The 2021 List: July

There goes July- the past few weeks have been rough at work due to sickness and leave, both within the office and nationally as a business ‘out in the field’ so I’ve been neglecting my blog somewhat (what do you mean, you didn’t notice?). Must try and fix that, and I’m wary of a backlog of reviews piling up, even if I’m struggling to find time/energy to actually watch anything.

So what have I been watching? Well, other than what is on the list below, I have been re-watching some old discs/films, some connected to films on the list below. Watching Herbert Lom in Hammer’s version of The Phantom of the Opera got me watching the Indicator disc of Mysterious Island that I’d bought a few months back (in which Lom plays a very impressive Captain Nemo), and seeing the lovely Barbara Shelley in The Shadow of the Cat resulted in me bringing down Indicator’s first Hammer box from a few years ago and watching The Gorgon again. There’s something both familiar, comforting and sometimes revelatory about returning to films having not seen them in awhile, and I’m kicking myself for not at least dropping a paragraph or two here regards those two in  particular. I’ve also been trying to watch Arrows 4K disc of True Romance that came out a few weeks back but the time never feels right or I’m just too damn tired to give it the attention it deserves. I was one of the few that saw it back during its first theatrical run and have always loved it, so watching it in 4K is something I’m really looking forward to.

While there were a few clunkers in July, I did watch some particularly fine films, notably The Killers and Criss Cross, two astonishingly fine film noir. The first led me to the second, and I love that about films, how one can lead to another, some being fresh discoveries of films I’d never heard of before. Amazingly, I’m of a mind that Criss Cross may actually be a better film than The Killers, even though the former clearly had more impressive visual ‘noir’ flourishes, there seemed something more complete and efficient regards Criss Cross, a film that quite took my breath away, it seemed so perfectly formed. I really must work on a review of that film.

Lately I’ve been watching the German epic series Babylon Berlin, which has been on my watchlist for a long time now and will get a review in August when I’ve completed the first sixteen episodes (confusingly, they were ‘sold’ to foreign markets as two seasons of eight episodes each but I understand that in Germany it was one run of sixteen). Its astonishingly good, up there with the very best shows I’ve seen like The Wire etc (yep its THAT good). Its depiction of 1929 Berlin, during the last years of the Weimer Republic is so vivid, there’s a tactile feel to it which is almost quite horrifying. I’ve often said here that good period dramas are almost like science fiction, positing worlds as alien to us as anything envisaged for the future. I think that’s quite true of something like Babylon Berlin, which is not just depicting a world of a century ago, but one quite foreign as regards culture and politics (its really quite mystifying, but fascinatingly so).

Television

79) Superstore Season Four

86) Ratched Season One

Films

77) The Tomorrow War (2021)

78) The Killers (1946)

80) The Shadow of the Cat (1961)

81) The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

82) Nightmare (1964)

83) Synchronic (2019)

84) Saint Maud (2019)

85) Fast & the Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

87) The Sting (1973)

88) Between Midnight and Dawn (1950)

89) Chernobyl 1986 (2021)

90) Blood Red Sky (2021)

91) Criss Cross (1949)

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

HyperFocal: 0

Its oddly fitting that this is one of the very few Hammer films I didn’t buy when it first came out on Blu-ray several years back. One of the Hammer films I’d not seen, you’d think I would have been curious enough to add it to the collection (I bought Captain Clegg blind, after all, but then again, that does star Peter Cushing). It transpires that my indifference was not unique, and it seems to have suffered a similar response from critics and cinemagoers back when it first came out: possibly the most widely unloved Hammer film of its era.

And yet, finally getting around to it now that its included in Indicator’s sixth Hammer boxset, it transpires that its a pretty good film. Blessed with what is claimed to have been Hammer’s biggest budget for a movie, it looks pretty spectacular with some lovely sets and even better location shooting (the Wimbledon Theatre posing as the ‘London Opera House’, the film cleverly moving the setting from Paris to London). The staging of the opera is really quite impressive and the period costumes and décor is to the usual high standard of Hammer. There is clearly some considerable ambition here. The film is also blessed with a really fine cast which includes the great Herbert Lom as the Phantom, Heather Sears as the Phantoms muse, Christine, and Edward de Souza cuts an impressively engaging hero (there’s also a delicious cameo by Patrick Troughton as a rat-catcher). Its even directed by Terence Fisher, one of the best directors that ever worked at Hammer (The Curse of Frankenstein, the 1958 Dracula, Hammer’s fine The Hound of the Baskervilles and many others). 

Perhaps the problem was that it was a Hammer film, and by 1962 when this came out, that already inferred a certain kind of picture, typically lurid, sensational and gothic, and this version of The Phantom of the Opera is a bit more sophisticated than usual for Hammer, and certainly much more restrained. Herbert Lom gives us a more sympathetic Phantom than the crazed killer one might have expected from Hammer (his stooge dwarf does the dirty work for him) and the real bad guy is the deliciously corrupt Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough, who steals the show with this lecherous and horrible scumbag, complete with casting couch shenanigans no less- its a marvellous performance that is thoroughly enjoyable, the best I’ve ever seen him). Lom is of course as excellent as one would expect- spending most of the film with his face hidden behind a mask, his commanding, lyrical voice is unmistakeable, and a flashback sequence where we see him pre-disfigurement allows him to show added facets of the character and a warmer performance that encourages our empathy. This film’s Phantom is very much painted as a victim, previously the impoverished Professor L. Petrie who was cheated when his opera was stolen by D’Arcy and subsequently horribly disfigured -and believed dead- after a fire, slowly rotting away in the sewers beneath the Opera House to plot some way of undermining D’Arcy’s success from claiming authorship of Petrie’s masterpiece.

I rather suspect that this was not the Phantom that Hammer fans wanted to see back in 1962, that they would have much preferred to have had another kill-crazy Hammer monster, with plenty of thrilling action scenes and gore, and as far as critics were concerned, who wanted to take Hammer seriously at that point when it had settled into its easily-derided (albeit successful) exploitation/gothic horror format?

All these years later gains this film a fresher perspective and it is indeed a better film than I had expected. In hindsight its clear that the film-makers should have trusted to Hammer’s reputation a little, and leaned more towards the usual ‘X’ certificate than the ‘A’, keeping both camps happy and ensuring the film has more of an edge than it does- but its clearly a conscious artistic choice they made, albeit ill-judged and dooming the film to box-office failure, critical indifference and relegation to lower-rank Hammer status, which it doesn’t really deserve at all. Its not perfect but its definitely a film past due a reappraisal, certainly by those such as me who too easily dismissed it in the past. I guess all films have their time, no matter how overdue.

Some connections:

Terence Fisher also directed  The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, The Stranglers of BombayDracula: Prince of Darkness  and many other Hammer greats.