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INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED (1970)
[aka Bloodsuckers]

"I couldn’t – make love to her. But Criseis said it didn’t matter. She said there were other things…."

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Director: Michael Burrowes (Robert Hartford-Davis)

Starring: Alex Davion, Patrick Mower, Patrick Macnee, Peter Cushing, Johnny Sekka, Madeline Hinde, Imogen Hassall, Edward Woodward

Screenplay: Julian More, based upon a novel by Simon Raven

Synopsis: Tony Seymore (Alex Davion) of the diplomatic service is called in when Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower), the son of the British Foreign Minister, becomes involved in a potential scandal while doing research in Greece. Visiting Oxford, where Richard is a lecturer, Seymore meets Walter Goodrich (Peter Cushing), the Provost of Richard’s college and the father of Penelope (Madeline Hinde), Richard’s ‘unofficial’ fiancée. He is also introduced to Bob Kirby (Johnny Sekka), Richard’s friend and favourite student, towards whom the Goodriches are actively hostile. Hearing that Seymore is going to Greece, Penelope and Bob insist upon accompanying him. In Athens, Seymore visits the British military attaché, Derek Longbow (Patrick Macnee), who tells him that Richard has been spending all of his time with a jet-setting socialite crowd and seems to have fallen under the influence of a mysterious woman called Chriseis (Imogen Hassall). Richard, meanwhile, is with Chriseis at a drug-induced orgy, during which a woman is killed. Seymore, Penelope and Bob arrive in Mikonos, where Richard had been staying, only to find that he has fled. Bob taunts Penelope with the fact that she was never able to make Richard sleep with her. Seymore tells Bob that Richard had once admitted to being impotent, and later discusses with Longbow Bob’s theory that Richard’s impotence was a kind of psychological castration, brought about by the attempts of the Goodriches to control his life. Penelope and Bob are attacked by a group of men set on them by the mother of the girl killed at Chriseis’s orgy. At the police station, the group learns that similar killings occurred in the other places Richard had visited with Chriseis. The party travels to Hydra, visiting a monastery that Chriseis took the desperately ill Richard to for treatment, then tracking them to a stone fort high in the mountains, where Chriseis and her followers are about to sacrifice another victim….

Comments: This strange, muffled adaptation of Simon Raven’s novel "Doctors Wear Scarlet" is largely a film of missed opportunities. The concept of vampirism as a psychological illness is a fascinating one, but the filmmakers appear either not to have realised the potential of the story’s premise, or to have been unable or unwilling to deal in a straightforward manner with the sexual connotations of the story. The intended parallels between the restricted, ritualistic life of Oxford and the "primitive" behaviour of Chriseis and her followers seem to have escaped the production team. Instead, the screenplay puts Richard Fountain between opposing forces, emphasising the differences rather than the similarities between the two.

How much of this was imposed upon the film is difficult to say, but Incense For The Damned shows unmistakable signs of post-production tampering, with jerky editing, a narrative voice-over trying to cover up the gaps in the story and, above all, a ludicrous final scene that totally contradicts everything that had gone before it. (This sequence may have been the last straw for director Robert Hartford-Davis, who had his name removed from the credits. While some prints credit "Michael Burrowes" as director, the print I saw had no directorial credit at all.) Of what remains, the most positive aspect is the depiction of Oxford life that comprises the final section of the story. Indeed, the conciseness and clarity of these sequences suggests that someone connected with the production was drawing upon personal experience.

The scenes set in Greece are in very dismal contrast. Instead of attempting to explore the behaviour of Chriseis’ cult, the film wastes endless minutes in gratuitous nudity and boring, repetitive psychedelic sex-and-drugs scenes ripped off from Zabriskie Point (1970). There are one or two nice scenes in this section of the film (notably the moment when Tony Seymore unthinkingly throws spilled salt over his shoulder while sneering at "all superstitions, including Christianity"), but most of the running time is spent on confusing exposition and a series of increasingly silly chase sequences. (The nadir – or the pinnacle, depending upon how you look at things – is reached when Derek Longbow pursues Chriseis, both of them mounted upon mules that refuse to budge out of a slow walk.)

No real effort is made to depict Richard Fountain’s psychology; rather, the whole is conveyed via dialogue, with first Richard’s friends then Richard himself discussing the possible implications of his mental state. A belated attempt to link the effects of Oxford life with ancient Greek rituals is clumsy at best. Ordinarily, I’m against "travelogue" scenes in horror movies, but here I feel that the Greek locations were not sufficiently exploited: a little more local atmosphere might have compensated for some of the script’s shortcomings.

None of the principals of Incense For The Damned makes any real impression. Alex Davion is bland; Johnny Sekka and Madeline Hinde annoying; while Imogen Hassall glowers and pouts a lot, but never for a moment suggests the power that Chriseis is supposed to exert. Patrick Macnee at least looks like he is enjoying himself in a role that requires him to charge around like a B-grade James Bond. The strongest performances come in the film’s smaller roles. Patrick Mower is hardly convincing as an Oxford lecturer, but he successfully conveys the weakness of character that leaves Richard Fountain open to exploitation. Peter Cushing’s role is unfortunately brief, but the sheer force of his personality makes Walter Goodrich’s domination of his prospective son-in-law credible. The undoubted highlight of Incense For The Damned, however, is the hilarious cameo appearance by Edward Woodward as an anthropologist who delivers a po-faced lecture on human perversion (see "Immortal Dialogue"). There is also a charming performance by William Mervyn as Marc Honeydew, a colleague of Walter Goodrich’s who is resolutely unimpressed by him.