Schlock Value: Land of the Minotaur
They say the night is darkest just before the dawn and that couldn’t be more true for silver screen veterans Donald Pleasence and Peter Cushing. You see, both of them were well past their prime, and despite a lengthy list of credits, their careers weren’t going anywhere. Pleasence hadn’t had a hit since the ‘60s (The Great Escape (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1967)), and Cushing was still pretty much coasting on Hammer films, cranking out Frankenstein movies well into the 70s, though by that time, they had suffered a considerable dip in quality. By 1978, however, they would each be thrust back into the spotlight, appearing in groundbreaking films that would completely change the face of cinema (Cushing in Star Wars and Pleasence in Halloween). Just before that however, their careers crossed paths in 1976 when they appeared together in Crown International Picture’s Land of the Minotaur, a craptastic little horror film about a priest on the Greek island of Minos who attempts to take down a local Satanic cult that’s been kidnapping tourists. Sounds awesome, right?
Right off the bat, I have to say the poster for this thing is by far the best I’ve seen since I’ve started this column. A huge, terrifying minotaur, with flames shooting from its nostrils, towers over a crumbling temple as a half-naked couple runs away from a mob of cloaked figures. There’s fire, there are skulls, there’s a naked woman about to be chopped in half by a guy with an enormous axe. Honestly, if it weren’t for the guy in the bell bottom jeans, the beautiful hand-painted imagery would have been right at home with that of the gothic horror resurgence during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. As for the trailer, I couldn’t find one. If one was cut, and I have to assume it was, it doesn’t exist on YouTube or anywhere else on the internet. So, this time, I’m going in solely on the strength of the talent and the poster. But really, if I’m being honest, once I saw that Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence were in it, I was already sold.
Like all great Satanic cult films, Land of the Minotaur kicks off with a ritual sacrifice. Peter Cushing and his merry gang of cultists, clad in only the finest of artificial silk klan robes, murder a couple of folks to honor a giant, flame-breathing anatomically correct minotaur statue. Meanwhile, Father Roche (Pleasence) has contacted the local police to report a missing couple—yes, the couple that was just murdered. Cue Ian, Tom and Beth, a group of friends visiting to check out a local archaeological site. It turns out Ian, Tom and Beth are friends of Father Roche, who offers them a place to stay. But despite Roche’s warnings to stay away from the ruins, the kids decide to sneak out in the middle of the night anyway. The next day, after camping overnight, Beth heads into town to get some more supplies, so the guys decide to check out the ruins. Before long, they discover the bodies of the couple from the first scene just before they’re ambushed by the huge minotaur statue, declaring “Those who enter the forbidden chamber of the minotaur must die!” Meanwhile, Beth runs into Peter Cushing at a local shop. We learn that his name is Baron Corofax, and that he is the owner of the ruins/underground sacrificial chamber. Not long after this meeting, Beth is also taken captive.
Enter Laurie Gordon, Tom’s girlfriend who has flown out to Minos to join her pals on the Greek archaeology adventure. Enter also Milo Kaye, Father Roche’s private investigator buddy from New York, whom Roche has called for help. From this point on, Laurie, Milo, and Roche form a sort of ragtag Scooby-Doo-esque group of investigators, however, in all honesty, Laurie is mostly there to be terrorized by cultists and Milo is the most useless private investigator known to man. This leaves Father Roche to do much of the heavy lifting. As the three delve further into the whereabouts of their missing friends, it becomes more and more apparent that something about the town is off. The more our investigators are able to unearth, the more shifty the townsfolk become. One woman tries to warn of the impending danger, but is frightened off, and later found dead. But when Father Roche pays Corofax a visit, he notices a child playing with an ancient relic which he recognizes as a symbol for human sacrifice. As our heroes inch closer to finding their friends and revealing the town’s dark truth, Corofax and his cult begin tightening their grip. When Laurie is finally abducted, Father Roche leads Milo into the belly of the beast, armed with the “one force with the power to stop them.” Hint: it’s God.
On paper, Land of the Minotaur is easily a must-watch. Anyone with a deep love and appreciation for film knows and loves Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence, so a horror movie starring both of them is a no-brainer. On top of that, the score was composed by ambient rock legend Brian Eno. In practice, however, it just doesn’t live up to modern expectations. Pleasence is mostly fine playing a pre-Halloween Dr. Loomis, but the rest of the characters are thin, Cushing and the rest of the cast really struggle to make them anything more than mere archetypes, which is a real shame. Despite much of the narrative relying on mystery and suspense, it’s mostly a dull slog with only a few mildly thrilling set pieces. Shockingly, for a movie of this type, I was surprised at the general lack of nudity and gore. Sure, there’s some, but not nearly enough to make up for the cardboard characters and lackluster plot. I really have to wonder how much of the film was left on the cutting room floor because there’s so much potential and little follow up on just about every front. The high point, by far, is the score. It’s sinister, and spooky, and possibly the only thing I can say actually meets expectations.
Aside from the sheer curiosity factor, there’s no compelling reason to recommend Land of the Minotaur to anyone but die-hard fans of Donald Pleasence, Peter Cushing and Brian Eno. Sadly, even those folks will be left wanting. Life’s too short. Don’t waste your time with this one. But for the morbidly curious, you can find it included with Mill Creek Entertainment’s Drive-In Cult Classics, Vol. 2 set.