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Mike Raven's double bill of Cornish Horrors
'Disciple of Death' isa low budget horror film that was released in October 1972. It is the second of two extraordinary Mike Raven films that were shot in Cornwall, the other being the slightly better known 'Crucible of Terror'. In both cases the fine-featured Raven stars as an archetypal villain. Born Churton Fairman, Raven worked in the West End theatre as a young man. In 1967, after several years in pirate radio - where he was known for his knowledge and love of blues music - he became one of the first intake of DJs on Radio One. By this time he had adopted a stage name that reflected his penchant for dressing in black which, together with goatee beard and chunky medallion, lent him a faintly malevolent aura.
In-keeping with this off-stage image, Raven landed significant roles in Hammer's kitsch 'Lust for a Vampire' and Amicus' 'I, Monster'; the latter alongside Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Both were released to a luke-warm response in 1971. 'Crucible of Terror' and 'Disciple of Death' were made shortly after this, independent of the big British production companies, and using relatively unknown directors. In the latter case Raven acted as co-producer and co-director, and contributed his own money to the costs.
'Crucible of Terror' is the story of a sadistic sculptor who lives in Cornwall, and makes sculptures of nude women by encasing them in a mould before killing them by pouring molten bronze inside. The film plays on Cornwall's reputation as a rural bohemia, and haunt of eccentric modern artists. In this case the artist's studio, with its hot, glowing forge, is set on a remote cliff side adjacent to a disused engine house near St Agnes.
The film is certainly a gruesome inversion of more saccharine, picturesque representations of Cornwall. However, Raven's other Cornish horror, 'Disciple of Death', has more supernatural content and landscape imagery, and is probably more interesting as a result.
Set in thelate 18th century, the sinister Raven character, who wears black, is only ever referred to as 'The Stranger' (above). He appears, mysteriously, in the heart of a small Cornish village, after a drop of blood is spilt on the grave-stone of a suicide victim. Thus revived from beyond the grave, he moves into the abandoned 'Old Hall', and abducts several young virgins. After he sacrifices them, ritualistically removing their hearts, they become zombie-slaves complete with floaty white robes and ashen faces.
The local parson, intent on stopping the bloodshed, is advised to visit 'Old Melchisedech' who is described as a cabalist. Melchisedech has a scrying mirror that he uses to observe proceedings from afar, and he provides the parson and Ralph - a young farmboy - with a talisman, magic sand and some holy water with which they defeat both The Stranger and a peculiar dwarf-spirit that is summoned to assist him.
Most of theoutdoor locations are in the Boscastle area of North Cornwall not far from the Museum of Witchcraft. Minster Church, on the outskirts of Boscastle, is clearly visible in one of the scenes, as is the ruined mill in Rocky Valley. Whilst we know that cunning men were very much active in Cornwall, and many of them cultivated a magical persona like Melchisedech's, the Satanism depicted in 'Disciple' is purely fictional and owes much to the Denis Wheatley school of occultism, and to related Gothic horror films like the 'Devil Rides Out'.
Clearly some have been put off by the film's low production values. Largely because of this, 'Disciple of Death' disappeared for many years, and since re-emerging in the era of the internet (it is currently on Youtube) it has received a smattering of negative reviews. However, compared to Hammer's output from the early 70's, which looks tired and formulaic and obviously staged, Raven's film is bold, quirky and engaging and, with its liberal use of Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue', includes ritual scenes that are genuinely gory and atmospheric.
It was, however, to be Raven's last foray into the film world. He ended up settling in Cornwall with his wife Mandy and, whilst living on Bodmin Moor, took up sculpture, exhibiting using his original birth name. He died in 1997, but was recently the subject of an exhibition by Darren Banks at the New Art Gallery, Walsall.
Full synopsis taken from the original press pack:
In a small village in 18th century England, JULIA, the Squire's daughter, is in love with RALPH,a young farmer who lives alone with his twin sister RUTH.
As the Squire and his wife disapprove of the match, the young lovers meet secretly in the overgrown garden of the Old Hall, a deserted mansion. Unwittingly they recall from the grave adamned soul who, during his mortal life had been the owner of this sinister house. Reappearing as a STRANGER he claims the Old Hall as his inheritance. At once a terrifying chain of events commences..two villagers are horribly murdered, while a third disappears without trace. Only the PARSON realises who is responsible, but seems helpless in the face of such evil.
While RALPH is away on business THE STRANGER kidnaps RUTH and transports her to thevaults beneath the Old Hall where he sacrifices her to his master-Satan. After THE STRANGER has cut out her heart, he squeezes the blood into a chalice from which he drinks at the climax of the ceremony; finally RUTH is transformed into one of the weird zombie-like creatures who attend him.
THE STRANGER next begins to exert a powerful influence over JULIA whom he realises couldbe the 'willing sacrifice' that he has been sent on earth to procure. In a last desperate attempt tofoil his schemes, RALPH and the PARSON travel to the distant hovel of MELCHISEDECH, an old Jewish cabalist, learned in the occult. He agrees to help and provides three magic weapons.
Armed with these they begin their return journey, but on their way have to contend with themalicious devices of a DWARF conjured up by THE STRANGER, In the end RALPH wins through, but only at the cost of the PARSON's life.
Arriving back at the village RALPH goes straight to the Manor house to look for JULIA, butfinds only the murdered bodies of her parents...THE STRANGER has already spirited her away. When RALPH breaks into the vaults of the Old Hall she is far under the spell of the forces of evil, on the very point of agreeing to surrender her body as a 'willing sacrifice'. Using the Talisman RALPH wakes JULIA from her trance....only to find that though reunited in their love, they are both THE STRANGER's prisoners.
THE STRANGER is furious at RALPH's interference and orders the death of the two younglovers. The zombie girls drag them to a yet deeper vault..The Torture Chamber. Here they are chained to a gigantic rack geared to a tread-mill which RUTH is forced to operate. Promising them an infinitely slow and painful death, THE STRANGER returns to his abode in Hell.
Through his pain RALPH pleads with RUTH to try to help them.Unable to free herself she overturns a candle which sets fire to the rack itself. The ropes holding the two young lovers burn just in time to release them from the flames. Silhouetted against the inferno they fall into each others arms...
Also see 'interviews' for Mandy Fairman's recollections