compete in the ‘Deathsport’ basically gladiatorial games that Zirpola uses to satisfy the bloodshed of the violence loving masses. Meanwhile, Zirpola gets his own jollies by electrocuting butt naked women in his own personal torture chamber. Once Carradine and Jennings escape Lord Zirpola’s clutches the film becomes a chase across the desert on futuristic motorbikes, as they are hunted by Zirpola’s leather clad henchman Ankar Moor (Richard Lynch) and somehow also find the time to rescue a little girl from a tribe of ping-pong ball eyed mutants.

Calling this a ‘troubled production’ is putting it mildly, stories about on-set drug use, physical altercations between cast and crew and people getting fired have surrounded this film for years. The saga resurfaced in the early 1990s when a David Carradine interview led to a heated war of words between Carradine and original director Nicholas Niciphor in the letters page of Psychotronic Video magazine over what exactly went down on set.

Evidence of this collectively bad experience is all up there onscreen, Deathsport is a particularly messy film, a character built up as a major villain is abruptly and unceremoniously killed off mid-way through the film, the titular ‘Deathsport’ meant to be a main plot point only gets about 10 minutes of screen time, and Carradine appears especially agitated and bad tempered throughout. Then again, given that he spends much of the film wandering about the desert in a diaper, wielding a plywood sword and playing a character who appears to be a combo of Jesus, Luke Skywalker and Evel Knievel, who can really blame him. Carradine really does look like a man who has been through the desert on a horse with no name in this film.

I first encountered Deathsport on the Granada Men and Motors channel (of all places), a low-rent TV channel whose blokeish output mostly consisted of T&A and sports programming, but who went through a brief period of showing ultra-obscure action and kung-fu movies at ungodly hours of the night. Since Death Race 2000 was still fresh in my mind at the time, I was pretty underwhelmed by Deathsport initially, but I have found that it grows on you over each successive viewing. Especially if you return to it fully in the knowledge that you’re not going to get another Death Race 2000 here, and I’m happy to admit I had lots of fun with it this time around. The combined charisma of Carradine, Claudia Jennings and Richard Lynch somehow keep this shambolic ship afloat, the cut-price ‘futuristic’ costumes and vehicles lend laughability and Deathsport does boast an entertainingly reckless obsession with pyrotechnics and motorbike stunts.

There is a particularly jaw dropping moment when an actor who was meant to be set on fire accidently brushes past and sets alight to another actor who clearly wasn’t meant to be set on fire, and boy does that poor bastard look frantic and alarmed as he tries to put himself out. All of which they of course left in the film!! If we learn nothing else from Deathsport it is that stoned actors should never be let anywhere near lit torches.

The fact that the film was salvaged by one of Corman’s in-house directors means that Deathsport is pretty much your textbook 1970s Roger Corman production, X amount of female nudity, X amount of violence, XXX amount of things blowing up, and some left-leaning/eco politics (about how we should renounce violence, grow beards and go back to riding about on horseback)... y’know for all the students and the chin strokers out there.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Red Heat (1976, Ray Dennis Steckler)

Just what it is with Ray Dennis Steckler and lethal redheaded women who are a little too handy around switchblades? That type haunts not only his porno movie Red Heat, but also his 1979 horror movie The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skid Row Slasher as well as his 2003 short film ‘Slashed…’ In fact Red Heat ties in to Steckler’s other films in so many different, complex ways, that trying to work out precisely how may well be the most complicated thing I’ve ever tried to explain.

Basically, Red Heat is a side-sequel to 1974’s Fire Down Below, well sort of anyway. It also comes across as an early try out for the storyline of Steckler’s The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skidrow Slasher, which is a remake of this film, well sort of anyway. There is also the possibility that Steckler either remade Red Heat as 2003’s ‘Slashed…’ or possibly just reworked footage from Red Heat into Slashed. As I say, it is head scratchingly complicated, and illustrates the erratic approach Steckler had to filmmaking in his final decades, where he would start a project, never finish it, put the footage to one side, then a few years later come back to it, shoot some more footage, combine that with footage intended for a completely different film, resulting in Steckler's movies snowballing into complete malformations of footage and genres. Red Heat, bless it, is quite the malformation, it is a hardcore sex film, but its also a female slasher movie, and also a biker movie, and also a Las Vegas travelogue, and also a deconstruction of a hardcore sex film.

Red Heat is all things to all men, all vaguely tied together by Steckler’s alter-ego ‘Cindy Lou Sutters’. Steckler would direct a whole number of adult movies under the name Cindy Lou Sutters. The implication that these films were directed by a woman being a common ruse used by male pornographers to make their movies stand out from the crowd. Steckler takes this deception one step further in Red Heat, both capitalising of the popularity of Cindy Lou Sutters movies and further concealing his involvement in porno, by presenting Cindy Lou Sutters as an actual character in ‘her’ own movie. Mostly heard in voiceover, provided by Steckler’s ex-wife Carolyn Brandt, Cindy Lou recounts her adventures shooting porno footage in Las Vegas along with her trusted cameraman Habib. The first porno shoot Cindy Lou and Habib embark on involves Nancy, a three time divorcee who has drifted into porn acting. As Cindy Lou cynically points out to us “she’ll get paid well for what she has been giving away for free”.

The person Cindy Lou really has an eye on casting in her movie though is a burlesque dancer called Red Heat (yes, that is actually the character’s name in the film). Cindy Lou thinks Red Heat will make a great X-rated film star, but Red can’t commit due to her abusive, no good boyfriend. A man hilariously nicknamed ‘Mr Prick’ by Cindy Lou. Mr Prick is played by Steckler favourite Pierre Agostino, who’d go on to distinguish himself with repulsive star turns in Steckler’s The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skidrow Slasher and The Las Vegas Serial Killer. Mercifully all of the scenes involving Agostino fucking around with other women behind Red’s back are shot as softcore, sparing us the sight of what the Hollywood Strangler’s cock looks like.

Red comes home early from her audition for a Cindy Lou Sutters movie and catches him fucking another woman on their couch. Charming as ever, Agostino calls Red a “dumb fucking broad”, proceeds to strangle her (let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a Steckler film without at least one woman being strangled) before rendering Red unconscious by repeatedly punching her in the face. “Little did we know that there were some strange things going on in Las Vegas, that would make our X-rated movie making look like a fairy tale” notes Cindy Lou. Having had enough of Mr Prick, Red Heat picks up a switchblade and offs him in the shower, Psycho style. A scene with an incredible colour scheme to it, with almost everything onscreen, Red’s hair, Agostino’s blood splattered body and the bathroom walls, being bright red.

Having developed a taste for bloodshed, Red takes her switchblade on the road, hitchhiking her way around Vegas and taking that switchblade to any promiscuous slob who is stupid enough to offer her a ride. As I say, it’s very much a Las Vegas rehearsal for The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skidrow Slasher, which handed the role of the switchblade wielding redhead to Steckler’s ex-wife Carolyn Brandt, and extended Mr Agostino’s misogynistic bit part here to co-star status.

As if having a runaway star on her hands wasn’t enough to ruin Cindy Lou Sutters’ day, the female porn director finds her work further compromised by a biker, who shows up in Las Vegas to commit a series of robberies. Inadvertently, the biker ends up causing Cindy Lou further headaches, when he robs her cameraman Habib and also holds up a Vegas massage parlour, which provides Cindy Lou with acting talent. All of which leaves Ms Lou Sutters seriously out of pocket, with still lots more smut to film.

Any seasoned fan of Cindy Lou’s earlier work will be struck with a sense of deja vu about this sub-plot… you see this biker character had appeared before in her….sorry his earlier film ‘Fire Down Below’ (1974). In that film the biker’s exploits were played out alongside that of a tubby voyeur (Will Long) who also strangled most of the women he spied on. In fact the bulk of the ‘biker’ footage in Red Heat, the biker robbing Habib’s wallet, the biker holding up the massage parlour, is recycled material from Fire Down Below. Steckler does however show lots more footage of the biker cruising around in Red Heat than made it into Fire Down Below, presumably because Fire Down Below was meant to be set in Los Angeles. So any footage that reveals the biker scenes were actually filmed in Las Vegas, like shots showing casinos and the Las Vegas strip in the background, got the chop from Fire Down Below, and instead found a home in Red Heat.

Since Red Heat was meant to have been filmed in 1976, and the footage of the biker comes from a 1974 film, you’d therefore expect that the biker subplot would be played out entirely separate from the other two plots about Cindy Lou Sutters and Red Heat. It’s quite surprising then to discover that the biker and the Red Heat plots do tie in together at the end of the film, with the two characters sharing screen time. Having two seemingly disconnected plots that collide head on at the end of a film, being something of a trademark of Steckler’s. RDS ends The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skidrow Slasher, Fire Down Below and The Las Vegas Serial Killer in a similar fashion.

I suppose it is possible that Steckler got the actor who played the biker to reprise his Fire Down Below role again two years later, but the fact that his bike, his clothes and helmet remain the same throughout, leads me to suspect that all of the ‘Red Heat’ plot was filmed in 1974 too. Could Red Heat’s ‘female slasher’ plot have originally been intended for Fire Down Below?, and that Steckler envisioned that film as juggling the exploits of its tubby serial strangler and the biker robber, alongside Red Heat’s murder rampage? Only for Steckler to decide that Red Heat deserved a film to herself, cut all the scenes relating to her out of Fire Down Below and instead used them two years later for this film? As I say, trying to piece the history of this film together may well be the most complicated thing I’ve ever tried to explain.

As they stand, Red Heat and Fire Down Below are sort of side-sequels to each other, they both share a character in the biker, the same incidents play out in both movies, and the tubby strangler’s Los Angeles murder rampage in Fire Down Below plays out at the same time as Red Heat is taking her switchblade to guys in Las Vegas. I have a feeling though that Steckler realised that the plots about the strangler, the biker and Red Heat were too much for one movie, especially one that already had to accommodate lengthy hardcore sex scenes. My theory is that the idea to spin-off Red Heat’s story into a different movie entered into Steckler’s head towards the end of shooting Fire Down Below, since ‘spoilers’ the way the biker dies at the end of Fire Down Below is different to the way the biker dies at the end of Red Heat. A sure indication that Steckler intended to spread this footage out over two movies, if he was shooting two different death scenes for the same character.

The Cindy Lou Sutters hardcore footage and the Las Vegas footage that is in the film appears to date from 1976, a pairing of Mac Davis and Joan Rivers advertised on one of the marquees took place in November 1976. Not even this is straightforward though as elsewhere in the movie there is a marquee advertising Village People as the headlining act at the Riviera, a group who weren’t put together and didn’t start having hits till way into 1977, which in itself throws a spanner in the works over Red Heat being a 1976 film!!

Red Heat captures Steckler at the mid-way point of his hardcore directing career, and finds him both trying to integrate himself into the adult movie industry, whilst at the same time becoming jaded and disillusioned by it. Red Heat is a far more slicker looking production than his earlier adult films, with the 1976 footage looking as if it were shot on 35mm. Gone are the dysfunctional basket cases of his earlier X-rated films, replaced by a less memorable bunch, who are at least, successfully able to have sex on camera.

Steckler’s device of having ‘Cindy Lou Sutters’ narrate and comment over the film footage ‘she’ is supposedly shooting has a curiously anti-erotic effect to it. Instead of being lulled into believing that the sex unfolding onscreen is all natural and spontaneous, hearing Cindy Lou and Habib constantly talk to the performers, ordering them what to do and telling them how to fuck, reminds you that all sex in porn movies is stage managed and artificial. ‘Cindy Lou Sutters’ comes across as a tough talking, hard bitten porno pro, at one point telling her star “Nancy get that little thing up, see if it can scare the camera” as Nancy unzips a guy’s pants. Cindy Lou calls time on an elongated shot of Nancy kissing her male co-star with “I think that’s enough kissing, let’s see some tit”.

Red Heat is a self-analysing film that is constantly deconstructing and pulling itself apart for you. Midway through the film Steckler throws in what looks suspiciously like home movie footage of Lake Mead. Just when you’re about to chalk this up as superfluous, up pops Cindy Lou/Carolyn Brandt on the soundtrack admitting that …yes…this is all superfluous ‘back ground footage’ which she threw into the film because “too many X-rated movies are shot in back rooms”. The effect is akin to watching the film with the director’s DVD commentary on, albeit the sort of DVD commentary an adult movie director would do in an especially candid mood, having got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Cindy Lou’s narration is often hilariously mean-spirited and extremely blunt about the people who are onscreen. If you feel guilty about finding someone onscreen ugly, Red Heat instantly absolves you of such guilt by having Cindy Lou chip in some put downs and bio info about her cast “she’s had four kids….we had to make do”.

Steckler, of course, never acknowledged his adult movies, let alone opened up about them, meaning Cindy Lou’s narration is the closest we’ll ever get to a porno confessional from him. Hiding behind a voiceover by his ex-wife, and his ‘Cindy Lou Sutters’ alter-ego, does seem to have allowed Steckler the comfort of giving an off the cuff account of his Las Vegas porn directing days. Cindy Lou believably recounts money troubles, the pressure of shooting porn, procuring talent from a massage parlour; dealing with a ‘small time pimp’ who is into underage girls and shooting in flophouse motels “we needed a more seedy atmosphere” confesses Cindy Lou. When Cindy Lou explains that a low budget dictated she hire a few hookers and a weightlifter from a local gym for a scene “the girls weren’t much to look out, but we were running low on moves” the awkward, overly muscular man onscreen and the out of shape, tattooed women servicing him lend authenticity to Cindy Lou’s words.
Only towards the end of Red Heat does the narration track begin to lose credibility as ‘Cindy Lou’ finally appears onscreen herself, blowing her lead actor and cameraman Habib in order to ensure she has enough porno footage to finish the film. ‘Cindy Lou’ is portrayed by a baby faced 20-something blonde, who in no way fits the mental image that Carolyn Brandt’s jaded, middle aged voiceover conjures up of her, and the idea of a swinging 20-something blonde directing adult movies and happily fucking crew members feels like the stuff of stroke magazine fiction.

'Cindy Lou Sutters'

Carolyn Brandt’s involvement in the film does however invite curiosity over the extent of her involvement in her ex-husband’s adult movies. It is now generally thought that Steckler and Carolyn Brandt divorced in 1973, yet she still continued to be around his filmmaking activities, including his porno ones, regularly appearing onscreen in non-sex roles (as ‘Jane Bond’) and doing voiceover work on them as late as 1983’s Las Vegas Erotica. It has even been rumoured in some quarters that the Cindy Lou Sutters films were actually collaborative efforts between her and Steckler. Could the claims that the Cindy Lou Sutters films were directed by a woman actually have some credibility after all? Could Carolyn Brandt be a forgotten, pioneering female pornographer, who is long overdue the critical recognition and kudos currently being bestowed on the likes of Roberta Findlay and Doris Wishman? The insults dished out to the women onscreen here, often noting how many times they’ve been married and how many children they’ve had, do feel like the sort of thing an acid tongued, bitchy female would say, rather than a misogynistic male filmmaker.

For a film supposedly directed by a man Red Heat is also an extremely cock heavy film, often expressing little interest in the female form in favour of filling the screen with alarmingly extreme close-ups of guy’s cocks. Evidence of a woman’s touch? Possibly, then again Steckler’s pornos are so hung-up on oral sex that all the male genitalia onscreen could be just the by-product of Steckler’s blowjob obsession. An all-consuming fixation that often results in you feeling like shaking Sheckler and reminding him that women do …y’know…have over orifices. Unless Carolyn opens up about ‘Cindy Lou’ though, the extent of her involvement in these films is unlikely to be known.

One of the saddest parts of Cindy Lou Sutters’ narration comes with her matter of fact remark that “people who pay to see X-rated films want to see some real action, they’re not interested in lots of dialogue they can see that for free on TV”. It is difficult to hear that remark and not detect Steckler’s underlining resentment at working in such a limiting genre. The fact that he was still able to pull off such an unconventional film as Red Heat, that frequently veers off into slasher movie and biker genres, would suggest he was a little less restricted by the genre than Cindy Lou’s comment implies, but this is still clearly a film made by someone who felt their creative wings were being clipped.

Steckler might not have loved being a Las Vegas porn director but the man clearly loved Las Vegas. Steckler crafts Red Heat into a big, shiny, Valentines Day card to Vegas. Steckler was always big on making the environment around him part of the action, an approach that didn’t always pay off, the torturously dull footage of a local rodeo that he tagged onto his 1971 horror film ‘Blood Shack’ comes to mind. Here though, Steckler found a muse in Las Vegas that was truly worthy of its glorified co-star status. Red Heat gives you everything you’d want from a film made in Vegas. Early on it’s pretty clear that this isn’t just the work of some out of town filmmaker whose idea of setting a film in Vegas is a few brief establishing shots of the strip, but of someone who knew the town like the back of his hand. By the end of Red Heat you feel as if Steckler has given you the grand tour around every casino, bar, motel, car rental business, porno theatre, dirty bookshop, peep show and wedding chapel that 1970s Vegas had to offer. Nothing escapes Steckler’s eye here, thirsty dogs hanging out of windows, confused looking old timers shuffling around in plaid pants, guys in cowboy hats, teenage girls in ass hugging sports shorts, all human life is here. Ginormous marquees advertise the likes of Barry Manilow, Tony Bennett, Helen Reddy and ol’ boyo himself Tom Jones.

Some might feel there is a mischievous, even malicious edge to visually name checking such famous people in a film like this. One minute the names of squeaky clean, family friendly entertainers are up onscreen in Red Heat, then moments later we’re cutting to some motel room cocksucking. For anyone who has ever pounded those streets though, Steckler’s depiction of Las Vegas feels on the money in terms of how much sex and showbiz co-exist in that town. I don’t know if this still goes on, but the last time I was in Vegas, we’d be talking early 2000s here, the strip was lined with gentlemen who appeared to be from ‘across the border’ all handing out these obscene pamphlets advertising the services of motel room hookers, fully illustrated with legs-a-kimbo photos of the women in question. Walking down the strip, with the desert sun beating down on you, you’d have these pamphlets thrust in your direction, then look upwards and see the faces of Barry Manilow and Saint Wayne of Newton staring down at you disapprovingly from the marquees. Red Heat accurately captures this schizophrenic side to Las Vegas. Vice and family entertainment sleep in the same bed in Vegas, and might even be fuck buddies.

While Stecker’s involvement in adult movies has been known about for decades now, little is known about his leading lady in this movie. The actress who plays ‘Red Heat’ goes uncredited in the film, never participates in the hardcore sex scenes and appears to have never acted in any other movies. So, just who is ‘Red Heat’? I may have inadvertently stumbled upon the answer whilst researching ‘Slashed…’ a video Steckler released in 2003. Slashed was a supposedly long unreleased film that Steckler made with his girlfriend at the time, explaining in a 2004 interview “I started another film with a girlfriend, a stripper called Lovie (sic) Goldmine. I started making a slasher movie with her and about fifty per cent of the way through the film she told me she had to leave town immediately. She took her kids and disappeared and I never heard from her again”.

Supposedly Slashed… was the first time this unreleased and uncompleted film had seen the light of day. Personally, I’m not so sure. See if you look around the internet for photos of Lovey Goldmine, she bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘Red Heat’. In fact if Lovey Goldmine and the actress who plays Red Heat in this movie aren’t one in the same, I’ll happily eat my Stetson on the steps of the MGM Grand whilst illegal immigrants pelt me with whoring pamphlets.

Lovey Goldmine in the early 1970s, and the lead actress in Red Heat.  One in the same?

My guess is that years before ‘Slashed…’ Steckler actually used the footage he had of Lovely Goldmine and worked it into Red Heat. Ms. Goldmine had in fact been a Las Vegas burlesque dancer in the early 1970s (aside from Steckler, she also famously dated Richard Pryor for a while) before getting the call to perform at Le Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris. This being the likely reason why she left Steckler,and never finished the film. Steckler’s loss being the Crazy Horse’s gain.

Steckler sure was having his share of rotten luck when it came to leads during this period, not just leading ladies but leading men as well. Will Long, a regular in Steckler’s porn movies like The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire and Peeping Tom (Long was the man I referred to as ‘Buford’ in my review of that film) contracted hepatitis whilst playing the serial strangler in Fire Down Below, then rather inconveniently died before completing the film, leaving Steckler to piece that film together in a Bruce Lee/Game of Death fashion. It seems that in the early 2000s, Steckler re-edited Red Heat, removing all the hardcore footage, but including all the ‘slasher movie’ material he’d shot with Lovey Goldmine. The resultant 25 minute video being ‘Slashed…’. Around the same time Steckler did another re-edit on one of his 1970s pornos, re-releasing Fire Down Below, sans hardcore footage, as ‘Face of Evil’.

In terms of sexiness, Lovey Goldmine is undoubtedly Red Heat’s strongest assets, whether it’s dressing up in the lingerie and peacock hair feathered crown that was presumably part of her stage act back then, or stripping off to display the body that dazzled the strip in the 1970s. For X-rated cinemagoers, the only downside to her appearance in Red Heat is that the only attractive person in the film is also the only cast member not to have real sex on camera. For Ms. Goldmine does not at any point get the shaft!!!

Despite the distance Steckler later put between himself and his adult movies, the films he made during his final decades that don’t feature the inclusion of hardcore sex just feel dull and lacking like Blood Shack, or numbingly repetitious like The Las Vegas Serial Killer. Give me Fire Down Below and Red Heat over those two any day. Disjointed and singing from several different hymn sheets as Red Heat might be, this mutant hybrid of gore movie, biker movie, porno and Vegas travelogue can never be accused of being dull. Like Vegas itself, it’s always putting on some kind of entertaining show for the masses. For all of Steckler’s attempts to play the adult movie industry’s game, Red Heat is still a misfit in that world, something that doesn’t quite fit in with the XXX crowd, much as Steckler’s earlier work had put him at odds with mainstream Hollywood decades before.

“I still wonder to this day whether Red would have made a good porno star” - Cindy Lou Sutters.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Peeping Tom (1973, Ray Dennis Steckler)

“The Lord above made the world for us, but the devil made Las Vegas” – Tony Christie 

Sometimes writing causes you to pique your interest in a subject even further. Such is the case with the adult movies of Ray Dennis Steckler. Back in December 2017, I wrote up Steckler’s 1974 porno/stalker movie Fire Down Below, and in doing so, spurred myself on into ordering a DVD from Vinegar Syndrome, who put a threesome of Steckler’s pornos –Peeping Tom, The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire, and Red Heat- onto disc.

A man who needs little introduction in cult movie circles, Ray Dennis Steckler (1938-2009) worked on the fringes of Hollywood from the late 1950s onwards while simultaneously directing one of a kind, idiosyncratic oddities like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and became Mixed Up Zombies (1964), Rat Pfink A Boo Boo (1966), and The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters (1965). Films that would later be re-discovered in the early 1980s, and lead to Steckler and his acting alter-ego ‘Cash Flagg’ becoming cult figures. Whilst waiting for cult stardom to come calling though, Steckler still had to pay the bills and kept afloat during his leaner 1970s period by turning to hardcore filmmaking. Steckler spent much of the 1970s and the early 80s in the adult industry, with mainstream credits being few and far between. Curiously he was thrown some legit work by British producer Greg Smith, he of the ‘Confessions of…’ movies. Steckler and his ex-wife Carolyn Brandt were hired to do some camerawork on Smith’s credit card fraud comedy ‘Funny Money’ (1983), presumably for its early scenes, which take place in Steckler’s adopted home of Las Vegas.

Steckler’s involvement in hardcore pornography was done under a slew of pseudonyms and wasn’t widely known till the 1990s, when knowledgeable companies like Something Weird Video and Alpha Blue Archives started nosing around in America’s pornographic past. Perhaps carelessly in retrospect, Steckler had left traces of himself all over these movies. Steckler’s ex-wife Carolyn Brandt frequently had non-sex roles in his adult movies, Brandt and Steckler regularly lent their voices to these films’ soundtracks, providing narration duties, and some of the same pseudonyms and cast members that Steckler used in his legit movies also showed up in his pornos. Its not difficult to put two and two together and detect Steckler’s directorial involvement in these films.

Evidentially Steckler wasn’t proud of his involvement in the adult industry, his website never mentioned these films, leading to large gaps in his filmography there, and he would reportedly put the phone down on anyone who dared to bring them up in interviews. Some rumours even claim that Steckler’s years in hardcore eventually lead him to seek psychiatric treatment. Steckler’s later legit films like The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979) and The Las Vegas Serial Killer (1986), do put forward a case that his involvement with hardcore had changed him, and made Steckler more misanthropic. Anyone expecting to encounter the silly, joy de vivre of his early work in these films, instead will run headfirst into depressing, repetitious movies, heavily focused on the strangulation of women. Steckler’s later movies do little to conceal his adult movie involvement, it is impossible to watch Hollywood Strangler or The Las Vegas Serial Killer, and not reach the conclusion that these were a pornographer’s side projects. The world of The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher… full of Z-grade actresses playing nude models, crummy motel rooms, cutaways to the dirty bookshops and porno theatres of LA, plus the constant, misogynistic narration, illustrate just how tainted by porno Steckler had become.

In truth, I have mixed feelings about documenting Steckler’s pornos. You see, Rat Pfink A Boo Boo was one of my favourite childhood movies, how I must have played the shit out of that VHS tape…so part of me feels as if I’m betraying the man’s memory by focusing on a part of his career that he didn’t want to deal with, yet once you’re aware that a person has a darker, sordid side to them…its difficult to resist exploring further.

One of Steckler’s earlier pornos 1973’s Peeping Tom (aka The Creeper) effectively serves as a Las Vegas companion piece to the following year’s Los Angeles set Fire Down Below. It has virtually the same plot, a creepy loser passes the time by peeking in on several sexual vignettes, which make up the bulk of the film’s hour long running time. Peeping Tom is weaker than Fire Down Below in some respects, and stronger in others. Whereas the tubby voyeur/serial killer of Fire Down Below is an unforgettable figure, whose misogynistic voiceover dominates the soundtrack and who frequently intrudes on the narrative by strangling several of the women he’d been peeping in on, here the peeping protagonist is a comparatively anonymous figure. Only fleetingly seen in between porno scenes, at times it is easy to forget that he is there at all, with him often becoming invisible for large stretches of the film. In keeping with the tacky atmosphere of the Las Vegas setting, the film’s narration, by Steckler himself, introduces the protagonist as if he were a talk show host welcoming a star guest “join him tonight as he takes a look behind the many locked doors of the city”.

Shots of this guy hanging around Las Vegas street corners, nervously puffing on cigarettes, and running down the strip in slow motion establishes him as a possibly on the lam criminal. For all the fanfare of Steckler’s introduction though, we never get more than a thumbnail sketch of the man. Peeping Tom is more interested in handing the mic over to the people he is peeping at, and capturing their various dramas and blow outs. For a porno movie, people talk allot in Peeping Tom…actually let me correct that slightly, people yell, argue and throw insults around allot in Peeping Tom. For some reason when he took to porno, Steckler seemed to transform into Andy Milligan. Very early on you learn that Steckler’s pornos don’t want to turn you on and make you happy, these movies want to spit in your face. Normal, harmonious sex seems to leave Steckler cold, when his films are functioning on that level, Steckler’s direction just amounts to letting film run through the camera. His pornos are only really alive when there is bad blood on the screen, when people are hollering and blowing their tops. In that respect, Peeping Tom lets off the mother of all firecrackers right away.

Sexual Vignette 1# The peeping tom gets an eyeful and insight into the bad marriage of a white trash couple. The husband is played by Jason Wayne, who also had a prominent role in Steckler’s horror cheapie Blood Shack, the wife is played by possibly the most foul mouthed woman who ever walked the face of the earth. The air instantly turns blue and abusive, when this woman calls a man ‘bitch’, ‘bastard’ and ‘you motherfucker’, you just know she means every word. She gets the ball rolling by accusing him of infidelity, “who the hell you been fucking tonight, mister?”, closely followed by “that’s why I was with my lawyer today, bitch”. Hubby’s fuse is as short as hers “you fucking pig, I’ll knock your teeth in” he threatens. “You’re insane” he tells her “yeah, I’m with you” she shoots back. The constant stream of put downs and below the belt insults seem to be the norm for this pair. The woman grins like a Cheshire cat, and never seems more happier than when she is taunting his inability to keep it up, or speculating that the amount of women he has been fucking behind her back has probably left him impotent. The real pornography in this scene seems to be the trash talk dialogue, with the hardcore sex thrown in as an afterthought. Rightly or wrongly the scene incriminates the actor, Steckler and the audience as the type of men who can only really get off on a woman if she is treating them like shit. If that is your bag then you may well end up regarding this woman as some kind of goddess. The mere casting of this woman in a film like this flies in the face of conventional porno …where you’re meant to be turned on and digging the people who are onscreen…rather than being terrified of them.

The only time this couple stop yelling is when their genitals are in each other’s mouths, and even then they can’t resist coming up for air and spitting out a few more put downs in the process. “Whatever happened to the great lover, you can’t even get it hard” she bitches. “You said you could get me off, shows how fake your word is” he whines back. There is dialogue in this scene where you just can’t believe what you are hearing. Thoughts, insults and expressions of sexual disgust which your average person would keep buried deep in the very back on your mind are yelled out loud here. “JESUS, WOMAN, YOUR CUNT SMELLS” is his high point when it comes to insults. Don’t feel too sorry for the woman on the receiving end of this degrading comment though, as she reliably comes back at him with the even greater, knockout comment of “SHUT UP, BITCH, BEFORE I FART IN YOUR FUCKING FACE”. Who said romance is dead? Really, the film should have just consisted of these two lovebirds going at it hammer and tongs for the entire movie. The woman in particular is sensational, if someone told me she went on to become a serial killer in real life, I’d believe every word of it. You definitely get a ‘straight outta Spahn Ranch’ vibe from this one.

Sexual Vignette 2# The problem with Peeping Tom is that it peaks early and never really recaptures the intensity of the first vignette. Just where do you go from there? The sight of a man complaining that his wife’s cunt smells and her threatening to fart in his face is - after all - a tough act to follow. Our second peek into down n’ dirty Las Vegas is a foursome between two married guys and two skanks they’ve picked up on the strip. The guys brag about being married, joke about fucking around behind their wives’ backs and take bets on how long their marriages will last. Mean spirited banter for sure, but it lacks the viciousness of the first segment. The actors, long haired lanky hippies whose appearance is at odd with the square suburbanites they’re meant to be playing, give the impression of just being here for the balling, and regard all this Steckler dialogue as an inconvenience. One of the gals has a beehive and looks as if she’s taken time off from serving cocktails at one of the Vegas casinos. She has breast implants, really painful looking, done on the cheap, early 70s ones. One of the guys jokes that although he is married, it is okay to cheat on his wife because they don’t have any children.

Steckler’s pornos manage to be both minimalist and evocative at the same time. Nearly all of the sex scenes in his hardcore films look as if they were filmed at cheap, flophouse motels way off the strip. The type whose owners turn a blind eye to the activities of hookers, porno filmmakers and adulteress couples, and whose clientele turn an equally blind eye to the garish, threadbare furnishings because they are only there for the sex. If you want to know where people went for cheap, anonymous sex in early 70s Las Vegas, let Ray Dennis Steckler pornos take you by the hand. Incongruously, a statue of a satanic figure sits on the bedside table as the foursome go at it. Lucifer is everywhere in Steckler’s hardcore movies. Some have bona fide occult themes like The Sexorcist Devil and Sexual Satanic Awareness, but even when they don’t RDS seems to have insisted on decorating the sets with occult paraphernalia. It is an obsession played out mostly in his porno movies, rarely getting an airing in his legit movies, read into that what you will. Steckler only appears interested in the sex here when it threatens to crumble into dust. He lingers over one of the women struggling to get the guy hard, futilely sucking on his limp dick. Another of the guys keeps losing wood. Moments that any conventional pornographer would have cut out, the threat of sexual failure being the last thing a porno audience wants to be confronted with. Otherwise, there is nothing much to see here, better move on, ya peeping bastard.

Sexual Vignette 3# Do my weary eyes deceive me, or is that the guy who played the serial strangler in Steckler’s Fire Down Below? Yup, it’s the same tubby guy. While he doesn’t get to strangle any women here, he does get to blow off lots of similar steam. He is a relentless chatterbox, never shutting the fuck up for a second, mostly about his own sexual greatness. “I’m hot, I’m horny…look at this body” he exclaims, basking in his narcissistic glory and flexing none existent pecs for a disinterested hooker. Uber macho, he sports cowboy boots and a massive gut, he has the appearance of a man who should be playing a redneck sheriff in a Burt Reynolds movie, the Buford T Justice of pornography. In his mind though, Buford is the king of all men, as well as God’s gift to all women, and now he gonna whip off all of his here clothes and do the business in a porno movie, to prove to all you sombitches out there that Buford is the greatest!!! His partner in the scene is a third rate Regina Carrol, who really…really…doesn’t want to be in this movie, and does her best to avoid getting her face on camera. In contrast to his excitable bragging and yelling, she is very much zoned out to the point that ol’ Buford has to undress her and himself. “I want you baby, I gotta get you, I’m hot, I’m gonna do it, I mean it” predictably Buford is all talk and little action. Then again, he might as well be fucking a blow up doll for all the interaction he gets from her.

There is a cruelty here; after all here we are watching a poor delusional slob making a fool of himself in a porno movie. It’s impossible to damn Steckler for filming this though, because like him, you just can’t look away, as Buford’s crazy outburst just gets louder and louder. “Talk to me, tell me the truth, tell me the truth!!!!, talk to me, I want dirty talk, tell me to fuck you, tell me to cum, tell me to cum” he hollers as he pounds his gargantuan weight away on top of her. This results in a few token orgasmic moans from her, which are laughable in their half-heartedness. At this point, you almost expect Rudy Ray Moore to burst into the motel room and start joking “honey, you might not know he is in you, but you sure as hell gonna know that he is on you”. That Steckler managed to salvage one, very brief penetration shot from this scene is miraculous, naturally there is no money shot.

“Beg me for it” asks Buford, she doesn’t. “Alright, alright, whatever” he grumbles, resigning himself to yet another sexual failure. Given his delusions of grandeur though, maybe it’s just as well Steckler partnered him up with a passive, spaced out chick whose wasn’t interested in bursting his bubble and telling it like it is. Had Steckler put Buford together in a motel room with the insult spewing ball buster from Sexual Vignette 1#, they’d probably have ended up murdering each other, then Steckler would have ended up with a snuff movie on his hands.

Sexual Vignette 4# I don’t know if it was intentional, or if the movie just naturally came out this way, but Peeping Tom has a pattern of following up explosive moments with airless porno padding. Maybe Steckler felt his audience needed space to get their breath, and so beguilingly threw in some regular sex that isn’t fuelled by trauma or dysfunction. This segment is very basic porno loop material, no premise or set up, little dialogue, just a couple balling on a motel room floor. Occasionally there are cutaways to the peeping tom peering through some ugly red drapes. The man is this segment, a bespectacled hippie who resembles Sonny Bono, is familiar from Steckler’s Fire Down Below, where he cries during sex. Steckler lingers over the sight of this guy’s cum as if it were gold dust, and given that so many of his male performers in this film fall at the last hurdle, maybe it is.

Sexual Vignette 5# We’re back to neurotic sex for the grand finale, Steckler’s case study here is a deeply repressed young woman with mommy issues. ‘Cathy’ is partnered up with a pushy guy she met at a party. She lives with her mother, and has brought him back to mum’s place, but just can’t relax. “My mother wouldn’t understand things like that” she complains when his interest in her turns sexual. The guy gets her clothes off, but she is plagued by fears that mum will come home and catch the pair of them “what will I say, what will I do”. The guy tries to pacify her with claims of “live for now, not what might happen”.

The whole scenario feels too real, too convincing, too personal, as if someone was trying to exercise the trauma of coming on to an awkward, prudish girl in the repressive 1950s, only to get caught out by her mother. Steckler’s setting for this scene is for once at odds with what is being played out onscreen, hilariously so. Cathy is meant to be under the thumb of a strict, conservative matriarch, yet Steckler shoots the scene in what looks like a Satanist’s garage. ‘Mum’s place’ has a stone brick wall with obscene looking graffiti on the walls, a suitably Satanic looking red leather couch that Cathy and the guy fuck on, plus the expected occult paraphernalia on the walls. If mum hates sex so much, why has she graffitied what sure looks to be a massive cock on the wall? A bad role model if ever there was one.

Cathy isn’t particularly attractive, but is one of the few genuinely erotic things about this movie, you really buy into her being a sexually repressed woman who was trying to work off some of her inhibitions and issues by appearing in this movie. Cathy is the only person to convince you that she isn’t faking it on film here. There is a vulnerability to her. Out of all of this film’s parade of the sexually hopeless, for some reason she is the one you end up giving a damn about, which makes the mean-spirited edges to her scene even harder to take. The guy turns out to be a smarmy creep who isn’t worthy of her. In order to get her to loosen up he talks her into believing she is his first time, he then wraps his arms around her with his fingers crossed. Naturally, Steckler can’t resist going out on a downer, as horror of horrors, mum returns home, causing the guy to flee with his pants in his hands and for a traumatised Cathy to plead “oh mother, I know you won’t believe this, but I can explain everything”.

Some might feel that Steckler’s masterstroke in Peeping Tom comes during Cathy’s scene, where whilst having sex with her, Cathy’s boyfriend admits he likes to watch porno films, because they are “very instructive”. Leading Cathy to ask “why would you wanna watch somebody do that?” whilst doing just that on film herself. Clearly this is Steckler’s way of throwing the spotlight onto his audience, angrily directing Cathy’s question at them. A reluctant, self-hating pornographer lashing out at his audience. It is a powerful moment for sure, but to me at least, Steckler’s true moment of twisted genius comes right at the end of Peeping Tom. Its night-time and our lonely voyeur is hanging around outside a closed Las Vegas gift shop, he stares sadly into the window. In that window is a mini-Christmas tree and other festive merchandise, at which point it hits you like a train…yes, Peeping Tom is a….FUCKING CHRISTMAS MOVIE!!! That all the misery and dysfunction in the sexual nightmare Steckler has just laid upon us has actually been playing out during the time of peace and goodwill to all men is such a mindfuck to leave your audience to contemplate…. Good grief, Steckler!!

“Sex is to be enjoyed by everyone” claims Steckler’s narrator at the end, absolutely nothing in his film backs this up. VIVA, LAS VEGAS!!! 

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Disciple of Death (1972)

If you grew up with a taste for horror movies in the late 1980s and 1990s, there were three films that seemed unavoidable on late night television back then, Psychomania, I Don’t Want to be Born and Crucible of Terror. An ‘unholy trinity’ that for better or ill acted as an entire generation’s introduction to the 1970s British horror film, an era that offered up the good, the bad and Mike Raven.

As well as being firmly entrenched in the fashions and lingo of the era they were made in, these three films also offered youthful, impressionable eyes, their earliest indication that a wilder, freakier, independently made side to the British horror film existed outside of the Hammer and Amicus movies that were also late night TV staples back then. Preposterous as they were, lest we forgot one of these films is about a baby being possessed by a vindictive dwarf, another is about bikers willing themselves out of the grave and Crucible of Terror concerns a psychotic sculptor and a possessed kimono, the fact that all three took place in a still recognisable, contemporary setting somehow made these films seem more ‘real’ to younger eyes than the Hammer films, whose gothic trappings acted as a safety net in that respect.

To younger viewers these films offered a crack in the door to the forbidden world of adults. As these were 1970s films characters tended to smoke too much, drink and swear to excess. Twisted sexuality, such as Joan Collins being harassed and groped by a dwarf in I Don’t Want to be Born, frequently reared its head. Just to give you an idea of how wheat-pasted these films were over late night TV back then, BBC genome records that they showed Crucible of Terror eight times during the 1990s and early 2000s, Psychomania six times and I Don’t Want to be Born four times. Prior to this I Don’t Want to be Born had been no stranger to airings on ITV in the late 1980s, and Crucible of Terror was simultaneously popping up on the Sci-Fi channel in the mid-1990s whilst still constantly being replayed on the BBC.

Frequent exposure to Crucible of Terror inevitably lead you to the story of its leading man, ex-pirate radio DJ turned wannabe horror film star Mike Raven. Largely forgotten by the man on the street these days, and considered an also-ran and frequent figure of ridicule in horror film circles, Raven may well be the most extraordinary footnote to the British horror film genre.

The fact that he dropped out of DJ-ing to concentrate solely on acting in horror movies would on its own grant Mike Raven a degree of uniqueness, but that titbit is only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, it is rather ironic that Raven’s legacy should almost entirely rest on his horror movie career these days, when horror film star was one of his least successful career paths. His ill-fated quest to be accepted into the horror genre being played out within the space of just over a year. Others, such as Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price may have played the part of a horror movie star onscreen, but Raven lived that role off-screen as well. A serious student of the occult, Raven and his family dressed predominately in black, self-made clothes, lived in a house that adhered to a similar colour scheme, and his life forever seemed intermingled with the characters he played onscreen. His movie characters shared his all black fashion sense, he later become a sculptor of erotically charged works, mirroring the character he played in Crucible of Terror, and like his character in Disciple of Death he is buried on the moors of Cornwall, having dug his own grave in advance. The more you learn about Mike Raven, the more you have to wonder why someone isn’t making that biopic or movie documentary about him as we speak?

Raven’s movie career is unevenly spread out over four movies, I Monster, Lust for a Vampire, Crucible of Terror and Disciple of Death. All of which were relatively easy to see, with the notable exception of Disciple of Death, a film that proved to be as invisible back then as Crucible of Terror was visible. While you couldn’t escape from Crucible of Terror back then, Disciple of Death had all but disappeared off the face of the earth. There were no late night TV airings for poor old Disciple of Death and no UK video release, leaving Crucible of Terror to go it alone when it came to keeping the Raven mythos alive. The only traces of Disciple of Death that could be found in 1990s Britain were the odd still –depicting the particularly gory sight of a woman’s heart being torn out- and a series of damning reviews that emphasized the film’s ineptness, incompetence and generally folly. According to the sketchy details of the production that existed Disciple of Death was a true DIY undertaking, shot on super 16mm on a pitiful £50,000 budget raised by Raven and Crucible of Terror producer Tom Parkinson. Disciple of Death did at least live on in infamy “utterly inept, ludicrously laughable” claimed The Creature Features Movie Guide, “I once saw it and thought I had hallucinated” wrote Andy Boot in 1995’s Fragment of Fear “it is beyond criticism in that same way of strange movies like Reefer Madness”. Even the disreputable has its allure though…it’s that old moth to a flame thing…call me a sucker for a bad horror movie but the worse Disciple of Death sounded, the more you wanted to see it.

Eventually bootleg copies of Disciple of Death started emerging in the early 2000s, duped from a long forgotten American video release in the early 1980s, and on some levels Disciple of Death did live up to the weird, amateur hour attraction that was both warned and promised. Anyone expecting something along the lines of Crucible of Terror will certainly be taken aback by Disciple of Death. While by rights Disciple of Death should just be more of the same, the film sharing Crucible of Terror’s leading man, locations and several cast and crew, it is a very different kettle of fish from its predecessor. There is a big drop in quality between the two movies, whereas Crucible of Terror retains a certain TV level professionalism this is entirely absent in Disciple of Death, which adds strength to rumours of its self-financed nature in its grainy 16mm photography, frequent use of locals as actors and overall DIY aesthetic. If the quoted £50,000 budget for Disciple of Death is correct, then a look around at what was going on in traditional horror film circles at the time, Amicus had a budget of £170,000 to make Tales from the Crypt, Hammer spent £200,000 on Scars of Dracula, makes you appreciate what a small scale, corner shop type operation Disciple of Death was in comparison.

Reportedly Raven had tried to get Hammer interested in producing Disciple of Death at the tail end of 1971, without much success. Disciple of Death is a film that could have never have emerged intacto from traditional filmmaking circles though. Had this film been made on Hammer’s watch they would have surely insisted on a degree of quality control and reigned in its plethora of occult indulgencies and eccentricities. For better or worse Disciple of Death is Mike Raven doing what the hell he liked, the British horror film after the brakes had been tampered with, and with the overall impression that anything can happen in the next 90 minutes.

Raven bios from the Crucible of Terror and Disciple of Death pressbooks

Aside from Raven himself, the Cornwall locations are another key part of Crucible of Terror and Disciple of Death’s identity and mojo. Abandoned tin mines, acres and acres of windswept moorlands, desolate beaches, the sense that time stood still at this place a few centuries ago, you have to question why Cornwall isn’t a greater mecca for British horror filmmakers? The answer lies not too subtlety in the pages of the Crucible of Terror pressbook, where producer Tom Parkinson didn’t mince his words about the impracticality of the location. “It’s one of the most God-forsaken, desolate places I’ve ever seen or heard of. Its only approach is a winding footpath down 300-foot cliffs”. So naturally, in a move that suggests a true glutton for punishment, Parkinson was back in Cornwall a year later for Disciple of Death, a film that despite its reduced budget is also an 18th century period piece as well. C’mon whatever else could be said about Mike Raven and Co, no one could accuse them of lacking ambition and determination.

The film born out of horror filmmakers Vs. the wilds of Cornwall: Part 2, sees star-crossed lovers Ralph (Stephen Bradley) and Julia (Marguerite Hardiman) pledging their love for each other by slicing their thumbs with a knife “like the gypsies do”, having been forbidden from marrying each other by Julia’s parents, who object to Ralph’s lowly status. Unfortunately Ralph and Julia’s blood falls on the grave of a suicide, which allows The Stranger (Raven), a disciple of Satan, to return to Earth and do his master’s bidding.

I suppose the immediate difference between Crucible of Terror and Disciple of Death is that while the ‘whodunit’ nature of Crucible of Terror tends to hold Raven back slightly in terms of screen villainy, here those restraints are very much off. The Stranger can’t even wait till he is out of the grave before he is teasing and tormenting the audience with his dastardly plans. When Julia proclaims that she is now Ralph’s, The Stranger bellows from the grave “No, Mine!!!”

Disciple of Death was clearly born out of a mind well versed in horror cinema and literature. Suave and sophisticated by day, The Stranger reverts to a pale faced, blue haired old man by night who needs blood in order to replenish his youth, a la Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The Stranger is barely out of the grave before he is appearing in silhouette form in the bedrooms of young ladies, hypnotising them with close-ups of his blood-shot eyes. Imagery that inevitably invites comparisons with the Hammer Dracula films of the time, despite The Stranger not actually being a vampire per se. There are many class conflict issues going on here too, which echo those of Tod Slaughter melodramas from decades earlier. Almost everything bad that happens in Disciple of Death can be traced back to Julia’s parents (the mother played by returning Crucible of Terror actress Betty Alberge). A pair of social climbers who shoo away the honest, God fearing but dirt poor Ralph, and instead are trying to push Julia in the direction of The Stranger, who integrates himself with the local community by posing as a affluent, generous Lord of the manor who has returned to claim his estate.

Disciple of Death does tap into allot of the anxieties that British horror films have about the ruling classes. Satanism and occult interests do tend to be exclusive pastimes of the elite in British horror films, feeding into the idea of the upper classes being a decadent bunch who privately dabble in the black arts while reigning over the poor Christian populace. Something you see reflected in Disciple of Death, and echoed in many other BHFs like The Devil Rides Out, The Satanic Rites of Dracula and Taste the Blood of Dracula. An aspect to these films that feels very British at times. Compare and contrast with what was going on in American horror cinema at the time, where devil worship was more of a blue collar thing, and films like Race with the Devil and The Brotherhood of Satan played to city dwellers’ fears that those hick towns that lay down dirt roads could be a hub of devil worship and occult sacrifice.

Cine-literate as Mike Raven appears to have been, his own acting style is of a very theatrical, barnstorming variety that had largely fallen out of fashion by the time he was making films. Often resulting in Raven coming across as the ‘black sheep’ of the casts of both Crucible of Terror and Disciple of Death, quite literally given his dress sense in both movies. What little is known about Raven’s involvement in acting prior to appearing in horror films, suggests he did tread the boards at some point in the early 1950s. Under part of his real name, Churton Fairman, he is listed in the cast of a 1952 Old Vic production of Romeo and Juliet, whilst the Crucible of Terror pressbook mentions him having “a non-speaking part as a spear carrier at The Old Vic…his opposite spear-carrying number across the celebrated stage was no less a character than the now famous horror film star, Christopher Lee”.

I’m not the first, and am unlikely to be the last to compare Raven’s scenery chewing acting to that of Tod Slaughter, similarities between those two were picked up in relatively early on. Writing in 1975’s The Seal of Dracula, Barrie Pattison noted that Raven “comes on like Tod Slaughter in a broad theatrical style, which contrasts with the remainder of the unknown players”. Traces of Raven’s attempt to resurrect Slaughter’s ghost on the moors of Bodmin are all over Disciple of Death. At one point Raven comes close to breaking the fourth wall when, after hearing the local Parson is planning to act against him, The Stranger mutters to himself “how very ill advised” as if cluing in an imaginary audience in on his next move. It seems disrespectful not to boo and hiss at The Stranger’s antics. Raven’s characters in Crucible of Terror and Disciple of Death do also tend to err….go on a bit. Disciples of the school of ‘why say a few words when you can say a few hundred’. Raven is particularly fond of giving himself long, grandiose speeches, and like any true ham, clearly loved every minute of belting them out. “For seven days and seven nights you will be racked in torment, but long before your sinews crack and you are torn apart, you will have prayed for death a thousand times!!!” claims The Stranger “oh well, I must be on my way, no doubt we all shall meet again, in hell !!!” Rarely has a man been as simultaneously in his element and out of his depth onscreen as Mike Raven.


Still, you have to hand it to the man, he looked the part. Who didn’t encounter Lust for a Vampire stills in one of those glorified still collection books on horror movies that Alan Frank put out in the 1970s, take one look at Mike Raven and think that that was exactly what a horror movie star should look like. Visually Raven is equal parts Christopher Lee, Roger Delgado and Arthur Brown (of ‘The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’) its Raven’s voice that proves to be a deal breaker for many.

Not that you would have heard his actual voice in Lust for a Vampire. It seems that, like many a well upholstered starlet before him, Hammer only really wanted Mike Raven for his body. Once in post-production his speaking voice was dispensed with, in favour of Valentine Dyall dubbing his performance. To add insult to injury, Hammer didn’t even want him for all his body, replacing close-ups of his eyes with that of Christopher Lee’s, culled from an earlier Dracula film. For years it was falsely assumed that Raven was born in South Africa. The revelation that he was born and bred in London surprised many, especially as you can detect traces of what sounds for all the world like a South African accent in Raven’s voice, possibly a remnant of his days in the military. Couple this with what appears to have been a slight lisp, and Hammer’s decision to re-voice his performance in Lust for a Vampire may not have been completely baseless. Raven’s speaking voice does work far better in the context of his disc jockey days, his niche both on pirate radio and later on the BBC being American blues music. In his radio show (recreated for the 1969 album ‘The Mike Raven Blues Sampler’) his voice lends a relaxed but authoritative quality to the smoky atmosphere of late night airings of Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell. Applied to film acting, Raven’s voice doesn’t really have the same impact. For a man who had his heart set on being a horror film star, Mike Raven was impeded by a tragically unthreatening speaking voice.

Disciple of Death pressbook

The Stranger’s reign of terror begins with him interrupting a rather coy sex scene by stabbing a man in the back, who then thoughtfully vomits blood all over his hysterical girlfriend’s cleavage. Next, Ralph’s sister Ruth (Virginia Wetherell) finds herself bound and gagged on the Stranger’s altar, then has her heart graphically pulled out. A moment that does actually live up to those gory stills. While Hammer might have reluctantly gone down the gore for gore’s sake route with Scars of Dracula, Disciple of Death was simultaneously embracing it with open arms.

The heart tearing was way too much for the British censor, who insisted on cuts to this scene for Disciple of Death’s UK theatrical release, prompting Raven to mouth back at them in the press. “I’m quite sure that if we had Hitchcock’s or Kubrick’s name on the title, there’d be no censor cuts at all” Raven remarked at the time “basically, they’re saying if Mr Hitchcock happens for one moment to show the great British public what the lower instincts of mankind are like, that is high art. But you are a nasty, dirty exploitation-type film, pandering to mankind’s lowest instinct: I will censor you. My answer to that is a raspberry- loudly played!!”

The Stranger’s chief purpose on earth is to find female virgins and sacrifice them to Satan by tearing out their hearts. They are then resurrected as female zombies who prowl the moors of Cornwall at night, dressed in identical white, flowing nighties. It’s safe to assume that there wasn’t much bedroom action going on in 18th century Cornwall, as The Stranger quickly builds up a small army of virginal victims turned zombies. I’ll stick my neck out and argue that anything involving this undead troupe (official credited in the pressbook as ‘the zombie girls’) is well worth fighting in Disciple of Death’s corner for. Virginia Wetherell pretty much scene steals many of the film’s creepy highlights away from Raven as the undead Ruth. Whether it is her memorable resurrection scene (lurching unexpectedly into frame) or the tragic sight of her ghostly face at Ralph’s window, as she tries to reach out from beyond the grave and warn her brother about The Stranger.
At times, watching Disciple of Death feels as if you’re intruding on the gathering of an am-dram society, or even a coven, whilst they’re holding one of their yearly “come dressed as your favourite Blood on Satan’s Claw character” parties, where the women have committed the fashion faux-pas of all coming dressed as Angel Blake. Only the presence of the relatively of the relatively well known Virginia Wetherell, and a pre-Doctor Who Louise Jameson, as members of Disciple of Death’s answer to Pan’s People, tends to shatter the illusion of this being a filmed version of such a get-together.

Wetherell’s gory heart extraction does recall an uncannily similar scene in Herschel Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963), while scenes set in The Stranger’s occult lair, featuring the Stranger dressed in a red robe, performing fire conjuring tricks and being flanked by female followers posits this as Cornwall’s answer to the American regional horror oddity Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966). Perhaps though, we’re looking at this from too much of a 21st century perspective here, realistically you’d have had to move in some pretty obscure horror film circles in to have even heard of Blood Feast and Manos: The Hands of Fate in 1972’s Britain, let alone have seen either. Then again, Raven was hanging around the Gothique Film Society during this period…so let’s just say that such influences were unlikely, but not beyond the realms of possibility.

It should also be mentioned that in contrast to Crucible of Terror, where most of the characters were displaced Londoners, several of the supporting cast of Disciple of Death adopt strong Cornish accents for this film, in keeping with the 18th century setting. Something which makes me recall what an American friend of mine once said about the southern American accent and how that accent has a tendency to make women sound sexy and men sound dumb. At the risk of never being able to set foot in Cornwall again, Disciple of Death does prove that the same can be said of the Cornish accent as well. The adoption of that accent does add a sexy ‘oomph’ to Virginia Wetherell and Louise Jameson’s performances, yet at the same time automatically earmarks Ralph as being a bit of a country bumpkin.

Fortunately poor Ralph doesn’t stand alone when it comes to having misgiving about the outwardly charming The Stranger. An ancient gypsy palm reader (Daisika) begins making trouble for The Stranger, signing her own death warrant in the process. A motley mix of amateurs and pros as Disciple of Death’s cast are, if I had to sell my soul to learn more about just one of them it would have to be Ms. Daisika. Mono-named, bucktoothed, predictably having no connection to any other movies, it is impossible to watch Daisika in action and not wonder what her story was. Someone from Mike Raven’s inner circle perhaps? Or just someone who knocked on his door one day hoping to sell some lucky heather, and instead got roped into playing herself in his latest movie? quite literally as The Stranger silences her by strangling her with a piece of rope. The mystery of Daisika endures….

While Daisika remains an unknown quantity, The Stranger’s chief nemesis ‘The Parson’, is played by the instantly recognisable character actor Ronald Lacey. Disciple of Death is worth seeing alone for the perverse casting against type of Ronald Lacey as the good guy in this movie. The late, great Lacey being mostly remembered as the Nazi whose face melts off in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and whose characters tended to be at best, morally suspect individuals, such as the gay arms dealer Shades in 1973’s The Final Programme (“napalm, you buying or selling?”).

In short, he isn’t the actor who first springs to mind when it comes to playing roles that epitomise Christian goodness…Lacey’s character isn’t even a priest or a vicar but a parson ferchristssakes!!! A character historically regarded as a figure of fun in British culture, and Lacey does look suitably ridiculous in his powdered wig and breeches. Still, casting wise, Lacey really is the jewel in the crown of both Crucible of Terror and Disciple of Death. I have to admit that it was Lacey who disturbed me the most during my childhood encounters with Crucible of Terror. The pathetic, self-loathing, self-pitying alcoholic he played in that film was unlike anything I’d encountered in movies up till that point, ditto his especially brutal death scene. Then again, Lacey was one of those rare actors who are guaranteed to leave a big first impression on you, no matter what you first encounter them in. On the surface, Lacey’s character in Disciple of Death is a rather bland, goody two shoes of a role compared to the meatier part he got in Crucible of Terror.

In theory then all eyes should be on Mike Raven here, yet you tend to be drawn to The Parson, and the mis-matched nature of the actor and the character. The Parson should be the character we can trust in and get behind, yet with his deep voice and untrustworthy looks Lacey subverts all expectations, and the character comes across as secretive, even sinister at times. Anyone arriving late to Disciple of Death and walking in on the scene where The Stranger and The Parson first meet is likely to be royally thrown as to which of these characters is meant to be the bad guy. If anything it is the Stranger who appears unnerved by The Parson during their first onscreen encounter. There is not the clear, good and evil dichotomy here that you get when say, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee square off onscreen.

Another aspect where Disciple of Death radically parts ways with the Gothic Hammer tradition is that while the brandishing of a crucifix (and accompanying choral music on the soundtrack) is usually a cure-all against evil in Hammer movies, in the world of Disciple of Death traditional Christianity is depicted as hopelessly ineffectual. The moment The Parson tries to preach to the faithful (“my children, evil is abroad”), he is immediately shut down by The Stranger who uses black magic to silence him. “It was though a hand were put about his throat, choking Parson into silence”.

Much as Disciple of Death seems to be trying to avoid any of the trappings of the period it was made in (as opposed to Crucible of Terror which feels VERY much like a 1971 film), the film does reflect the hippie era mentality of turning your back on traditional religion in favour of more esoteric spiritual paths. Ralph and The Parson eventually turning to Kabbalah, as a possible way to combat The Stranger. The proletariat reaching out to Jewish mysticism as a solution to their problems? Don’t go expecting a plot twist like that to turn up in any Hammer film…come to think about it I can’t imagine that will show up in a Ken Loach film anytime soon either.

The introduction of Kabbalah to the proceedings also brings forth Disciple of Death’s wild card, the Cabalist Melchisidech (Nicholas Amer) a Jewish mystic who lives hermit style on the moors of Bodmin, and hands down is one of the most unforgettable characters you could hope to meet in a 1970s British horror film. Only in the undisciplined, anything goes atmosphere of Disciple of Death, could a relativity humourless horror film suddenly get hijacked by a broadly comic turn and a performance that seems pitched at a children’s TV level. The easiest way of describing the Cabalist Melchisidech, if there is an easy way of describing the Cabalist Melchisidech, is as a Jewish version of Catweazle (there is a direct connection between Disciple of Death and Catweazle in producer Carl Mannin, so maybe the similarities were intentional). Neither Ralph or The Parson appear to know what the hell to make of Melchisidech as he excitedly prances about the screen, passing out magical potions and dispensing advice like “This is your Kosher Yiddisher magic!”. Both Ronald Lacey and Stephen Bradley look to be relying on all their acting powers not to corpse during this scene. That Nicholas Amer is actually a professional actor (still alive and well and appropriately now appearing in Tim Burton movies) rather than just some real life crazy person Raven found wandering on Bodmin Moor is astounding, and in a way slightly disappointing.

The insanity of the Cabalist Melchisidech puts the film into a tailspin and leaves you completely clueless as to where this film will go next. The answer to that, turns out to be in the direction of the sword and sorcery genre, as Ralph and The Parson embark on a horse bound quest across the moors of Bodmin, where they find themselves constantly under attack from The Stranger’s magical bag of tricks. It’s rather like an underfunded run for the British sword and sorcery movies that were chasing after the Conan dollar in the early 1980s like Krull and Hawk the Slayer. It’s very difficult to describe the third act of Disciple of Death without making it sound like a parody of fantasy role playing games. I’m sure if there was such a thing as ‘Disciple of Death: the board game’ it would keep the customers of Games Workshop busy for hours, if not days, if not weeks.

Where do we even begin when it comes to listing all the magical items and powers in this movie. Well, for a start the Cabalist Melchisidech possesses a magical mirror which allows Ralph and The Parson to spy on The Stranger’s activities. The Stranger uses fire to give zombie Ruth eternal heartburn, her punishment for trying to help Ralph, which not even a dose of gaviscon can clear up. The Stranger draws upon earth, wind and fire (the elements, not the band) to conjure up a Dwarf (Rusty Goffe) who dresses like a leprechaun, but is in fact a vampire. The Stranger is unable to use his powers during the day, but The Dwarf, despite being a vampire, can and acts as The Stranger’s guardian during the daylight hours. The Dwarf can turn the sea wild and causes waves to crash around Ralph and The Parson during their Cliffside journey, fortunately the Cabalist Melchisidech gifted them a scroll which makes the waves return to the sea. The Dwarf then shoots fireballs in their direction, only for The Parson and Ralph to use holy water to put the flames out, which causes The Dwarf to jump up and down allot in frustration.

The Stranger’s endgame is to find a woman who will accept death at his hands and spend eternity with him in hell….it’s not too much to ask for really, is it? As The Stranger puts it, in his usual melodramatic, elongated fashion “my task on Earth is to supply my master Satan with an endless line of virgin sacrifices…unless I find a maiden willing to accept death and spend eternity with me in my dark place in the depths of hell”. Earmarking Julia as such a woman, The Stranger kidnaps her (oh yes, The Stranger can also perform a hand gesture that causes locked doors to open as well). All of which leaves Ralph to come to her aid by producing a magical talisman that can temporarily hypnotise The Stranger, a handy little object that he also picked up at the Cabalist Melchisidech’s place (aka Deus ex machina R’US). Incidentally, a few years ago I was contacted by friends of Marguerite Hardiman, ‘Julia’ in this film, who were trying to find a copy of this film to send to her as a birthday present (and my God, what a birthday surprise Disciple of Death would have made). Unfortunately at that time all my emails were bouncing back to me, and I was never able to email them back, so if you are still out there Marguerite, I do apologise.

The third act of Disciple of Death does look an absolute endurance test for actors Ronald Lacey and Stephen Bradley. Their trek across the moors and cliffs feeling less like an acting assignment, and more like an obstacle course. Lacey in particular looks to have been pushed to the absolute limits as he scales down cliffs and hills in his Parson’s uniform. At one point Lacey is forced to conquer one tricky piece of moor land by sliding down it on his arse. Glamorous is a word unlikely to ever be associated with the making of Disciple of Death. A recent online comment by ‘Ari Rox’, gives some insight into what went on behind the scenes “Mike made and produced the movie using a lot of the local people. It was first shown publically in Plymouth to which a lot of the extras attended. There were so many comments from the audience such as "Oh look there's Mother" and "That's me, did 'ee see 'un" that no one could hear the movie, but no one cared. I don't think the audience had the slightest clue what it was about. The dwarf was learning to play the bagpipes at the time when it was made and made the most awful god dammed noise. As a lot of the crew and cast were staying on one farm during the making, the dwarf's playing early in the morning set the dogs howling and the cows mooing and really pissed every one off. It did get rid of the rats for a bit.”.

If nothing else you do leave Disciple of Death with a far greater respect for Ronald Lacey. It’s unlikely that such an in-demand actor like him really needed to be in this film, and he easily could have accepted a job that didn’t take him outside the cosy confines of a London studio, yet here he is dressed as a Parson, sliding around Cornwall on his arse, having probably been woken up at some ungodly hour in the morning by a dwarf playing the bagpipes. I could be accused of over-interpretation here, but the fact that he is billed in Disciple of Death’s publicity materials, not as ‘Ronald Lacey’ but the more affectionate and familiar ‘Ronnie Lacey’, comes across as a show of gratitude for Lacey having gone well beyond the call of duty for this film. Hats off to Ronnie!!!

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain Disciple of Death’s filming locations were a mixture of the village of Boscastle and the moors of Bodmin. The latter of which cast such a spell on Raven that he never left, and spent much of the rest of his life living in seclusion in the Bodmin area. I must confess that I did visit Boscastle a few years ago, without it has to be said realising the Disciple of Death connection… I wasn’t on a Mike Raven pilgrimage or anything like that. Looking back though, I am surprised I didn’t make the connection between the place and the film. Boscastle’s harbour and ensuing coastal path are as impressive and treacherous looking as it appears on film. Boscastle also has a long history with the occult, boasting a plethora of shops of that nature that no doubt fed Raven’s endless hunger for the subject. Boscastle is also home to the ‘Museum of Witchcraft and Magic’, the village’s most famous attribute. It’s not uncommon to see groups of women casually walking round Boscastle or waiting for a bus in full occult regalia…Boscastle is a very Disciple of Death kinda place. Then again, I find it hard to set foot anywhere in Cornwall without thinking of Disciple of Death or Crucible of Terror, I know that for many tourists these days the lure of Cornwall lies with Doc Martin or Poldark, but to me it’ll always be Mike Raven country.

Of course there are rewards for filming out on the Moors of Cornwall, only a complete klutz could shoot up there and come back with a film that is lacking in atmosphere. Fortunately the cameraman on Disciple of Death, William Brayne, whilst sloppy at times, does display an occasional eye for compositions. Brayne’s shots of the Cornwall skyline, and striking imagery like Ralph and The Parson riding past a corpse hung up in a gibbet, hint at a beautiful film currently buried away by fuzzy, deteriorated VHS sourced editions of Disciple of Death. While I’ve never been a picture quality purist, I do wonder if a Blu-Ray release and a swift kick up the arse in terms of picture quality might improve Disciple of Death’s critical standing somewhat. Who knows it might even get rediscovered and championed as an example of ‘outsider art’ someday, stranger things have happened. Don’t go holding your breath though, Nucleus Films’ Marc Morris recently expressed an interest in re-releasing the film but admitted that “the rights to this film seem to have vanished”. Chalk it up as a case of the flesh being willing, but the rights owner being elusive.

In the unauthorised realm, the best release of the film currently around appears to be a DVD edition offered by Sinister Cinema, whose copy derives from a 16mm print that “runs over 2 minutes longer than previous video releases. Yes… you get that actual footage where Raven cuts into the girl’s chest before he pulls out her heart. This bit of footage is missing from other home video editions”.

Hilariously inappropriate as it might seem today much of Disciple of Death’s publicity drive appears to have been aimed at young teenagers, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the film’s X-certificate would have excluded the majority of that audience from seeing the film. For an extremely low-budget horror film, half heartily released by an exploitation distributor, Disciple of Death did manage to procure itself a surprise amount of mainstream visibility. For one week in 1972, Raven even got to be a teenage idol, by making the cover of boys own tabloid Target “the great weekly for boys”. A magazine that saw coverage of the horror movies rub shoulders with articles on the sporting heroes and pop stars of the day, illustrating just how integrated British horror films were with the pop culture of that era.

scans courtesy of Graeme Wood @woodg31

Target was no stranger to putting horror movie stars on its cover, previous recipients being Raven’s one time fellow spear carrier Christopher Lee and errr…Trog. Unfortunately in a twist that really does suggest Raven’s attempt at horror film stardom was jinxed, Target managed to screw up the film’s title, referring to it throughout as ‘Disciples of Death’ rather than Disciple of Death. Unlikelier still was Raven’s promotional appearance on children’s television pop show ‘2Gs and the Pop People’. A short lived LWT production that mainly acted as a vehicle for Dougie Squires’ popular ‘The Second Generation’ dance troupe. Clad in ultra-colourful tank tops and giving the impression of having just escaped from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, the 2Gs dance away to music by the likes of Cilla Black and Melanie, plus a ‘Eurovision Song Contest Medley’.

Occasionally the 2Gs take time out to introduce guest spots by the pop stars of the day. Which in the episode in question turns out to be Scott Walker, long-haired rock band Head, Hands and Feet and Sandie Shaw adopting a faux-Jamaican accent in order to try her hand at reggae music “reggae is alive, you can ask Leroy and Clive, we are alive and well and living down in Clapham”. In the midst of this groovy, outta sight, poptastic good time there is Mike Raven, dressed all in black, and acting as DJ by spinning a few soul records for the kids. The dancing comes to an abrupt halt however when Raven yanks ‘In the Midnight Hour’ from the turnstile and announces his shock retirement from spinning discs “sorry about that Danny, but in fact for the time being I’ve now given up DJ-ing entirely, now it’s all down to horror films”. Raven then gamely performs a version of Boris Pickett’s novelty hit ‘The Monster Mash’ as the 2Gs resume their dancing while dressed as an assortment of monsters and witches “for you the living this mash was meant too, when you get to my door, tell them Michael sent you!!!” Intended to promote his burgeoning horror career, Raven’s appearance on 2Gs and the Pop People might well be one of its highlights.

For all of Raven’s best efforts history generally records Disciple of Death as a flop, and tellingly a third Mike Raven horror vehicle, promised in its pressbook, failed to materialise. While the film garnered a small theatrical release in the UK, and also possibly in Germany, its American release history is a bit more sketchy. The film was reviewed (fairly positively it has to be said) in a 1974 issue of Cinefantasque, but was still without US distribution at that point. Eventually Disciple of Death was picked up for distribution in the states by Avco-Embassy, but since no evidence of the film being released theatrically in America has ever surfaced, it seems likely that Avco-Embassy dumped the movie directly to television there. Late night television tending to be where most Americans have encountered the film, particularly a well-remembered appearance on Elvira’s Movie Macabre in Feb 1982.

What if Disciple of Death had, in the words of his 2Gs and the Pop People song, ‘caught on in a flash’ and been ‘a graveyard smash’ though? Would a third Mike Raven vehicle have reigned things in and been a more conventional offering a la’ Crucible of Terror, or would he have continued down the bizarro path of Disciple of Death. Just how do you top the sight of a vampire dwarf shooting fireballs on the moors of Cornwall?

Raven however seems to have been a man with a constant need to reinvent himself and move on to other new adventures, here being a man who at various stages of his life had been a DJ, ballet dancer, lieutenant of infantry, a stills photographer and a flamenco guitarist. After his retirement from the screen with Disciple of Death, Raven could hardly be accused of resting on his laurels either. Ploughing what money he’d earned from Crucible of Terror into a career as a sheep farmer and relocating his family to a farm on Bodmin moor, then resurfacing as a sculptor whose works courted controversy with their mixture of religious themes and sexually explicit imagery. A quote, attributed to Raven in later life claiming “, looking back from the comparative serenity of old age, I can see that my whole life has been conditioned by two main elements; my consistently unsuccessful struggle to come to terms with my own sexuality, and my, consequently, equally unsuccessful attempts to live up to my Christian beliefs...” As of 2018, the family farm, where Raven is rumoured to be buried nearby, also doubles as a campsite catering mainly for the cyclist and hiking markets. Perhaps understandably, their website fails to mention its Mike Raven connection.

For all the hallmarks of a vanity vehicle that surrounds Disciple of Death, and to a degree Crucible of Terror, I’ve never gotten an egotistical vibe from Raven, just that of a man who honestly believed that the horror genre would be a better place with him in it. May his memory live on forever, both on the moors of his beloved Bodmin and of course, on late night television.

Mesmerising or grating? There is no escaping the fact that Raven will forever be a ‘marmite’ personality among horror movie buffs. Disciple of Death truly sinks or swims depending on your tolerance for its leading man. Out of all the films he was involved in, Disciple of Death is the obvious passion project, the labour of love and the one where his personality is most front and centre. Not only is Raven leading man here, he also co-wrote the script, co-directed the film, and cast his friends, wife and children in bit parts. Disciple of Death is very much Mike Raven’s Baadasssss Song. Watch out! A badass Disciple of Satan is coming back to collect some dues!!!