Shot for £30,000 during the winter of 1975-76, Satan’s Slave is a gritty, serious horror film which firmly establishes Warren’s style as one which, for the most part, avoids camp and gets the most of what were obviously very limited resources. He’s helped a good deal by David McGillivray’s script which, like his work for Pete Walker, succeeds in combining classic genre themes with a taut, realistic contemporary setting.
Spoilers for the film
The plot is nothing particularly original. Candace Glendenning, an actress who seems to have completely vanished, plays a young girl who is unexpectedly orphaned when her parents’ car blows up outside the house of her Uncle Alexander (Gough). She is taken in by her cousins but finds herself troubled by strange visions. Gradually, she falls in love with her cousin Stephen (Potter), much to the chagrin of her Uncle’s secretary Frances (Kellerman). What she doesn’t realise is that her intended role in the household is a good deal more sinister – and Satanic - than she could possibly expect.
There are two drawbacks here. Firstly, the decision to reveal Martin Potter’s character as certifiably insane during the first ten minutes means that he never seems sufficiently credible as a potential hero. Secondly, on a similar tack, the use of Michael Gough’s unmistakable voice in the opening scene has the same effect. One could argue that, in fact, the audience’s realisation that these characters are evil creates more suspense as we see Candace Glendenning being gulled into a false sense of security. I’m prepared to accept this in terms of Stephen but it’s obvious from the way the character is written that we’re meant to see Gough’s Uncle Alexander as a completely benevolent and sympathetic figure and that the revelation of his true nature is supposed to come as a shock.
However, it has to be said that Warren’s creation of atmosphere is quite brilliantly handled. His insistence on graphic details has not gone out of control here as it does in some of his later work but moments such as a graphic whipping/branding and a really horrible suicide do much to keep the audience unbalanced, especially since he stresses the contrast between the satanic reality and the domestic facade in this gorgeous old house – a real location in Pirbright, where much of the film was shot. This sense of unbalance is assisted by Candace Glendenning’s performance as a classic innocent in the midst of devilish goings-on. Her wide eyes were made for the role of victimised waif and her confusion at what’s happening is entirely believable. She’s certainly a good deal better than Barbara Kellerman, whose acting is enthusiastic but unconvincing – although since much of her screen time is devoted to shouting matches with Stephen and lines such as “I want you here! Damn you!”, this is perhaps understandable.
Every good horror film needs a strong sense of evil and that’s provided here by the great Michael Gough. In his younger days, as many commentators have observed, Gough’s enthusiastic camping was more embarrassing than entertaining but by 1975, he had matured into a subtle and highly capable actor and he’s perfect for this part – avuncular authority falling away to reveal unimaginable malevolence. His special ability, as demonstrated in films such as The Corpse, was to suggest depths of sadistic cruelty disguised between layers of bourgeois respectability and this is vital to the success of Satan’s Slave. However, the less said about his walrus moustache, the better. As the deeply troubled Stephen, the kind of man who, faced with an entirely willing partner, decides to rape her anyway, Martin Potter makes the correct decision to underplay for the most part, following an early scene where he laughs maniacally before smashing Gloria Wright’s head in a door. I’m not entirely sure about the character of Stephen though – we’re assured that seeing his mother ritually murdered by his father turned him into a psychopath which is surely the laziest, most clichéd cod-psychology imaginable. But since it leads to a deliriously daft scene where he disembowels another bit-part blonde following a snogging session, I can forgive this kind of short-hand laziness.
A good deal of credit for the success of Satan’s Slave should go to Les Young, whose cinematography is incredibly evocative. The decision to film virtually the whole film on location pays dividends in Young’s ability to create scenes of sinister beauty. Although he’s not quite in the John Coquillon class, Young does manage to turn the English countryside into a place of terror with some of the effectiveness of films such as Straw Dogs and Witchfinder General. He also does sterling work in the rooftop suicide sequence which is tremendously resourceful – not to mention quite insanely dangerous. The make-up by Nick Maley is equally ingenious, although the effectiveness of the bloodletting does seem to depend on how well individual shots have been processed.
Perhaps the biggest problem is David McGillivray’s screenplay. In terms of construction, it’s very good, although not dissimilar to House of Whipcord in the sense of a young innocent involved in murky goings on in the Home Counties. But his dialogue is, surprisingly, pretty hopeless, either over-expository or terse to the point of ellipsis and there are some scenes where the character witter on endlessly for absolutely no reason whatsoever. This does have the effect of heightening the grislier scenes – a nasty moment involving Barbara Kellerman and a piece of glass is quite gruelling – but the boring conversations between characters do get very tiresome. Certainly, this is a disappointing effort for the man who wrote the excellent Frightmare, a film which manages to take a silly subject and make it grittily realistic.
Overall, however, this is an effective film. Admittedly, my praise is largely based on how well Norman J. Warren and his collaborators overcome the numerous obstacles in producing an ultra low-budget horror film in mid-1970s Britain. In some scenes, there is unintentional comedy – a girl-on-girl Satanic ritual involving a crucifix is insanely funny – and the twists of the plot are telegraphed in advance. In fact, if you can’t guess the final twist then you obviously haven’t seen enough horror movies. But it’s energetic, entertaining and immensely enjoyable with a cast and crew who are clearly having a marvellous time – the budget meant that whenever you see robed devil-worshipping extras, you’re generally watching the crew since there was no money to pay anyone else.
As an aside, it’s very interesting to finally see these films in a relatively uncut form. Anyone who has only seen Satan’s Slave in the original UK cinema version or on television may be wondering why I’m talking about extreme gore. Well, finally we can see the film in something like its original version and it’s notable that Warren is so willing, much more so than Pete Walker, to go the extra mile in terms of blood and guts. I’m primarily thinking of the killing of the blonde girl, which is so gratuitous that it reminds one more of Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper than the work of any other British director.
Another footnote... Fans of Doctor Who will be delighted to note the presence of two stalwarts of that wonderful programme. Michael Gough was, of course, the Celestial Toymaker in the 1965 serial of the same name. Even better, Michael Craze, who plays Glendenning’s unfortunate boyfriend, played the Doctor’s companion Ben in the later Hartnell and early Troughton years. More “Who” connections to come later.
Satan’s Slave receives a very nice anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, reflecting the original Techniscope aspect ratio. Considering that the film has not been well stored, it looks pretty good here. Consequently, some scenes contain a considerable amount of minor print damage with nicks and scratches. However, much of the film looks as good as it ever has done with vibrant colours and a reasonable level of detail. Considering the low budget of the film, a slightly rough and ready appearance is inevitable but this is generally a very good transfer.
The soundtrack has, unfortunately, been messed about with. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is allegedly stereo but it sounded like mono pushed through both front speakers to me so I will give it the benefit of the doubt. Dialogue is clear and the music comes across superbly. The 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround mixes are the usual debacles that we’ve come to expect from Anchor Bay. The sound is certainly louder but the overall effect is certainly no better. Mono pushed through five speakers and fiddled with to give an appearance of separation is a complete waste of time as far as I’m concerned and is a waste of valuable time and resources. Anchor Bay would do better to concentrate on a full restoration of the original mono soundtracks rather than this kind of artificial fiddling which is so irksome to anyone who really cares about what films sound like.
However, honour is restored by the extras. Principle amongst these is a fantastic commentary track from Norman J. Warren and David McGillivray. This is packed with interesting inside information from Warren and lots of dryly funny talk from McGillivray, one of the best dry talkers in the business. I hope he’s featured in the upcoming Anchor Bay Pete Walker set because I can’t get enough of him. The two men dovetail very neatly with Warren proving very informative about the shoot and the ingenious ways in which he managed to work on a very low budget.
In addition, there is an eloquent interview from John Scott about the music for the film. This runs 13 minutes and is fascinating, not least for how generous and enthusiastic Scott is about both the film itself and the genre. Interestingly, the score was entirely recorded using acoustic instruments. His comments are backed up by an intelligent selection of film clips.
The Deleted and Alternative Scenes are rather disappointing. Presented in black and white - Warren didn't have enough money left to pay for a colour workprint - and without sound - the magnetic tape recordings have been lost. Warren talks over both of them. We get the 'Tea Party" scene, which looks just as boring as rumour has it, and an alternative dream sequence, which doesn't make a great deal of sense. Luckily, Warren has plenty to say about both of them.
"All You Need Is Blood" is a delightful 12 minute period piece about the making of the film which contains loads of behind-the-scenes insights and delicious interviews from the likes of Michael Gough. This is a fullscreen presentation and is in pretty ropey condition - although the fact it exists at all is something of a miracle.
Finally, the original theatrical trailer is present. Another period piece, it's just as hilarious as you might expect.
English subtitles are included for the main feature - a vast improvement on some earlier Anchor Bay releases - but not for the extra features.
Satan's Slave is considerably better than you might expect it to be and is a pretty good introduction to the work of one of England's lesser known directors. It's as uncut as it's ever been in the UK and the absence of the notorious "Japanese" version of the bedroom scene is not, by all accounts, to be mourned.