Smarter Eddie

P1100125 (2)A week ahead of schedule – in yer face, Covid19- Ed gets his overdue grooming session and looks cute and tidy again.  So good in fact I think it deserves a second photograph. He certainly looks smarter than I do, I’m well past my grooming date (years past according to my wife, but hey ho at least I can resort to my astonishingly winning personality… I’ll, er, go get my coat….).

P1100123 (2).

Dracula’s not-so Satanic Rites

satanic1From the promising, heady early days of Hammer and its Quatermass, etc, we jump to its The Satanic Rites of Dracula, from 1973, when Hammer was well into its downward slide into oblivion. Well, to be fair it was hardly all Hammer’s fault- anyone who was around in the 1970s will testify to the gradual implosion of the British film industry during that decade, and all those old cinemas falling into ruin. We had two such cinemas in town- the Odeon and the ABC Cinema: not the prettiest places to visit and see a film in, most of the time it was a mission to pick the seat with the least holes in.

(It was the Odeon -the poshier, more architecturally resplendent one, with a lobby upstairs before entering the main screen garnished with theatrical posters and photographs- where I saw Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Empire Strikes Back and the ABC where I saw Star Trek: TMP, and Blade Runner).

But anyway, back to The Satanic Rites of Dracula. A horror film set in the then-present day, the film was greenlit alongside Dracula AD 1972, which came out, as that films title suggests, the year prior. Curiously, this enabled both films to have a shared narrative, if only thanks to some recurring characters. Peter Cushing returned as Occult expert  Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing having dispatched the vampire Dracula (Christopher Lee) at the end of the last film, but, er, clearly not dispatching the bugger as well as he should have done. Also returning is Van Helsing’s  grand daughter, Jessica – unfortunately Stephanie Beacham, who played her in Dracula AD 1972, was replaced by Joanna Lumley this time around. These days Lumley is something of a national institution and I’m loath to speak ill of her, but, well, she’s pretty lousy in this and a poor replacement for Beacham. Also returning is Inspector Murray (Michael Coles), who now fancies himself as something of a Kolchak: the Night Stalker and in line for his own series of movies.

satanic3Troublesomely, this film has a totally different style and sensibility to the previous film, which is rather disorientating considering we’ve so many familiar characters. Dracula AD 1972 was a very funky, painfully ‘cool’ take on bringing the vampire films to the modern era (such as it was in 1972/1973) by way of the blaxpoitation films that were so ‘hip’ back then, but Satanic Rites has a totally different feel. Obviously this was all part of a concerted effort to modernise the tired film series of Hammer Draculas and attempt to make them fresh and relevant again, but it mostly fails dismally. So distant is it, tonally, from the original Hammer Dracula films that it feels like something else entirely and hardly a Hammer film at all.

Indeed, the nearest analogue to this film is the Halloween series and the third film in that franchise, Halloween III: Season of the Witch which deliberately tried to buck the tropes of those films and while it actually worked as a horror film it failed utterly to serve as a Halloween flick, confusing and alienating fans in similar fashion to Alien 3 (what is it with third entries?).

Satanic Rites dials back on Christopher Lee terrorising modern London and concerns itself with a bizarre cult that is working with an industrialist to wipe out the human race with a modern-day plague. It suggests that Dracula is so tired of the routine of eternal life and repeatedly getting impaled by these Van Helsing dudes that he’s ready to wipe out his food supply and perhaps get himself a rest via starvation. Ironically this darker, self-destructive Dracula might have offered something new for Christopher Lee to get his, ahem, teeth into but any such possibilities are largely wasted- Lee is given hardly anything to do, his Dracula mostly relegated to supporting actor in his own picture. Perhaps that was a result of Lee limiting his involvement and availability for filming, I don’t know.

All that remains is a rather cold film that doesn’t really have a sense of what it is doing or where it is going, other than being one film too many, and the end of what started as a great series of horror flicks: to offer another analogue, its the Superman IV: The Quest For Peace of Hammer horrors. Dracula AD 1972 didn’t really work either, but at least its funky sensibilities offered a little bit of fun. There’s no fun here at all in a frankly turgid offering.  Peter Cushing, mind, is still emoting like he’s delivering Shakespeare, and further proof that any film blessed with his name in the credits is a film worth seeing, even one as poor as this.

Fortunately for those interested, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is streaming ‘free’ on Amazon Prime here in the UK

 

Stand By Me and counting the years

standQuite how it had taken so many years for me to finally watch this film is quite beyond me. Its not as if I never read Stephen King stories or watch the movies based on them- quite the contrary. And yet it has taken so many years- Stand By Me was released back in 1986, which is what, 34 years ago, now. I suppose its nice that even after watching so many films over the years, there are still some genuinely good ones waiting for me to catch up with them. Films are patient. There’s great ones waiting for all of us.

That length of years is frightening, though. For instance, does anybody else think its scary that the length of time since the film came out is more than the distance in time between the films original release and when it was set, in 1959- a gap of just 27 years. So the narrator looking back and telling his tale is looking back 27 years, and me, I’m now 34 years distant from when the film came out. I imagine viewers in 1986 thinking that the films period setting was a distant time ago, and yet here I am now…. crumbs.

It just lends the film a certain feeling, seeing some of those actors -Will Wheaton, Richard Dreyfuss, Corey Fieldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, John Cusack- all looking so young, not to mention the added poignancy of seeing River Phoenix. Just on the evidence of this one film, its clear that he was an actor of considerable merit and screen charisma, destined to be a future star possibly as great as Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp… who knows where his future might have lead? As it turned out, he didn’t have that future, because he died of a drug overdose just 7 years after Stand By Me was released.

So Stand By Me is like some kind of impossible bubble of spacetime with those actors so incredibly young, the kids with their whole lives ahead of them… and me, sitting here in 2020 watching it for the first time. Suddenly appreciating why people have praised the film and sometimes remarked to me “what? You’ve never seen that yet?” in disbelief. The realisation that I have only watched it now because of something of a whim, having noticed the 4K UHD edition in a sale for £9.99 and thinking, maybe its worth a punt, maybe its as good as people say, and the film might cheer me up. We all need cheering up in these uncertain times. Chalk up one more positive to Covid19 then.

stand2Its a lovely little film. Hardly perfect but still, very good, and certainly one of the better Stephen King adaptations. Naturally it reminded me of American Graffiti, not just because Richard Dreyfuss features in both: the films are cinematic cousins, really, both period films about growing up, and how they used Rock n’Roll songs to form a soundtrack. I thought Jack Nitzche’s score and its use of the Ben E. King song was particularly fine, delicately done. Hey, American Graffiti– now there’s a film I really should find time to watch again.

Me, now, wondering what in the world I was doing back in 1986 that meant I was too busy to go watch this film or catch it on VHS rental or watch it on television showings over the years since. 1986 was the year Aliens came out, wasn’t it. And The Mission, and Day of the Dead, Poltergeist 2, Big Trouble in Little China… and Howard the Duck. Those were the films I watched at the cinema that year. Its funny how I remember years by what films I saw, sometimes its the only sense of perspective of time that I have now.

But that’s how films trick you, and release dates in particular- Stand By Me may have been released in late summer of 1986 in America, but digging around a little I discover that the film wasn’t released over here in the UK until early 1987. We forget it was a bigger world back then, and releases of films were spread across several months over International Territories.I remember one of the most exciting things about having a region-free DVD player when they came out in the late nineties (mine was an American machine with a transformer the size of a house brick) was that we could see films at home that still hadn’t even been released in the cinemas over here. So sure, Stand By Me was released back in 1986 in America but for us in the UK it was 1987, the year I went to watch other films like The Fly, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Innerspace instead. That’s just how I count the years.

 

 

The Quatermass Xperiment

quaterm1Continuing this recent Hammer marathon, my delve into Hammer films I haven’t seen before means we now go back a little further in time, to 1955. The Quatermass Xperiment is widely considered the beginning of the Hammer line of films that fantasy and horror fans hold dear and would both cement the company’s name in British film history, and put its films on the world stage.

The Quatermass Xperiment was based on Nigel Kneale’s BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment (note the subtle spelling change for the film version) from 1953. which had been hugely successful for the BBC. Hammer producer Anthony Hinds immediately saw the possibilities in a film version and  chased the film rights as soon as the six episodes were aired.

Three astronauts have been launched into space in the first launch of the British-American Rocket Group, which crashes back to Earth in an English field after straying off-course and out of contact with Ground Control. Of the three crew, only one remains, the only sign of the other two astronauts being their spacesuits, still sealed but empty. The sole remaining crew member is Victor Carroon (Richard Wandsworth) who is badly injured and incoherent.  Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) who is in charge of the project desperately tries to find out what happened to the flight while it disappeared for a number of hours, and what happened to the two missing crew. Meanwhile Carroon baffles his doctors, never becoming coherent and slowly deteriorating. Recovered from the crashed ship, in-flight footage from during the period in which the ship was out of contact suggests an extra-terrestrial encounter with something unseen that killed the missing crew. Carroon breaks out of hospital abetted by his wife, beginning to transform into some monstrous creature to terrorise London and threaten the whole world.

quaterm2One of the chief pleasures of material like The Quatermass Xperiment is its vantage point at the start of the Space Age, back when anything beyond the Earth was alien and unknown and full of mystery. Space has inevitably been ‘normalised’ over the decades since, but back in the early 1950s (and of course in all the 1930s/1940s pulps prior) space was unknown, full of dark mystery. There are wonderful moments in this film when people wonder at the astronauts having been somewhere no-one else had ever been, experienced things no-one has ever seen or felt, and an almost palpable sensation of the fear of a dark frontier. There is an almost Lovecraftian theme of humanity transgressing where we should not go, or of the Outer Dark of Space infecting us, changing us. A contemporary sci-fi/horror film loses that.

The Quatermass series by Nigel Kneale has always had a dark and foreboding theme questioning our place in the universe: Quatermass and the Pit (both the 1967 Hammer version and the earlier BBC serial) has always been a personal favourite of mine, the Hammer film scaring me witless when I was a kid.

For once, the casting possibly hindered my enjoyment of this Hammer effort. For one thing, Brian Donlevy’s American Quatermass proved especially troubling- the guy is portrayed as a bully and a jerk, striding around like he’s got a broom up his ass. Quite unlike the portrayal I’m familiar with from the two versions of Quatermass and the Pit I’ve seen. This seems to have been a concious decision of the film-makers and one that original writer Nigel Kneale (who had no input in the film) was particularly unhappy with- so incensed was Kneale that he refused to allow Hammer to immediately make a sequel (which is what X: The Unknown was intended to be, necessitating that Dean Jagger’s character be changed from Bernard Quatermass to  Dr Adam Royston).

quaterm4The other particularly sour point in the casting is Margia Dean as Carroon’s wife, Judith. On the evidence of this film, Margia Dean simply could not act: its like watching someone from some amateur acting group thrown in front of the camera, not helped by being horribly dubbed in post as if by someone hellbent on making her look/sound even worse (so jarring its a little like Harrison Ford’s ‘deliberately bad’ narration in the theatrical prints of Blade Runner in 1982). So bad in fact was Dean that I looked her up and wasn’t really surprised to read of sources alleging that she was cast in the film because she was the girlfriend of 20th Century Fox president, Spyros Skouras (I’ve since been surprised that she appeared in quite a few films, despite her apparent lack of talent, before retiring in 1965 upon marriage to an architect). It did strike me a number of times just how much better the film would have been had June Thorburn played the part- it seems the kind of role that Thorburn would have excelled at.

Better casting includes Jack Warner as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax (predating his most popular turn as Dixon of Dock Green), Richard Wordsworth who is absolutely brilliant as the doomed Victor Carroon, and good old Lionel Jeffries as an harassed Government minister who constantly complains to Quatermass regards his recklessness (not unfounded, as it turns out, with Quatermass coming across as some modern Frankenstein by the end of the film through a sobering epilogue).

With a typically great soundtrack by James Bernard (who deservedly went on to become a Hammer regular), a score that prefigures some of the techniques of Bernard Herrmanns Psycho, the film is a great thriller, the source material raising above the limitations of some of the cast. Certainly, its inevitably somewhat dated but its pre-Space Age perspective adds a certain mood of horror and Lovecraftian atmosphere. Some of the imagery is terrific- particularly that of the crashed space rocket. The Quatermass Xperiment is one of those films that I’ve heard about for many, many years and yet somehow never got around to. Well, I’ve rectified that at long last and I’m so glad I did.

It was rumoured a year or so ago that the film was going to be getting a remake; I don’t know how that has been progressing but do I think that bringing it up to date into our current times might lose much of the charm of the piece.

The Quatermass Xperiment is currently available streaming on Amazon Prime

 

June Thorburn and The Scarlet Blade

scarlet2Here’s the thing with old movies (I hate that term, ‘old’ movies, but I guess we’re stuck with it): they are like time machines; indicators of past social-political viewpoints and behaviour. People smoke too much and in social places, people drink too much, men display disparaging views and treatment of women, women occupy demeaning roles… Mind you, in these current times every movie seems to display reckless abandon of social-distancing measures with almost heartbreaking displays of people shaking hands, hugging, fraternising in public spaces… movies even not-so old proving to be sobering time machines.

Old movies also exist like moments of space-time sealed in celluloid amber; actors and places frozen forever. I think that’s the most haunting thing of old movies, totally seperate from their narrative worth. In movies, Kirk Douglas is forever Spartacus, Christopher Reeve Clark Kent…Part of the ‘magic’ of movies, and part of the horror, too, if I’m honest. Films stand there heedless of change, while we can’t help but carry on.

The Scarlet Blade dates back to 1963 and was a fresh discovery for me, one of the films in Indicator’s most recent Hammer collection on Blu-ray. The film is a period action yarn set during the English Civil War, when Roundhead forces led by Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries in an usually serious and dark role) and Captain Tom Sylvester (Oliver Reed) terrorise Royalist locals while hunting down the Scarlet Blade (Jack Hedley) a weird amalgamation of Zorro and Robin Hood. After King Charles I is captured by Judd’s forces the Scarlet Blade is abetted by Judd’s own daughter, Claire, who is secretly a Royalist herself and who puts herself in danger to help the cause.

scarlet3The film is a standard adventure yarn that is benefited by great performances and a strangely downbeat finale that lends the whole thing a suddenly unexpected pathos, almost. What struck me most about the film, however, was the performance of June Thorburn as Judd’s daughter, Claire, who abets the Royalist resistance and secretly betrays her father, thwarting his attempts to trap the Scarlet Blade. Its a great part and despite an unflattering wig, is brilliantly played by Thorburn, striking me as a curious forerunner of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia over a decade later. Quite a few times whilst watching The Scarlet Blade I remarked that I could imagine a Star Wars movie featuring Leia in something like this; dedicated, fiery and rebellious in secret before revealing herself as a resistance fighter when receiving the Death Star plans. Maybe Disney will spin a ‘young Princess Leia prequel’ someday, it wouldn’t be their worst idea. Which is obviously digressing somewhat, but Thorburns performance was so good, and seemed so ‘modern’, it really left an impression on me. Maybe I was expecting so little in a Hammer romp that it caught me off-guard.

June Thorburn was, as one would expect, a very attractive woman, with features that reminded me of a young Natalie Wood, and I was sure I’d seen her in some film before- actually, I hadn’t, it was likely just her similarity with Wood that put me wrong- and her performance was so good the first thing I headed for in the special features after watching the film was the featurette about her. Which is where the darkside of these old movies takes hold- because its so brutally easy, in just fifteen/twenty minutes, to summarise a whole life and career, affording an almost Godlike perspective that seems especially cruel when that life-story is as harrowingly cut short as Thorburn’s was.

By the time Thorburn lit up the screen in The Scarlet Blade, her middling film career (highlight: playing the Forest Queen in Tom Thumb in 1958) was largely already over, with The Scarlet Blade proving to be her penultimate film, reducing her to occasional television roles on British television until her sudden death in 1967-  five months pregnant with her third child, she was returning to London from Spain when her Iberia Airlines flight crashed at Blackdown, Sussex killing all 37 people on board. She was just 36.

So within minutes, really, of being so enamoured by her part in this Hammer film and looking forward to seeing what else she’d done in film, I’m being crushed at the unfairness of her terrible demise in such tragic circumstances. Such is the power of perspective; a chatty talking heads piece and a subsequent search of the Internet. To be sure, the Internet is the dark power in all this watching of old movies. A simple search can result in a filmography spanning an entire career and a simple two-paragraph bio sum up a life in bullet-points of ‘born/married/died’. It can be depressing enough when a lengthy and rewarding career is involved, only more so in the case of someone like Thorburn. My cursory internet search resulted in ghastly commentary by police officers involved in searching the air crash wreckage for body parts: a sobering return to reality after enjoying the Hammer film’s gentle romp.

Part of the sadness of course is that Thorburn’s film career never really took off in the way it might have, and possibly should have done (on the strength of The Scarlet Blade, anyway). I think its true to say she was a better actress than perhaps The Scarlet Blade deserved. Her bio strikes me as that of a confident and talented, independent woman; she apparently had a reputation for being something of a tomboy growing up (again, how very Princess Leia) and it does seem that the role of Claire perfectly suited her. Maybe she got the right role, at last, but stuck in a Hammer b-movie it was hardly going to light up the film industry.

So anyway, strike this up as another of those sobering experiences of watching old movies. I did enjoy the film very much and will no doubt re-watch it before long (Indicator’s Blu-ray edition is typically excellent) but I’m sure that experience will be laboured somewhat with the knowledge of who June Thorburn was and what became of her just a few years later.

X: The Unknown

xbOld films, never seen before, but containing familiar shades, faces from some other films or television shows. Dim recollection, sometimes breeding dull irritation, like an itch- I’ve seen this face before, what was it, when was it? Sometimes, a sudden flash of insight- Eureka!

Dean Jagger- an unlikely lead, really, for any film, which is only doubly refreshing, surely, but his appearance in Hammer’s X: The Unknown troubled me for most of the picture; only late on did I place him as the Army major general  in White Christmas, shot just a few years earlier. More a successful character actor than an actual movie star (although I later discovered to my surprise that he’d actually won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1949 for Twelve O’Clock High) I recognised him mostly from his late career appearing in many tv shows in the 1960s and 1970s in guest star roles – Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, Bonanza, Columbo, Kung Fu– as they eventually appeared on UK networks during my childhood.

X: The Unknown, meanwhile, was an early Hammer fantasy, released in 1956, and it proves to be a surprisingly effective sci-fi horror. It has a very modern feel, which shouldn’t be a surprise, really, because most of the appeal of Hammers subsequent, bigger successes -the 1957 Curse of Frankenstein and particularly its 1958 Dracula– was that they treated the subjects with very modern sensibilities, indeed so ‘modern’ that they largely hold up very well today. X: The Unknown is really no exception, and even though in details it may have dated somewhat, on the whole it feels very modern indeed. It dates from the Cold War era when the world was acutely afraid of the Atomic Bomb and all things radioactive (a common staple for 1950’s sci-fi b-movies). Set in the Scottish Highlands near a British Army base, some routine training drills uncover a blob-like creature that has risen out of the Earths crust and feeds on radiation, terrorising locals and growing larger, ultimately threatening the city of Inverness. Its really quite dark and while most of the horror is suggested, leaving stuff to audience imagination proves a major benefit, and indeed the glimpses of graphic horror when revealed prove both something of a surprise and very effective indeed with some gruesome make-up effects. The death count proves something of a shocker, too.

xaThe cast is pretty damn fine, considering Hammer’s limitations, really raising the film. Jagger, playing atomic scientist Dr Adam Royston (a rewritten Prof Bernard Quatermass from when the film was originally an intended sequel to the 1955 Hammer hit The Quatermass Xperiment) is an unlikely hero -middle-aged, bald, and minus any love interest- which proves very welcome, oddly enough (leads these days are much younger and muscle-bound and successful with the ladies). Alongside Jagger we have Leo McKern (most famous here in the UK for his long-running Rumpole of the Bailey television series) who is really fine indeed, and Edward Chapman (Norman Wisdom’s frequent comic foil Mr Grimsdale), a routine appearance of Hammer regular Michael Ripper, and even an early role for Frazer Hines (Dr Who, Emmerdale).

I found the film thoroughly entertaining and another reminder of why Hammer had such success over the years. Its a really well-crafted film, with a taut script, great performances and fine production qualities, and proves quite original, too, predating the similar (albeit more more popular) The Blob by a few years and taking itself much more seriously. Its a great horror-thriller and really impressive, and I’d love to see Indicator give it the treatment it deserves on a Blu-ray release someday.

X: The Unknown is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

 

The Funky Horror of Dracula A.D.1972

drac72aWell this was a strange one. Beyond strange, really. Apparently Hammer’s Gothic horrors, so timeless and captivating today, were considered quaintly old-fashioned and rather unpopular by the time the 1970s came around, and Hammer panicked. How else to explain the curious mash-up of this curio, a film that paradoxically seems more dated than those older-fashioned films that preceded it? Its such a shame, how hard this film is clearly trying to be ‘cool’ and yet falls so short. Mind, although time has not been kind to the fashions of 1972, the delights of watching Peter Cushing delivering Hammer roles as fervently as he might Macbeth, or Christopher Lee reluctantly hamming it up as the snarling Count yet again (clearly a role beneath him, and likely as personally disparaged as Sean Connery and his Bond), or the beautiful appeal of both Caroline Munro and Stephanie Beacham in their youthful prime, will never get old. Or the sight of those old London Red buses or those cars. Films such as this accidentally become time capsules and with that an intrinsic appeal unintended: what was supposed to be new and cutting-edge become old and antique.

It sounds and looks like an episode of The Sweeney. Possibly the nearest thing to its funky-as-cardboard soundtrack by Mike Vickers is Ron Grainer’s brilliant score for The Omega Man from the year prior, although there are moments where the music sounds very Gerry Anderson (UFO and Space 1999-era Barry Gray). How much any of these similarities were intended, or just simply accidental as reflecting the zeitgeist of the time, I cannot say. Likely it was very ‘modern’ at the time (it does sound very ‘blaxpoitation’) but the passing decades have been rather cruel to stuff like this, while Isaac Hayes’ seminal Shaft score maintains its classic status. As usual for Hammer, the film-scale sensibilities of the production are suspect- most of the time it looks nothing more than a television episode of the period; from, say, a series like UFO or The Persuaders, which for someone who grew up a young lad watching those shows back then, gifts this film with a certain 1970s-television nostalgia.

drac72bNostalgia, of course, is a double-edged sword and while it affords the inevitable perspective of rose-tinted specs this can inevitably excuse what is clearly bad writing, lazy direction and poor performances. The latter is likely unfair for this film- the actors are clearly limited by the script and that’s a pity: while Cushing and Lee are obviously actors with a screen mythology entwined in the horror genre, both Munro and Beacham could have done much more than simply push their bosoms at the camera and tease their cleavages, but they aren’t required to do so by that almost lazy script. Its a script that plays fast and loose with Vampire mythology often at odds with the (albeit dubious, I’ll admit) continuity of previous Hammer horror films. The central truth of this film is that Dracula is a Gothic creature, and unique to his period era: its something that was true of the BBC’s 2020 Dracula adaptation that started so well but became utterly derailed upon bringing its Dracula to our modern day. On the whole (and while I’m confident some comment will cite one that works well), it just never seems to work, to me, trying to modernise a character like Dracula, just like modern-day settings for Lovecraft adaptations or, say, War of the Worlds.

The weird irony of course is that for however ‘modern’ Dracula A.D.1972 was trying so sincerely to be, now, nearly five decades later the film seems to be exactly what it didn’t want to be- a period-set film, something from history. In 1972 it likely seemed forced, tired and broken, but now its really quite pleasantly fun. And yeah, kinda funky.

Dracula A.D.1972 has just been released on Blu-ray in the UK