"Incense For The Damned" (renamed "Bloodsuckers" in the US, which is also the title used for this UK DVD release from Prism Leisure) must represent one of the more bizarre moments in British horror history ... all-be-it quite unintentionally. From its opening few sequences you can tell that there is something not quite right with this film: firstly, a crude voice-over bombards the bewildered viewer with reams of information concerning the main characters' backgrounds and their relationships with each other, while accompanied by split-screen footage of each of them that turns out to be taken from later sequences in the film. If you pay enough attention here, you'll discern that Oxford Don Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower) is engaged to be married to Penelope Goodrich (Madeline Hinde) who is the daughter of Dr Walter Goodrich (Peter Cushing), provost of a leading college at Oxford University. Fountain has disappeared while researching ancient Minoan rites in Cyprus; it is believed that he has become involved with drug-taking criminals, and his friend, British Foreign Office assistant Tony Seymour (Alex Davion), has been given the job of finding Fountain and bringing him home without causing an embarrassing political scandal. He also has the job of explaining everything that is going on (including all of the above), through voice-over narration, for most of the rest of the movie! Basically, the entire back story of the film is squeezed onto a three minute narration, which may sound like a very lazy form of film-making but, in this case, there turns out to be a very good reason for it.
Based on the novel "Doctors Wear Scarlet" by Simon Raven, "Incense For The Damned" was the ill-fated result of a collaboration between production companies Lucinda films and Titan International: a company founded by ex-Compton-Telki director and cinematographer, Robert Hartford-Davies and Peter Newbrook. After a few less-than-exciting comedies and musicals ("Gonks Go Beat" anyone?), Titan produced "Corruption": a little-seen variation on George Franju's "Eyes Without A Face" starring Peter Cushing, who also makes a brief but interesting appearance in this, the company's next horror-related project: "Incense For The Damned", which ended up being their final film. Unfortunately, money for the project ran out while Hartford-Davies and the crew were shooting the film's middle sequences in Cyprus, and the film was shelved until the director's business associates decided to salvage their investment by splicing together all the existing footage and adding a voice-over! Hartford-Davies, not surprisingly, didn't want his name attached to the resulting car-crash of a movie, and his director's credit goes to the fictional Michael Burrowes instead. This Frankenstein's monster of a film then sat on a shelf somewhere for five years, eventually resurfacing in 1976.
For the first ten minutes or so, this film does indeed look exactly like the end result of random off-cuts that have been assembled from a cutting room floor. As soon as the rambling voice-over intro is done, the first proper scene involves Seymour paying a visit to Dr. Goodrich at Oxford and meeting Fountain's fiancé and his best friend Bob Kirby (Johnny Sekka); a rather straightforward proposition you might think, but here it constitutes an astonishing embarrassment of frantic editing full of mismatched eye-lines and hilariously stiff acting that makes any episode of "Garth Marenghi's Dark Place" look like "Citizen Cane" by comparison. The best that can be said after this travesty is that things really can't get much worse -- and one suspects that the only reason the scene was cobbled together at all was because it gets Cushing into the film early, since he then disappears again until the final twenty-minutes!
Things never sink quite so low again, but they're hardly ever satisfactory either. Seymour, Penelope Goodrich and Bob Kirby are joined by another Oxford friend of Fountain's, Major Derek Longbow (Patrick MacNee), for a trip to Cyprus where more voice-over work and the occasional monologue from Longbow, explain to us how Fountain has fallen in with some-kind of cult, led by a mysterious woman called Chriseis (Imogin Hassall). The wayward don has succumbed to this malign influence because, for years, his mentor at Oxford, Dr. Goodrich, has controlled his career and meddled in Fountain's relationship with his daughter Penelope, leaving him feeling emotionally castrated and, quite literally ... impotent! Fountain's best friend feels the need to incongruously chip-in, at one point, that he is not a homosexual -- why is anybody's guess since no one ever suggested he was! But, presumably, the original story was going to imply that Fountain harboured suppressed homosexual feelings for Kirkby which account for his impotence with Penelope. Anyway, all this information is imparted as the characters walk around Cyprus in what amounts to some rather nice, but not terribly riveting, travelogue footage!
Things liven up suddenly with the discovery of a dead female -- in the version often shown on British television, we see that this is the result of a drug-fuelled, psychedelic, Satanic orgy involving Fountain and Chriseis, which is represented by that kaleidoscope effect they always used to use on Seventies editions of Top Of The Pops! However, that is not present in the version on this DVD (which is taken from an American print), and the scene is reserved for a "deleted scene" extra instead. Eventually, our heroes track Fountain and Chriseis down to a mountain-top fortification thanks to help from some Eastern Orthodox Clergymen. (These scenes, incidentally, feature loads of boom mikes in shot, and camera and boom shadows are visible all over the place!) Penelope then has a funny turn (some hilarious eye-rolling "acting" from Madeline Hinde here!) and gets sent home -- leaving one wondering why she ever turned up in the first place!
After they rescue Fountain (who we now actually get to see instead of just hearing about all the time!) the group notice that he appears to be in some kind of induced trance. Chriseis makes an attempt to get him back into her clasp, which results in Longbow getting bombarded with polystyrene rocks and knocked down the mountain to his death! Seymour and Kirby race back to the cavern where Fountain has been resting, to find (in the film's first truly arresting image) a crimson-mouthed Chriseis bending over their friend's neck, gorging herself on his blood!
The film then takes an unexpectedly interesting turn: Kirby and Seymour apparently kill Chriseis and everyone decamps back to Oxford! And now -- against all the odds -- things actually become quite interesting! The pity is that, by this point, the film has only just under twenty minutes left to run! It seems that this remaining footage (which is far more professionally shot than anything before it) would have constituted the core of the film's story had the picture been finished; and it is here that some interesting and original ideas are essayed that, although they're in a very embryonic form, nevertheless, imbue the material with a weight that scarcely seemed credible during the somewhat ridicules and clod-hoping adventure yarn that has just played out in front of us. One is tempted to ponder just what might have been had the film been completed and seen in the form in which it was intended. Firstly, Edward Woodward pops up, in a brief cameo as a history professor who introduces some unusual ideas on the origins of vampirism -- casting it as a sexual perversion borne of impotence in which the act of blood-drinking is seen as an alternative means of achieving orgasm! The previous mention of Fountain's impotence and his somewhat ambiguous relationship with "friend" Bob Kirby begins to have resonance here, as the film now draws metaphorical links between vampirism, the British class system, the stultifying influence of academia and the nascent counter-cultural movement! And with typical British bloody-mindedness, no one comes out of it looking that good! Peter Cushing's portrayal of the overbearing representative of Oxford academia, Dr. Walter Goodrich, offers an instant plus-point in the film's favour: Cushing gives the patrician educationalist a smooth, benevolent public face that conceals a mind like a slide rule! Goodrich is as controlling and unyielding as Patrick Mower's Richard Fountain is weak-willed and spineless. As soon as Fountain is back in circulation at Oxford, Goodrich begins organising his academic and personal life: arranging his schedule and his long-postponed wedding to the prim daughter, Penelope. Near the end of the film Fountain stands up at a College speech and delivers a devastating attack on his academic colleagues -- accusing them of leeching off of the young and attempting to control and manipulate them. Fountain's Satanic, blood-drinking friends represent "freedom" and are an obvious stand-in for the counter cultural movement of the late-sixties but as in "Blood On Satan's Claw" they are seen to be no more trustworthy or laudable than the establishment itself. Indeed, Fountain comes across as rather a childish and repressed figure -- and hardly inspires much sympathy. In the end, Edward Woodward's prophecy turns out to be correct and Fountain's attempt to consummate his relationship with Penelope ends with him ripping her throat out with his teeth! A moonlit chase across the college rooftops of Oxford university facilitates one last vampire metaphor as Fountain's "don" cloak flutters in a romantic Dracula-like fashion as he plunges to his death!
This almost brings to a close a rather perplexing chapter in British horror -- not quite though, because there is a scene which has been tacked on to the end, in which Fountain is "staked" by Kirby and Seymour, recanting on the metaphorical nature of the vampire motif Hartford-Davies has so assiduously cultivated throughout the rest of the film!
Good film making this is not; it's a total mess. Hartford-Davies attempted to make one film, didn't finish it, and so another completely different one was cobbled together out of the existing footage! What you have here is Ed Wood-esque ineptitude mixed with genuine flashes of brilliance and originality; unbelievably shit acting rubbing up against performances of commanding dignity (Cushing's final scene is one of the most emotional he ever appeared in!); and interesting sub-textual ideas stitched to a boring framework of mundane and uninspired adventure movie clichés. Fascinating and infuriating by equal measure, there certainly isn't anything quite like this completely barmy, but strangely essential, travesty.
The budget-priced R2 disc from Prism Leisure features a fair to middling full-screen transfer. Most of its faults are down to the original source material. The audio track is a thoroughly adequate mono. Extras consist of that psychedelic Satanic orgy deleted scene mentioned earlier and a series of cast filmographies.
That's it! This film will only be of any interest to British horror fans; how much you enjoy it will depend on just how perverse a sensibility to possess!