The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

hound1I watched Arrow’s excellent new blu-ray release of The Hound of the Baskervilles a few days prior to the sad passing of Christopher Lee. I make a point of stating this because, well, it won’t ever be quite the same in future watching a film featuring him. The knowledge that there will be no more films made with Lee is a sad one, and it can’t help but colour your thinking whilst watching him now in any of his great films like The Wicker Man or Dracula or The Devil Rides Out. Some of these great old films are passing out of living memory and into history, an inevitable fact of life as the years pass but nonetheless a sobering one. Part of the power and magic of movies- performances captured onto film forever, the work of actors waiting to be discovered and appreciated by viewers yet unborn. Sadly the audiences for some of these older films may wane as time goes on -later versions of Sherlock Holmes may make later generations think that a 1959 Holmes film is pretty much redundant. That’s their loss. This is a great little movie.

Discovering something ‘new’, like an unwatched Kubrick or Hitchcock film, is something rather special, which is how I approached Baskervilles as I had never seen it before and it starred the great Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes. Regular readers of this blog will know of my appreciation of Cushing, and seeing him in something new (to me anyway) is always something to treasure. His Holmes here is a vivid, almost mercurial one, quite a surprise when compared to his dour Van Helsing or obsessed Victor Frankenstein. He clearly relishes the part of Holmes and makes it a rather physical role rather than a still, intellectual one- there’s a jolly, almost youthful exuberance here. Its fun. Reminds me of his Captain Clegg.

Its a Hammer film so its obvious why the Baskerville story was chosen, as it leans towards the horror of the story in a similar way to how Hammer’s first Dracula pared Stoker’s tale to the bone but it’s a very good version of the tale, and Cushing’s evident fun in the role makes me sad Hammer didn’t continue the series with another Holmes film. Would have certainly been a welcome diversion from Cushing’s usual Hammer roles. The film’s prologue is pure Gothic Hammer, as we see the dastardly Sir Hugo Baskerville launch the legend of the Baskerville curse with some gusto. Hammer was great at this stuff and it’s a startling way to start a Holmes movie.

Christopher Lee’s role, as Sir Henry Baskerville, is most atypical. There’s nothing threatening about him here and he even gets something of a romance. Clearly this is before he became typecast (he was just too good as a villain, with so much presence on-screen) and its a pleasure to see him in something so unusual. Hammer’s Baskervilles is clearly one of those ‘what-if’ movies- what if they made more Holmes movies, and Cushing starred in them, what if Lee had gotten the opportunity of more of these kind of roles. Well. Its fun to wonder.

A Crystal Skull & A Third Black

Last night I found myself watching a film on network television for the first time over this Christmas… right at the end of the festive season. Which is sort of sounding the death-knell of the old tradition of picking out festive treats to watch in the Radio Times. Its all redundant now; films-wise at least, films are Blu-rays or streaming these days. Why put up with adverts on commercial channels or suffer the vagaries of time-slots and scheduling? Oh well, there’s another childhood tradition dead in the water.

So I ended up watching last nights broadcast of Indiana Jones & Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the much-maligned and currently final entry in the Indiana Jones series. I can well understand the hate for this film, but I’ve actually always had a soft spot for this movie, if only because I’ll always get a kick out of watching Harrison Ford doing what he does best, in one of his iconic roles, with a rousing John Williams score- the kind of film soundtrack we don’t get to hear much of in films these days. Of course in many ways its a fairly shambolic film but I enjoy it nonetheless. I enjoy its 1950s cold war and Ancient Aliens storyline. I don’t enjoy the over-use of CGI (it just goes to show even Spielberg isn’t immune) which is ageing this film worse than the earlier Indiana Jones films.

mib3Immediately after Crystal Skull I had the misfortune to watch Men In Black 3. Here’s another film franchise well past its sell-by date given one sequel too many. I was never a fan of the MIB series, somehow I was always immune to their charm but this third entry was just an appalling cash-grab. Usually I can watch any film more than once, but having seen this, well, one time is certainly enough and I have no wish to suffer any of this film again.  It occurs to me though that the film must have its fans (and I’m told it was fairly well received) which puts me at odds with public opinion yet again- indeed, immediately after me professing my fondness for Crystal Skull, a film universally disliked if you consider the internet a reliable indication of public opinion. What the hell, I guess it just comes down to personal taste and my fondness of its nods to earlier, better films. I never liked any MIB film, so its references to MIB 1 & 2 might amuse fans but leave me nonplussed.

How to judge a movie after all? I guess even the worst movies have their fans (and some of us like some movies precisely because they are bad, i.e. my own love for Lifeforce). I suspect that the best way to judge a movie might be over time. My own ongoing series of Fifty Great Films has made me consider this when thinking of and rewatching fifty films I consider ‘great’. But then again, a film might not age well through no fault of its own, which isn’t to suggest it was bad back when it was made, its just that people/society/film technology has moved on and left it behind. I’m a big fan of the Hammer Horror films, chiefly because of their effect on me when I saw them as  kid, but I appreciate that people watching them for the first time now might think them old-fashioned, even quaint or redundant.

The Witches (1966)

witchesIt would be rather foolish of me to suggest that The Witches is some kind of forgotten classic, a horror gem. Its strictly an average, below-par Hammer film, and yet it still has much to recommend it.

Joan Fontaine plays Gwen Mayfield, a teacher who has returned to England and is returning to her profession after suffering a breakdown whilst working in Africa, caused by a nightmarish experience involving witchcraft (this experience features in a rather needless prologue that is really the only notably true ‘Hammer’ moment of the whole film).  Hired to be the head schoolteacher of a quiet and remote village school, she arrives to find the villagers very pleasant and friendly, and the village itself idyllic and beautiful. But as she spends more time there she begins to suspect that there is a darkness in the background, and that perhaps this perfect rural existence is a mask hiding true terrors within. The villagers frown disapprovingly at a blossoming childhood romance at the school,  the  boy falls ill suspiciously and later the girl mysteriously disappears. Incredible as it seems in such a quaint, pleasant and God-fearing (albeit the Church is, yes, a ruin) village, an old woman with a black cat appears, yes,  to be a Witch… and perhaps not alone in her dark magic… The shadows of Mayfield’s earlier breakdown at the hands of witchcraft threaten to overwhelm her once more.

 

For all its faults as a Hammer Horror, or even as a horror film at all (it has to be said, its without hardly any frights whatsoever),  this is one of the better-looking Hammer films I have yet seen. There is a great deal of beautiful location filming, giving a tangible and vivid sense of reality to it and even the sets are convincing, hardly like those of  most Hammer films. Its a very classy-looking movie. The pace of the film is a wonderful slow-burn as the mystery deepens and the village becomes stranger and stranger, until an abrupt ‘twist’ at the third act drives the film forward in a strange direction abruptly unravelling everything. At this point the film becomes just another silly Hammer Horror which is such a shame, as that third act, thoroughly spoils the movie. By that point I had thought it compared quite well with something like The Wicker Man, even.  Indeed, as the plot developed I really thought it was telling a very similar story with Fontaine’s character about to suffer a similar fate to Ed Woodwards doomed policeman Neil Howie, to the point that I was beginning to question the supposed originality and commonly accepted classic status of that movie. Its almost as if The Witches could have been The Wicker Man, or perhaps The Blood on Satan’s Claw, another superior film with similar themes, but chickened out. Its just remarkable how close this film came some years before those two classic British horrors. A bit more conviction and it might have been great. As it is, its pretty much forgettable, other than for its surprisingly high production values,

No doubt Hammer fans will love it, for everyone else I’d recommend a rental first. The HD restoration is great on the Blu-ray though, a better effort than some of the ‘classics’ seem to have received. Perhaps the print was in better condition, but its strange that such a minor Hammer looks, well, so great. If only the movie warranted it…

 

Office Horrors- The Mummy and The Abyss…

Ah yes, fresh for Halloween season the Office Horrors return. First it was Close Encounters. I should have learned my lesson, left it at that, never mentioned any other ‘old’ films (i.e. anything over ten years old) at work again. Seems not everyone is a lover of movies, or someone who watches them  more than once, Maybe I’m the odd one and they are normal, but I’m beginning to think I’m working with a group of Pod People, as per Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, or maybe Replicants as per Blade Runner– I mean, they look fine, they seem ordinary. But they slip themselves up in conversation. For instance, the other day I mentioned in passing that my Blu-ray of Hammer’s The Mummy had arrived in the post and I was intending to watch it one of the evenings. “Hammer?” came the (in hindsight) inevitable reply, to which I incredulously asked, “Yeah, you know, Hammer Horror, Hammer Films- Frankenstein, Dracula, Quatermass and the Pit… you know, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing…”. Blank stares back at me. Here we go again.

mummy (1)On the one hand, I know I shouldn’t be all that surprised. My own experiences of the Hammer Films date back to the late 1970s when ATV used to run Friday Fright Night movie seasons and used to run a Hammer movie pretty much every week. Movie Seasons like that just aren’t done anymore, haven’t been for years. Likewise any showings of Hammer films on terrestrial or even cable/satellite networks seem to be few and far between (other than grainy compressed versions on the Horror Channel) as most movies shown these days on tv seem to  be all fairly recent, with any older than 1980 or, (heaven save us), any actually b&w movies relegated to ungodly hours of the morning when viewing figures likely number in the dozens. So when would younger generations get the opportunity to see the Hammer classics?

And yet, on the other hand, it’s easier to watch a movie now than ever before, and surely everyone has heard of/seen Christopher Lee’s iconic Dracula, or Peter Cushing, so wonderfully watchable  in just about anything he was ever in? People have access to rental libraries, Youtube, dedicated movie channels, PPV, countless films available to buy DVD or Blu-ray. It could be argued its easier to see a film now than it ever was when I was young- before even VHS, when my movie watching was subject to the scheduling vagaries of just three channels that all closed down near midnight. Yet I managed to see many of the best Hammer films, or older classics like King Kong or the Universal monster classics or the 1950s b-movies. While I thrilled to then-new films like Star Wars I could see the lineage in them dating back to the older films, I could see where Lucas found inspiration for R2 D2 in the droids from Silent Running, or Star Trek found inspiration from Forbidden Planet. That kind of stuff should be easier now than ever before. So why do my office colleagues seem so ill-informed?

Then again, why bother even with the original Total Recall when you can watch an all-new, 3D, cgi-bangs and whistles version instead? Why bother with even Tim Burtons’s Batman when Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is newer/better? On the other hand, if filmgoers are so ignorant of older, pre-1980 or even pre-1990 movies then is this partly why we see so many remakes/reboots/re-imaginings in the cinema today? Audiences think so much is ‘new’ when actually its old stuff in fresh clothing?

A later office conversation turned to The Terminator movies. T2 seemed familiar to everyone, although one of the lads admitted he had never seen the first Terminator. Discussing James Cameron, everyone voiced positive opinions over Avatar, but I was alarmed when I voiced my own opinion that Cameron’s best film is actually The Abyss (or at least its Directors Cut version) and I received those familiar blank stares. Seems the Pod People had slipped up and revealed their true nature again… or maybe I should just be quiet and not so serious about movies. Perhaps, as I suspected last time regards CE3K, films aren’t really such a dominant, all-persuasive section of pop culture afterall, and Hollywood ain’t such a big deal.