Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Their Satanic Majesties Request

TERROR (1978)

French A style poster for New World's THE HELLFIRE CLUB, more pulp adventure than demonic horror.

THE notorious real-life Hellfire Club was famed for its debauchery and devil worship, the name given to several exclusive establishments in Britain and Ireland as meeting places of "persons of quality" who wished to take part in immoral acts. Founded in 1719 London, The Club motto Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what thou wilt) was a philosophy associated with François Rabelais' fictional abbey at Thélème, and later adopted by infamous magus Aleister Crowley. Set in 18th century England, THE HELLFIRE CLUB tells the story of circus acrobat Jason (Keith Michell) in his attempt to reclaim the estate of his estranged father Lord Netherton (Andrew Faulds), leader of the Hellfire Club. Years earlier, Jason as a boy (Martin Stephens) is whipped by his father after walking in on an orgy held by The Club, and together with his mother (Jean Lodge), flees with Timothy (David Lodge). Jason discovers that his villainous cousin Thomas (Peter Arne) has stolen his rightful inheritance, and together with lawyer Merryweather (Peter Cushing) plans to bring an end to the deceit, and brake the grip of The Club on King George II’s rule. 

Although billed as a guest star, Cushing's fussy but erudite character is pivotal to the fate of English society. In fact, the actor later adapted Merryweather's demeanor for his takes on Doctor Who and Abner Perry. Because of Cushing's presence and its lush staging, the film is often mistaken for a Hammer production. But there is no bite to THE HELLFIRE CLUB, with no satanic overtones, and the picture limits itself to a handful of lame orgies where most of the participants remain fully clothed. Directed by Robert S.Baker and Monty Berman from a script by Leon Griffiths and Jimmy Sangster, the production is more swashbuckling melodrama, using The Club as a pinning to hang its elaborate fight scenes and love interests (redheads Adrienne Corri and Kai Fischer)Like most cinematic heroes brandishing a sword, Jason is not only morally perfect but also irresistible to all women, and Michell gives a likable performance as he gathers his circus comrades to do battle with the evil hierarchy.

With a running time of only 80 minutes, TERROR is a whirlwind of gore, semi-nudity and in-jokes. Amazingly, the film topped the UK box office charts for a week in early 1979.

TERROR takes a much more direct approach to its satanic theme. Reuniting director Norman J.Warren with scriptwriter David McGillivray - after their exploits on SATAN'S SLAVE - TERROR is not so much an unashamed rip-off of Dario Argento's operatic gore noir SUSPIRIA but a star-struck reaction to it. The picture starts with a witch hunt and a beheading, subsequently revealed to be a "film within a film" being watched in the same house where hundreds of years before the events being portrayed on screen took place. The witch exacts her revenge on the ancestors of her persecutors, one of whom is the production's director, James Garrick (John Nolan). After a makeshift hypnosis goes awry, the curse takes on a more direct approach, including death by lighting equipment, murderous film cans (in reality nine faulty prints of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER specially supplied by Rank Laboratories) which leads to a very Argentoesque window-pane decapitation, and aspiring actress Carol (Glynis Barber) is impaled to a tree trunk with knives.

The performances are generally competent, but James and Ann Garrick (Carolyn Courage) both have too little screen time to develop the family curse scenario, even if Warren was more interested to do so. Instead, the focus is on Les Young's coloured filters to provide TERROR with a suitably garish tableau for its elaborately bloody murders, and enhance the hallucinatory disregard for logic. The opening "film within a film" narrative acts both as a Hammer Gothic pastiche and a expostulation of it, but this is not the only nod to a cinematic heritage; the viewer is also treated to snatches of a ficticious soft-core film called BATHTIME WITH BRENDA, scenes heavily indebted to experiences not necessarily enjoyed by Warren and McGillivray in their careers. Other points of interest are a nightclub act you won't forget in a hurry, and a red herring sequence culminating in a Peter Mayhew cameo.