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Incense For The Damned (1970)
Director: Robert Hartford-Davies

review by Andrew Darlington
SPOILER ALERT!
It must have seemed a great idea at the time... Opening in Morse's Oxford to establish its prestige art-academic credentials, enhanced by a hip counter-culture orgiastic drug-sequence direct from The Trip, involving integral multi-sexual nudity; then forbidden texts tracing the roots of vampirism way-back further than 'Vlad the impaler', into blood-cult rituals in the Homeric Aegean. Further, there are atmospheric Hellenic locations in the arid lost pre-'Club 18-30' Greece of orthodox priests and classical ruins. The Greece, lest we forget, of the Colonel's fascist junta...

The first suspicion that all is not right is the excessive voiceover exposition, telling us in rapid catch-up-speak about Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower), the missing expert in Greek mythology and ancient Minoan rites. He is glimpsed conspicuously reading 'The Journal Of Hellenic Studies' to enhance such aesthetic pretensions. But, as the son of the foreign secretary, his less-than-academic presence in Greece is causing some embarrassment. So friends Anthony Seymore, Bob Kirby and Penelope Goodrich fly by Olympic airways out to Mykonos to find him, but he's already gone.

In fact he's otherwise engaged with the jet-set, with lotus-eating hedonists caught up in a group-grope tangle of languid bare limbs. A flame dissolves into an acid-orgy of glazed eyes. A girl tongues a white pill from the petals of a carnation. Trippy-music tracks slow-mo lips exchanging curls of hallucinogenic smoke mouth-to-mouth in a spiralling kaleidoscope-swirl of multiple-images, fusing nude statues and breasts. The psychedelic orgy climaxes in a Meredith Kercher-style knife murder. After which an old Greek crone finds the naked body of her daughter the following day in a tangle of ruins.

On the island where Shirley Valentine would be filmed, the investigating trio recruit Greek attaché Derek Longbow, played by Patrick Macnee in fine form. There are Avengers-style music scores setting the fight-sequences, he even twirls his signature brolly in one scene. Blonde Penelope is Richard's intended, and the daughter of Oxford Provost Dr Goodrich (Peter Cushing). She is stalked into a Crusader castle and attacked by three sinister Greeks, coordinated by the crone, despite Bob's heroic intervention. The police arrive in the nick of time.

Bob Kirby is Richard's favourite student. There are hints of jealousy and sexual intrigue. When Bob claims he's not homosexual, methinks he protests too much! Longbow suggests that perhaps Bob's African background has given him 'vivid imagination'. Meanwhile, it seems that missing Richard - a "reincarnation of Byron" as Longbow suggests, was on a quest to discover his 'manhood', and to find 'freedom'. But instead he's been seduced and abducted in a trance-state, taken to Hydra - the island where one-time resident Leonard Cohen wrote Bird On A Wire.

Richard is the victim of a supposedly-suppressed blood-cult overseen by Chriseis. She offers the escape he's seeking, despite the troubling subtext of his impotence, which might be of key significance. In an artful equal-opportunities gender-shift he's become the sacrificial virgin! His ancient sickness is a blood-curse from a mythology - like 'Christianity', which the monks have failed to extinguish. The rescuers travel up a narrow mule-path to 'the Monastery of the Blood of Christ' where they manage to retrieve the tranced-out Richard from under Chriseis' blood-sucking influence. But like a debauched aristo he's already seen portents of a death-eagle no-one else can see, and appeals to the gods, even as Longbow plummets to his death from a cliff-face, and she falls from a staircase in a tussle with Bob, and is also killed.

Back in Oxford, driving up a vehicle-free A40, Richard marries Penelope, but he's still haunted by images of Chriseis. At Lancaster College's quin-centennial dinner he delivers a subversive speech attacking the mind-control of rationalism and the 'academic hirelings' of the Oxford establishment, specifically singling out his now father-in-law, Dr Goodrich. Then he storms off, his red gown billowing like Dracula's cape. Tony and Bob break in on him as he sucks blood from Penelope's neck - hallucinating her to be Chriseis. Bob pursues him across the sloping Oxford roof-scape. Momentarily, Richard sees the blood on his hands, hears the death-screech of the unseen eagle, and falls to his death.

In a cover-up Dr Goorich claims they died in a suicide pact after "being misused by the world." But Bob and Tony know there is one last act they must perform... they enter the morgue and stake the bodies. Inappropriately re-titled Bloodsuckers for American release, such garish marketing is countered by its more considered direct reference to the psycho-sexual Freudian nature of vampirism, something that was already present in Christopher Lee's cinematic ghouls, back through Bela Lugosi... and even there in Bram Stoker. But seldom is it stated so explicitly.

Edward Woodward is brought in as a talking-head expert to affectionately sneer at such earlier celluloid-portrayals of Dracula, and explain how vampirism is a sado-masochistic sexual perversion. "Come come, Tony," he tuts, "don't be naïve. Man works and loves in many ways... you have voyeurs, transvestites, narcissists, bestialists - ah, it's a funny old world we live in." Unconvincingly, Tony counters that "I've been through the whole syllabus of perversion." Yeah, sure you have Tony. While Bob attempts to add supporting contemporary evidence by citing tabloid-tales about 'voodoo in Mayfair' and 'witches covens in Soho', hinting at an intent more serious than the usual run of cine-shockers.

Patrick Mower has since claimed there was post-production interference, with the gratuitously explicit orgy-sequences spliced in after editing; a severe sabotage of re-cuts that led director Robert Hartford-Davis to disown the project. Peter Cushing, as always, adds thoughtful gravitas. Imogen Hassel, who could be seen in Carry On Loving, later took her life. And Mower would eventually wind up with a character-role in Emmerdale. This is a movie that must have seemed a great idea at the time, even now it's evident there are some potentially good elements lost within it, the fact that they stay undeveloped leaves Incense For The Damned as a curio with aspirations beyond its reach.

Incense for the Damned, aka Bloodsuckers



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