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!!!

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

A very 21st century exploitation film phenomenon

A couple of examples of that very 21st century exploitation film phenomenon, the ‘mock’ film poster designed to encourage you to click on monetised-to-death Youtube videos, whose content bears little resemblance to what is being advertised. To give an example and to save you the trouble of finding out for yourself, ‘PredatoR reborn’ aka ‘PredatoR’ aka ‘PredatoR 2:0’ is actually 1992’s Split Second, and begins about halfway into the movie.

Forget Alien Vs. Predator, here is a ‘mock’ poster for a Youtube video promising that long awaited cinematic battle between xenomorphs and the founder of analytical psychology.

Predators, Xenomorphs and Pierce Brosnan (aka ‘Pris’ Brosnan) are the superstars of this genre, which surely contains the most blatant violation of copyright laws seen since the heyday of Turkish exploitation cinema.

You can actually put your knowledge of the horror genre to the test by trying to work out which films have had imagery swiped from them in order to make up these posters.

I’m sure once we’ve exhausted the supply of Ghanaian movie posters that are out there, these Youtube posters will become the next big source of amusement in cult film circles. Here is Freddy Krueger battling Giant Robots in that A Nightmare on Elm Street/Pacific Rim mash-up that sadly only exists in the mind of a crooked Youtuber.

Running terms like ‘New Hollywood movie 2018 in Hindi’ or ‘Full new action movie’ through Youtube’s search engine is likely to bring you to these and many more examples of such lunacy. The majority of these uploads seem to originate from India and leave you questioning just what they are smoking over there. Although it goes without saying that the entertainment value to such things begins and ends with the posters themselves. The accompanying videos containing little but poor quality, incomplete and ad-ridden movies, the type of viewing experience you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. The irony is that some of these posters display a real talent and flair for eye catching imagery, suggesting their designers should be working in H’Wood rather than fattening the pockets of Youtube scammers.