Skip to content

Plot: what horrors lurk on the fog-enshrouded rocks of Snape Island?

Tower Of Evil (or Horror On Snape Island as it was originally called and Beyond the Fog when it was reissued in 1980) is one of those little British horror ditties that oozes with atmosphere. It might not exactly be innovative but what it does it does well. It came at the right time too. British horror comes in waves and with the old guard petering out due to a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with their slower paced style no longer being deemed fashionable) new blood was needed. And blood is what Tower Of Evil has. Filmed from a story by popular novelist George Baxt, photographed by veteran cinematographer Desmond Dickinson, and headlined by Barbara Steele heir apparent (and LWO favourite) Candace Glendenning Tower Of Evil has one foot in the future and the other in the past. It has all the charnel atmosphere of a classic gothic, leans ever so slightly into the psychotronica/psychedelia before exploding into a veritable orgy of terror and suspense with all blood and boobs you could want. Not too shabby for an unassuming little shocker filmed in four weeks in Surrey, England.

The terror and suspense subgenre evolved as a natural progression from the German krimi and the earliest examples of the Italian giallo. As near as we can tell it was a genre primarily exercised in Great Britain and North America as the Mediterranean European countries had their own well-established traditions in cinematic terror by that point and they only required slight adjusting to fit the changing political – and social climate. Once the krimi got rid of its police procedural aspect and the Brits left the sleuthing to Sherlock Holmes what you were left with were just ordinary people in extraordinary situations. The times were different. Hammer - once so revolutionary for updating the Universal Monsters with its instantly recognizable lush Victorian style – had become stuffy, too slowpaced, and, well, a bit old-fashioned. Amicus Productions always played second fiddle to the house of Hammer and they were on the way out too. At the dawn of this bold and defiant new age Tigon Films was on the rise. Enterpreneuring directors and producers Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren had their finger on the pulse and were about to claw their way through the old guard. British horror had grown old and was in dire need of rejuvenation. The man to do that was that very same Pete Walker. After a few jolly sexploitation romps the most logical thing to do was to infuse the British horror with a hefty amount blood, boobs, and extreme violence. Die Screaming, Marianne (1971) (with Susan George) would form the template for that. Tower Of Evil clearly looked to it for inspiration. What starts off as an atmospheric little gothic horror soon sheds its skin in favour of sheer terror and suspense.

One night sailors John Gurney (George Coulouris) and his son Hamp (Jack Watson) are inexplicably drawn to the fog-enshrouded Snape Island. Making their way through the the thick mists they stumble across several broken, mutilated, and dismembered bodies of a few kids. The elder of the two stumbles upon a naked, living member of the party. The girl, startled by John’s appearance and obviously mad with terror, stabs him in self-defense. The stabbing incident leads the authorities to the island. A preliminary interrogation yields that the lone survivor is displaced American Penelope Read (Candace Glendenning) - bloodspattered, naked, and screaming murder – who came to England to attend a jazz festival and witness to a massacre that left her friends mutilated and dead. Naturally pretty Penny is detained as a likely suspect as authorities deduce that she must be responsible for the slaying since there was nobody else on the island at the time. Penny, left in a state of catatonia from the horrors she was privy to, has since been securely locked up in a psychiatric hospital on the mainland in the care of Dr. Simpson (Anthony Valentine). The doctor will attempt to jog her memory by using state-of-the-art technology and hypnosis. Penny spins a mad tale of how her and her friends Mae (Seretta Wilson), Des (Robin Askwith) and Gary (John Hamill) were slain by unseen assailants materializing from the shadows.

Read’s parents hire private detective Evan Brent (Bryant Halliday) to conduct his own investigation into the events that left their daughter incarcerated. The rumours of a hidden Phoenician treasure of untold magnitude convinces local aristocrat Laurence Bakewell (Dennis Price) to mount an expedition to the island. On the promise of riches Bakewell hires four archeologists - explosives and demolition expert Adam (Mark Edwards), his ex girlfriend and Phoenician art expert Rose Mason (Jill Haworth), and bickering couple Dan Winthrop (Derek Folds) and his wife Nora (Anna Palk) – while Brent parlays his way into joining the expedition on grounds that he finds the evidence too circumstantial and that further investigating is needed. The team charters the Sea Ghost captained by Hamp and his nephew Brom (Gary Hamilton) and set course for Snape Island. Once the scientists have settled in and the necessary practical arrangements have been made old feuds, romantic and otherwise, are rekindled. The centerpiece of the island is the Tower Of Evil (actually a lighthouse, but roll with it) and before long the men and women of science have other things to worry about than who did what between the sheets with whom. None of which deters them from breaking apart in groups and exploring the darkened chasms and alcoves of their mountainous abode. One by one the scientists fall victim to an unseen knife-wielding assailant as the bowels of the mountain spill forth the worshippers of Baal going to drastic measures to protect their malefic deity’s shrine and buried age-old treasure.

For a modest little genre exercise Tower Of Evil has quite a star-studded cast of British greats, young and old. To start with the most obvious, who doesn’t love Candace Glendenning and Robin Askwith? Four years later Candace would star in the Norman J. Warren diabolism sleeper Satan’s Slave (1976) alongside Michael Gough. Askwith was a regular in sexploitation and would soon become one of the implacable pillars in British comedy thanks to appearances in The Canterbury Tales (1972), Carry On Girls (1973), and the evergreen four-part Confessions (1974-1977) series. Just a year later Glendenning and him would reunite in Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (1973) along a bevy of bosomy British belles. Seretta Wilson was, much like Jane Ryall (later Lyle), also a Brit that somehow ended up acting in a Greek movie. Much like Ryall she too was one of those homely-looking hippie chicks prone to wearing way too small midriff-baring tops and peeling them off just as quickly. Anna Palk was no stranger to shlocky horror as she had starred in The Earth Dies Screaming (1964), The Skull (1965), and The Frozen Dead (1966). Tower Of Evil marked her last theatrical appearance before she turned to television.

John Hamill was a model who had starred in the Freddie Francis prehistoric monster disaster Trog (1970). Jill Haworth was a former Broadway actress who had starred in Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Haunted House of Horror (1969), and was two years away from the amiable Freaks (1932) imitation The Mutations (1974). Mark Edwards had starred in Hammer’s Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971) (with Valerie Leon). Bryant Haliday was not an actor by trade. He was the co-founder of Janus Films, and with his distribution company he introduced North America to the arthouse of Michelangelo Antonioni, Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and François Truffaut. George Coulouris, Dennis Price and Anthony Valentine appear in cameos. In 1972 Price was an over-the-hill bloated drunk and recovering gambler still reeling from his 1967 bankruptcy. In his twilight Price could be seen in The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Twins Of Evil (1971), Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972), and Theater of Blood (1973).

If anything Die Screaming, Marianne (1971) signaled that the days of Hammer were over. Who has time, or need, for ancient castles, curses, and hidden monsters when everyday life posed a whole host of new threats and dangers for regular people? As always with British horror the women all are beautiful and a combination of beloved screen veterans and young starlets. Most of them wear mod-fabulous mini skirts and high heeled boots, the kind of fashionable attire no serious practitioner of science would ever wear for an expedition due to its sheer impractability. There’s knickers and knockers aplenty. When we first lay eyes on young Penny she’s stark-naked, cowering in fear and covered in blood. Did Walker got his idea to introduce his Penny (not played by Glendenning) in his The Flesh and Blood Show (1973) here? In fact Tower Of Evil is all about equal opportunity as it relishes just as much in the undressing of the guys as it does of the girls. Also not important and pretty much a character in their own right are the mist-shrouded Surrey locales. In between the rampant bloodletting, the severing of multiple extremities, and the acres of skin Tower Of Evil is a feast of familiarity with enough new thrills to keep it all exciting.

Plot: who or what is causing the dead to rise in a sleepy Cornish hamlet?

The house of Hammer could never be accused of not pouring their everything into whatever they were producing. If it has attained any kind of longevity these days it’s because The Plague Of the Zombies was the second in a double feature with the much more high-profile Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). While that’s hardly the worst company to be in even Hammer’s secondary features always ooze with charm. The Plague Of the Zombies has the benefit of a lovable cast of reliable second-stringers headlined by one of Hammer’s unsung leading men, the always prim and perfectly groomed André Morell. The Plague Of the Zombies is a delightfully old-fashioned zombie movie and spiritually far closer to, say, something like Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) or Del Tenney’s I Eat Your Skin (1964/1971). As such it was likely the last of its kind before George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) would immediately and profoundly change the zombie movie as it was understood. Five decades and a half later it’s nigh on unfathomable to grasp what a stark difference these two years make. In good old Hammer tradition The Plague Of the Zombies is overflowing with atmosphere and even without any of their big stars it’s well worth checking out.

Great Britain, 1860. Sir James Forbes (André Morell), a retired doctor and respected medical professor, receives a letter from his friend and former student Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) who’s currently practicing in a sleepy hamlet in Cornwall. In the letter Tompson explains that his village has been engulfed by a mysterious plague in the last year and that the affliction has claimed the lives of twelve so far. He hopes that his old mentor might be able to shed some light on the disease given his decades of experience and breadth of knowledge. Tompson is married to Alice (Jacqueline Pearce), a good friend of Forbes’ daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare). At Sylvia’s insistence Forbes decides to travel to Cornwall and assist Tompson in investigating and combating the disease any way he can. In the village the Forbes carriage run into a group of mounted fox-hunters and draw the ire of their leader Denver (Alexander Davion, as Alex Davion) when Sylvia misdirects the hunters away from their prey. In town the fox-hunters surround the carriage, threatening life and limb of Sylvia and the chaos and confusion that follows is enough to disrupt a small funeral procession. Denver and his men knock the casket over the guardrail of a bridge spilling its contents, local man John Martinus (Ben Aris) into the water. The man’s brother Tom (Marcus Hammond) blames the Forbeses for Denver’s conduct and assures them that trouble awaits next time they meet. Their acquaintances with the locals made the Forbes hurry to meet the Tompsons. Sir James’ interest in the case is piqued when he lays eyes on young Alice.

Tompson has been unable to conduct any serious investigation into the affliction as the superstitious villagers don’t approve of autopsies and de facto town governor nobleman Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) has no intention is issuing him, or anybody else for that matter, the neccessary paperwork. Under the cloak of night the two men of science do what anyone in their position would and take to exhuming the dead Martinus brother themselves. Meanwhile Sylvia sees Alice skulking away in the darkness and decides to follow her. While Sylvia runs afoul of Denver and his gang Sir James and Peter are caught in flagrante delicto by sergeant Swift (Michael Ripper) and arrested for grave-robbing. The doctors are able to convince Swift to postpone proceedings for 48 hours and buy them some time to conduct their investigation. When Alice is found dead the following morning this leads to the arrest of the living Martinus as he’d been spotted where she was last seen alive. Tom explains that he last saw his brother carrying a woman in the woods and Sylvia agrees that the ghoul she saw bore enough of a resemblance to Tom’s deceased brother. Sir James seeks an audience with a local vicar (Roy Royston) to consult his vast library on the occult. From there he deducts that someone must be practicing Haitian Vodou. The next day Hamilton finds an elaborate excuse to procure Sylvia’s blood during Alice’s funeral ceremony and that night she’s summoned to his tin mines. While Peter follows Sylvia and Sir James investigates the squire’s dwelling the men of science conclude that they have identified the perpetrator at the root of the village’s apparent plague of the walking undead.

While he may have not been a Hammer leading man the way Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were, André Morell was a beloved force in British cinema. Morell debuted in 1938 and crossed paths with Anita Ekberg twice. First in Terence Young's Zarak (1956) (wherein Ekberg did a bellydance that would make Bella Cortez, Nai Bonet and Diana Bastet proud) and then again in the Anglo-American thriller Interpol (1957). He had prominent supporting roles in everything from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) to Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), and the big budget peplum Ben-Hur (1959). For Hammer he was a reliable lead when none of the big names were available and for the company he figured into other John Gilling-directed romps The Shadow of the Cat (1961) and The Mummy's Shroud (1967) but also She (1965) and its sequel. He alternated his horror pulp with prestigious big budget fare as Julius Caesar (1970), Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975), and The First Great Train Robbery (1978). Diane Clare was hardly a screamqueen as such but she had appearead in The Haunting (1963) and Witchcraft (1964). Jacqueline Pearce went on to have a respectable career in television but at this early stage in her career she was nothing more than a Barbara Steele wannabe. John Carson would later star in Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974). Hammer’s secondary features never lacked in charm and The Plague Of the Zombies easily can match itself with The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) from three years before.

The Plague of the Zombies was written by Peter Bryan who had written The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Brides Of Dracula (1960) for the company as well as The Blood Beast Terror (1968) for Tigon and the piss-poor Herman Cohen-produced prehistoric monster slog Trog (1970) (legendary for its embarrassing drunken performance from Hollywood Golden Age leading lady Joan Crawford). Posthumously Bryan was credited with co-writing the Antonio Margheriti giallo Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (1973) along with fellow Hammer alumnus Gilling. As was the money-saving tradition with Hammer by this point this was filmed this back-to-back with The Reptile (1966) allowing them to use many of the same sets, most noticeably the main village set on the back lot at Bray Studios. The score by James Bernard is his typical portent, pompous fare and nothing out of the ordinary as such. The special effects by Les Bowie and Roy Ashton are quite good, especially the ghoulish decayed zombie make-up is remarkable for the decade. Outside of one very obvious night-for-day section during the conclusion at the tin mine this is another Hammer feature that has aged quite gracefully. The costumes and locations are lovely as always and with someone like Morell standing in for Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee their absence isn’t really felt. Diane Clare is homely as Hammer starlets of this decade tended to be (nobody was going to mistake her for, say, Veronica Carlson or Susan Denberg) and the Jacqueline Pearce part could easlly been played by someone like Isobel Black.

What more is this if not a very British take on the Bela Lugosi monochrome horror classic White Zombie (1932)? By 1966 it was painfully clear that Hammer could no longer keep up with the rapidly changing European cinematic landscape and the latest Hollywood productions. The studio that once led to British horror through some of its greatest stylistic victories now had become a relic of a bygone era. In a desperate attempt to stay relevant in the wake of the explosion of erotic vampire horror following Emilio Vieyra's Blood Of the Virgins (1967), Jean Rollin’s The Nude Vampire (1970) and Jess Franco’s Soledad Miranda spectacular Vampyros Lesbos (1971) Hammer did the most logical from what they were famous for. Were before their productions were awash with heaving bosoms and gratuitous cleavage now they spiced up its gothics with an abundance of bare breasts and blood as models (nude and otherwise) took the place of actresses. And yes, this is where Norwegian black metal troublemakers Carpathian Forest took that songtitle for 2001’s “Morbid Fascination of Death” from, eventhough the song in question has no lyrical (or thematic) connection to the movie. For all intents and purposes, The Plague of the Zombies was about the last of its kind before Night of the Living Dead (1968) set the new standard and continental Europe (primarily Italy, and to a lesser degree Spain) dominated the genre by the next decade. As far as enduring legacies go, it’s hardly the worst thing to be remembered by.