Saturday, 24 January 2015

Sentinels of Darkness

Director: Manos Kalaitzakis
Writers: Manos Kalaitzakis, Duncan Skinner, Barbara J Helverson
Producer: Manos Kalaitzakis
Cast: Eileen Daly, Charly Barber, Sandra Darnell
Country: UK/Greece
Year of release: 2002
Reviewed from: Greek DVD (with thanks to Kathryn de Roet)
Website: http://sentinels-of-darkness.50megs.com

Even by my standards, Sentinels of Darkness is a truly extraordinary film. Actually, it seems to be several truly extraordinary films bolted together. It’s an Anglo-Greek production only ever released in Greece and is therefore one of the rarest British horror films of recent years. I believe that there may only be two copies of this DVD in the UK: Eileen Daly has one and I’ve got the other.

Ah yes, dear old Eileen. She’s in her element here.

Sentinels of Darkness is technically an anthology film, divided into three segments, the titles of which are only revealed in the end credits, and with the third, longest segment also acting as the framing story for the other two.

Greek Adka (Michalis Iatropoulos) shows an old book to American Paige (Vicky Harris, who was in a Nico Mastorakis film called .com for Murder alongside - holy crap, is this real? - Nastassja Kinski, Huey Lewis, Roger Daltrey and Julie Strain!). Adka explains that the book and a few leaflets which say things like ‘Join our clan’ and ‘Conquer the future’ and ‘Enlist now’ are the only evidence left which prove the existence of someone called Velislava. Almost immediately we are into a 1940s flashback where Velislava (Eileen of course) is some sort of vampire high priestess and Sandra (Sandra Darnell: Dreamscape) is a rogue vampire of some sort. There is a very confusing sequence where Velislava seduces and beds a bloke in a Nazi-style uniform while Sandra apparently points a gun at them from some shrubbery. But when Sandra fires the gun she destroys some sort of statue instead which we have never seen before.

This highlights two problems about this first segment (which is entitled ‘Curse of a Deathless’). The first is that most scenes are shot against an unlit black background, using just such props or set dressing as required. Consequently it’s very difficult to get any sense of space and the impression is given throughout that people talking to each other were shot separately. In this instance, it seems that we were confusingly cutting between two separate scenes rather than within one scene but later the opposite seems to be (equally confusingly) true.

The other problem - well, it’s more of a theme really - is that vast amounts of things explode in this film. There are physical pyrotechnics, there are digital fireballs. Things blow up like you wouldn’t believe.

Velislava sits on some sort of throne in a minimalist court set flanked by two male vampires, one of whom is Sandra’s boyfriend and possibly the fellow we just saw seduced by the ever-ready Ms Daly. (Before this we have a shot of two gunmen wearing purple hoods blasting away at Sandra without killing her; one of them holds his gun sideways in a way that no-one did in the 1940s because in those days nobody made dumb action films where people hold their pistols sideways to look cool.)

“We have graced you with the unique gift of deathlessness,” proclaims Eileen, probably the only actor in Britain who could say a line like that without corpsing, “and all we got in return was arrogance and insubordination. How dare you disrespect us in such a hideous way?”

To be fair, there is worse dialogue that that in this film, a lot worse. But I rapidly stopped writing it down when I realised that pretty much all the dialogue was like that. Damn it, I’m not transcribing the entire movie. The whole of this first segment is a never-ending stream of sixth form poetry, as if this was written by a 17-year-old goth chick with dyed hair, too much eye-liner, a Sisters of Mercy poster on her bedroom wall and an ambition to be some sort of unspecified ‘artist’. It gets slightly better in the second and third segments but only in the sense that those pages seem to have been written by a 20-year-old goth chick who has got laid, left art college, taken down the poster and decided to specifically become a ‘writer’ of some sort.

Really, you have never heard dialogue like this. It is as portentous as it is pretentious, full of hilariously overblown metaphors (“the ruby wine of life”) and utterly devoid of contractions so that every single line sounds like an announcement (or like Data on Star Trek). It’s like listening to an endless list of crappy fantasy book titles. That’s it: every line of dialogue sounds like the title of something. Something bad and unreadable. With a dragon on the cover.

As far as I can make out, Sandra has somehow betrayed her vampireness (her ‘deathlessness’) so she is sentenced to have her immortality revoked (leaving her, I suppose, deathlessnessless) and then be executed, when she shall suffer her deathlessnesslessness.

Specifically, she is to be crucified. Because it wouldn’t be a dodgy goth horror flick without some sort of ‘shocking’ anti-Christian imagery. (Speaking of imagery, there are Nazi eagles in the set and the costumes but without any swastikas.) As Sandra hangs bloody and bruised from a cross, surrounded by rotting corpses on similar crosses, she has a narrated flashback to when she first met, and was vampirised by, her undead boyfriend - who I think is called Dragan and is played by Peter Godwin (Pervirella, Razor Blade Smile) but only because I can identify all the other named male characters in the cast list.

All the scenes in this segment are jumbled up for some reason so we then have an inexplicable sequence where Velislava cuts her wrist to drain her blood into a cup, which an unharmed Sandra drinks. Ah heck, I’m going to give you another bit of dialogue here. This is the oath that Eileen (I can’t keep typing that bloody character name) makes Sandra repeat as part of this little ceremony.

“I am a vampire.
I worship my ego,
I worship my life,
For I am the only god that is.
I am a vampire."
(And anyone who knows their Hancock’s Half Hour will probably feel like joining me in a recitation of ‘Rinky tinky on purple grass.’)

Anyway, I don’t know what Eileen was expecting to happen here to Sandra but she is shocked when, well, nothing happens. Sandra reveals that she and Dragan switched the cups so she drank her own blood instead of Eileen’s. And the segment concludes with Eileen dying on a cross instead, which is now lying down on the side of a chalky hill for some reason.

Which brings us back to Adka and Paige and their British friend Jessica/Jessie (Welsh model Charly Barber) who are watching the end of a dodgy, sub-Hammer, 1960s horror/action movie called You Only Die Twice (‘A Filmfangs Production’). “In my early days in this country,” says Adka, “I was a propmaker for Filmfangs. Let me tell you what really happened.”

And thus we move swiftly into the second segment ‘Vampire Vendetta’ which is devoid of dialogue, being entirely narrated by an unnamed female vampire slayer (Natalie Jones, who was in a 2005 Doctor Who episode and is not, despite what the IMDB reckons, the porn star of that name). The star of You Only Die Twice was an actor named ‘The Duke’ who is described in the voice-over as “a horror movie star with a thing for street hookers” and who is successfully killed by the Slayer in a reasonably well-directed action scene featuring lots of breakages and explosions. But “The Duke’s only offspring, the invincible Nemesis” - a weird chick with straight, dyed red hair and a long, purple gown who floats down from the rafters - successfully resurrects her poppa by stabbing the Slayer then using the bloody dagger in some sort of ceremony.

The Duke is played by veteran Greek actor Nikos Tsachiridis who started acting in the early 1950s. His 120+ films include Island of Death, obscure 1970s Chris Wicking-scripted Anglo-Greek horror The Rhodes Incident aka Medusa and an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. British stuntwoman Dani Biernat plays his daughter, her stunt credits including Devil's Playground, The Phantom Menace, Tomorrow Never Dies, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Life on Mars and Doctor Who.

The Slayer recovers, and some months later is doing a favour for a pimp. Well, he had helped her in the past so she owes him a favour and has agreed to collect a couple of prossies who are overdue from their latest, erm, what would one call it? Anyway, they should have finished by now but but they’re late so the pimp has asked this woman whom we know only as the Slayer to drive over to somewhere and collect them. And although she’s back to full fitness after the unfortunate stabbing incident a few months ago, there don’t seem to be too many vampires around so she’s happy to do a bit of chauffeuring for her pal the pimp.

Yes, it really is as nonsensical as the above paragraph makes it sound. And of course this rather suggests that the two naked young ladies (Cindy Read and Amanda Dawkins, both of whom were also in Sacred Flesh) currently indulging in a lesbian tryst for The Duke aren’t actually ‘street hookers’. But never mind. There is a good deal of tastefully photographed and even slightly erotic sapphic ooh-la-la, accompanied by a swinging jazz soundtrack and overseen by a delighted The Duke. But then he has to take it too far and kill one of the whores while chowing down on the other.

All of which leads to a fight between the Slayer and Nemesis, under the watchful eye of The Duke, which ends with the Slayer smashing a bottle over Nemesis’ head and then slicing her head off. Whereupon The Duke howls an over-dubbed “No-o-o-o-o!” - the only word of actual dialogue in the segment - and bows his head for the Slayer to chop that off too.

Which is all well and good but isn’t this supposed to be Adka’s account of what happened on the set of You Only Die Twice when he was a propmaker? How does he know any of this? And why has he suddenly vanished from the linking material to which we return. Paige and Jessica now appear to be room-mates, with Jessie trying to get over a relationship, so Paige persuades her to come out to “the hottest place in town” - a night club called ‘The Coven’ (which Paige mispronounces ‘coe-ven’).

In this establishment they meet two men who already know Paige: balding Jordan (Duncan Skinner, who also wrote some of the script and subsequently executive produced Kim Sønderholm’s feature Craig) and the club’s owner Ian (Ian Robertson) who has the voice of Roger Moore and the hairstyle of Steven Segal. Returning for a second night, the girls are drugged by the men (who are, of course, vampires) and turned.

Then suddenly, without explanation, Adka turns up, whereupon Ian calls him a “self-appointed slayer” and kills him. Poor old Adka. When the movie started he was studying that ancient book and it looked like he would be a major character. But since then he has had about three lines of dialogue and screen time of about 90 seconds. And now he is dead and no-one ever mentions him again.

The two girls are unhappy about killing people to survive but decide that it might be okay if they only feed on horrible people. Paige comes across a pimp (David de Villiers) slapping around a whore (former ‘Miss Greece’ Evelina Papantoniou) and challenges him. He comes at her with a flick-knife but she disarms him, beats him up and then ties him to the upright brush of a car-wash so large that it must be a lorry-wash. Which you must admit is an odd thing to tie someone to. And the ladies then bite his neck and drink his blood.

Meanwhile, Ian and Jordan are worried for some reason, sure that Paige and Jessica will harm them. Jordan, on his own, is given a present by the girls to say thank you for introducing them to a life of violence, fear and sticky red liquids. It’s a lovely present, all wrapped up in paper and everything. When he unwraps it... it’s a book. But not any book, it’s Velislava’s book, which has a 3D demon face on the front. Apparently when Adka came to rescue them he brought this and dropped it and Ian picked it up and kept it in his study but Paige stole it from there. Don’t you love films where major plot points are not shown but simply described in summary by a character when it becomes expedient to do so.

Well, some sort of beam of stuff blasts out of the demon face on the cover and kills Jordan. Then Ian arrives and sneers that the book is “nothing but a gimmick” but, in the film’s only genuinely - if momentarily - effective sequence, who should emerge from the book but Veliswotsit herself. Yay, Eileen’s back in town! And her enforced sixty year holiday inside the book has turned her into a good vampire so she kills Ian in some way and gives Paige and Jessie a pep talk about how to use the gift of deathlessness wisely.

That third segment is called ‘The Coven’ (or probably ‘The Coe-ven’) but it’s not quite over yet because we now visit a cinema which is hosting a weekend-long retrospective of Filmfangs movies (called, naturally, Filmfangsfestival). Paige, Jessie and lots of other people who we are possibly meant to recognise (but don’t) watch a trailer for Dungeon of the Demonic Doctors (“filmed in realistic Squirm-o-vision!”) and then the first few minutes of Satan’s Sluts (starring ‘Mona More’ and ‘Brenda Bare’). This has a dark-skinned girl (Elaine Eastman), named Ebony even though she’s a long way from being actually black, arguing with a blonde girl (Donna Chiappini) in a night-club washroom. After Blondie leaves, Ebony snorts some coke and then meets a pale, dark-lipped gothette (Nena Chronopoulou) who takes her home and bites her neck.

At this point, a sleazeball sitting next to Jessica (played, I think, by the film’s director Manos Kalaitzakis) asks her if she wants to get high, which cuts to Jessie and Paige back home with the guy, advancing on him with a flick-knife. And the whole thing wraps up with six and a half minutes of credits, padding the running time out to 72 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, Sentinels of Darkness isn’t actually bad - apart from the dialogue which is hilariously awful, especially in the first segment. The production values are actually fairly lavish, once we get past the we-can-afford-the-furniture-but-not-the-walls stuff. Most of the acting’s pretty good and the cinematography is great, Greg Theodoridis bringing an almost Bava-like colour palette to the photography. Visually, the film is remarkable.

But the plot doesn’t hold together at all. The first two segments have no real connection with the main bulk of the film, apart from Eileen’s brief, arbitrary resurrection near the end. All the ‘Filmfangs’ stuff is obviously meant to be an homage to Hammer but it’s laboured and obvious. Worst of all, the film simply doesn’t fit together. Adka’s demise is so swift and arbitrary that there must surely have been a much longer, unfilmed scene there.

There is so much crammed into the brief running time - first segment, second segment, third/framing segment, fake trailers and film clips, plus a prologue of captions apparently written by that 17-year-old goth chick, all in about 65 minutes of actual film - that there is no chance to explore anything in depth. Paige and Jessica’s revulsion at becoming vampires, the female slayer’s background and motivation, anything at all about Adka - none of this gets dealt with or even touched upon, and Christ knows what’s going on in that first segment which really just seems like a random collection of scenes from some longer story.

Possibly one reason for the disjointed, unsatisfactory nature of the script is the extraordinary writing credits which are considerably more complex than the Inaccurate Movie Database would lead you to believe.

The prologue, which presumably refers to Adka and Paige looking at the book and leaflets, was written by Manos Kalaitzakis and Duncan Skinner with ‘featured poetry “Drink Deeply and Dream” by Apoetess’ (sic), which presumably refers to the opening captions. The story and screenplay of ‘Curse of a Deathless’ are credited solely to Kalaitzakis ‘featuring selected writings by Marius Montefeltro; featured poetry “The Hunger” by Lee Clark, “The Gift” by Joni Latham, “Angel Heart” by Apoetess.’ With that number of people contributing words to something that doesn’t run much over a quarter of an hour, is it any wonder that it makes no sense? ‘Vampire Vendetta’ is again credited solely to the director (without any poetry) but then ‘The Coven’ has a story and screenplay credit shared between Kalaitzakis, Skinner and ‘Barbara J Helverson aka Bonniejean’. Skinner gets an additional solo credit for having written the ‘retro trailer voice-overs’.

You can actually read Joni Latham’s poem ‘The Gift’ here. I think it’s what Sandra says in voice-over during the flashback of how she met Dragan. I think. On another webpage, Latham refers to ‘Bonnie Jean Hamilton’ who is presumably ‘Barbara J Helverson aka Bonniejean’. [Yes, this is the same person: Barbara Helverson, who wrote the short story of 'the Coven' as BonnieJean Hamilton, a combination of a childhood nickname and her maiden name. Kalaitzakis found the story on a website although Helverson has subsequently removed it from the web in the hope that it might one day be properly published. Apparently the story is sustantially different to the film. - MJS]

Filmed entirely in English, Sentinels of Darkness was shot in both countries. The first segment was actually filmed at Ealing Studios, the second was made in Islington and the rest of the film was shot just outside Athens, with post-production in both the UK and Greece. Despite the presence of many British actors in the cast, all of them except Eileen and a couple of the porno girls are actually based in Greece, even some of the ones who shot their scenes in London. Incidentally, four actors are credited as ‘Yodt lead’ and ‘1st, 2nd and 3rd Yodt victims’ which puzzled me immensely until I realised that these were the gun-toting actors seen in the clip from You Only Die Twice (= YODT). One of these, Christos Mantakas was also in legendary 1999 Greek sci-fi comedy - and I promise that I am not making this up - Attack of the Giant Moussaka.

The Greek DVD of Sentinels of Darkness includes two trailers, thirty seconds of behind-the-scenes footage of stunt co-ordinator Peter Brayham, four minutes of bloopers (mostly involving Duncan Skinner) and an eleven-minute montage of behind-the-scenes photos. One of the trailers reminded me quite how many things blow up in this film, as I think I have mentioned. One superb moment which had slipped my mind until I saw the trailer was that one of the masked goons in the You Only Die Twice gunfight gets hit by machine gun fire, leaps into the air - and explodes! Boy, I have never seen a vampire film with so many explosions.

Michalis Samiotis was the special effects supervisor, an experienced bod who also worked on Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the 2005 BBC adaptation of My Family and Other Animals and an Aussie romcom called Beware of Greeks Bearing Guns! Like everyone in the Greek film industry (it seems) he has worked with Nico Mastorakis, in his case handling effects on Edge of Terror. For the UK shoot(s), Samiotis was joined by none other than Alan Whibley of a certain Cornish 'studio'. Make-up and prosthetic effects were handled by Melbourne-born brothers George and Roulis Alahouzos who, a few years later, created some of the headpieces and costumes for the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympics. Harold Herbert, who also worked on Attack of the Giant Moussaka - I’m telling you, it’s a real film - handled the digital effects.

One final recognisable name is Louise Ross, who appeared briefly on screen in Sacred Flesh and who used to be marketing manager at Redemption. On this film she was location manager for the UK unit.

Which just leaves the question of who is Manos Kalaitzakis, to which the answer is I haven’t a clue. I can find no biographical information anywhere on the web and no other credits. The Inaccurate Movie Database reckons he was 1st AD on a 1987 Greek picture under a slightly different name so that probably isn’t him. Especially as, judging by the photos and footage in the DVD extras, he would have been about ten at the time. He’s a mystery man and his sole cinematic work is a mystery film which evidently had a VHS and DVD release in Greece in 2002 (the on-screen copyright is 2001) but doesn’t seem to have ever been released in the UK or, frankly, anywhere that isn’t Greece.

Incidentally, check out the VHS sleeve and specifically the names at the top. That’s the bloke who plays Adka for a minute and a half, two women who appear briefly in clips of fake films (the gothette in Satan’s Sluts and the ‘Yodt lead’) and someone called Eillen Daly! On the DVD release, not only was Eileen’s name spelled correctly but Lydia Iliopoulou had been replaced with the considerably more famous Nikos Tsachiridis (The Duke) although Nena Chronopoulou was still on there so she must have a good agent. (I thought that her name was spelled ‘Kronopoulou’ on the sleeve but it’s actually ‘Xronopoulou’, under which name a Google image search throws up a few sexy nude photos of her but no information.)

It’s a real shame that this remains so obscure because it’s a fascinating film. It’s not really that bad and where it is that bad it is at least entertainingly bad. But much of the film is quite decent: direction, acting, design and number of explosions. What happened to this film? Why did it disappear from view like this? Answers please on a postcard of the Acropolis...

MJS rating: B

Review originally posted 14th November 2008

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