An appreciation of the underrated British/Greek horror film
Released in 1976 in the U.S. by exploitation house Crown International to a moderately successful box office take and generally pitiful reviews, director Kostas Karagiannis‘s earthy and surreal horror mood-piece LAND OF THE MINOTAUR has been pretty easy to find on home viewing formats, popping up in rough looking pan and scan VHS versions and dodgy DVD releases in North America and in equally ugly (but thankfully uncut) editions in the UK. Scorpion Releasing even let it loose a few years back as a split disc with Norman J. Warren’s TERROR, uncut and in widescreen under it’s original title (THE DEVIL’S MEN) with little to no fanfare and that cut has been itself bootlegged to death.
Still, despite its exposure, I’ve sadly yet to hear anyone else seriously champion LAND OF THE MINOTAUR’s virtues.
So, with that, allow me to do so.
On the outskirts of a remote, inland village in beautiful, picturesque Greece (Aris Stavrou’s photography is stark and eye-filling), something secret, insidious and palpably evil lurks, sucking every too-curious young tourist into its maw and swallowing them whole. As the ever-expanding list of the curious missing travelers increases, an eccentric local Priest (the great Donald Pleasence) begins to suspect that a cult of mountain dwelling, black hooded, Minotaur-worshiping Satanists have gained a stronghold, sacrificing pretty young people to their titular stone hoof and horned, steam belching deity.
A battle of theological wits ensues between the fraught Father and the ultra-wicked village Magistrate/covert cult leader Baron Corofax (the perhaps even greater Peter Cushing in a rare, full-on chin-stroking villain role) and by the time the smoke clears and the last drop of crudely spilled virgin blood dries, only one of these admirably dedicated and faithful men will be left standing.
A British/Greek co-production, LAND OF THE MINOTAUR was indeed initially released in the UK under its original title as the sexier and bloodier THE DEVIL’S MEN and, after getting a few bits of PG-rating-ensuring blood and boob action removed, spat out stateside under its more lurid (and preferable) moniker. Slapped with one of the more outrageous, colorful and almost entirely misleading exploitation movie posters of the 1970s (Half Man! Half Beast! Trapped in a Land Forgotten by Time!), the picture was wedged onto the bottom half of a Crown double bill, pulling in the pundits who were expecting an action packed genre picture, before fading into B-movie oblivion, relegated to after-hours TV showings and budget video waste bins everywhere.
I first saw LAND OF THE MINOTAUR during one of my indiscriminate Friday night teenage video rental binges in the mid 80’s, duped, just like that legion of kids in ’76, by that beautiful, deliciously busy cover graphic. And though I did not get the promised epic I had hoped for, what I did get was something far darker, stranger, solemn and bizarre; a picture that had a suffocating ambiance and dream-like atmosphere.
LAND OF THE MINOTAUR is a movie that demands an open mind and perhaps more importantly, an open ear. See, part of the shuddery secret of the film, outside of the engaging lead turns from veteran British horror pros Cushing and Pleasence (working together here for the first time since 1960’s masterful ‘Burke and Hare’ drama THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, another of my personal favorites), is an absolutely first rate experimental low frequency electronic score by the iconic composer/pop guru Brian Eno. The former Roxy Music mastermind coats this slowly-paced film with speaker throbbing drones, eerie synthesizer washes and pulses that render it almost meditative. It’s a case study for any serious horror movie minded music maker on how to milk unease out of imagery and the fact that this score isn’t available in any isolated form on CD or vinyl or anything is a very serious cinematic crime that will hopefully one day be rectified.
I really like LAND OF THE MINOTAUR. Make no mistake, it’s a lowbrow exploitation film but it’s one that’s filtered through a very stylized, art house sensibility. Don’t be swayed by the negative mainstream reviews and general fanboy silence. There’s something special in this one and maybe, with any luck, it might one day find the cult it so richly deserves.