Sideshow collectibles over in the USA have announced two statues of Hammer stalwarts Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as his adversary Van Helsing, from the 1958 Dracula. My, the Peter Cushing one is gorgeous, a work of beauty, that – Kudos to the artists at Sideshow, that looks pretty special. Mind, at something like 20″ tall I’d need a bigger shelf, as well as a bigger bank account.
Today another old black and white movie- and while perhaps not a ‘classic’ in the way Turn the Key Softly is, nonetheless any fan of 1950s sci-fi b-movies will find much to enjoy in this outing into cosmic horror. This British-made film from 1958 bears many of the hallmarks of horror/sci-fi of that decade; fears of the alien, of atomic power, and even throws in paranormal powers of telepathy into the heady mix: its the quintessential 1950s sci-fi, complete with some curio casting (Alf Garnet himself, Warren Mitchell, playing a Swiss atomic scientist (Professor Crevett) with a delightfully strange German accent), some dodgy sets and some VERY dodgy visual effects. As usual the whole thing is saved by earnest performances and a typically efficient script from Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster.
Its actually more fun than it might have been. Part of this is the witty script- at the start of the film during a mysterious mountaineering accident, one climber retorts “maybe its the Abominable Snowman!” which may or may not have been an aside to Hammer’s own The Abominable Snowman from 1957, which I watched a few weeks ago (haven’t posted a review of that yet). Curiously, that Hammer film also featured actor Forrest Tucker in a starring role, which perhaps indicates what a small world the British film industry was back then. Here Tucker plays United Nations troubleshooter Alan Brooks, something of a forerunner of Mulder from The X-Files; this is a mysterious guy with experience of alien critters who is not averse to throwing petrol bombs at giant one-eyed monsters. As well as radioactive clouds hiding aliens and a telepathic girl, the film features victims brought back from the dead (talking zombies or telepathically controlled puppets, its not clear), numerous decapitated victims (do the aliens eat their heads!?) and a climactic bomb strike from a British bomber that reminds us of a time when us Brits had a bit more clout and didn’t have to rely on American firepower to defeat alien invasions. There’s a delicious feel of everything but the kitchen sink being thrown into the heady mix- audiences certainly get their moneys worth here. If anything, the film-makers cannot manage the scripts lofty ambitions, with the budgetary-constrained effects team’s climactic sequences not quite living up to what Sangster probably described in his script.
Its just a pity they couldn’t have gotten Peter Cushing involved, his sincere gravitas would have been the icing on the cake, although that would have denied us the pleasure of Warren Mitchell’s, er, performance (to be fair, I think its deliberately comic as opposed to accidentally so- the whole film has a slightly irreverent tone that possibly makes watching it today so much fun).
They even take the opportunity during the film to refer several times to an earlier alien attack in the heights of the Andes, giving this film (had it been popular enough) a ready-made prequel all set up. How modern is that?
Well this was a strange one. Beyond strange, really. Apparently Hammer’s Gothic horrors, so timeless and captivating today, were considered quaintly old-fashioned and rather unpopular by the time the 1970s came around, and Hammer panicked. How else to explain the curious mash-up of this curio, a film that paradoxically seems more dated than those older-fashioned films that preceded it? Its such a shame, how hard this film is clearly trying to be ‘cool’ and yet falls so short. Mind, although time has not been kind to the fashions of 1972, the delights of watching Peter Cushing delivering Hammer roles as fervently as he might Macbeth, or Christopher Lee reluctantly hamming it up as the snarling Count yet again (clearly a role beneath him, and likely as personally disparaged as Sean Connery and his Bond), or the beautiful appeal of both Caroline Munro and Stephanie Beacham in their youthful prime, will never get old. Or the sight of those old London Red buses or those cars. Films such as this accidentally become time capsules and with that an intrinsic appeal unintended: what was supposed to be new and cutting-edge become old and antique.
It sounds and looks like an episode of The Sweeney. Possibly the nearest thing to its funky-as-cardboard soundtrack by Mike Vickers is Ron Grainer’s brilliant score for The Omega Man from the year prior, although there are moments where the music sounds very Gerry Anderson (UFO and Space 1999-era Barry Gray). How much any of these similarities were intended, or just simply accidental as reflecting the zeitgeist of the time, I cannot say. Likely it was very ‘modern’ at the time (it does sound very ‘blaxpoitation’) but the passing decades have been rather cruel to stuff like this, while Isaac Hayes’ seminal Shaft score maintains its classic status. As usual for Hammer, the film-scale sensibilities of the production are suspect- most of the time it looks nothing more than a television episode of the period; from, say, a series like UFO or The Persuaders, which for someone who grew up a young lad watching those shows back then, gifts this film with a certain 1970s-television nostalgia.
Nostalgia, of course, is a double-edged sword and while it affords the inevitable perspective of rose-tinted specs this can inevitably excuse what is clearly bad writing, lazy direction and poor performances. The latter is likely unfair for this film- the actors are clearly limited by the script and that’s a pity: while Cushing and Lee are obviously actors with a screen mythology entwined in the horror genre, both Munro and Beacham could have done much more than simply push their bosoms at the camera and tease their cleavages, but they aren’t required to do so by that almost lazy script. Its a script that plays fast and loose with Vampire mythology often at odds with the (albeit dubious, I’ll admit) continuity of previous Hammer horror films. The central truth of this film is that Dracula is a Gothic creature, and unique to his period era: its something that was true of the BBC’s 2020 Dracula adaptation that started so well but became utterly derailed upon bringing its Dracula to our modern day. On the whole (and while I’m confident some comment will cite one that works well), it just never seems to work, to me, trying to modernise a character like Dracula, just like modern-day settings for Lovecraft adaptations or, say, War of the Worlds.
The weird irony of course is that for however ‘modern’ Dracula A.D.1972 was trying so sincerely to be, now, nearly five decades later the film seems to be exactly what it didn’t want to be- a period-set film, something from history. In 1972 it likely seemed forced, tired and broken, but now its really quite pleasantly fun. And yeah, kinda funky.
Dracula A.D.1972 has just been released on Blu-ray in the UK
Part 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).
So 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.
The world that Hyde revels in is one of all-night debauchery, pleasures of the flesh (after an argument with Kitty, Paul casually turns to two prostitutes for his diversions) and gambling and drink. Everyone seems bored, eager to find some new thrill and fascination. An exotic dancer Maria (Norma Maria) becomes a particular draw, a raven-haired beauty whose erotic dance with a snake ends with a few shots overloaded with such innuendo that it makes me wonder how it got past the censor. Thwarted by Kitty’s fascination with Paul, Hyde turns to Maria who is bewitched by his unwavering confidence and charm- a woman, of course, who wouldn’t consider Jekyll for an instant.
Of course, the tale does not end well for anyone at all- indeed, there is an almost noir-ish feel to the film as each character seems to hurtle towards oblivion, trapped by their own urges and obsessions. Kitty is doomed by her foolish love for Paul, Paul is doomed by his gambling and debts, Maria is doomed by her fascination in Hyde, and Jekyll doomed by his hubris in pursuing his scientific experiment. . Sure, the pacing betrays the films age somewhat, but on the whole its very well made with great art direction and cinematography. The very good cast actually raises the films quality above what it might otherwise have been, making the very most of the script- Christopher Lee, as I have already mentioned is an absolute joy to watch. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable, richly rewarding film. Bravo, Indicator, yet again- I’m certainly looking forward to that fifth volume in this series of box-sets.
The 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.
This 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.
At 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.
I’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).
Positives, 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).
…a year ago, I wrote a post about the Hammer film Never Take Sweets from a Stranger, a surprisingly effective and at times quite harrowing thriller that really impressed me. Which reminds me, its really past time Indicator revealed the contents of their next Hammer set (which makes me wonder if it’s still happening?).
…five years ago, I wrote a post about the original (and best) 12 Angry Men, which I’d just rewatched on a new Blu-ray edition. Haven’t seen it since- horrors! Its scary how even the great films go on the shelf and just sit there.
…six years ago, I was writing about La La Land’s expanded release of John William’s The Fury soundtrack. Which is curious if only because here we are all these years later and I’m expecting their new 3-disc edition of his Superman: The Movie soundtrack to arrive this month. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Hey, it’s just occurred to me that this blog has been going on something like way too long. When I started it, back in 2012 (and also the old Film Journal blog I did a few years before it), it was really intended to be, literally a diary of films etc that I watched, something I could use like a diary, a record of my viewing habits and opinions over the years. Which I guess it still is. But it’s a little scary really looking back on old entries like this (there’s nothing like seeing a post about a film praising it years ago only to wonder what the hell I was thinking, looking back years later). Oh well. Happy 4th March- as this post possibly proves, everyday is the anniversary of something.
First of all, an admission- this wasn’t the film I was expecting. I’d seen that Indicator was releasing a great old British horror film titled Night of the Demon, and somehow got my wires crossed with another film (it may have been The Devil Rides Out, but I was certain the film I was thinking of was in black and white, and I know that Devil Rides Out was in typically gaudy Hammer colour, so anyway, it remains a mystery- anybody have any suggestions?). Well, as it turned out, contrary to my expectations, I hadn’t seen Night of the Demon before.
Well, lucky me. This film was brilliant. A genuinely unnerving British horror film from 1957 that somehow passed me by in all these intervening decades until Indicator’s superlative Blu-ray dropped through my letterbox. I have to say, if I’d watched this thing as a kid, it would have scared me shitless and scarred me for life (then again, that lamentable 1941 Arthur Askey flick The Ghost Train scared the willies off me as a kid – but admittedly scares me for different reasons when forced to watch it these days: Night of the Demon seems to have aged better).
It should indicate the qualities of this film that it made me uneasy throughout, and actually made me jump a few times. Sure, some of the effects have dated and the titulat demon likely gets titters of laughter from foolish young ‘uns today more accustomed to CGI stuff, but that’s what suspension of disbelief is all about. You have to work with films of this vintage and make allowances, and in this case that effort gets richly rewarded. Like The Blood on Satan’s Claw, this is a really great British horror film, and I can’t wait to rewatch it- this one really is a classic.
Oh, and this edition has enough different cuts of the film to qualify it for some kind of Blade Runner award; bravo, Indicator, another excellent release.
Alas, 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.
As 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.