Here’s an update of my first ever 'Not On DVD' entry from three years ago. Sadly, it’s still not on DVD, but I’d like to revamp the review, having watched it a couple more times…
Trawling through my VHS tapes, I'm reminded of good films that still aren't on DVD. I can only guess why this has dropped out of circulation, on DVD or even TV. There may be confusion over copyright or the cost of restoration may be too great for the perceived demand.
But it's a movie I'd love to see get a new lease of life...
I first saw this at the cinema on what was presumably a re-release, around 1968. It made quite an impression on me as a pre-teen, because of the upfront use of skulls and bloodied bats in the bizarrely literal title sequence, and for the disintegration scene in the climax, realised in a series of close-up, special FX make-ups. I always caught it when it showed again on TV, and wasn't disappointed by repeated viewings. The opening nightmare scene, the death-obsessed characters and the beautiful soundtrack by Joan Shakespeare, all continue to fascinate.
Architect Paul Carver (William Sylvester) believes he is a 'harbinger of doom', death seems to dog his every move. After the deaths of his wife and children, he takes a business trip to Morocco. There he meets an archaeologist and their assistant (Edward Underdown and Diane Clare) who are excavating an ancient tomb. Inside, a newly unearthed Princess of Darkness takes advantage of Carver's fatalistic mood to try and lure him into the denizens of the night.
Not even the pretty young Chantelle can cheer him up out of depression, not that she feels sorry for him. When she hears that Carver is newly bereaved, there's no quiet sympathetic words. Instead, she immediately lays into him for being morbid! I was shocked by her reaction, but don't think that it's an unrealistic approach. She's passionate and, well, French. Even though we, or Chantelle, haven't established just how recently the fatal accident was that wiped out his family, she's very angry at him for giving up on life. He's dwelling on the past, blaming himself and looking forward to drinking himself into oblivion. She continues to challenge his defeatism and continuing fascination with 'the dark'. Although it's not explicit, his fascination for the shadowy, reincarnated Marisa infers he is ready to give up on life. She's a very different breed of vampire, feeding on hope...
Shot mostly on location in Morocco, the film has an unusual look and feel, and considering Hammer's style of Dracula films was all the rage, this is quite a departure from the vampire mythos of the time.
William Sylvester stars, seen here between leading roles in Gorgo and the first man talking in 2001 - A Space Odyssey. Alizia Gur plays the 'vampire' after making a striking debut in the sweaty gypsy camp catfight in From Russia With Love. Diane Clare represents 'the light' and the love interest, in the same year she starred in Hammer's Plague of the ZombiesZombies. Special mention also for Terence De Marney as the maniacal Omar, the henchman doing the dirty work of the dark side. He'd just appeared in Die Monster Die, one of Boris Karloff's last films.
On balance, there are a few low-budget faults which I must bring to your attention. Many of the exteriors were shot day-for-night - quite a task considering Morocco's blistering sunlight. The TV print seems to have completely lost the plot as to which scenes are day or night, and some of the night-time scenes are as warm and light as daytime! Even if there was a 1.85 widescreen crop over the 4:3 image, it wouldn’t remove the bright blue sky from many shots. The climax seems to have been partly shot at dawn, which makes it the most successful-looking of the night-time scenes, even though it's shot in open desert.
Also, this is a very accent-heavy film. All the secondary characters have thick French accents (Morocco's second language) and the two main vampires, De Marney and Gur both seem to have been 'looped' by different actors. I know some viewers are very distracted by these technicalities, especially when modern sound-mixing is so much more careful. Old movies that mix synch (on the set) dialogue with looped (studio recording), the soundtrack can be a distracting obstacle when trying to get into a story.
Fans of mechanical bats will also delight in the fakery of the title sequence and those that appear throughout the film. One fairly convincing upward shot of the night sky, with a bat shadowing the architect, is spoilt by intercutting with the actor in daylight surroundings, a reverse situation from the jarring dove shot in Blade Runner.
Like many films of the time, the characters are vague about geographical details further than anything familiar to a general audience. They refer to Morocco, but not the cities or areas they are in. I also found this with heist caper Maroc 7 (1967), where the characters travel around Morocco without mentioning where in the country they are. On a recent visit to Marakech, I was hoping to establish that The Hand of Night had been shot around that city, but couldn't find anything at all familiar. The desert scenes also look very different to the landscapes in the recent The Hills Have Eyes remake, which was shot around nearby Ouarzazate, doubling for New Mexico.
I'd recommend The Hand of Night to fans of 1960's British horror. It has solid performances, gloomy supernatural drama, and is thick on atmosphere. But it’s not on DVD and I've not seen it on British TV for over 15 years. There are tatty bootlegs out there, but the film deserves much better. I’m baffled that William Sylvester's other sixties horrors Devils of Darkness (1965) and The Devil Doll (1964) have beaten this to DVD.
The opening moments of the film include Joan Shakespeare's haunting music, the unusual title sequence and the opening nightmare that sets up the story's themes...