Murders on the Horror Express

murders1Horror Express, 1972, 91 mins, BBC iPlayer

The first casualty of a bad horror film is any shocks, it seems. Well, that and the reputations of all involved. I dare say there are a few revisionists out there who describe this film as some novel precursor to John Carpenter’s The Thing but that’s utter tosh. Okay, the film owes a little to the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella “Who Goes There?” that both the original The Thing From Another World as well as John Carpenter’s version were based on, but its so poorly executed here its practically incidental- possibly it was even accidental (an alien is thawed from millions of years in ice and proceeds to jump from body to body killing travellers on a Trans-Siberian express). No, this is just a really poor, terribly bad horror film hamstrung by a zero budget and only enlivened by the casting of Hammer greats Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, albeit one has to pity them the misfortune of featuring in such a lousy film. Indeed, my overwhelming sensation watching this film was almost of pity, soberly considering that no matter how great we may now think both Cushing and Lee were, the truth is that back in the day they were likely poorly-regarded b-movie horror actors who had to bum around for gigs in awful productions such as this (see also Cushing’s appearance in the not-quite-so-dire The Devil’s Men). Mind, I’m not certain what Telly Savalas’ excuse is for appearing in this as a Cassock captain, who seems to drop in from nowhere on the hunt for the killer like some sabre-rattling Inspector Poirot (and no, its nowhere near as amusing as that likely sounds).

So it was a wholly irritating, sobering experience, this- I’ve been curious to see it for a few years now (thank goodness I was never tempted by those Arrow sales), entirely on the basis of seeing Cushing and Lee in a movie together again. Had this been a mid-sixties Hammer romp, it may have been just as silly but it would, curiously enough, have been a better-made film, even considering the limited budgets Hammer films were notorious for. At least it would have had Hammer’s signature gothic style, gaudy colours and fine period costumes/art direction, and would have been enlivened by seeing the usual Hammer retinue of actors with a dramatic music score. Sadly, there’s none of that here, and as one might expect from a cheap Spanish production there’s also woeful dubbing on any dialogue uttered by someone other than Cushing, Lee or Savalas, which only further detracts from what actually going on.

I suppose one can admire -although with considerable sadness- the professionalism of Cushing and Lee who heartily continue to act their best whatever the rubbish they are in (maybe all those Hammer flicks were ample practice), giving genuine effort here which the film hardly deserves. Truly, the two Hammer veterans deserved much better and its such a pity that they so needed to pay the bills that they had to sign-on to pictures such as this. Its far beneath them, but that’s true of quite a few films in each of their filmographies. Mind, its true most actors likely appear in films they’d rather forget- something that was much easier to get away with in decades before home video came along. What on Earth either Cushing or  Lee would have thought had they know this particular film would still be widely available to viewers all these decades later? They would likely have been horrified. Its not often I ever say of a film featuring Peter Cushing “never again!” but its certainly true of this nonsense.

Taking a 747 for a swim in the Bermuda Triangle?

airport77Airport 77, 1977, 114 mins, Digital

Well, I only watched this because its a Jack Lemmon film I’d never seen before. No doubt if I had a tick sheet of all his films, I could never hope to complete it, but anyway, here’s one more off the list. Turns out its one of the oddest films of his I’ve ever seen, albeit paradoxically very Hollywood, oh so typical of that mainstream Hollywood that Lemmon worked in and was a part of. Airport 77 is from that cycle of  disaster movies so popular in the 1970s that seemed to pull in surprising talent – either an irresistible easy pay-check, or maybe the acting fraternity of the time felt they simply HAD to be in one of these disaster flicks to be considered part of the then-zeitgeist. I can imagine Hollywood parties at the time and thespians exchanging notes, and sneering at those who HADN’T appeared in one yet. Nearest thing we have these days to something like it would be Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, films that don’t really seem to deserve their star-studded cast’s (and surely the most anticipated thing regards the third of those films is when the cast gets revealed).

But considering what a silly little film this is (hijackers trying to steal a fortune of art treasures from a 747 fly it into the Bermuda Triangle, where it collides with an oil rig, crashes into the sea and lies submerged on the sea-bed), what a cast Airport 1977 has! Its got Jack Lemmon, one of my favourite all-time actors in one of his weirdest, most physical roles; he plays Captain Don Gallagher, pilot of a 747 with a talent for scuba-diving who manages to save everyone. Its got Dracula (Christopher Lee), its got Kolchak (Darren McGavin), its got Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard), its got the Seven Million Dollar Man (Monte Markham, that’s the bad bionic man for those who weren’t around back in 1975), its got Apollo 13‘s Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan), its got Inspector Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) –  seriously, its got a cast which itself alone makes the film worthy of a watch.  I haven’t included those cast-members who include such films as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and  Gone With the Wind in their filmography! Its quite extraordinary stuff for a film so inherently daft but which, as I have noted, also makes it just so damned watchable. Production values are pretty good, too, and while some of the visual effects betray the pre-Star Wars quality level that was acceptable at the time (but would get laughed at afterwards and not age well post-ILM/Apogee etc), some of the effects shots are surprisingly fine (as its a Universal picture, it included Albert Whitlock as part of the effects crew).

While The Towering Inferno remains, surely, the best of all those disaster flicks, Airport 1977 is one of the better examples, no doubt, albeit its not really in the ‘so bad its good’ category. I suppose there is something rather endearing about the genre and its  possibly my loss that I’ve never watched Airport, Airport 1975 nor The Concorde-Airport ’79 either (having watched Airplane! I figured they were redundant). Seems there’s a Blu-ray box to fix that.  Something for my film bucket-list maybe, someday.

I need a Lotto win

peter cushingSideshow collectibles over in the USA have announced two statues of Hammer stalwarts  Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as his adversary Van Helsing, from the 1958 Dracula. My, the Peter Cushing one is gorgeous, a work of beauty, that – Kudos to the artists at Sideshow, that looks pretty special. Mind, at something like 20″ tall I’d need a bigger shelf, as well as a bigger bank account. 

Remembering Two Hammer Stars

inham6I received Indicator’s sixth Hammer volume yesterday- as usual its a lovingly-crafted set, this time with a novelty: a nice piece of humour inside regards it utilising dual-disc cases because single-disc cases were in short supply during production – a disc-shaped card sits in the spare hub with a spiralling text of explanation… brought a smile to my face anyway.

Reviews of the actual films will come later but I just wanted to comment here about two featurettes on the discs. On Captain Clegg there is a featurette about Peter Cushing which obviously caught my attention and got a play as soon as spare time arose. Yeah, if nothing else qualifies me as a film geek, its having my attention drawn to featurettes/extras over and above the films themselves. In any case, its a lovely half-hour documentary, mostly appreciations from some actors/backroom staff who worked with him and accompanied by a few words from Cushing himself sourced from a lengthy 1986 audio interview. It transpires that this audio interview forms the basis of a seperate documentary film about Peter Cushing (Peter Cushing: In HIs Own Voice, by Richard Edwards) that was released last year, and which I’d never heard of, which has me scurrying off to a digital purchase on Amazon Prime.

The second featurette I wanted to mention was on the The Shadow of The Cat disc, which was an interview with the wonderful actress Barbara Shelley, possibly the most famous/popular Hammer actress who featured in eight Hammer films (and some of their best) and alongside Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee she is one of my favourite Hammer thespians. Sadly Shelley passed away in January this year, having caught the Covid virus during an hospital stay in December: I remember being especially saddened reading of her passing at the time because of the horrible Covid factor; they were dark times indeed. Shelley was 88, and this interview filmed in 2020 shows her very fragile physically: alarmingly so, really, and I was initially quite shocked both by her appearance and that the film-makers troubled her for an interview when she was clearly so frail. My concerns were alleviated somewhat by noting how sharp and alert she was mentally- she had her wits even if she looks very ill, and I gather from what she said that she appreciated the interest in her work at Hammer and beyond. There are many actors who retire and would no doubt prefer to be remembered as they were during their heyday, and that’s understandable and their right- indeed nothing can be quite so concerning as seeing a film hero of old looking so aged and worn and… human, I guess. Some actors of course turn to cosmetic surgery to alleviate the natural ravages of time (and often this can actually work against the original intent when a 80-year old has the plastic face of a thirty-year old).

But Barbara Shelly certainly had her wits, bless her, and that sultry, earthy voice still lingered in her speech, albeit weakened by time. Its a lovely interview summing up her career and something of a final testament, but it is a rather harrowing experience and I’m still in two minds about it. But she no doubt agreed to it and relished the opportunity, so who am I to argue?

Both featurettes do brilliantly stand as examples of why physical releases of films remain so important and so valid. Streaming services don’t really have much interest in such old films as these and even if they did, they certainly wouldn’t have any compunction to add supporting documentaries or commentaries as these discs do. Without releases such as this we would not see these appreciations of Cushing or see one final interview with the legendary Shelley: in my mind, this is already one of those cases where the extras are worth the price of admission alone.

The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967)

fu manchu boxIndicator are releasing in October a Blu-ray box-set of the Fu Manchu film series starring Christopher Lee as the nefarious super-villain- a huge fan of their Hammer box-sets, I was pretty intrigued they would go to all that effort – its the usual bonanza of restored films, commentary tracks, archive audio recordings and new video interviews – considering that the films are largely frowned upon today in just the same way as similar Hammer material of that era. Discarding all the racial stereotyping issues, I was unimpressed, really, by Hammer’s The Terror of the Tongs (1961) that appeared in Indicator’s third Hammer set last year- I thought it was a very lacklustre effort only enlivened by a typical Christopher Lee performance elevating it to Shakespearean drama. Someone obviously noticed something in Lee’s unofficial Fu Manchu to warrant hiring him for the real thing, because five official Sax Rohmer adaptations followed: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and finally The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969).

I’d never seen any of them, but the geek and film-fan in me seems to be instinctively drawn to box-sets such as this, in a similar way as Arrow’s The Complete Dr Phibes Blu-ray set with its gloriously rotten films staring the wonderful Vincent Price. I imagined that the Fu Manchu series were at least as politically incorrect and racially blundering as Hammers The Terror of the Tongs, and marvelled at how ill-timed the release seemed to be, considering everything going on in the world today.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, but I noticed Talking Pictures, yet again proving to be a marvel as they broadcast the third entry in the series just a few days ago. I set the Tivo (Talking Pictures always schedule stuff at exactly the time that its impossible to watch it), and yesterday gave it a go.

fu manchu1I’ll cut to the chase- I’ve ordered the Indicator Fu Manchu box. Yes it was bad, but it was bad in a good way; surprisingly well made (far more ambitious and successful than Hammer’s effort) with a good cast and impressive locations and sets, and I found it a great pulp yarn. Yes its very politically incorrect and you’d never get this kind of thing made today, but that’s exactly part of the films appeal: its all rather insane and feels so wrong but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. The Vengeance of Fu Manchu is the third film in the series, which means, in the time-honoured tradition of film cycles, that’s its worse than the first two but better than the last two, and gauging those other films on the merits of this one, I have to say, this series could well prove to be a delirious blast this Autumn. 

fu manchu2There’s a scene in The Vengeance of Fu Manchu set in the super-villains lair in which an American crook perpetually doffed with  a cowboy stetson is torturing a woman stretched out on a rack while her father is forced to look on from a cage suspended above: its decidedly strange and as crazy as it might sound. Considering the sensitivities regards western actors playing Asian characters these days, this film also features the novel spin (I doubt it qualifies as serious social commentary) of a plot-point in which an Asian character is given plastic surgery in order to pose as white man and commit murder.

I should point out my affection for a series of Robert E Howard yarns, Skull-Face in particular, but he did a run of Weird Menace stories for the pulps, which Howard wrote obviously inspired/indebted by the Sax Rohmer tales of Fu Manchu and the Western world under the threat of degenerate Asian menace. Clearly they are of their time and have to be accepted as such, but Howard was a masterful storyteller and wrote incredibly powerful potboilers (Skull-Face just blew my teenage mind back in the day). I can’t speak for the original Rohmer yarns as I never read them but Howard was a brilliant pulp writer. The Vengeance of Fu Manchu rather appealed to that love of mine for those Howard stories.

So I look forward to rewatching this film in high quality- all five films have been remastered in 4K from the original negatives for Indicator’s box-set – and naturally watching all the films in order.  Should be a guilty blast, if nothing else. We can’t get The Abyss on Blu-ray but we can get these Fu Manchu films… its a crazy bloody world, but I figure you just have to go with it.

 

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

 

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

The Pirates of Blood River

piratesbrA matter of perspective, it turns out, is everything when watching old catalogue titles such as this for the first time. Hammer’s The Pirates of Blood River is, on first viewing, a rather average adventure flick obviously limited by Hammer’s production abilities: part of the charm of Hammer’s films are its stable of familiar faces (here Christopher Lee, Michael Ripper, Oliver Reed) in front of the camera, and the familiar (re-used) sets that also return time and time again in various slightly re-tweaked guises. But films can’t always get by on such charms, and sometimes they come short- The Pirates of Blood River doesn’t have any ocean, or even have a coastline, never mind an actual pirate ship (bar what is evidently stock footage used over the main titles). As one might expect from a landlocked production shot entirely at Bray studios and the nearby Black Park Lake (and a sandpit) the film rather feels like a pirate film in name only and maybe Hammer pushing ambitions too far.

piratesbr2And yet perspective helps: after watching the film and feeling rather nonplussed (I swear Christopher Lee looks so totally bored throughout I felt sorry for him) I watched this Indicator disc’s special features and finally some of the magic of the film was finally unlocked for me. The Pirates of Blood River was released in the summer of 1962, in time for the school holidays and edited (originally) to achieve a ‘U’ rating ensuring schoolboys the country over could go watch it. It proved to be an absolute smash hit with its target audience and would lead to further such adventure films from Hammer. The perspective that this is really a children’s adventure film finally allowed me to understand the film: I think I was expecting one thing and got something else (certainly its more Enid Blyton than Robert E Howard) – I suspect I suffered some misdirection from the title and Hammer’s reputation for horror. Some of the cuts to ensure a ‘U’-cert were later restored and this version is evidently much stronger than the version that thrilled children back in 1962, but it obviously remains fairy tame stuff (one of the special features compares the cuts/alternate versions, and its pretty interesting).

So I’m certain that when I get around to re-watching this film I’ll most likely enjoy it much more than I did this first time around. Perspective really is everything, sometimes, in just the same way as expectations are too: so many times I watch a film expecting little and really enjoy it, and sometimes expect too much and am disappointed. This is a very good example of finely curated special features aiding the viewer to appreciate a film, and is a very good advert for such releases. Its sad how special features and elaborate releases like this fifth Hammer box-set from Indicator are becoming so much rarer these days (certainly becoming increasingly reserved for catalogue titles, with even new ‘blockbuster’ titles relegated to EPK extras that do the films little justice). If I’d just stumbled upon this film on a television airing or streaming channel I wouldn’t have gotten much out of it all. Instead it turns out to be a welcome addition to my Blu-ray collection of Hammer films and one I’m sure I’ll enjoy more next time around.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll

2facesbPart of Indicators fourth Hammer box-set, Faces of Fear, The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll is the last of the set that I have watched, mostly because I thought it was the lesser film of the four (the others being The Revenge of Frankenstein, Taste of Fear and The Damned), and I’ll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. It actually turned out to be a quite sophisticated retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson tale: less of the monster movie I expected, and more a tale of decadent excess and sexual politics. Like their 1958 Dracula (also directed by Terence Fisher) the old familiar tale is updated by Hammer for contemporary audiences – Hammer certainly seems to have been more ambitious with these movies than I thought. These Gothic horrors tend to be talked about with some disdain nowadays, considered to be horribly dated by some, and indeed much of my own affection stems from childhood viewings on the old Friday night horror slots on television in the 1970s, but there does seem to be more to them than might initially meet the eye. These Indicator box-sets (a fifth, likely final set, is due next month I think) have really taught me a lesson or two about just how good Hammer films were, proving to be an institution we Brits really should be more proud of (or at least be afforded more respect today).

2facecSo The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll is certainly a very surprising film. Paul Massie stars in the dual role of the ill-fated, foolish Doctor Jekyll and the charming Mr Hyde. Dr Jekyll is an introverted, obsessed scientist rather withdrawn from society- indeed, neglecting his wife Kitty (a fabulous Dawn Addams) so much that she is off having an affair with his best friend Paul Allen (Christopher Lee in, for me, one of the best roles I’ve seen him in), who keeps coming to Jekyll for money as he is always getting into debt from his extravagant excesses.

The main Hammer ‘twist’ on the familiar old tale is that Jekyll is portrayed as a backward, almost monstrous figure in appearance, and middle-aged (something the make-up isn’t really up to, failing to convince and looking odder than intended), and his alter-ego Hyde is a young, dashing, and charismatic socialite. Jekyll is emasculated and unable to satisfy his wife (or moreover apparently unwilling), his eventual overtures towards her awkward and ham-fisted, rendered impotent. Hyde is all confidence and charm, wit and virility, totally shameless and without the self-loathing that Jekyll inflicts upon himself. “I’m free!” Hyde repeatedly announces, the film clearly showing how he feels unchained by the limitations of Jekyll’s own psyche. As Hyde exerts more control, Jekyll begins to visibly age, as if Hyde’s domination is draining him of life.

2facesThe world that Hyde revels in is one of all-night debauchery, pleasures of the flesh (after an argument with Kitty, Paul casually turns to two prostitutes for his diversions) and gambling and drink. Everyone seems bored, eager to find some new thrill and fascination. An exotic dancer Maria (Norma Maria) becomes a particular draw, a raven-haired beauty whose erotic dance with a snake ends with a few shots overloaded with such innuendo that it makes me wonder how it got past the censor. Thwarted by Kitty’s fascination with Paul, Hyde turns to Maria who is bewitched by his unwavering confidence and charm- a woman, of course, who wouldn’t consider Jekyll for an instant.

Of course, the tale does not end well for anyone at all- indeed, there is an almost noir-ish feel to the film as each character seems to hurtle towards oblivion, trapped by their own urges and obsessions. Kitty is doomed by her foolish love for Paul, Paul is doomed by his gambling and debts, Maria is doomed by her fascination in Hyde, and Jekyll doomed by his hubris in pursuing his scientific experiment. . Sure, the pacing betrays the films age somewhat, but on the whole its very well made with great art direction and cinematography. The very good cast actually raises the films quality above what it might otherwise have been, making the very most of the script- Christopher Lee, as I have already mentioned is an absolute joy to watch. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable, richly rewarding film. Bravo, Indicator, yet again- I’m certainly looking forward to that fifth volume in this series of box-sets.

The Terror of the Tongs (1961)

terror2I’ve finally gotten around to what is, as expected, the weakest link in an otherwise surprisingly high-quality set of movies in Indicator’s third Hammer collection, Blood & Terror (the three other entries being The Camp on Blood Island, Yesterday’s Enemy and The Stranglers of Bombay). While the film is at heart an old-fashioned potboiler of hidden menace in the Far East in the vein of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu yarns, it’s a pretty mediocre and predictable story, further tarnished by the unfortunate casting of a mostly English cast of Hammer thespians playing Chinese characters, wearing dodgy ‘slitty-eyed’ makeup that looks decidedly un-PC in our enlightened age and also limits the actor’s attempts to emote, instead making them look like wooden actors playing aliens in ‘sixties-era Doctor Who. That being said, Christopher Lee chews up the scenery in his role as the leader of the Red Dragon Tong, as if he’s auditioning for Macbeth or something. I guess he was doing something right, as he’d later be promoted to the role of Fu Manchu in some genuine Sax Rohmer-based flicks later on.

Its also a sign of the times in which it was made, that even though the film seems pretty tame nowadays, it was pretty brutally trimmed by the censors of the time and the cuts, which are really jarring, have never been restored. One death is not so much blink and you’d miss it as much as, well, the character is alive one moment and dead the next- it’s almost quite bewildering and almost breaks the scene its in entirely (surprised they never bothered to try reshoot a censor-acceptable version, but that’s possibly just an indication of how casual the Hammer chiefs were rushing these flicks out as cheaply and efficiently as possible).

terrorPositives, few as they are, are the colourful cinematography and the beautiful Yvonne Monlaur in one of her two Hammer roles, probably the highlight of the film for me- she’s a much better actress than this hokey script, and Hammer in general, deserves, and I think it’s rather odd she didn’t have a more successful career in film. Even in a poor film with a poorly written character, she has a connection with the camera and a presence that really resonates. If ever I decide to rewatch this film again, it’ll be largely just to see her performance (and that of Christopher Lee, of course, chewing up the scenery as only he could- like Peter Cushing, he had a way of elevating Hammer to some kind of Shakespearean tragedy, as if he’s making a film no-one else can see).