29 May 2004 | gavcrimson
Watch Out, Mike Raven's about.
Disciple of Death was one of two film vehicles designed to promote 47 year old Austin Churton Fairman alias Mike Raven, ballet dancer,lieutenant of infantry,classical actor,television producer,occult researcher,sculptor,interior designer,lobster fisherman,pirate radio disc jockey and in the early Seventies horror film star contender. The other film, 1971's Crucible of Terror-the story of a mad sculptor and a possessed kimono-is now something of a ubiquity of late-night television and the Raven vehicle most people will be acquainted with.
Like Crucible of Terror,Disciple of Death was shot around the Cornish coast despite Director Tom Parkinson having been known to refer to it as one of the most God-forsaken desolate places he'd ever seen or heard off. Parkinson had a TV background,making an acclaimed documentary on Irish racehorse Nijinsky before embarking on a brief horror career. Slow to start Disciple of Death is a period piece set in an 18th century Cornish community a decision that seems ambitious and/or foolish given the ultra-low budget (£50,000 mostly raised from a bank loan taken out by Raven). A couple,Julia and Ralph forbidden from seeing each other by her parents,pledge their love for one another by slicing their thumbs with a knife inadvertently spilling their blood on a grave which resurrects The Stranger' (Raven), a disciple of Satan who integrates himself into the community by masquerading as an long absent Lord of the Manor.
Two surprisingly gory set pieces follow,The Stranger interrupts an awkwardly coy sex scene by stabbing the man in the back,who then thoughtfully vomits blood onto his hysterical girlfriend's cleavage. Next Ralph's sister Ruth (Virginia Wetherell) finds herself bound and gagged on the Stranger's altar and offered the chance to be a willing sacrifice to the Stranger. She understandably refuses,then die and be my slave' rants the eyeball rolling Stranger before ripping out her heart and drinking her blood from a chalice.
Ralph and the slightly tipsy village parson (Ronald Lacey) seek help from Jewish Mystic the Old Cabalist Melchizadech' (Nicolas Amar) who prances around in a red cloak and a fake beard and whose mannerisms are strangely reminiscent of Old Mother Riley. Clearly intended as a stab at comic relief-its impossible to interpret these scenes any other way-this only sends what up until this point has been a deceptively serious horror film completely off balance with actor Nicolas Amar prone to much hysteria pitched acting and mugging. Worse still this all pans out as little more than a plot irreverence. Ditto the film's next act in which the Stranger summons a vampire dwarf in a red hat (played by one Rusty Goffe) to shoot fire balls at Ralph and the Parson during their hellish trek across the Cornish coast. A prolonged segment undoubtedly inspired by Parkinson's experiences making Crucible of Terror in which the only way to the set was a winding footpath down 300 foot cliffs.
It has to be said that Raven looks allot like Christopher Lee,previously the recipient of a rather desperate name check in the Crucible of Terror press-book which drags up an obscure fact about Raven once appearing in a non speaking role at the Old Vic alongside the now famous horror film star Christopher Lee'. Here the comparisons are far more blatant with Raven affording himself many Dracula' moments,appearing as a shadowy figure in young girls' bedrooms and cutting in innumerable close ups of his blood shot eyes. Clearly having a marvellous time Raven's performance is enthusiastic and anything but subtle,having put up most of the budget himself he clearly couldn't be controlled. Your reaction to Mike Raven horror star depends on how endearing you find the sight of an actor caked in blue stage make-up,evoking fires with his hands and relishing every word of dialogue like my task on earth is to supply my master Satan with an endless supply of virgin sacrifices'.
The publicity to Raven's films do much to paint him as a sinister quantity. Yet in spite of such calculated horror star image building the most memorably chilling sections of Disciple of Death involve not Raven but the Stranger's back from the dead female victims haunting the Cornish countryside dressed in long,flowing white dresses. The highlight being when an undead Virginia Wetherell temporary breaks free of the Stranger's influence and wanders off to pay brother Ralph a night time visit,her ghostly face staring at him through the window. Such moments hint at the poetic, gothic horror film that Raven and Parkinson were clearly aiming for after the contemporary Crucible of Terror. However the quality of the rest of the film is such that it is temping to write off any effective moments in Disciple of Death as little more than a series of happy accidents'. For the majority of the film remains amateurish in the extreme,shot in two weeks mostly at the houses of Raven's friends it is as close as the 1970's British horror film ever came to a home movie. The confused,disjoined tone is best summed up by the scene in which Ronald Lacey returns to the house of the Cabalist Melchizadech who for reasons unexplained has transformed into a skeleton, something that doesn't prevent Lacey from attempting to strike up a conversation with the corpse (I'm sorry to disturb you
it can wait'). It's a scenario that seemingly has even veteran thespian Lacey at a loss as to whether he should be playing the scene for comedy or expressing terror. An equal sense of bewilderment is sure to befall anyone who has seen the film,not that there can be that many. It originally went out on a double-bill with The Devil's Nightmare,before disappearing into complete obscurity having-unlike Crucible of Terrornever received any UK television screenings or a video release over the years. The film may have doomed Raven to be only remembered as an also ran in the grand old scheme of British horror films,but with all the Edward Lionheart overtones to his dedicated yet ultimately hammy performances and subsequent critical mauling he remains if nothing else an intriguing footnote.