11 December 2008 | Bunuel1976
THE HELLFIRE CLUB (Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman, 1961) ***
Having been aware of this film from its poster found in an old scrapbook of my father's as well as Leslie Halliwell's positive write-up in his film guide and given my own partiality to swashbucklers, I made it a point to catch this one during its sole TV screening in my neck of the woods which occurred in the mid-1990s. Somehow, I didn't tape it back then but, thankfully, I subsequently acquired it via Dark Sky's double-feature DVD where it was coupled with another vintage British genre film (albeit of the horror variety) BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1958; which I caught up with recently during this year's Halloween Challenge) produced by the same film-making duo behind THE HELLFIRE CLUB i.e. Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman. Swashbucklers had been Hollywood's most popular genres during the 1950s so it was almost inevitable that it should also flourish in Europe (Britain, France and Italy) as well. Other British examples were a handful of rather atypical Walt Disney productions and Hammer Films but also rare one-offs like THE MOONRAKER (1958) - another film whose poster graces that aforementioned scrapbook of my father's where he used to paste sundry posters and articles of movies released locally during the 1950s and early 1960s.
The plot line of a deposed aristocrat fighting to regain his rightful place is an age-old premise - think of Tyrone Power's South Seas adventure SON OF FURY (1942) for example - and this film follows in that fashion as well as Keith Michell is ousted by his villainous cousin (Peter Arne) who claims both his title and lands following the former's departure as a boy (played by the 1960 VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED's Martin Stephens) from under the clutches of his would-be Satanic father and his 'depraved' peers hence the title which, incidentally, was an underground society that truly existed but, unsurprisingly, this is no historical account. Ironically enough, the flight of the child and his long-suffering (and ill-fated) saintly mother was precipitated by the boy's cousin goading him to witness the debaucheries of their elders being held in the basement! Needless to say, such wickedness is only mildly (in fact, too mildly if you ask me) depicted by the film-makers and these quaint orgies (relagated to the start and end of the film) are more prone to raise a smile than an eyebrow but, even so, there are three instances of censor-baiting where fetching females (including red-headed Adrienne Corri and Kai Fischer) are shown bare-backed!
The hero had been taken by his loyal guardian (David Lodge) to stay with a travelling circus troupe where he grew up a strong,agile man with a penchant for theatricality, qualities which he will be forced to rely on in his future run-ins with Arne and his men. Swordfights, floggings, prison escapes and impersonations (by Michell of a foppish French ally of Arne's) are the order of the day making for a pacy, full-blooded entertainment punctuated by Clifton Parker's rousing music score (not to mention an amiably goofy cameo from Peter Cushing as Michell's attorney) that, while perhaps falling short of more renowned entries in the genre, is reasonably representative of its British variant made during its time.