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.

Blood of the Vampire (1958)

blood2This is really something of a curio- it has the look and feel of Hammer, featuring a Jimmy Sangster script and Barbara Shelley in the cast, but it isn’t a Hammer at all. I can only imagine it was a quick cash-in, maybe, following the success of Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein the year before, with Hammer imminently bringing its own Vampire horror to the screen in 1958’s Dracula (since both films came out in 1958, I can’t imagine that Blood of the Vampire was a cash-in on Dracula‘s huge success, but you never know, films got made fast and cheap in those days).

Indeed, now that I think about it, the title is rather misleading, because the villain of the film is a scientist in the vein (sic) of Frankenstein rather than a blood-sucking vampire -there’s certainly no fangs on offer here, which suggests it was indeed based upon The Curse of Frankenstein‘s success with just a canny allusion in the title to a certain vampire movie. Its actually something that proves rather disorientating, and pleasantly so, as it leads the film to subvert expectations. Donald Wolfit,  a kind of ‘Bela Lugosi that can act’,  is great as the mad scientist Callistratus whose experiments have caused him to become a sort of living vampire, his character a peculiar combination of very polite and ruthless in his quest for a cure (hints there of The Invisible Man, too). The film is done few favours with Callistratus’ henchman hunchback Carl (Victor Maddern buried under poor make-up), a character that threatens to plunge the film into farce although I suppose it suggests Sangster was perhaps affectionately nodding towards Universal’s b&w horrors past. I suppose considering that the film is caught between Universals old b&w classic horrors of a then-few decades before and the hugely ‘modern’ rock-and-roll horrors about to come from Hammer, it strikes an oddly cute kind of horror atmosphere.

blood1On the whole its a pretty good film, making a great Friday Night Fright flick- the cast are much better than the script or film really deserves (Shelley in particular is clearly above this sort of nonsense, but both Wolfit and Vincent Ball who plays John Pierre, the nominal protagonist of the film, are very good). It does a very fine job of mimicking Hammer’s gothic horrors (one could be forgiven for thinking it was indeed a Hammer), with pretty solid production qualities suggesting the film had some ambitions- minus one unintentionally hilarious miniature shot that seems to have been taken at a tourist model village (certainly the matte painting shots are no worse than Hammer’s were at the time, and some interior matte’s interestingly extend some sets). I gather the print I watched on Talking Pictures was a UK copy, as the film was subjected to considerable BBFC cuts on its release that never seem to have been restored over here (the US has a slightly stronger cut, which itself apparently lacks some shots still deemed too shocking), but even so the film is pretty strong in places considering how old it is and the draconian censorship codes of the time. A film such as this is never going to get a restoration and I’m sure any cut sequences/shots are long since destroyed, but the film was kind of fun in a lazy, undemanding old-fashioned shocks kind of way, and any Hammer fans unfamiliar with it, like myself, might get a kick out of it.

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

 

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 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.

Suspiria (1977)

suspStyle over content- there is, oddly enough, nothing wrong with that. Its what elevates some films to classic status – Blade Runner, for instance, was criticised back in 1982 for being all style and little substance, but that ironically defined the very thing it became most famous for, and what remains so impressive about the film to this day: sometimes style is everything.  Such is perhaps the case with Dario Argento’s horror film Suspiria, which I have been a long time getting around to watching- indeed, seeing the remake/reboot beforehand.

Suspiria is all about style: its a horror film as arthouse movie, or maybe arthouse movie as horror film, if there’s a distinction looking at it either way. There is very little plot, pretty much non-existent characterisation. As a traditional film, it functions very poorly indeed.

As such, I have to confess I found it rather disappointing. I do believe a part of that is simply because I am so late to the party, the film being over forty years old now. When it first came out, when it was so new and fresh and experimental, such an assault on the senses, it might well have seemed extraordinary, and I can understand this reputation continuing for years, into its release on VHS and DVD. Certainly it has an atmosphere all its own, from its in-your-face, assault-on-your-eardrums score by Goblin, its garish colour schemes and rather surreal, other-worldly, dreamlike imagery. Back in 1977 and likely years later, it must have been astonishing, exhilarating, but to me it just seemed a little, er, irritating.

Which is my loss, I expect. I’ve just come to the film too late. Intellectually I can appreciate what it did/does, and why it is so revered, but I’m watching the film in 2020. It just doesn’t work in the same way it did back then. Its a bit like when I talk to people who have never seen Blade Runner; before they do so I have to caution their expectations a little, or usually, discussing the film afterwards, I have to confess that to appreciate how new and fresh and special the film still seems to me today, you really had to be there in 1982. Or perhaps in understanding the impact the first Star Wars film had in 1977. You cannot really divorce films from when they were first released, they are forever of their time. They can’t hold that same magic forever.

But it certainly is a beautiful film; most of the shots of the film are exquisite and visually it remains quite extraordinary. I was just a little disappointed that this was all the film really was. The violence/horror is mostly a ghastly, over the top orgy of gore and so self-aware and artificial its clearly shocking for shocks sake (circa what people were used to in 1977). Perhaps that’s the point of it, engineered to repulse, but I can’t say I was ever involved in any of it. Instead I felt outside of it, distracted by its technique and artifice: its a dream that never feels real, and in so doing it never really involved me.

If anything, the film made me consider a reappraisal of the 2018 Suspiria: I can see now, having seen the 1977 original, what that film possibly succeeded at. It wasn’t a remake, and neither did it try to mimic very much of the 1977 films style and atmosphere. Instead it took the basic plot and made a more routine, traditional narrative: something more cohesive. Back when I saw it I felt rather frustrated by it, and I doubt that watching it again I’d enjoy the film anymore than I originally did- it strangely enough has its own problems, as I recall, and all of its own quite seperate to those of the original. But maybe the 2018 film wasn’t as terrible as I originally thought, or certainly not quite as inferior to the original as I thought it might be. Both films are quite flawed, but I suppose that, considering its age, one can give the original some credit for what it did back then that made it seem so unique and ‘new’.

Mind, I’m hardly an expert on the horror genre, but for all the hype over Suspiria’s bold and garish visuals, I think some are forgetting the colour-drenched visuals of the best of the Gothic Hammers and much of Roger Corman’s Poe horror line of the 1960s. Suspiria in 1977 may have done it to a heightened and lasting degree, but certainly it had its precedents.

 

The Stranglers of Bombay (1959)

strang1Alas, this one didn’t really work for me, which was doubly disappointing as it was helmed by Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher, who was responsible for some of the best films made at the studio, and it also featured Guy Rolfe in the lead, who was so brilliant in Yesterday’s Enemy, but who didn’t really seem to ‘click’ here for me. Rolfe is not entirely to blame- I’m sure the script does him few favours and leaves him with little to do with a terribly bland character; he is far too restrained for my liking (the less said of his terribly underwritten wife the better, a thankless role for Jan Holden).

Far more passionate and watchable are the members of the Thugee cult who are the titular stranglers, a thoroughly deranged bunch. The film is based on true events concerning  a secret murderous religious cult in nineteenth century India that had attacked travelers and stole their goods over the course of perhaps as long as five centuries. Only when it had affected the trade of the British East India Company in the 1820s were investigations made and the cult discovered and eventually wiped out.

Perhaps it would have been less factually correct (not that this had ever stopped Hammer before, I suspect) but I would have found the film much more engrossing had Rolfe’s character become more personally involved- it could have been so easily done, either by having his wife killed when a Thugee cuiltist breaks into his home mid-film or had they gotten his wife travelling with the caravan that comes under threat from Thugee attack towards the end. Such a more personal involvement might have raised the stakes and tension, and given something for Rolfe to chew on.

strang2As it is, there are some interesting observations of colonial rule that casts the Brits in some poor light (most of whom are fools and jackasses who have no idea what they are doing or what India truly is). I think the film may have been too ‘open’, too much of a medium-scale period adventure that lacked the atmospheric claustrophobia that it possibly needed to really work. It has quite a few ‘horrific’ moments that are inevitable for a Hammer film and a little titillation courtesy of the busty Marie Devereux, the sole female cultist who amusingly appears to become quite aroused whenever there is murder or torture afoot (shots banned by the British censors at the time but restored here). I suspect however that this is a film that perhaps ironically suffers from Hammer being too ambitious in making a serious historical drama- it would really have benefited from closing it in into some more personal claustrophobic horror tale. But maybe that’s just me.

The Frankenstein Chronicles Season One (2015)

frankenst1I’m certain it dates back to my childhood love of the Hammer horror films airing on tv- particularly the Gothic horrors of its Dracula and Frankenstein films, but I do love period Gothic horror. There seems something pure about it, something authentic about horror stories set in periods where the world was still unknown and uncertain, when science had so few answers and God (and the Devil) had a monopoly on the rest. Its partly why I think Lovecraft stories work better in the period in which they were written -1920s/1930s America mostly- and just feel wrong transposed to the modern day as they have been in so many film adaptations.  Set a horror story in Victorian times when mortality and religion hangs over all, and the drama and mystery pretty much becomes easy.

I am a little late coming to The Frankenstein Chronicles– two seasons have already aired, here in the UK on ITV’s slightly obscure Encore channel with a corresponding low audience (the fragmented state of current television distribution is something of a concern these days). A third season apparently looked unlikely but Netflix have picked up the show with (hopefully) a bigger audience in the offing, leaving the door open for financing a third season if it proves a success. Netflix seems to be coming to the salvation of so many troubled shows, why not another?

On the evidence of this first season, I’d say it deserves that wider audience and corresponding success. The series proposes that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1818 was not wholly a work of fiction, but was based on some real scientific experiments going on that Shelley herself was associated with. After a grisly corpse comprising of the parts of eight missing children stitched together is discovered washed ashore on the Thames, Inspector John Marlot (Sean Bean) makes some terrifying and monstrous discoveries of scientific experiments ushering in a Godless world. Marlot’s investigation leads him through a London of poverty, disease, grave-robbing, political machinations and scientific horrors as he discovers that Shelley’s novel was not entirely the work of fiction its readers assume it was.

The premise is tantalizing and offers more possibilities than you might think. Sean Bean of course is great, his increasingly life-worn and hounded expression as he gets older fitting in well with the troubled character of Inspector Marlot. In a similar way to how the excellent Penny Dreadful series mixed real history with characters of historical fiction, so too does The Frankenstein Chronicles blur the lines between history and fantasy. Marlot, for instance, encounters Mary Shelley and William Blake, weaving them into the web of the Gothic horrors that the show concerns itself with.

Blessed with a fine evocative score and some really impressive production design and cinematography, there really is much here for horror fans to chew on. I suppose the series is old news to many, but the  the show now appearing on Netflix offers a welcome opportunity for the rest of us to discover the show and also perhaps encourage a third season. And yes, we also have that bonus of a second season to enjoy immediately afterwards too.

To The Devil A Daughter (1976)

devil12016.74: To The Devil A Daughter (TV Airing)

Until the recent revival of the studio’s fortunes, I believe that To The Devil A Daughter was the last Hammer film produced for theatrical exhibition. Its had a pretty poor reputation, but it wasn’t this film that ‘killed’ the studio- the damage had been done long before this film was released to indifferent/scathing critical and popular response.

I must confess that when watching it, well, the first half quite impressed me. I think it was all the location footage, not a dodgy gothic set in sight.  Indeed it seemed quite an atypical Hammer horror, set in contemporary times and in real-world locations with some quite interesting cinematography. Losing the period gothic sensibilities of so much Hammer output felt like something of a culture shock though. The film was clearly an attempt to ride on the success of films like The Exorcist, being an occult horror (ostensibly based on a book by Dennis Wheatley) set in the real-world with much of the old Hammer gore and titillation  lacking (there’s one moment at the end, when Nastassja Kinski undresses as a temptation to Richard Widmark’s character, that ‘feels’ like a proper old Hammer with a bit of fire in its veins, but it’s hardly a momentary diversion). It feels like an Hammer film lacking its own identity- if it had maintained the gore and sexual intimations/nudity of the Hammer classics but brought that to the real-world scenario here, then it might have been more successful. As it is, its pretty lacklustre, a horror without real bite, almost more old-fashioned than the Hammer classics of the 1950s and 1960s.

Oddly, it features a birth sequence (and a rather weird reverse-birth dream sequence) that prefigures the chestburster of Alien but it is presented so ineptly it looks funnier than it does scary, perhaps a sobering reminder of what Alien might have been had it not been handled so well with an A-list director and budget.

devil2What really sinks To The Devil A Daughter is the script. It doesn’t seem to have one. Instead it seems to have rough ideas and plot-points, like an early draft that needs refining. Characters come and go and there are hints at a Satanist cult/mystery with Christopher Lee looking menacing, but really it doesn’t make a lot of sense and, crucially, the film lacks a credible conclusion. It just ends. Its really quite bizarre and the film-makers must have known they were in terrible trouble when they had the final edit. The big bad devil-worshipper Christopher Lee just… vanishes… off-camera too. He’s just there, has a stone thrown at him, and then he’s gone. Its appalling. Its as if no-one had quite finished that last page of the screenplay… it was just blank, and they kind of went with it. I’ve seen some crazy non-endings but this one is quite maddening.

So frustratingly, here’s a British horror film that might have been something great but ends up rather pretty terrible and forgettable. Most everyone seems embarrassed to be seen in it (besides Nastassja Kinski, who seems to be enjoying herself regardless) and the effects boys had a budget more akin to a BBC Dr Who show of the time. It needed more time, a proper finished script and a bigger budget to manage the films obvious aspirations to be a British answer to The Exorcist. Instead it is really poor, and cheap. A sad end really. At least with Peter Cushing in Richard Widmark’s part it might have been a bit fun.

Crimson Peak (2015)

crims22016.14: Crimson Peak (Blu-ray)

Crimson Peak is clearly Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic love-letter to the Hammer Films of the 1950s and 1960s, and also the Roger Corman Poe adaptations of the same period, and as such it succeeds brilliantly. Its obvious in the rich colour-palette and sumptuous gothic sets and costumes, and in little nods such as the protagonists family having the surname ‘Cushing’. But no Hammer horror or Corman Poe adaptation ever looked as strikingly beautiful as this film does. Guillermo is a visual stylist who crafts beautiful-looking films, the only problem being not having stories and characters that are equal to those visuals, and unfortunately this is something that Crimson Peak suffers from too. But goodness its one of the most beautiful Gothic horror films I have ever seen.

The main problem is, this film is a Gothic Romance that is strong on Gothic but weak on Romance. Its got shocks and scares and creepy moments and blood and violence and my goodness did I mention it really is incredibly beautiful, but somewhere, despite the great cast, it falls flat in the romance, which is rather unfortunate as that should be the core of the film. It feels more of a technical achievement than an emotional one, the romance being dominated and supplanted by those visuals. The house- my God the house! The major part of the film takes place in the titular haunted house, a magnificent piece of art direction that dazzles and takes the breath away. It is the House of Usher of Corman’s wildest dreams. It literally bleeds from the floor and walls, and snow falls elegantly from its broken roof that is open to the sky. Its jaw-dropping stuff and so well built and designed that it can be shot from all sorts of angles and never fail to draw gasps from the viewer. Its the main character of the film- possibly the best character in the film too, dominating everything to such a degree that the whole suffers. How can any story equal such an incredible piece of art direction? No matter how good the cast, they can’t fight it- the house steals the show.

crims1Which is not to suggest that Crimson Peak is a bad film- far from it. It just feels unbalanced. Like many films these days, the story it has to tell is not equal to the dazzling way the film tells it. Which is not to suggest the story is weak (although the ending does have an inevitable feeling of anti-climax) its just that the visuals overpower everything. The heart of the film is lost somehow. I think if del Toro had spent more effort on the romance and the mystery behind it than on those striking visuals, the film may have been less pretty but better for it. Maybe if it were smaller, more intimate. Just because you can use a big budget to craft incredible sets and visuals doesn’t mean you have to. Its still a superior horror film – the jumps and scares are all there and I’d much rather watch creepy period horrors such as this than present-day gore fests populated by dreary youngsters, but I had the nagging feeling that this film could have been -should have been- something more, definitive in the Gothic Horror genre. Maybe subsequent viewings will improve things. I do feel with some films that I should be watching them two or three times prior to presenting a ‘definitive’ opinion, but it’s so hard getting to watch everything as it is without trying to watch them two or three times.

My problem with Crimson Peak -and I shall be careful here not spoil things, as I hate to put spoilers in reviews of ‘new’ films- is that the central premise, the mystery in the background that slowly unravels, is, when I think about it, genuinely disturbing and horrible. There is a central relationship in this film that it quite disturbing but it doesn’t really come across that way- something is implied but it seems to be lost behind those beautiful visuals. Which is unfortunate, because it could have been up there in Psycho-territory had it been handled a little differently. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I was just too distracted by those incredible sets, which will lessen when rewatching it.

crims3.jpgCertainly fans of Hammer and of Roger Corman’s wonderful Poe adaptations will lap this film up though. The scale just seems a bit too big for me, the craving to impress too obvious and overpowering. Its a good film that might have been great had it been rather more restrained, but that’s not how it’s really done in Hollywood these days.