Corruption (1968)

corrupt4I came to Corruption rather blind- indeed until a few months ago when Indicator put it’s new Blu-ray edition up for pre-order I didn’t even know it existed (this is its first release on home video in the UK), but as its a horror film starring Peter Cushing, one of my all-time favourite actors, it was an inevitable purchase, particularly when I learned that Peter Cushing pretty much disowned the film, embarrassed by it and refusing to ever talk about it afterwards. Like the same years The Blood Beast Terror, the film was a means to an end- Cushing needed the work to pay his beloved wife Helen’s medical bills, and while, as ever, he gave everything to the film (he lived by the credo that his audience always deserved at the very least that he make every effort in every project, refusing to phone-in a performance (Bruce Willis take note)), its clear Corruption wasn’t a very pleasant experience. The Blood Beast Terror is far inferior film, and far less interesting to watch now, but it was clearly a more positive, fun experience for the actor. 

Both films came about as horror films were changing- the days of the traditional Hammer gothic horror were waning, and horror films were becoming more explicit, with more violence, gore and nudity. Even though Hammer had often troubled the censor with its films, the boundaries were moving and leaving Hammer behind (Hammer would soon react in the 1970s with films like The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil and Hands of the Ripper but the studio would always be behind the curve). Corruption reflected those changes, indeed, embraced them, and its really quite shocking to witness dear old Peter Cushing in the starring role in a film as thoroughly nasty and exploitive as this one. 

Corruption is not a very good film, but its is an absolutely fascinating one, and rather disturbing too, if only for the fact of seeing Peter Cushing in it. For my first viewing, I threw caution to the wind and watched the continental version, which was more graphic than the more restrained UK edit (the Indicator disc contains three presentations, the UK, US and continental, which was retitled Laser Killer but retains the original Corruption title here). It proved rather a shock, seeing Peter Cushing wrestling with a topless woman, stabbing her to death and wiping his bloodied hand on her breast before graphically cutting her head off. It doesn’t make the film any better, but it does make it more notorious and unpleasant (the UK version has a different actress playing the victim, and she keeps her top on). 

Peter Cushing plays a gifted surgeon, Sir John Rowan, whose unlikely, younger girlfriend, Lynn (Sue Lloyd) is a successful model who is scarred by an accident partly caused by Rowan when he is caught in a jealous fight with Lynn’s photographer, Mike (Anthony Booth channelling Andy Warhol). Rowan’s guilt over Lynn’s disfigurement drives him to drastic measures to restore her face and beauty. Initially this finds him visiting the morgue and interfering with the corpse of a beautiful woman, cutting out the bodies pituitary gland for its fluids, but the subsequent operation on Lynn, while a success, is only a temporary one. It becomes clear to Rowan that for longer results he needs to use the female pituitary gland of living subjects, and therefore is forced to go on something of a killing spree, his first victim being a prostitute in what is perhaps a grim nod to Jack the Ripper. Rowan’s horror at what he is doing brings him to a halt but Lynn become manic about maintaining her beauty and drives Rowan on.

corrup2Cushing, as ever, is quite brilliant. His repugnance at his own actions, as his initial guilt pushes him into increasingly despicable acts, is palpable; possibly a reflection of the actors own distaste for the project. I’d actually suggest its one of his better performances, but part of that may be the shudder one feels at the  bizarre sight of him in something so… exploitive, at least in the continental version I saw. Sue Lloyd is the real surprise- she’s absolutely superb. I only remember her from her role in the TV soap Crossroads when I was growing up- this film suggests that she was capable of far more, and her character’s madness and evil is quite convincing as she manipulates and ultimately betrays Rowan. The rest of the supporting cast is also very good- Kate O’Mara, Noel Trevarthen, Vanessa Howard and  Wendy Varnals give very good performances (I wasn’t so enamoured by Anthony Booth). The colourful 1960s fashions are delirious madness, although the attempt to depict the swinging sixties flounders terribly – its obvious the middle-aged film-makers didn’t have a clue regards youth culture, in just the same way as Hammer blundered in films like Dracula  AD 1972.

Its hard to qualify Corruption as a good film- frankly, it isn’t, but it is something of a morbid fascination. It is just so bizarre and strange and unpleasant. The film takes a very odd turn towards the end, when Rowan and Lynn are accosted by criminals who are clearly burgling the wrong summer house, and concludes in a frankly astonishing climax of mass murder enacted by a wildly out of control surgical laser, which censors would never allowed just a few years before. Its a crazy finale which is followed by a curious coda that is either a total cop-out or possibly an apologetic reaction to the films previous excess. 

corrIndicator’s Blu-ray is possibly far more than such a film deserves: a genuine special edition, with an 80-page book and replica production skills accompanying the disc inside a handsome slip-box. The book is excellent, with really informative essays that I found thoroughly engrossing after having watched the film. Its a lovely package which feels like total overkill for a film of such dubious quality (although the very fact that a film such as this can get such treatment is an almost endearingly lovely thing, even if Peter Cushing would be aghast, no doubt). The disc itself, alongside the three versions of the film, contains a commentary track, numerous interviews and featurettes and a 72-minute audio interview from 1986 with Peter Cushing himself which I can’t wait to settle down with. Its a typical Indicator triumph. Bravo.

 

The Return of Captain Clegg

inham6Quite how a film like Captain Clegg becomes subject of a double-dip is rather bizarre- its a wonderful little gem of a Hammer film but two copies on Blu-ray seems as financially irresponsible as NHS spending on PPE during the heights (depths?) of a pandemic. But who could have guessed back in 2014 when I bought the disc from Final Cut Entertainment that it would be part of a sixth Hammer boxset in 2021? Crikey, Indicator wasn’t a even a thing back then, and here it is rivalling Criterion in the boutique label arms race (if there was such a thing).

So anyhow, this is the fourth and last film in this sixth Hammer boxset that I’ve watched- last only because its the one that I’d seen before. Have to confess, re-watching the film after several years, I was surprised to realise just how good a film it is: certainly its a ravishing-looking film by Hammer standards, with some fine location photography boasting lovely golden light in some landscape shots that suggests considerable care and attention was made and the sets etc are really good too. Best of all, Peter Cushing is clearly relishing his role here and the result is one of his best performances in any Hammer- and he’s not alone, even Michael Ripper, a frequent Hammer veteran who can irritate sometimes, is possibly never any better than he is in this.

cleggI have often remarked that Peter Cushing would have been the perfect actor to play Robert E Howard’s puritanical anti-hero Solomon Kane, and its never clearer than here, when he was possibly the right age and eminently looks the part with his character’s own puritanical stylings (he plays village priest Reverend Blyss). There are moments that are uncanny; that jawline, those steely eyes… how ironic that Cushing himself probably never even heard of the character during his lifetime, totally ignorant of a role he seems born to have played. A trick of fate and  unfair timing, I guess, and certainly our loss- another one of those movie ‘what-ifs’ to haunt us film fans.

Captain Clegg (‘Night Creatures’ in the US) really is the little Hammer film that surpasses expectations, and clearly deserves the extra attention re: supplements that it gets in this Indicator release (which also ports across the extras from the earlier Final Cut edition). They even fixed the colour-timing issues that plagued the day-for-night shooting that  troubled that earlier release. Its a whole lot of fun and its such a pleasure to witness Peter Cushing in such fine form. I don’t think I’ll be waiting seven years for my next re-watch…

The Shadow of the Cat (1961)

shadowindicatorThe Shadow of the Cat (part of Indicator’s recent Hammer Vol.6 set) is certainly low-rank Hammer- indeed there seems to have been much debate over the years regards whether it really qualifies as a Hammer film at all, as the film is billed as a BHP Production in the credits, and the project originated in a script from a seperate production company before Hammer came in. Regards the former point and its credits, that seems to have been due to a deal with Columbia Pictures at the time, a deal which, as The Shadow of the Cat was a second film with Universal that year (the other being The Curse of the Werewolf), was likely infringed and which Hammer chose to disguise posing it as a BHP Picture. In any case, its true enough that The Shadow of the Cat doesn’t entirely feel a genuine Hammer horror picture, certainly of the time- when Hammer’s films were lurid gothic horrors this one was a tamer affair, filmed in black and white and less, well, rock and roll. 

With a certain nod to Poe thrown in, even in 1961 The Shadow of the Cat would have seemed an old-fashioned gothic yarn with a silly premise (a cat witnesses the murder of her mistress and sets out on feline revenge). Barbara Shelley herself seemed to dismiss the film as something of a failure, citing revisions to the original script when Hammer took over the production ruining what made it special. Originally it was a more of an intellectual, atmospheric tale, with the vengeful cat largely unseen (hence the ‘Shadow’ of the title) and possibly more the guilty consciences of the murderers driving them mad and to ill ends than literally a pissed-off tabby doing them in.

Certainly its another one of those films in which you feel Shelley is largely wasted and rather slumming in a sub-par horror. I don’t know what it was about Shelley; a strikingly beautiful and elegant actress at the time, most of the Hammer films she was in seemed beneath her, and the scripts largely wasted her talent, but then again, I guess this was symptomatic of the sexual politics in films at the time, not just those of Hammer. Actresses had it rough back then. There was a tendency for the women to defer to the male characters, be subservient to them and just be sexy window-dressing. Mind, Shelley was hardly the kind of lady to go all Ripley on the cads who murdered her aunt.

Running at a brisk 79 minutes, this hardly outstays its welcome- there is after all a certain charm in its gothic old-house sensibilities, what with the moody shadows and décor and adults shrieking at the sight of a cat. Its a nice, old-fashioned black & white horror film that surely never scared anybody, but is plenty of fun with its superior cast (all this is really missing is Peter Cushing chewing up the scenery). That’s the weird thing about film- there’s al kinds; daft, serious, gritty, noir, slapstick, romantic, tragic, happy… it takes all kinds of film to make the world turn.

Some connections:

Barbara Shelley also starred in Deadly Record, Blood of the Vampire, The Camp on Blood Island, and Dracula Prince of Darkness

Andre Morell also appeared in Cash on Demand, Quatermass & the Pit (BBC serial) and The Camp on Blood Island

Director John Gilling also directed The Pirates of Blood River and The Scarlet Blade.

 

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 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.

Taste of Fear

tasteThe second film that I’ve watched in Indicator’s fourth Hammer box-set, Taste of Fear is a psychological thriller from 1961 deliberately set up to arose the viewers suspicions and curiosity and at the same time surprise through misdirection and subversion of those viewer suspicions. Its inevitably unnatural and artificial, rather like being played in a cinematic game between film-makers and audience, which unfortunately reinforces a sense of distance from the proceedings- for myself, rather than feeling immersed in the proceedings I felt distanced from them, always aware of film-maker scheming and manipulation. All films are manipulative of course, the skill is in hiding it- murder mysteries etc always seem to excel in manipulation and are less inclined to hide it, aware its all part of their appeal.

Its to Taste of Fear‘s credit then that I missed the films central twist, and unfortunate that as this is its main success I cannot divulge what that twist is- otherwise the film has little to really offer the viewer. I can comment on the cast, which is really pretty excellent. Indeed, one of the things that most interested me in the film prior to seeing it (indeed the only reason I ever knew of it) was the casting of Ronald Lewis in the film. I have mentioned Lewis here before, and in my review of an earlier Hammer film that I saw him in, The Full Treatment. Lewis was an actor of some talent whose career didn’t ever really hit the highs it might have done, and who died, apparently committing suicide, in 1982, shortly after being declared bankrupt. Films are time-capsules, and Taste of Fear is one- Lewis here in his relative prime and when his career was on the up, ignorant of the reality years ahead that our perspective affords us. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that he is better here than in the earlier The Full Treatment, but its clear he could have been something of a star with better material and a little luck in choosing it. People today generally have no idea who Ronald Lewis was, and it might have been so very different.

Old films and our contemporary perspective of them and the people who made them can offer sobering insights of the human condition, something that endlessly fascinates me. I was particularly impressed with Taste of Fear‘s lead, Susan Strasberg, who played the wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby- its a great performance that surpasses the limitations of the role and script, she engenders real empathy and she was the clear highlight of the film for me. I was surprised to later learn that Strasberg would only have limited success in film, instead generally appearing onstage and mostly in guest-spots on various 1960s and 1970s TV shows. Shades of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood there, funnily enough.

Its difficult to refrain from looking up actors names from these old movies, seeing what else they were in and inadvertently the success of their career or lack of it, or indeed reading an entire bio in just a paragraph or so. Marriages, siblings, deaths. Lewis died at the age of just 52, Strasberg passed at just 60. Taste of Fear of course will live forever, the two actors in their youth frozen in time, as is the wont of film. Indicator’s Blu-ray release in this box-set is of typically high standard, with some very interesting and informative supplements that perhaps belie how generally forgotten the film has become over the years. I think its nice to think that actors like Lewis and Strasberg can be seen by more people because of releases such as this, and we can watch them and wonder at what might have been. At the very least, it gets bloggers like me mentioning them, and ensures they might be forgotten a little less.

 

The Damned

damned1This is a particularly odd one, but its also one that, strangely enough, I’ve absolutely completely fallen in love with. Part of Indicator’s long-awaited fourth Hammer box, this  ably demonstrates the genius and worth of these collections, as its another excellent film that otherwise I would likely have never heard of, never-mind had opportunity to see.

The Damned really doesn’t begin well- it starts like a very horribly dated, awkwardly British gang-culture film, in which a group of leather-clad teenage bikers armed with knives pick upon unwitting tourists in the coastal town of Weymouth at the start of the 1960s. A female member of the gang, Joan (Shirley Anne Field) baits the attentions of frankly predatory middle-aged American tourist Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) and once led into a back street by Joan the gang sets upon Simon, beating him up and stealing his money. So far, so ordinary, and not helped by the film’s soundtrack being dominated by a terrible song that acts as the biker anthem which infects the viewer like the most terrible ear-worm one could imagine (by frequent Hammer stalwart composer James Bernard, and part of a quite effective score).

But immediately it becomes apparent that something else is going on under the surface, and I find myself wondering if Hammer’s Weymouth was an inspiration for Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The leader of the gang is Joan’s brother, King (Oliver Reed) who clearly has an incestuous fascination with his sister that is hidden from no-one. He seems to externalise his own self-revulsion by beating up any man who dares touch Joan (“I’ll kill any man that touches you,” he promises her). There’s a tension between them that goes unrealised but carries some weight on the proceedings: at one point later in the film a child asks “Mr. Stuart told us that brothers and sisters can’t marry. Is that true?” Its a peculiar question that comes out of nowhere, but would seem to be a sideways reference  to King and Joan. There also seems to be an unspoken friction between King, Joan and Sid, another member of the gang who shares furtive glances with Joan, indicating some kind of secret relationship of their own that threatens Kings ‘ownership’ of his sister and the solidity of the gang.

Something about Simon attracts Joan, even though he’s clearly old enough to be her father (or maybe because of that, as King and Joan appear to be orphans), and she finds her way back to Simon once she’s temporarily escaped the watchful attentions of her brother. Simon, of course, comes across as something of a sleaze- a divorcee who has left his career behind in America and has seemingly decided to spend his mid-life crisis yachting around Europe preying on women young enough to be his daughter. I mean, this guy is the nominal ‘hero’ of this film, but it makes you wonder if anyone has Joan’s best interests at heart.

Simon resumes his pursuit of Joan, and at one point when he’s got her on his boat out to sea he attempts to awkwardly force himself on her, an attempt which begins to feel like a rape until she manages to push him away. Joan demonstrates a peculiar ill-judgement when, after asking him to put her back ashore, she acquiesces to his  desires once she’s led him to an isolated cottage and he finds them a bed. Its a really uncomfortable sequence and there’s something genuinely unlikable about all the leads, really, which just makes it so interesting to watch. Naturally all the attention Joan is aiming towards Simon causes King to become increasingly unbalanced and dangerous as he sets the gang searching for them.

damned2At this point I haven’t mentioned Bernard (Alexander Knox) who is in charge of a military installation above the cliffs outside of the town, or his relationship with Swedish sculptor Freya (Viveca Lindfors) who arrives planning to spend the summer in the cottage in which Joan ‘enjoys’ her romantic tryst with Simon. Freya teases Bernard for an explanation of whats going on in his military base, but Bernard’s work is a secret, he warns her, that were he to confide it with Freya, might condemn her to death. Definite shades of typical Hammer there.

As you can likely tell, its a very strange, dark and surprisingly disturbing film- and I haven’t even gotten to whats REALLY going on, or whats REALLY disturbing about the film, as its all part of the genuinely surprising twist that transforms the film into a science fiction film. Suddenly the Lynchian gang-culture, the sexual taboo obsessions of brother and father-figure with poor confused Joan, melt away as the film becomes something else entirely. Its disorientating and quite brilliant, and I can’t explain why: this film is getting on for sixty years old but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Maybe in a few months time, maybe.

Ten minutes in I doubted I’d ever watch the film again, by the time it ended I was keen to devour the substantial on-disc special features and give the film an immediate second viewing. Its quite strange and brilliant. I’m not going to suggest its perfect- in some respects it hasn’t aged well and there is an oddness about some character motivations and twists that don’t quite gel, but maybe even because of this, on the whole its a bizarre and fascinating film. It really struck some kind of chord in me, and I wish I could expound on some of those twists that transforms the film into something so special. Its a very bleak, odd and mesmerising film that ranks as one of the major surprises of this year for me.

 

 

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).