Horrifyingly suggestive: Nothing But the Night (1973)

nothingAnother horror film  that teamed up Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Nothing But the Night is a particularly strange one. It doesn’t really work and the ending in particular is a poorly-edited debacle that damages the whole film, but thinking about it afterwards, it seems to me that it one of those badly-executed efforts that wastes a really disturbing premise that deserved better. In better hands and better circumstances, it could have been as harrowing as The Wicker Man or other of the best British horrors. There’s even a genre nod with Christopher Lee nearly being the one put in the fire this time around.

To get into this, I have to break into spoiler territory but I imagine spoiler warnings for a film as obscure as this is largely pointless, but anyway, here goes nothing: beyond this point lie spoilers, folks.

So anyway, the basic premise of the film, which is a ‘shock’ twist reserved for the films end, is that Frankenstein-like mad doctors/scientists in a children’s orphanage on a remote Scottish island have discovered a method of immortality by abusing/killing the children in the orphanage’s care. The twelve trustees of the orphanage and the carers there are all in on the horrible scheme. Its really quite harrowing and disturbing when one thinks about it. The mind/personality/memories of the old trustees/carers are being transferred into the bodies of those of the young children, whose own minds end up in the old bodies of the trustees and then executed in various ways to suggest accidents or suicide. This makes the opening sequence, in which we see three mute people being secretly murdered (one woman sitting in a car that is rolled out over a cliff, another a man pushed over a balcony to his death, another an old woman shot in the face as if shooting herself) really horrifying in retrospect, once one appreciates that infant children are trapped in those bodies and sacrificed for the ‘greater good’/immortality of the evil old buggers ostensibly responsible for them.

There’s a pretty scary film in there, but this film isn’t it. I did appreciate a suggestion that this ‘immortality’ isn’t perfect and is gradual,  with one of the girls in hospital haunted by dreams of fire, not realising that she is the founder of the orphanage and that the dreams are actually memories of a traumatic moment in her previous life and that actual self-awareness and individuality only comes later (i.e. at the films end when the girl/old woman finally reveals who she really is and what is going on).  Shades there, too, of The Boys from Brazil.

Sure, the whole premise is rather daft, but it is pretty much the same premise as Get Out, the 2017 film that was highly regarded, so there was obviously promise in it and I’d argue that executed properly, Nothing But the Night could have been far more horrible and scary than Get Out, if only because of what grisly fates it inferred for the innocent children.

As it is, Nothing But the Night is just poor, wasting both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and featuring some peculiarities that endlessly distract- a very odd Diana Dors as an angry mother who unintentionally looks like Little Britain‘s Matt Lucas in his female character roles (the likeness and mannerisms are uncannily similar), and the dawning recognition that Mary, the girl haunted by dreams turns out to be none other than a (understandably) very young Gwyneth Strong, later better known for playing Cassandra in Only Fools and Horses.

The Trollenberg Terror

troll1Today 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?

Dracula’s not-so Satanic Rites

satanic1From the promising, heady early days of Hammer and its Quatermass, etc, we jump to its The Satanic Rites of Dracula, from 1973, when Hammer was well into its downward slide into oblivion. Well, to be fair it was hardly all Hammer’s fault- anyone who was around in the 1970s will testify to the gradual implosion of the British film industry during that decade, and all those old cinemas falling into ruin. We had two such cinemas in town- the Odeon and the ABC Cinema: not the prettiest places to visit and see a film in, most of the time it was a mission to pick the seat with the least holes in.

(It was the Odeon -the poshier, more architecturally resplendent one, with a lobby upstairs before entering the main screen garnished with theatrical posters and photographs- where I saw Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Empire Strikes Back and the ABC where I saw Star Trek: TMP, and Blade Runner).

But anyway, back to The Satanic Rites of Dracula. A horror film set in the then-present day, the film was greenlit alongside Dracula AD 1972, which came out, as that films title suggests, the year prior. Curiously, this enabled both films to have a shared narrative, if only thanks to some recurring characters. Peter Cushing returned as Occult expert  Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing having dispatched the vampire Dracula (Christopher Lee) at the end of the last film, but, er, clearly not dispatching the bugger as well as he should have done. Also returning is Van Helsing’s  grand daughter, Jessica – unfortunately Stephanie Beacham, who played her in Dracula AD 1972, was replaced by Joanna Lumley this time around. These days Lumley is something of a national institution and I’m loath to speak ill of her, but, well, she’s pretty lousy in this and a poor replacement for Beacham. Also returning is Inspector Murray (Michael Coles), who now fancies himself as something of a Kolchak: the Night Stalker and in line for his own series of movies.

satanic3Troublesomely, this film has a totally different style and sensibility to the previous film, which is rather disorientating considering we’ve so many familiar characters. Dracula AD 1972 was a very funky, painfully ‘cool’ take on bringing the vampire films to the modern era (such as it was in 1972/1973) by way of the blaxpoitation films that were so ‘hip’ back then, but Satanic Rites has a totally different feel. Obviously this was all part of a concerted effort to modernise the tired film series of Hammer Draculas and attempt to make them fresh and relevant again, but it mostly fails dismally. So distant is it, tonally, from the original Hammer Dracula films that it feels like something else entirely and hardly a Hammer film at all.

Indeed, the nearest analogue to this film is the Halloween series and the third film in that franchise, Halloween III: Season of the Witch which deliberately tried to buck the tropes of those films and while it actually worked as a horror film it failed utterly to serve as a Halloween flick, confusing and alienating fans in similar fashion to Alien 3 (what is it with third entries?).

Satanic Rites dials back on Christopher Lee terrorising modern London and concerns itself with a bizarre cult that is working with an industrialist to wipe out the human race with a modern-day plague. It suggests that Dracula is so tired of the routine of eternal life and repeatedly getting impaled by these Van Helsing dudes that he’s ready to wipe out his food supply and perhaps get himself a rest via starvation. Ironically this darker, self-destructive Dracula might have offered something new for Christopher Lee to get his, ahem, teeth into but any such possibilities are largely wasted- Lee is given hardly anything to do, his Dracula mostly relegated to supporting actor in his own picture. Perhaps that was a result of Lee limiting his involvement and availability for filming, I don’t know.

All that remains is a rather cold film that doesn’t really have a sense of what it is doing or where it is going, other than being one film too many, and the end of what started as a great series of horror flicks: to offer another analogue, its the Superman IV: The Quest For Peace of Hammer horrors. Dracula AD 1972 didn’t really work either, but at least its funky sensibilities offered a little bit of fun. There’s no fun here at all in a frankly turgid offering.  Peter Cushing, mind, is still emoting like he’s delivering Shakespeare, and further proof that any film blessed with his name in the credits is a film worth seeing, even one as poor as this.

Fortunately for those interested, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is streaming ‘free’ on Amazon Prime here in the UK

 

The Funky Horror of Dracula A.D.1972

drac72aWell 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.

drac72bNostalgia, 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

Who was Ronald Lewis?

Ronald_LewisWatching old movies, it’s like looking through the lens of a time machine, and can become a rather sobering experience at times. I’ve written about this before- watching an old film, being curious about an actor that I’ve just seen, looking them up on the internet, suddenly reading of an entire life and career summed up in a paragraph. How can an entire life be summed up within a few lines? Of course it can’t, it just leaves us with a tantalizing glimpse, and its human nature to just try fill in those gaps, haunted by those images from films, of lives frozen at that moment, actors/actresses unaware of the futures ahead of them that we can read now, looking back. In some ways it offers a horrifying perspective. Not every story ends well.

Last night I watched The Full Treatment (review coming later), another Hammer film from the recent Indicator Hammer boxset, and I was fascinated, somehow, by the performance of Ronald Lewis in the lead role. To a degree it was one of those have I/where have I seen him before? moments, but I must say I was very impressed by him in The Full Treatment, hamstrung slightly by an awkward script, and thought he looked a good leading man for the time. In looks he reminded me a little of the great Jack Lemmon. I suppose I was just curious why I hadn’t seen him in any other Hammer films, as Hammer seemed to have a group of actors that it used in so many films (Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing perhaps the most famous, but many other actors continually resurfaced in minor roles), and it seemed odd that Lewis didn’t  get used by them in other films (as it turned out, I learned that he turned up in another two Hammer films, The Taste of Fear, which I haven’t seen and is apparently superior to The Full Treatment and was much more successful. So Hammer did use him again, Lewis later appearing in 1965’s The Brigand of Kandahar, another Hammer I have not seen).

There was something, though, seeing The Full Treatment, and Ronald Lewis in his presumed prime, frozen in time over fifty years ago. So here again, obituaries offer glimpses of entire lives: Ronald Lewis, born 11 December 1928 in Port Talbot, Glamorgan (which would make him about 31 when he was filming The Full Treatment) died 11th January 1982, aged just 53, having committed suicide-  a drugs overdose, likely connected to having been declared bankrupt the year before. His life summed up as being a Welsh actor most famous for his work in the 1950s and 1960s, his films and television appearances listed. Its inferred he suffered from a drinking problem, with bad press from having allegedly assaulted his wife in 1965, and his career suffered a decline arising either from his bad image or his drinking affecting his work. IMDb alleges that  ‘he was known as an aggressive and perhaps unstable man, with a history of violence towards others, including women’. Two marriages, one child.

So who was Ronald Lewis? Of course, I have no real idea, and after so many years most of those who knew him are likely gone, too. Just the clues left, his life beyond those images from The Full Treatment summed up by a few scant lines. With The Full Treatment his career was still on the rise, a leading man in British film, a career soon to take a bad turn into slow decline, bankruptcy and suicide. But somehow he lives forever in film, frozen in time- in The Full Treatment, it will always be 1960.

In 1962, Lewis appeared in Twice Around the Daffodils, with Kenneth Williams, who in his diary dated 12th January 1982 reflected on the news of Lewis’ passing: “The paper says Ronald Lewis has taken an overdose! He was declared bankrupt last year! Obviously nobody offered him work & he was driven to despair. I remember Ronnie… and that drinking session at the White Horse all those years ago… he was a kind boy & people used him. He was 53.”

Watching old movies, it’s like looking through the lens of a time machine, and yes, it can be a sobering experience, measuring those years, catching glimpses of the lives on that screen.

Cash on Demand (1961)

codThere are few greater pleasures in film-watching than viewing a film for the first time that features the wonderful Peter Cushing, one of my very favourite actors.  Although Cushing sadly passed away back in 1994, his film career was so long and successful that he featured in over a hundred films, and I doubt I will have opportunity to see them all, but at least it assures that every year some ‘new’ film comes around that is blessed by Cushing’s presence.

Part of the latest Hammer box set from Indicator, Cash on Demand is a particularly special pleasure, in that it is a genuinely great British movie and that it also features one of the very best performances from Cushing that I have ever seen. Not bad considering its a film that I had heard so very, very little of before. Indeed, I suspect many Hammer fans have hardly heard of it, either. In this era in which so few ‘old’ films seem to get airings on British television, this release is a prime example of the importance of these kinds of catalogue releases on disc. Bravo Indicator, then, for this fabulous release.

Cash on Demand is a black and white drama that feels very much like a television play and that’s actually what its based upon- Jacque Gilles’ acclaimed television drama The Gold Inside which aired on British television in September 1960.  Fortunately the makers of the film refrained from ‘opening up’ the dramatic piece when transferring it to the big screen, allowing it to maintain its tense, almost claustrophobic feel and really allow the actors to take centre stage. Its the perfect ‘b’ movie.

A deliberate modern twist on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Cash on Demand centres upon Bank manager Harry Fordyce (Cushing) a fussy and petty man who runs his provincial branch very strictly with little consideration for his staff even in the run -up to Christmas. As the snow falls outside, ‘Colonel’ Hepburn (a devastatingly charming Andre Morell) enters the bank claiming to be an insurance investigator tasked by the Banks owners to test the branches security and the conduct of its staff, but he is actually a smooth bank robber with a ruthless streak. Convincing Fordyce that his wife and child at home are in the hands of Hepburn’s accomplices, who will kill them if Fordyce doesn’t cooperate, Hepburn tests Fordyce to the limit with his cunning plan to rob the entire contents of the bank’s vault during that otherwise very normal morning.

Its a very tense, very dramatic film with a brilliant script full of twists and turns and plenty of opportunity for Morell and Cushing to play off each other in an acting masterclass. I’ve rarely seen Cushing in particular in anything quite as impressive as this -really, that’s saying something in itself- and the way he plays his characters’ Scrooge-like cold offhandedness and allows it to crack and melt away under the intolerable strain of his situation is a real treat to behold. Morell, too, shows his mettle here as he demonstrates he is the equal to Cushing, disarmingly charming one moment and simply terrifying the next.  Its a brilliant, brilliant film and I really can’t wait to watch it again- indeed, I suspect this film will be a Christmas staple for many years to come.

 

John Carpenter October film..?

hall2Halloween (1978) – Blu-ray.

Well, October’s a fairly topical month to be watching horror films, and if you are going to watch a John Carpenter film in October, then odds are it’s going to be Halloween. Fortunately I had a copy of the blu-ray 35th anniversary steelbook sitting on my shelf in the unwatched pile, so not only did it tick off another October horror movie but it also got that infamous pile down by one.

There’s not much to be said about Halloween, its surely all been said already. Separated from its iconic status over the years and its franchise of endless sequels and reboots (which beyond Halloween 3 I have never watched), the 1978 film remains a great little horror movie. Its a small, lovingly-crafted, nicely acted, wonderfully scored horror film. Like Alien and Jaws, it’s a great film that begat many (often inferior) sequels but remains perfect all in itself. Its a lesson in tension and the implied threat of violence- indeed, in gore/violence terms it’s a very restrained film, and its also a masterclass in using the widescreen frame in its shots. Carpenters films -particularly his early ones- are beautifully composed, he really knew how to use the widescreen frame.

hall1Donald Pleasence- isn’t he wonderful in this? He was always a great talent that graced genre films like THX 1138 and Escape From New York, and channeled all sorts of Peter Cushing vibes in this, perhaps his most famous role as Dr Sam Loomis. He was the kind of actor we seldom see these days, but his twitchy, nervous bald Everyman convinced he’s hunting the Devil Incarnate (and who’s to say he isn’t?) is a joy here as he is in most everything, really. I miss him, and as with Peter Cushing, with his passing we as film-fans suffered a major loss that grows more pressing as the years pass.

One thing I will note regards this 35th Anniversary disc -and I don’t know if this appears on the films many other home editions- is a great little documentary, The Night She Came Home, which features Jamie Lee Curtis attending a Halloween/horror convention and spending a weekend meeting and greeting fans, the proceeds going to a hospital charity.  Apparently she distanced herself from horror fans and the Halloween fanbase for some years so her attendance here is a rare event and warranted this video record. Its a nice doc. I quite like this kind of thing, related to the film on the disc but not restricted to being a making-of talking heads piece, rather it’s a fly-on-the-wall look at the event, the actress, the fans who share their stories regards love of the film etc, and we see other actors and behind the camera staff from the film series. Its not often I really bother with extra features on discs these days (much to my shame) but this was a nice one that sucked me in immediately after watching the film.

 

 

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Dr.Phibes Rises Again (1972)

phibes2016.49: Dr.Phibes Rises Again (Blu-ray)

Now this film is a hoot. More a comedy than a horror film, the campness that runs throughout the film is irresistible once you’re in the right frame of mind- although the film is set in 1928 there is something oddly perfect when Phibes sings “Over The Rainbow” at the end, a song not written until ten years later in 1938. Likewise at the start of the film, when Phibes and the beautiful Vulnavia rise via church-organ elevator to the surface from his underground tomb, they are suddenly wearing completely different clothes in a reverse of the Batcave gag from Adam West’s Batman tv series. There’s all sorts of oddness like that which you just have to go with.

Of course, chief joy about this film is simply that it’s a Vincent Price movie. This guy has such a flamboyant, larger than life screen charisma that he carries it all with consummate ease, tongue firmly in cheek as his murderous Dr Phibes returns to once more try to raise his beloved wife from the dead (or half-dead, as Caroline Munro looks pretty gorgeous for an ageless corpse, another one of the films crazy oddities). While this film is weaker than the original The Abominable Dr Phibes it’s nonetheless a wonderful, odd little film littered with all sorts of craziness and the sort of intricate deaths that have you guessing where the next one is coming from.

One of the films particular pleasures is simply its cast of largely British thespians (the film was shot chiefly at Elstree). The wonderful Terry-Thomas displays his perfect comedy timing in a charming cameo, and we even get Peter Cushing in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo he likely shot in just half an hour. Fiona Lewis (who some will remember from Joe Dante’s Innerspace years later) plays the villain’s girlfriend, and Caroline Munro reprises her finest acting role -that of a pretty corpse. Added to that we get the wonderful Hugh Griffith, Beryl Read and a very young John Thaw as a hapless archeologist, and Peter Jeffrey and John Cater reprising their roles as the most inept detectives England ever produced. Of course we also have the beautiful ice maiden Valli Kemp as the mysterious Vulnavia and Robert Quarry, seemingly channeling Christopher Lee as Phibes’ chief foil, the villainous but oddly conflicted Biederbeck.

phibes2The sets are colourful and camp but oddly impressive, and there is a pervasive art deco/Seventies pop-art feel to it that is rather bizarre from the vantage-point of 2016. The score by John Gale is really so good it seems it must have originally been destined for some other (better) film.

Its just a shame this was the last appearance of Dr Phibes, although him singing “Over The Rainbow” is perhaps a worthy and fitting send-off. We won’t see films like this again, just as we won’t see charismatic charmers like Vincent Price chewing up the scenery like this again either. This is a better ‘bad’ movie than most people give it credit for, I’m sure.

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

terror1Well in the scary-stakes it’s not a very good horror movie, and while it’s tempting to suggest it just hasn’t aged too well, I doubt it was all that effective at scares back when it was first released in 1965. But there’s much affection for this film. Its the first of the Amicus portmanteaus, a series of horror anthologies that are rather a sharp contrast to Hammer’s gothic bloodletters, and has just been released in a fine extras-laden Blu-ray here in the UK. Indeed, if you approach the film as a piece of indulgent fun rather than horror, you can get quite a lot from the great casting and geek-ish in-jokes. However if you’re looking for short tales with twists and scares you’ll find more reward from a few episodes of Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone, which generally feature better writing and have aged considerably better.

But then again, I guess no-one watches Hammer films these days for a good scare do they? Horror films have moved on, and the rewards of watching these older horrors are different now. It has to be remembered that as tame as they may seem today, many of these horror films had trouble getting past the censors of the time. So if nothing else they are perhaps a reminder of more innocent times and gentler horrors and if it’s fun you are after then this film can be a rewarding two hours, particularly if you’re a fan of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and enjoy seeing familiar faces from your childhood pop up, such as Roy Castle and Alan Freeman.

The five stories are framed by a narrative set onboard a train, in which five strangers sharing a carriage are joined by the strange Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing with an accent as odd as his characters name) who uses his Tarot cards to predict each of their futures. Each tale spins off the chosen cards- the first segment is a Werewolf story, the second a tale of an intelligent killer plant, the third a story of voodoo, the fourth a tale of an art critic stalked by an artists disembodied hand, and the fifth a tale of man who has unwittingly married a vampire.

terror2It has to be said, summarising them the stories seem quite promising and there is plenty of variation in them in regards pacing and mood even if they are rather dodgy in execution. I’ve seen zombies with more life in them than Alan Freeman’s performance in his segment, but that same segment is enlivened by the casting of M himself, Bernard Lee, and seeing him clearly inebriated and worse for wear throughout all his scenes (which had to be edited together using material of him sitting down or sober enough to stand). Watching Roy Castle is a treat for those of us who grew up with him presenting BBC’s Record Breakers, Donald Sutherland looks ridiculously young and Christopher Lee quite adept at comic timing (unless thats just an accidental by-product of his script)  On the whole its rather a fun film but firmly in the shadow of Hammer’s spicier efforts.

The film itself, considering it was always just a b-movie and hardly intended to be treasured for posterity has been scrubbed up pretty well with a decent remaster. The widescreen presentation displays the fine framing and the picture has reasonable grain and little sign of any heavy DNR; the colours are vivid and the mono soundtrack is clear. Extras include a one-hour making-of doc, a commentary track and an old doc on Christopher Lee that many will have seen before but is a welcome tribute considering the actors sad passing not long ago. It’s even graced by being packaged in a brilliant steelbook with great artwork. It’s easy to see the love and affection and high regard this film is held in by horror fans. Even though I may sound rather disparaging here (my own tastes leaning more toward the Hammer films) it is still a fine addition to any Horror fans collection. Just expect more (unintended) titters than scares.

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.