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

Sinbad!

Indicator’s recent box-set (the first in a series of Harryhausen sets) contains UK blu-ray premier’s of the Sinbad trilogy, with the usual great special features we have come to expect. I may struggle to get through those extras, but the films? Well, I’ve no wish to add to the ‘to watch’ pile, and I intend to justify every 2017 purchase by actually watching them, so this past week it’s been a Sinbad triple-bill at Ghost Hall…

7thvoy1The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

The oldest of the three films, it shows its age in places but also likely benefits from that age in its bold, technicolour-drenched, almost gothic stylings that lend it a similar charm to the best of Hammer of that period. The comic book-styled colours, and deep dark shadows are particularly vivid and atmospheric-it looks like a timeless European fantasy, unfortunately handicapped by the casting of two incongruous American leads- the bland Kerwin Matthews as Sinbad and a frankly terrible Kathryn Grant (who thankfully retired from acting soon after). The film is enlivened considerably by Torin Thatcher as the villain, Sokurah. He chews up the scenery and hugely improves the film- a towering over the top pantomime sorcerer, a joy to witness. He’s about the only human aspect to match up to Harryhausen’s wonderfully imaginative stop-motion creatures. The increased grain of the process photography doesn’t do the film any favours, especially in this beautiful new HD master, but the imagination and craft in the design, building and animation of the creatures is brilliant. The film remains a timeless classic and is served by a spectacular Bernard Herrmann  score that is probably the finest musical accompaniment to any Harryhausen feature.

golden12017.40: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

As the prefix above suggests, somehow I’d never seen this Sinbad film before. The surprising gap between this film and its predecessor results in a new cast and an initially disorientating change of approach. The cast is a definite improvement- John Phillip Law as Sinbad and the gorgeous Caroline Munro as his voluptuous love-interest. Initially Law struck me as an odd-looking Sinbad but I warmed to him considerably as the film went on; a good actor with great screen presence. Munro… well, she doesn’t have to act, she just looks incredible and I always had a crush on her as a young lad- well, what young man in the 1970s wouldn’t? You’d have to be a Vulcan with green blood in your veins not to fall under her spell. This is actually one of her better performances/movies, and as I’d never seen the film before a genuine treat.

The change of approach with the movie is also a bit surprising but quite commendable. It has a bigger budget and a more accomplished scale and style; less European fantasy and more real-world Arabic adventure, helped no end by some great location shooting. Harryhausen’s creations are as fantastic and memorable as ever, but by now his stop-motion technique was showing its age and limitations in the photographic process all the more apparent. Certainly the leap in grain and the impact on mattes leave the film suffering in HD. It’s a great pity but the beauty of these films is that they are such fun and so imaginative in design that you can easily forgive the limitations in the fakery. It’s still movie magic and few cgi creations have the heart and soul of a Harryhausen creation.

And I still haven’t mentioned Tom Baker as the villain, another evil magician, Koura. Less the panto villain of Thatcher’s Sokurah, Koura is more ‘real’, more genuine, and Baker is brilliant. This film was great, possibly the best of the three and I look forward to delving into the discs special features.

eyetiger1Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Oh dear. Horrible. Time (and Star Wars) finally caught up with Harryhausen, and although fans will always forgive the faults inherent in his stop-motion effects, this time the film around them was truly terrible. It’s also likely why this boxset exists- I can imagine genre fans rushing to buy 7th Voyage and, having now seen it, Golden Voyage, but really, how many would fork out hard-earned dosh on nonsense like Eye of the Tiger? I watched it once for completists sake having watched the other two, but now this disc is back in the box where it will stay. Sure, a Sinbad box makes sense but really, it’s surely the only way this film would ever sell.

To be fair, it’s not helped by the film committing one of my very worst pet hates in film- it runs the opening scenes under the title credits. I hate that. I much prefer text over a blank screen, or over graphics, whatever, but not over the opening shots of a film. Worse than that, the film compounds this heresy by showing the closing titles over the closing scenes of the film. The plot of the film involves rescuing the prince from his curse, returning him to human form and ensuring his coronation before the time limit, and then just as our heroes are triumphant and we see the fruits of their labours, boom, full-colour text is processed over the valedictory sequence. Horrible. I hate it.

Another thing, no matter how bad Kerwin Matthews was in 7th Voyage, Patrick (son of John) Wayne is even worse. Its Sinbad channeling a young Clint Eastwood. Seriously, close your eyes and listen to him- maybe it is his American drawl, but he sounds like he is actually mimicking Clint. Its utterly bizarre, and quite out of keeping with a Sinbad fantasy. There seems to be little chemistry between himself and Jane Seymour too, and Seymour herself is a pale reflection of Munro’s sultry heroine of the previous film. It’s all pretty weak and insipid, frankly: the villain (a sorceress this time, with a son for a stooge) is much inferior to those of the first two films, and the direction fairly uninspired. Even the music score is a pale shadow of the Herrmann and Rozsa scores previous. No, I really didn’t like it. Why waste time with this when you can rewatch one of the previous two?

Dr.Phibes Rises Again (1972)

phibes2016.49: Dr.Phibes Rises Again (Blu-ray)

Now this film is a hoot. More a comedy than a horror film, the campness that runs throughout the film is irresistible once you’re in the right frame of mind- although the film is set in 1928 there is something oddly perfect when Phibes sings “Over The Rainbow” at the end, a song not written until ten years later in 1938. Likewise at the start of the film, when Phibes and the beautiful Vulnavia rise via church-organ elevator to the surface from his underground tomb, they are suddenly wearing completely different clothes in a reverse of the Batcave gag from Adam West’s Batman tv series. There’s all sorts of oddness like that which you just have to go with.

Of course, chief joy about this film is simply that it’s a Vincent Price movie. This guy has such a flamboyant, larger than life screen charisma that he carries it all with consummate ease, tongue firmly in cheek as his murderous Dr Phibes returns to once more try to raise his beloved wife from the dead (or half-dead, as Caroline Munro looks pretty gorgeous for an ageless corpse, another one of the films crazy oddities). While this film is weaker than the original The Abominable Dr Phibes it’s nonetheless a wonderful, odd little film littered with all sorts of craziness and the sort of intricate deaths that have you guessing where the next one is coming from.

One of the films particular pleasures is simply its cast of largely British thespians (the film was shot chiefly at Elstree). The wonderful Terry-Thomas displays his perfect comedy timing in a charming cameo, and we even get Peter Cushing in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo he likely shot in just half an hour. Fiona Lewis (who some will remember from Joe Dante’s Innerspace years later) plays the villain’s girlfriend, and Caroline Munro reprises her finest acting role -that of a pretty corpse. Added to that we get the wonderful Hugh Griffith, Beryl Read and a very young John Thaw as a hapless archeologist, and Peter Jeffrey and John Cater reprising their roles as the most inept detectives England ever produced. Of course we also have the beautiful ice maiden Valli Kemp as the mysterious Vulnavia and Robert Quarry, seemingly channeling Christopher Lee as Phibes’ chief foil, the villainous but oddly conflicted Biederbeck.

phibes2The sets are colourful and camp but oddly impressive, and there is a pervasive art deco/Seventies pop-art feel to it that is rather bizarre from the vantage-point of 2016. The score by John Gale is really so good it seems it must have originally been destined for some other (better) film.

Its just a shame this was the last appearance of Dr Phibes, although him singing “Over The Rainbow” is perhaps a worthy and fitting send-off. We won’t see films like this again, just as we won’t see charismatic charmers like Vincent Price chewing up the scenery like this again either. This is a better ‘bad’ movie than most people give it credit for, I’m sure.