Devil worshippers are running amuck in Greece, haven’t you heard? This Greek-English horror show stars Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance, so it can claim a built-in fan interest factor whether it’s good or bad. It’s fun to check out just to see what these stars got themselves into for a paycheck, back when Hammer was calling it quits and quality roles for U.K. pros were few and far between. Even Michael Powell’s name gets dropped in connection to this ‘shocker,’ which we saw here in the states under the title Land of the Minotaur. The pagan Minotaur god is no Bullwinkle J. Moose: he demands that all trespassers in his pagan temple die, and possessed kids are doing the killing.
The Devil’s Men
1976 / Color / 1:85 1:66 widescreen / 94 + 86 min. / Land of the Minotaur / Street Date February 21, 2022 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £15.99
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Peter Cushing, Luan Peters, Costa Skouras, Dimitris Bislanis, Anna Mantzourani, Christina, Nikos Verlel Verlikis, Bob Behling, Anestis Vlahos, George Veulis, Jane Lyle.
Cinematography: Aris Stavrou
Optical Effects: Zoran Perisic
Original Music: Brian Eno
Written by Arthur Rowe
Produced by Frixos Constantine
Directed by Costas Carayiannis
Oh, the travails of seeking out horror movies before the video era! It was difficult to know what one was getting into back in the 1970s, when the L.A. Times suddenly advertised a title that hadn’t been reviewed in Cinefantastique. We saw It’s Alive! and Horror Express when they were already two years old, and had a great time. But I drew the line at the unknown quantity “Land of the Minotaur” even though friend Hoyt Yeatman wanted to see it. He’d gone on his own to see Flesh for Frankenstein, and pronounced its ‘Spacevision’ 3-D setup to be excellent, better than what we’d seen in the reissue of House of Wax. Hoyt was disappointed by Land of the Minotaur . . . he was working on his own stop-motion animation films, and was hoping to see a dimensionally animated Minotaur.
What he got was a low-rent Greece-filmed horror thriller made just well enough to sell to distributors. Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance star, so we might immediately think it’s on the quality level of a Hammer Film. The story is set in an interesting location, and, and . . . I did mention Cushing and Pleasance, right? Although little else in the film is memorable, we have to admit that it was smartly packaged for international markets.
The original film The Devil’s Men is eight full minutes longer than what Hoyt saw; Powerhouse Indicator does due diligence by including new restorations of both versions. Reading PI’s insert booklet does add some interest. We find out why this average production sounds so good: Brian Eno took on the job of creating a spooky music soundtrack.
The Irish Father Roche (Donald Pleasance) welcomes various young travelers and archeology students to the Greek region where he serves. He warns them to stay away from a certain ancient temple rumored to be the center of a pagan tradition worshipping a Minotaur God. But nice young folk never seem to listen. They keep disappearing two by two, and the local cop (Dimitris Bislanis) scoffs at Father Roche’s requests for an investigation. Three more attractive kids drop by, and don’t heed Father Roche any more than their missing predecessors did. Sure enough, they and their funky microbus vanish as well. Roche gets no more information until Laurie (Luan Peters) shows up looking for one of them, Tom.
This is the last straw for the Padre, who summons his good friend Milo (Costa Skouras), a New York detective. The three of them visit the community on the hill above the ancient temple, and find themselves simultaneously patronized, ignored, and menaced by the locals. Baron Carofax (Peter Cushing), a Carpathian in exile, owns the local castle. Laurie is menaced in the night and Father Roche claims that devils are responsible, but Milo discounts his theories . . . until it becomes obvious that a sinister — sinister, I tell you — conspiracy has seized the village, and horrible rites are being performed.
The Devil’s Men isn’t particularly different or arresting; it’s a product just coherent enough to find international sales in ‘undiscriminating’ markets. The screenplay follows an investigatory pattern but doesn’t try for tension or surprise or anything fresh; we know exactly what’s going on from the pre-title sequence and spend the first hour waiting for the main players to catch up with us. Compensating are the always-watchable performances of Donald Pleasance and Peter Cushing, who together keep us curious to see what happens next.
The direction can best be called ‘lax,’ and the characters seldom behave in a way we understand: plunged into an undeniably sinister situation, they just refuse to listen to Father Roche’s warnings. Poor Father Roche is repeatedly chided for taking The Devil seriously — maybe his young friends needed to see The Exorcist. The film’s two or three casual sex scenes show what’s really on their minds.
The two established stars really share no scenes; Donald Pleasance holds the movie together almost single-handedly. Peter Cushing appears only now and then. He’s unctuously polite with the American visitors and coldly hostile when accused. We do enjoy seeing Cushing chortle quietly over his tormented captives. It’s as if The Grand Moff Tarkin overheard a moderately amusing joke.
Nobody else shows much in the way of acting ability. The New York ‘detective’ looks more like a slightly overfed Malibu beach boy, with a weird wig or hairstyle. He’s so dismissive of Father Roche’s faith and worries that we wonder why he took a plane halfway around the world to help. A particular child actress takes part in the ritual killings. She’s directed to stare stupidly at all times, like a sheep; even Laurie comments on her. Is she possessed? At the conclusion Father Roche says something about children being innocent, which doesn’t explain much.
The women on view are just girlfriends; they take nude showers, read letters naked, and stroll through the rural Greek environs in short-shorts two sizes too small — you think the conservative locals would punish them for that offense alone. Luan Peters has the impressive filmography, yet is present mainly to fill out a tight sweater, faint and scream. This is the kind of movie where people wander off alone in weird dangerous situations, and act genuinely surprised when bad things happen to them. Roche and Milo promise to look after Laurie, but literally abandon her — twice — to go chasing off after hooded nogoodniks. When Laurie is menaced by hooded creeps breaking into her shower, she’s told that she has a big imagination and needs to go get a good rest.
Costas Carayiannis’ direction is rudimentary, good enough to tell the story but not to give it a pace, a shape or an attitude. He ends far too many of his shots with a slow zoom, usually into somebody’s staring eyes. Time and again we see Pleasance or Cushing or somebody hit a final pose or tilt of the head and just stare, waiting for the zoom to finish and the director to call Cut. The camera operator does have a pretty smooth feel for the zoom knob. A few night shots are slightly out of focus. Some apparently authentic Greek caves are very atmosperic, and the set constructed (?) for the Minotaur’s temple is rather nicely done. Better lighting could have improved everything.
During the mysterioso temple scenes, when the Minotaur speaks in a booming voiceover, we’re given two odd flash forwards, premonitions of the Baron obeying the Minotaur’s commands. We twice see knives plunged into Father Roche’s chest. In one ‘projected’ killing vision Roche seemingly refuses to die, and Cushing’s smirk of satisfaction suddenly vanishes, in doubt. It’s the one moment that’s an unexpected surprise, minor though it may be.
Ambient music guru Brian Eno’s work for The Devil’s Men interests me, because it appears that he took greater charge of all the audio on the film enhancing the sound effects and working with the finished dialogue tracks supervised by the actor and dialogue director Robert Rietty. Eno provides the expected electronic background atmospheres and ambient growls, suspense stings, what have you — but he also does things to the sound effects and sometimes the dialogue to stylize them further, such as adding reverb and changing their pitch. Some footsteps and screams meld with the musical tonalities. None of these effects are earth-shattering, but Eno’s work provides a lot of support to weak content, such as the appearances of the Minotaur idol. It’s noted that the movie opens up with a familiar audio effect from the classic Night of the Demon, which I will theorize was Eno’s nod of respect to past accomplishments.
The frankly dismal end credit song, we’re happy to note, is not Eno’s work.
I also gravitated to the ‘optical effects’ credit for Zoran Perisic, who must have immediately left this show to go sell the Salkinds and Richard Donner on his ‘Zooptic’ zooming front projection system, which became an instrumental part of the next year’s Superman: The Movie. It looks as if the very creative Perisic did what he could to jazz up the ‘big’ moments for Devil’s Men. He augments views of the Minotaur idol with rapid dissolve overlays, and goes to town on the explosive finale, adding glares and flares to hype what otherwise might look like six static shots of mannequins blowing up.
The extras note that the famed filmmaker Michael Powell was associated with the producer during the movie. Powell himself writes as if he were near-destitute and in danger of losing his personal archives when the producer gave him a boost. Powell may have declined to direct or do much more than comment on Devil’s Men, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the grand old director got the producer access to the quality audio and effects people that give the show what polish it does have.
Powerhouse Indicator’s All-region Blu-ray of The Devil’s Men is a great encoding of two cuts of this mid-’70s horror show that won a very wide release. It’s billed as a new 2K restoration from the original negative, which looks right. The image looks just fine, even the replacement main title card on the shorter ‘Land of the Minotaur’ version. I watched the long version twice and just sampled the other, so can’t say what was taken out. If I were given the job of yanking a reel out of the movie, I would trim scenes for pace, overlap audio, but not drop whole scenes. The producers probably wouldn’t have liked that, as they wanted a movie for audiences that can barely follow a story, that don’t pay attention.
PI’s authors and commentators flatter the movie in the right way — they don’t try to pretend it’s a classic, and assess it with an open mind. Everyone knows that fans of the two stars will be pleased, at least to some degree. Online web writers David Flint and Adrian J Smith find plenty to discuss in the histories of the actors and the busy producer and director; we even get a run-down on the apparently very lively subgenre of Greek genre thrillers.
For a unique item we’re given producer Frixos Constantine, who carries on a quiet eight minute talk about his films and his director. Peter Cushing is heard in a public appearance at the National Film Theater in 1973, talking for a full ninety minutes.
More extras are noted below; we really liked the illustrated insert booklet with articles on Donald Pleasance, contemporary review excerpts, etc. One doesn’t leave a Powerhouse Indicator disc without a good perspective on what’s just been shown.
Who do you think was the more in-demand actor in 1975? A commentator suggests that Pleasance asked to play the priest instead of the cult leader as an artistic choice, but I have to think that he chose the character who had more paid days on the film. Baron Corofax’s part could be knocked off in three or four days, maybe less if somebody else doubled him when he’s wearing a red hood. Father Roche is in almost every scene. Both actors give the producer his money’s worth, especially Pleasance.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Devil’s Men
All-region Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Fair or Good -minus
Supplements (from PI):
Two presentations of the film: The Devil’s Men (94 mins), the original cut; and Land of the Minotaur (86 mins), the shorter US theatrical version
Audio commentary with critics and authors David Flint and Adrian J Smith (2022)
The John Player Lecture with Peter Cushing (1973, 92 mins): audio recording with the actor in conversation with David Castell at the National Film Theatre, London
This Life and the Next (2022, 8 mins): with producer Frixos Constantine
Feature-length Super 8 version (94 mins)
Image gallery: promotional and publicity material
Limited edition 36-page illustrated booklet with an essay by Andrew Graves, an archival interview with Donald Pleasence, extracts from original promotional materials, and an overview of contemporary critical responses.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 10, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson