Satanic / Witches / Conspiracy
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Satan's Slave (1976)
22nd Nov 05
Catherine Yorke is looking forward to her 20th birthday. Little does she know that her evil uncle has a very peculiar kind of party arranged for her...
Review Reviewed as part of The Norman J. Warren Collection boxset.
In the 1970’s Hammer were still desperately clinging onto traditional fare with the occasional pursuit of lesbianism (like The Vampire Lovers) and ill-fated ‘swinging London’ fanged experiments like Dracula A.D 1972. Amicus were continuing to churn out their short-attention-span-friendly and occasionally fun compendium fright flicks, while Pete Walker was constructing low budget horror mayhem with films like The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) and House of Whipcord (1974).
Around this time, a young filmmaker called Norman J. Warren, along with production team Les and Moira Young, independently formed Monumental Pictures to get their feet in the door of the British film industry, eventually deciding to focus on the genre most likely to make them enough money in order to budget subsequent nightmare tales. Their first film - Satan’s Slave - may be no Night of the Living Dead in terms of cultural impact, but it has been subject to an unfair amount of negative feedback through the years. But, I suppose it all comes down to personal taste, and how many scenes showing characters talking you can tolerate between diabolic occurrences.
Following the nicely designed opening credits, we see Catherine Yorke and her parents drive out to her uncle’s house in the countryside where they plan to stay for up to a week. Nothing strange about that, you might think. Well, she’s never met her uncle, and her father hasn’t seen him since they were children. Upon arriving at the house, her father has some kind of episode, crashes into a tree, her mum bashes her head then Catherine runs toward the house and straight into the arms of Uncle Alexander, but before you can say “magic spell”, the car explodes with her parents inside. Uncle Alexander, his son Steven and his secretary Frances take poor Catherine into the house, look after her and “prescribe” plenty of rest. The police are informed of the accident and Catherine stays at the house for a few days, despite an increase in the frequency of her weird premonitions.
Catherine’s visions of black masses and human sacrifice are only part of her problem. We soon learn that she is the direct descendant of an evil witch whom Uncle Alexander is attempting to reincarnate, and that only her female blood, spilt on the first day of her 20th year, will suffice. He has also cast a spell that compels her boyfriend John, back in London, jump off a tower block to his death. Unaware of this, Catherine falls in love with her Uncle’s son, the not-entirely-sane Steven. Soon she regrets this, and what follows is a desperate struggle as she attempts to escape the clutches of her diabolical captors before they spill her birthday blood.
The story detailing Catherine’s captivity is quite a talky affair, so if you’re looking for something fast-paced to get your adrenaline pumping, then you might want to save a film like Satan’s Slave for another occasion when you’re feeling less demanding. On the other hand, if you like the sound of a slow building, creepy conspiracy plot involving a witches’ coven with a few tricks up its sleeve, then this might do the trick.
It’s not ALL talk, though, far from it. Satan’s Slave is liberally spiced with nasty, shocking sequences and horrific moments that include John’s demise – he jumps off the tower block roof and ends up as a dead heap of meat, twisted and bloody. If that disappoints, then fear not because the highlight is yet to come when Catherine resorts to stabbing Steven in the eye with a nail file, resulting in bloody squirts emanating from his eye. Schlock moments like this happily pop up every now and again. Just when you think everything’s a bit tame, it slaps you in the face. Satan’s Slave behaves like an evil cat – dark, quiet, sleepy, calm, collected, then in a second it’ll attack and claw your face to bits, so don’t let your guard down.
Michael (Alfred in Batman) Gough is the big name in the cast and he doesn’t disappoint as the head of the coven. He’s a real smoothie; caring, considerate and a gracious host but underneath we sense the evil and cunning. Gough handles the role with great gusto, delivering his ceremonial lines with Satanic-Shakespearian zeal. Martin Potter gives a superbly creepy performance as the unbalanced Stephen; one is never quite sure which direction he’ll turn in the next scene, and MacGillavray’s script gives his character good dimension; he’s twisted, but we can understand why. Barbara Kellerman gives a robust performance as Frances, a woman intrinsically involved in the whole gastly affair who still harbours a perverse longing for Steven. Candace Glendenning, who plays Catherine, sadly didn’t appear in any more films after Satan’s Slave. Stunningly beautiful, there’s no denying Glendenning’s delicate balance of independence and vulnerability, making her perfect for this role.
The estate where the film was shot is a character in itself – a huge house surrounded by acres of land was just what Norman J. Warren needed to give the story a strong sense of atmosphere and location. The nearby woods work perfectly as a place to hold ceremonies, populated by extremely creepy figures dressed in brown cloaks and holding fire torches. All those trees are also convenient if, say, you had the inclination to tie a naked virgin up…
Warren and (cinematographer/producer) Les Young’s widescreen photography on Satan’s Slave really helps bring everything to life, and now that it’s finally available as part of the box set we can see it as intended. The camerawork is assured, capturing the vast landscapes outside while also trapping Catherine between characters on the inside amongst the gorgeous interiors the mansion has to offer. Everything is helped along by John Scott’s magnificently haunting and unsettling musical score, the brilliance of which only becomes apparent for the first time on DVD, and is one of the biggest contributing elements which makes Satan’s Slave look at least twice its budget.
I like conspiracy movies, and I really like films that feel very English. Having always had a great fondness for movies about witches and the occult, in particular if they’re made in the 1970’s, there’s not much for me to dislike about Satan’s Slave. Yes it’s cheap, but the enthusiasm and passion of these young filmmakers shine through, making this a worthwhile entry in the annals of the post-Hammer British horror film, even if it does retain a distinctively Hammer flavour, albeit with added claret. Warren’s next film, Prey, would follow a very different path.
Bonus disc material: Creating Satan – excellent 30-minute documentary featuring Norman J. Warren, producer / cameraman Les Young, screenwriter David MacGillivray, production designer Hayden Pearce and actor Martin Potter. First rate stuff.
Extras on Satan’s Slave disc: Feature length commentary
Deleted scenes and out-takes
Devilish Music – featurette with composer John Scott
All you Need is Blood – 1976 BBC on-set documentary – perhaps the highlight ‘extra’ of the entire boxset.
30th May 04 When the guests do arrive, they have an amusing habit of dying. This is obviously bad for business and so, with family honour in jeopardy they take quite quickly to hiding the bodies, usually accompanied by some big musical number.
Top Ten Horror Scores 19th Aug 04 Ba da da Ba da da Ba da Ba da Ba da da… and on and on it goes. We all know this one.