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Devil's Men (aka Land of the Minotaur), The
Only completest fans of horror icons Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance and, oddly enough, musician Brian Eno will get much out of The Devil's Men (1976), a lackluster tale of devil-worshipers kidnapping unfortunate young couples for their human sacrifices. The devil in this case takes the form of a, shall we say, anatomically correct Minotaur statue spewing flames from its nostrils but which does little else, other than repeatedly bellow "Those who enter the forbidden chamber of the Minotaur must die!" It certainly never comes to life, as suggested by the great one-sheet posters for the substantially cut American release, retitled Land of the Minotaur. Anyone expecting Ray Harryhausen-type effects is in for a big disappointment. At least DD Video's super-deluxe treatment salvages the viewing experience with their usual fine assortment of extras.
The picture was shot and co-financed by Greeks, and filmed entirely on location there, partly with the hopes of turning that part of Europe into the next Almeria, or Zagreb, or something. Anyway, Satanists led by Carpathian expatriate Baron Corofax (Peter Cushing) seem to require almost daily human sacrifices - in pairs yet - and this arouses the suspicions of an Irish priest, Father Roche (Donald Pleasance), a "world authority on ancient religions." Eventually, he's joined by Lori (Luan Peters), whose boyfriend has turned up missing, and Roche's former pupil Milo (Costas Skouras), an American now working as a private eye.
That Milo turns out to be one of the least charismatic and almost awesomely useless heroes in the history of the horror genre is but one of The Devil's Men many problems. A Greek's idea of Sam Spade, shaggy-haired Milo is a Doubting Thomas who drives around delivering lines like "I deal in facts!" and plugging immortals with his gat, often getting in the way of Roche's more spiritual approach. There's a good deal of misplaced comedy involving Milo's bad driving, a peculiarly common device of desperate screenwriters.
Though Greece tends to evoke images of the Parthenon and Anthony Quinn's Zorba, the countryside as presented here is mostly unattractive scrub country, and might just as well be Palmdale, California for all the difference it makes. The picture reportedly cost $650,000, slightly above average during a declining period of this sort of picture, yet there is much sloppiness throughout, like a funeral scene whose melancholy evaporates when an extra can't resist giving the camera a big toothy grin.
And while the Greek countryside certainly contrasts the overly familiar acreage around Bray and Shepperton, the tepid story is business as usual, which mechanically plays out to its less-than-thrilling climax. Like Curse of the Crimson Altar the picture is in such a hurry to get its exploitable elements front-and-center that all of the mystery is evaporated five minutes in. Most of the picture consists of bland scenes of utterly gratuitous lovemaking intercut with tame human sacrifices and the worried pleas of Father Roche.
The entire film was looped in postproduction. Cushing and Pleasance matched their lip movements -- well, most of the time, anyway, but the Greek actors are looped by others and come off less well, given flat American accents. Indeed, the producers almost seem to want to hide the film's origins. All the main characters are non-Greeks and all of the signage and conversations are in English.
Brian Eno's moody score is better than the film deserves. It actually generates some tension and mood in scenes where director Costas Karagiannis is of no help at all. If Cushing and Pleasance draw horror fans to The Devil's Men, than Eno's score helps make the viewing experience bearable. Neither actor adds very much; both play stock characters done better before.
Video & Audio
Disappointingly, The Devil's Men is presented in 4:3 letterboxed format (to about 1.85:1), rather than 16:9 anamorphic. That said the image is okay and readjusts reasonably well for widescreen sets. The transfer uses what looks like a 35mm print (bearing The Devil's Men title), complete with some splices at the heads and tails of reels and cracklin' on its mono optical soundtrack, but the color (original prints by Kay Labs) is fairly good and the image is reasonably sharp. This is the longer, British version of the picture for those who care. There are no subtitle options.
Extras include a modest Gallery of production stills. Better is the 24-minute Christopher Lee Interview about Peter Cushing, shot at the same time as his chats on Terence Fisher (on the Island of Terror DVD) and Boris Karloff (on Curse of the Crimson Altar). Lee talks to biographer Jonathan Rigby about his friendship with the late actor (who died in 1994), including their mutual love of animated shorts, Cushing's television career, and their last reunion, for a Hammer documentary filmed a few months before Cushing's death.
Also included is a terrific 24-page, Full-Color Booklet, full of interesting background on the production - including the surprising involvement of legendary director Michael Powell. The text is by Rigby and Marcus Hearn, and is full of great photos and other data.
The Devil's Men has a few good scenes and ideas - including one well-executed shock of a devil-worshiper coming back to life after being creamed by a Dodge minibus - but there's not enough of this, and the picture remains a curiosity at best.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.