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Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

I may be biased, but when I think about horror films from the 1960s, my starting point is always Hammer horror. Never far behind, however, are the Poe pix made by Roger Corman for American International just as Hammer were getting into their stride. These are the closest thing to Hammer that isn’t actually Hammer itself – they have the same costume-drama aesthetic and production values, and the presence of an indisputable class act in the thesping department; almost always Vincent Price.

Other people started trying to copy the Hammer formula fairly quickly, and – it would seem – the same is true of the Price-Corman-Poe films. Twice-Told Tales, directed by Simon Salkow and released in 1963, is some distance from the Hammer style, but it’s still as close to the Poe-pic formula as anything I’ve ever seen. That said, it tries to establish a respectable bit of creative distance by not being a Poe adaptation, but a film version of several stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne (possibly best remembered these days for The Scarlet Letter).

Twice-Told Tales was the name of a collection of Hawthorne short stories; the slightly awkward fact is that only one of the segments of the film is based on a story from that book. Nevertheless, things get off to a jolly start as a pair of skeletal hands open a mouldering old tome of forgotten lore, stopping at the title page of the first story in the film.

This is ‘Dr Heidegger’s Experiment’, which opens with two old friends (Price and Sebastian Cabot) enjoying a pleasant evening together while a storm rages outside. They celebrate their close friendship and look back on their lives – Cabot can’t help wondering how things might have turned out differently if his fiancee Sylvia (Mari Blanchard) hadn’t suddenly died before their wedding, nearly forty years earlier. This is obviously a change, as it’s usually Vincent Price mooning over his dead wife’s picture. (The entrance to Sylvia’s tomb is conveniently located outside the window of Cabot’s parlour, so he can raise a glass to her whenever he likes.)

But a bolt of lighting strikes the tomb and the door opens. Somewhat nervously the two old men venture inside, and discover that Sylvia’s corpse has remained miraculously fresh and uncorrupted by the passage of time. Cabot figures out that this is the result of water with unusual properties dripping onto the coffin. Before you can say ‘secrets of which man was not meant to know’ they are experimenting with the water to restore withered roses to full bloom, and so on. In a matter of minutes Cabot and Price are knocking the stuff back and dispensing with the old-age make-up they’ve both been acting under since the start of the segment.

What a felicitous development! But Cabot just can’t forget about Sylvia. ‘Don’t try and raise the dead!’ wails Price, but to no avail. Needless to say, this violation of the laws of God has terrible consequences for all concerned…

This is a proper piece of gothic horror that could easily be switched with one of the stories from Tales of Terror without anyone noticing. It’s a bit melodramatic and not what you’d call subtle in any department, but it tells its story briskly and well. One of the better anthology horror movie segments that I’ve come across.

The main difference between Twice-Told Tales and the Corman films is that this film seems to have had a rather lavish budget, which mainly seems to have been put towards a more expansive running time: it’s two hours long, which is unusual for a film in a subgenre where ‘get in – tell your story snappily – get out again’ is usually a wise approach.

The next story, ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, certainly takes its time a little. It’s set in Padua, where Giacomo Rappacci (Price again) keeps a rather unusual garden – the main feature is an astonishingly poisonous plant that kills anyone who even goes near it (insects landing on the flowers literally explode in a puff of smoke). All this is in aid of, believe it or not, a fairly extreme example of helicopter parenting – Rappaccini doesn’t want unpleasant men interfering with his lovely daughter (Joyce Taylor, who genuinely is a looker), and has alchemically used infusions from the plant to transform her blood to deadly acid – anyone or anything she touches is instantly poisoned!

Yeah, it’s a bit extreme, but this is 19th-century gothic horror, so what do you expect. Inevitably the daughter falls in love with a strapping young university student who lives next door (he is played by Brett Halsey), but it’s a bit hard to progress your relationship when even holding hands is likely to kill one of the participants. But perhaps he can find a cure…

It’s an interesting story, and the production values are nice, although it does feel like it’s hanging around a bit just to fill time. Once again we are in the realm of the gothic melodrama, but Price can do this stuff in his sleep and he keeps it interesting and enjoyable whenever he’s on screen, and the conclusion of the tale is memorably overwrought.

On to the final segment, based on Hawthorne’s novel ‘The House of Seven Gables’. This one in particular you can imagine H. P. Lovecraft watching and shouting ‘Yeah, baby!’, concerned as it is with curses, ghosts, dark family secrets, a haunted house, illicit romance, and much more in the same vein.

We are in New England in the mid-19th century. Price plays a guy named Gerald, who moves back to his old family home with his sister despite a curse that will supposedly kill him – his creepy sister keeps reminding him of this. The plot is actually somewhat involved and involves Gerald trying to get his hands on treasure, the location of which is known to the last descendant of the man who put the curse on his family. Basically all the gothic staples get an outing, and the film is unusual for being relatively gory for a film of this period – crimson gore pours from the mouths of portraits, the walls shudder and crack and blood gushes out, and someone is despatched by a pick-axe to the head. In the end Price has to act being throttled to death by a disembodied skeletal hand, which he manages with his usual aplomb.

Nothing much wrong with this one, either, although it has the same slightly mannered style as the rest of the film – there’s a touch of this in the very early Hammers, but they quickly dispensed with that in favour of a more visceral quasi-naturalism in many of their performances. You can perhaps see how this film influenced others, relatively obscure though it is – it may look and sound like a rip-off of the Poe pix, but it does have its own identity, and it does try to do things which the Corman films don’t. Certainly the acting, direction and production values are all at least as good as in the average American International production. If you like the Vincent Price Poe movies, then it’s a safe bet you’ll have a good time with this one, as well.

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As somebody once said, sort of, if you want to get a sense of the upheavals suffered by American society and culture in the 1960s, all you need to do is look at the career of Dennis Hopper. Early Hopper performances often see the actor cast as a nice, well-brought-up American boy, occasionally troubled or acting out (his aspiring neo-Nazi in The Twilight Zone, for instance), but generally someone who is not a menace to society. And then Easy Rider happens and suddenly he seems inextricably part of the counter-culture in perpetuity.

Given this, the idea of Dennis Hopper as a romantic lead can seem a bit weird or counter-intuitive, but this is what happened in his first lead role. This was in a film called Night Tide, directed by Curtis Harrington. Exactly what kind of film Night Tide is, is a bit challenging to pin down, as we shall see – it shifts about across genre boundaries. The title is drawn from a piece of Poe verse, but it’s not much like one of the Vincent Price Poe films that American-International Pictures were in the middle of at the time – nevertheless, AIP distributed the film (one story has it that Roger Corman intervened with the developers of the negative to ensure the thing got finished at all), and it was shown in a double-bill with The Raven (which must have made for a slightly odd experience for the audience).

To the extent that Night Tide is a horror film, it’s one that owes its strongest debt elsewhere. Hopper plays Johnny Drake, a young sailor on shore leave in California. He is by himself, and clearly wistful and lonely as he wanders about a slightly rundown seafront. Eventually Johnny pitches up in a small bar where a jazz group is playing. Also listening to the music is Mora (Linda Lawson), who is likewise by herself.

You sort of begin to wonder what kind of film this is going to be, as Johnny hits on Mora in the clumsiest, neediest of ways, despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to be that into him, even insisting on walking her back to her lodgings. There’s a name for this sort of behaviour and it’s not a word that turns up in connection with most romances. Nevertheless, Mora agrees for him to come back for breakfast in the morning.

The next day everything is sweetness and light, although the breakfast Mora has prepared for Johnny is mackerel, which is not my personal idea of a great start to the day. Suddenly the two of them are walking out together without either seeming to have given the idea much thought – or indeed there being much obvious chemistry. Perhaps it is best to consider Night Tide as some sort of melodramatic fable where some of the usual concerns of characterisation and motivation are not worth worrying about.

Johnny learns that Mora works at an attraction on the seafront, in a sideshow where (with the aid of a fake tail) she pretends to be a mermaid. Her godfather, or so he describes himself, runs the place – he is a retired naval captain named Murdock (Gavin Muir). Murdock claims to have found Mora as an orphaned child on the Greek island of Mykonos, and brought her back to the States to raise. All seems well for the young couple, for a bit at least – but then Johnny starts to see a strange woman in black haunting Mora’s steps, chanting strange incantations in a foreign language, and learns of ominous rumours about the unexplained deaths of her previous two suitors. Finally Murdock admits the awful truth – Mora isn’t just pretending to be a mermaid, she’s an actual siren, fated to lure young men to a watery grave…

The setting of Night Tide is well-observed and atmospheric; the horror-fantasy elements are delicate and ambiguously presented – in the end, it may just be the case that Mora is nothing but a disturbed young woman, subject to the influence of a possessive older man. Or it could be that she really is some sort of supernatural sea creature. You pays your money and you takes your choice – but the overall effect is strikingly reminiscent of the output of the RKO horror unit under Val Lewton, twenty years earlier, even if this is less Cat People and more Octopus Girl.

Still, the mixture of dreamlike, noirish fantasy and more naturalistic sequences is well-handled, and the production is probably wise to follow in Lewton’s footsteps by leaving as much as possible to the imagination – there are a couple of dream-sequences where Johnny imagines Mora first with a fish’s tail, and then transforming into a rubbery kraken-like monster, and these are the only moments where the film is in any danger of feeling camp or cheesy.

This is not a film which is overloaded with incident, so it’s just as well that the direction and incidental detail are as good as they are, and the performances help too. They kind of run the gamut from the earnestly naturalistic (Hopper, and probably Lawson) to the riper and more theatrical (Muir), but again this isn’t necessarily a problem and probably adds to the strange atmosphere of the piece. You can see why Night Tide has become something of a cult movie.

Doing films about actual mermaids (as opposed to people just living under the sea) has a somewhat chequered history – it seems to lend itself more to a sort of rom-com treatment (see Splash and its British antecedents Miranda and Mad About Men), but there has also been the odd full-on horror movie too (there’s a film called Mamula which I believe turned up on the Horror Channel under the title Killer Mermaids). We should also recall the recent kerfuffle over the complexion of the title character in the forthcoming live-action version of The Little Mermaid, and there is also the strange case of whatever-happened-to Empires of the Deep, an aspiring blockbuster with Olga Kurylenko, which has been MIA for about a decade. Given all this, Night Tide is probably somewhere towards the top of the heap, in its own little niche. It’s a weird little film, but quite well-made, and not afraid to assume the audience is intelligent. So there are three reasons at least to appreciate it.

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There are your non-traditional Hammer films and your traditional Hammer films, but the reason anyone talks about Hammer at all is because they made a lot of films that were good, full stop. I read a book on the vampire film genre years ago – it may have been David Skal’s V is for Vampire, if memory serves – in which Hammer Films earned a spot on the strength of the fact it was apparently a vampire film specialist. Really? Of course, there are seven or eight Draculas, plus a few other films in the same sort of territory, but that barely begins to scratch the surface – there are a load of Frankensteins, at least four Mummy-adjacent films, various psychological thrillers, some sci-fi films… and three takes on the Jekyll and Hyde story.

One of these is The Ugly Duckling, a 1959 comedy starring Bernard Bresslaw which need not concern us much. 1971’s Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is probably the one with the higher profile, partly because of the impudence of the concept, but also because it has people like Ralph Bates and Philip Madoc in it, not to mention Martine Beswick of course. The third, 1960’s The Two Faces of Jekyll, seems to me to get somewhat forgotten about – possibly because it’s one of the first wave of Hammer horror films as we usually understand them, and doesn’t entirely fit the template as a result. Like most of those early films, it was directed by Terence Fisher, and it has a couple of really interesting ideas going for it.

The film is set in London in 1874 (some years before Stevenson actually wrote the novella). Straightaway the script gets to work establishing scenario and theme. We meet Dr Jekyll (Paul Massie), a restrained, cerebral man, obsessed with his work – he is seeking to elevate the human condition by allowing people to liberate their higher selves from the clutches of their baser instincts. What could possibly go wrong with that? Well, to get a really good grasp of what the baser instincts are like, Dr Jekyll has come up with a drug which unleashes them from all inhibition, and to prove this transforms a tame and gentle monkey into a fanged menace. The friend he is expositing to makes the reasonable point that a drug having the opposite effect might be more useful. We also learn that Jekyll is a social recluse, which is a bit wearing for his beautiful wife Kitty (Dawn Addams).

Wondering how these two actually got together is virtually obligatory, but Jekyll’s choice of best friend is also a bit puzzling – this is Paul Allen, a scoundrel and rake, played by Christopher Lee (Lee would get his own crack at playing Jekyll in all but name in I Monster, also released in 1971). Allen is always tapping Jekyll to cover his gambling debts, much to Kitty’s apparent disapproval – but when the two are alone together it becomes very clear that Allen and Mrs Jekyll have got a thing going on.

It seems that Mrs Jekyll rather likes being left to her own devices by her husband, for when he reaches out to her she chooses to go off to a dinner party instead. Disconsolate, he shoots up with his drug, and… well, here’s where the story gets interesting, for the middle-aged, dry, bearded Jekyll transforms into the young, suave, clean-shaven Edward Hyde (why he chooses this particular name is not clear) – it’s not entirely unlike the Jerry Lewis spoof from 1963, in which the nerdy professor turns into a parody of Dean Martin.

People complaining that this is a wild deviation from the book are, I suspect, missing the point (I also suspect that they haven’t read the book, because while everyone knows the story hardly anyone has actually gone back to the source). Stevenson himself never gives a detailed description of Mr Hyde’s appearance, merely declaring him to have ‘the Mark of the Beast’ upon him. Most films interpret this by turning Hyde into a sort of barely-human ape; Two Faces is possibly unique (amongst non-genre-fluid Jekyll & Hydes, anyway) for making Hyde a much more superficially appealing but morally degenerate individual. (This was very much in keeping with Fisher’s equally suave takes on Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula.)

Hyde hits the town and ends up at the same nightspot where Kitty Jekyll and Allen have gone to disport themselves. (Also present in a very minor role is Oliver Reed, playing a pimp.) Crucially, neither of them recognise Hyde, thus setting up the film’s other brilliant innovation – Hyde takes rather a fancy to Kitty, and befriends her and Paul. Clearly he is scheming to displace Allen and have an adulterous affair with his own wife. (Of course, he also embarks on a sordid affair with a snake dancer, played by Norma Marler – a Rhodesian-born actress whose very brief career appears to have consisted entirely of Hammer adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde – her only other credit is for The Ugly Duckling.)

Two such good ideas would normally put the film on an easy track to success, but Two Faces does wobble a bit through its middle section, which turns into a slightly lurid melodrama about the interactions of the central trio (or quartet if you count Jekyll and Hyde separately). There’s also the odd question of why Jekyll keeps choosing to turn into Hyde, given he seems shocked and traumatised by the experience every time.

Things pick up towards the end as Hyde cooks up a devilish plan to force Jekyll to go into hiding (as Hyde) by framing him for various nefarious deeds (Christopher Lee is killed by the snake dancer’s pet, not very convincingly, and there are a couple of other murders). The climax is another divergence from most adaptations, as Hyde turns back into Jekyll at the police station and ends the film arrested, rather than dead.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, overall: Paul Massie is very good as Hyde, but quite hammy as Jekyll, and Christopher Lee is as effective as ever. However, the film is notably light on blood and explicit nastiness, certainly compared to other early Hammer horrors – the emphasis is much more on moral corruption and degeneracy than violence and physical jeopardy. This is the earliest Hammer horror that I’m aware of that really leans into the flesh part of the flesh and blood formula, though – there are several leery sequences dwelling on demi-monde dancing girls, and more implied nudity and sexual violence than in the earlier films.

This isn’t a bad film, but it does feel more like it leans towards the costume drama end of the spectrum than horror as such. It certainly lacks the big visual icon of Lee as Dracula or the Creature or the Mummy. It’s understandable that it isn’t remembered as vividly as the other early films  You could imagine Massie going on to have a successful association with the company – you can imagine him playing Meinster in Brides of Dracula or many of those John Richardson Hammer hunk parts – but he never worked with them again and virtually retired from movie acting a couple of years later, meaning this is a rare Hammer film led by a rather obscure performer. Perhaps why the whole film often seems to get forgotten about – it’s a traditional Hammer production, but only just.

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If you talk about British film studios specialising in horror movies from the 60s and 70s, the first name that gets mentioned is invariably that of Hammer; the second is Milton Subotsky’s Amicus (usually on the strength of its portmanteau horrors); and a solid third place usually goes to Tigon Films, if only for Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Tigon is the British horror company for cool kids, for whom Hammer is just a bit too mainstream. One potential problem for the easily confused is the existence of another outfit called Tyburn Films, who were operating about the same time as Tigon and making similar sorts of movies, such as The Ghoul and Legend of the Werewolf. And you don’t even have to be that easily confused to confuse Tyburn Films with Tyburn Entertainment, who a few years earlier made what looks very much like a classic British 60s horror film, Doctor Faustus.

Put it this way, it’s a costume drama with a very distinguished lead actor, about a man who gets mixed up in black magic: of course it looks like a classic British 60s horror film. When it turned up on TV a little while ago it was billed as a horror movie; it’s a little tricky to think of what other category it would reasonably go into.

Richard Burton, who also co-directs with Nevill Coghill, plays Faustus, who at the start of the story has just received his doctorate from a German university. Despite his reasonably advanced years, post-graduate study beckons, but what to focus on? What could prove rewarding enough? Motivated, it would seem, primarily by a desire to hang out with naked women, Doctor Faustus opts for the little-known post-graduate qualification in advanced satanism and summons up the Devil’s sidekick Mephistopheles to make the necessary arrangements.

You know the sort of thing: bargain away your soul, sign a contract in your own blood, enjoy youth, wealth, and the life of Riley for a few years and then get dragged off to Hell for eternity when your time is up. It doesn’t sound like a particularly good deal to me, but then I’m sure life was different in medieval Germany and one shouldn’t necessarily rush to judgement. The first part of the film concerns Faustus deciding to take up his new hobby and getting acquainted with Mephistopheles (Andreas Teuber); most of the rest of it is about him enjoying his new powers in various ways and experiencing the odd qualm as the due date on his soul draws closer.

If you think this sounds like a slightly odd plot for a film, you would be right: for this is not so much a film per se as a filmed performance of an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play about the Faust legend. Describing it as very, very stagey therefore almost becomes redundant – it really is like watching someone performing Elizabethan drama on the set of a very low-budget Vincent Price film. Quite long stints of it are just comprised of Richard Burton shouting things in Latin.

It’s a bizarre beast, and that impression is only added to by the other major quirk of its production – apart from Burton himself, all the other speaking roles are taken by members of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, based out of Queen’s College (apparently Burton put on the show with these guys shortly before). Most of these people did not go on to great acting careers: if you cheeck out the film’s Wiki page, most of the cast are much more prominent for their academic work (Teuber, for instance, went on to be a professor of Philosophy somewhere in the States). On the other hand, Richard Durden is in it (he’s hardly famous, but he has played bit parts in movies like Scars of Dracula and Batman), and so is Ian Marter (an actor and novelist who died tragically young but is fondly remembered for his association with Dr Who). Even though the cast of this film is essentially just Richard Burton and a gang of amateurs, there’s none of the unevenness you might be expecting – the supporting cast aren’t embarrassing, while Burton (who is, after all, largely directing himself)  isn’t particularly great.

It’s not the greatest film if you’re looking for strong independent women: apart from the group nude scenes which are occasionally inserted, it’s largely men only, the only exception being Elizabeth Taylor, who keeps popping up in different guises as the object of Faustus’ desire. Sometimes she is painted green. Sometimes she is painted silver. What is constant is that she never has any dialogue, and what one is inclined to guess is that she is involved mainly as a favour to Burton to make the film more marketable.

Frankly, Doctor Faustus needs all the help it can get in this department, because everything about it screams vanity project. Take away Burton and Taylor’s star power and all you’re left with is a film primarily of interest to fans of amateur productions of 16th century plays, which is not a particularly significant or sizeable constituency by any stretch of the imagination. This is filmed theatre, and not particularly good theatre – it makes the mistake of trying to tell an obviously theatrical (and thus non-naturalistic) story in the naturalistic mode in which most films operate, with clunky results: at one point Faustus does battle with various worldly kings and only survives due to the immortality granted him by Satan. This is depicted via Burton striding about and declaiming with various obviously fake swords stuck unconvincingly through him. Bits like this are often unintentionally funny; but most of the film is just damned hard work.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than a theatre student or academic watching this all the way through and finding it a positive and engaging experience. You can sort of imagine how it ended up being made: Richard Burton was often criticised as someone who had the potential to be the Olivier of his generation, but ended up squandering his talent in commercial cinema, and presumably this was his attempt to show that, yes, he really could cut it in a classical theatre production. Maybe as a piece of live theatre this was electrifying stuff, but the filmed version is clunky, slow, and tacky.

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Opinion is, of course, divided when it comes to the question of what William Shatner’s greatest acting performance is. Some people will tell you it is his well-nigh thirty year stint (on and off) as James Tiberius Kirk, starship commander, debunker of fake deities, deliverer of many a knuckle sandwich, and Don Juan of the Alpha Quadrant. Others will suggest that Shatner’s real magnum opus is the performance he’s been doing since at least the 1970s, as William Shatner, genially quirky self-publicist, self-parodist, and musical innovator. (Plus he did T. J. Hooker for a few years in the 1980s.)

Shatner is such a big personality, and Kirk is such a massive pop-cultural colossus, that it’s easy to forget that he had any kind of significant acting career away from Star Trek (I’m not sure T. J. Hooker meets the notability criterion). But in addition to turning up as the bad guy in episodes of Columbo and Mission Impossible, and doing a couple of Twilight Zone episodes (one very well-remembered), there was a period when William Shatner seemed to be on the verge of genuine movie stardom – this was pre-Trek, of course. Shatner’s in Judgement at Nuremberg, and plays one of the title roles in the well-received Hollywood version of The Brothers Karamazov. (Mind you, he’s also in the Esperanto-language horror movie Incubus, so maybe not.) And he also made a film with Roger Corman, variously called The Intruder, Shame, The Stranger and I Hate Your Guts.

(I’ve been playing with that ChatGPT thing that everyone’s been talking about and asked it to do the research for this review – friends, I have found the Achilles heel of the singularity, and it is Roger Corman-William Shatner movies. First it tried to tell me this was an LGBTQ+ themed film with Shatner as a young man wrestling with his sexuality, and then it suggested he played the Jack Nicholson part in The Terror. Even after I corrected it, it was trying to push a completely wrong plot synopsis on me, including the fact that a key black character was played by a white actress. On this evidence, Judgement Day is still a while off.)

Spanish poster for the film. If I were Bill Shatner I’d probably feel this wasn’t a great likeness.

It’s called The Intruder here in the UK, even if the print they showed last time it turned up on TV had the title I Hate Your Guts in the credits. Directed by Corman from a script by Charles Beaumont, based on his only novel, Shatner plays Adam Cramer, a smooth operator who arrives via bus in the small town of Caxton somewhere in Deep South, USA. Cramer claims to be working in race relations, but it fairly quickly becomes clear that this is in the same sense that the operator of a wrecking ball works in the field of architecture – he is here to foment trouble and create conflict.

This being the early 60s, anti-segregation laws have just come into force meaning that the town’s coloured teenagers can now attend the same high school as their white brethren. No-one seems to like this much, but as it is the law, they are not initially going to cause a stink over it. Until Cramer gets to work, securing the patronage of a local tycoon (Robert Emhardt) and making a rabble-rousing speech (it rather strikes me that some of Cramer’s lines here have more recently resurfaced in the rhetoric of a recently-indicted old man with a big house in Florida – if this is evidence of The Intruder being at all prescient or tapping into universal truths about human nature, it doesn’t make the film any easier to watch).

Soon the local black church has been bombed and the pastor killed, and the local newspaper editor (Frank Maxwell) beaten and maimed after he overcomes his instinctive dislike of the idea of racial mixing and realises the alternative inevitably leads somewhere far worse. Cramer starts working on his big play – a false accusation of rape against a black teenager (Charles Barnes), which will inevitably lead to his lynching by an angry mob…

That’s the thing about Roger Corman – the guy may have his name on a lot of films with names like Swamp Women and Attack of the Crab Monsters, but given half a chance there’s an intelligence and even a social conscience which  there he is more than happy to give expression to in some fairly unlikely places. The Intruder is perhaps one of the purest examples of this, as while it’s certainly a proficiently-made movie, it’s virtually all medicine with not much sign of any sugar. You have to give Corman some credit for wanting to make a movie about the civil rights struggle, especially considering he and his brother part-funded it themselves, but this is really quite heavy-going stuff, melodramatic and obvious. Shades of grey are thin on the ground and the black characters are generally saintly and thinly-written; the only interesting characters are Adam Cramer and the editor.

One inevitably what wonders what a Jewish actor like William Shatner made of playing a character who’s a borderline Nazi here – at one point we see him driving along in a convertible surrounded by men in Klan hoods. Nevertheless, it’s a charismatic and convincing performance, almost completely unlike Kirk but still extremely Shatnerish somehow. The movie was written by Beaumont during the same period he was a prolific contributor to The Twilight Zone (Beaumont also appears in the film, as the high school principal), and it initially looks like it’s going to be one of those stories about a mysterious stranger who eventually turns out to be Satan or Hitler’s ghost or someone like that. That would have worked reasonably well in this kind of story, especially given the heavy-handed treatment it gets here – but Adam Cramer turns out to be all too human and flawed, ultimately undone by his own personality flaws. It’s not tremendously satisfying, but you can see why they might want to keep the film more grounded.

And in the end it’s a worthy film, certainly with its heart in the right place, and deserving of some credit simply for that. The weird thing is that its attempts to address this topic head-on, in a relatively hard-hitting way, make it distinctly uncomfortable to watch now: the ceaseless use of various racial epithets never quite stops being uncomfortable, and probably explains why the film scores an 18 certificate under the current UK system even though it contains little explicit violence or sex. But it is, in every sense, heavy – it doesn’t feel intended to entertain at all, merely to preach to and even hector the viewer. Shatner is pretty good, and Roger Corman does his usual capable job as director, but this is mainly a curiosity watch.

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Joseph Losey was a left-leaning American film director who was blacklisted (supposedly at the behest of Howard Hughes, after he refused to make a film called I Married A Communist), and ended up working in Europe and especially the UK, where he eventually formed a long-lasting and productive relationship with Harold Pinter. His best-remembered films include The Servant and The Go-Between.

Not quite the usual sort of person you’d expect to find directing for Hammer Films, but then the movie he ended up doing isn’t your usual sort of Hammer film. It is The Damned (known in some quarters as These Are The Damned), filmed in 1961 but not released until a couple of years later.

As the film gets underway there is a strange tension between its Hammer and non-Hammer elements – there is a James Bernard score, instantly recognisable as such even though it seems to be in a minor key, but playing over images of rather odd sculptures (courtesy of Elizabeth Frink, who was present for part of the shoot) on a coastal clifftop rather than castles or mountains. And then The Damned seems on the verge of turning into Quadrophenia or Beat Girl, as we find ourselves in the  seaside town of Weymouth in the middle of tourist season, with a very John Barry-ish song called ‘Black Leather’ playing on the soundtrack. A young woman named Joan (Shirley Anne Field) finds her wiles attracting a much older man (B-movie stalwart Macdonald Carey, not that long before he started his three-decade residency on The Days of Our Lives); his name is Simon. However, Joan and Simon walking off together seems to attract the ire of a scooter gang, who proceed to beat him up, seemingly just for kicks. Giving it the beans  in terms of brooding saturnine intensity is Oliver Reed as the gang leader, King (not quite Reed’s first role for Hammer, but a step up); fairly prominent amongst his minions is a young Kenneth Cope.

Simon’s path crosses that of a sculptress, Freya (Viveca Lindfors), who will be living in the area courtesy of her own acquaintance, Bernard (Alexander Knox), a scientist in charge of a hush-hush government project in the area. To be honest this is just a contrivance to bring together two plot strands which would otherwise remain separate for most of the film, but it’s an acceptable one.

Anyway, Joan decides she really does like the look of Simon (one wonders why – he has his own cabin cruiser, but that’s about all) and the two of them run off together, pursued by King and his goons. They eventually make landfall near Freya’s cottage, where they are spotted by one of the bikers and a chase ensues. While trying to climb down the cliffs, they both fall into the sea, followed not long after by King himself.

They recover to find themselves in a cave under the cliffs, being looked after by a group of young children who are all 11 years old. We have already seen that the education of these children – by TV screen – is a central element of Bernard’s project. But who are they? Why is their skin so icy to the touch? And why is Bernard so determined to keep them isolated, seemingly at any cost?

In short, the film seamlessly shifts from looking like a teenage exploitation movie to something more akin to Quatermass or Village of the Damned, although it has a hard edge to it which is totally lacking from Hammer’s costume pictures of this period: the gang violence and ruthless scientific experimentation on young people seems to anticipate A Clockwork Orange, in some ways, too. The film was X-rated in 1963; these days it’s more like a 12, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

I’ve been watching Hammer films for 35 years or so; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Usually they’re very entertaining, one way or another; occasionally shocking; seldom what you’d actually call scary. But The Damned is horrible in a way that no other Hammer horror film matches – not horrible in that it’s badly made (far from it), but horrible in its conception, in its absolute bleakness and nihilism. It finds real-world fear-buttons that velvet-wrapped gothic fantasies never get close to.

The children in the bunker under the cliff are the mutated products of a nuclear accident, and being studied and educated by Bernard and his men. Uniquely in the world, they are completely immune to radiation – in fact, their bodies generate it quite naturally, at levels which are eventually lethal to normal people. Simon and Joan are initially unaware of this, and are shocked to discover them being apparently held prisoner. But Knox has his eye on the bigger picture: he is secure in his absolute certainty that a nuclear holocaust is inevitable, and he is preparing the children for the day when civilisation is destroyed and they inherit an irradiated world in which only they can survive. This idea is put across in a chillingly matter-of-fact way and with complete conviction. It’s not just the situation, but the abandonment of any hope implicit in it – total acceptance and apathy in the face of a looming armageddon.

Bleak doesn’t begin to describe it, in fact, and what actually happens in the third act of the film only compounds it: already feeling the onset of radiation sickness from contact with the children, Simon and the others attempt to help them escape, only for Bernard to send in troops in radiation suits and helicopters to recapture them all. Simon and Joan are allowed to go free, as Bernard already knows they won’t get the chance to tell their story; other witnesses are also ruthlessly eliminated. Bernard reflects that the main regrettable consequence of the whole affair is that the children now know they are bing kept as prisoners. Simon’s yacht, with him and Joan aboard, begins to drift aimlessly; the holidaymakers at Weymouth go about their fun, oblivious to the plaintive cries of the imprisoned children in their subterranean world; the film ends.

Some elements of The Damned have not aged well, particularly the supporting performances and parts of the script (the scenes between Joan and Simon, for example). But the core of the film still has a tremendous power even today – it hits, appropriately enough, like a hammer. These days we may not be quite so conscious of the shadow of the bomb hanging over us, but that shadow still exists; there are enough terrible things we seem happy to put out of sight and out of mind. This is not a comforting film, or a particularly easy one to watch, but it’s still one of the most striking and effective Hammer productions I’ve ever come across, atypical though it clearly is.

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The first thing to say about the writer and film-maker Ib Melchior is that, obviously, he had a fabulous name. The second is that he had an unusually influential career for someone who is, on the face of it, an extremely obscure figure: he wrote the short story that eventually gave rise to Death Race 2000 and its imitators and remakes, and also claimed to be the originator of the Lost in Space concept – he was never credited on screen for this but nevertheless made nearly $100,000 out of the movie version. Writing credits on well-remembered films like Robinson Crusoe on Mars also feature on his CV.

And then there is The Time Travellers, a 1964 film he wrote and directed for American International. At first glance this looks like a joke of a bargain-basement Z-movie quickie, but, once again, there are some distinctly interesting things going on here: quite apart from the fact that this is the first film to feature the idea of a time loop, it looks very likely that this film was also quite influential on the time-travel movie subgenre.

It opens with some scientists about to test the new time-viewing gadget they are developing, but this is briefly put on pause by the appearance of Danny the electrician (Steve Franken), warning them that the cables may not take the load. When the machine is switched on, odd shadows flicker through the room, before the viewing screen settles on an image of a bleak, rocky landscape. It is Danny who notices the screen has mysteriously started showing a 3D image – and then, after trying to touch it, discovers the screen has become an actual portal into another time and place.

Now, I am aware that there are two possible responses to this particular idea: ‘that’s stupid’, which is true but not particularly interesting, and ‘that’s a stroke of storytelling genius’, which is surely also true. I must confess to being firmly in the latter camp myself – the idea of the screen as a time window doesn’t make much less sense than many other time machines, and there’s something irresistibly alluring about the idea of the barrier of the screen being breached this way (an idea that can be exploited in many different ways – just compare Ringu with The Purple Rose of Cairo).

One by one the scientists and Danny the electrician clamber through the time window into the desert and vanish – though there’s also a genuinely eerie moment when mutant humanoids appear on the other side and attempt to force their way through into the 20th century – lab assistant Carol (Merry Anders) manages to see them off with a fire extinguisher.

Eventually Danny, Carol, and the two (very dull) scientists are reunited in the desert, and decide not to hang around there – but the time window collapses, stranding them in the other world. A sticky end at the hands of the mutants seems inevitable, until they find refuge with some regular people living in an underground shelter. Most prominent amongst them are patrician boffin Dr Varno (prolific character actor John Hoyt) and available young hottie Reena (Playboy‘s Playmate of the Month for June 1960 Delores Wells), and they fill in the background.

They’re all in the year 2071, after a nuclear war has rendered the planet uninhabitable. Varno and the others are building a starship to leave Earth for a planet near Alpha Centauri, always assuming the mutants don’t break in and smash everything first. Perhaps the time travellers can help? Various scenes of the visitors getting to grips with 21st century life ensue, which are moderately interesting but don’t move the plot along much. Then it transpires there is a problem: there’s no room for outsiders on the ship. While an earlier idea about building another time window to get home and prevent the war was shot down on the grounds that history is apparently immutable, just using one to leave the dying future Earth is seemingly A-Ok.

And at this point things get even weirder than they have been up to now, with the characters returning to the 1960s only to discover that… well, suffice to say that this film has one of the most memorably bizarre endings (or perhaps non-endings would be more accurate) in cinema history.

It would be grossly overstating things to suggest that The Time Travellers is in any way a great film – but it’s much better than you might expect it to be, colourful and pacy, and filled with creativity. It’s filled with visual inventiveness. Quite apart from the time window itself – the ‘reverse angle’ of which is executed with considerable skill – Melchior has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how to make this story work, and work interestingly, on a low budget. In-camera conjuring tricks take the place of actual special effects (one of these is performed by sci-fi superfan Forry Ackerman); one mildly-mutated character is played by a performer with congenitally deformed hands (not the most comfortable idea for a modern audience, I suspect).

On the other hand, it is a little hard to figure out quite what kind of audience Melchior is aiming for, as the tone of the movie is frankly all over the place. Parts of it – the post-apocalyptic dying Earth, the hostile mutants – are ostensibly quite grim, but there is also broad comedy and sight gags aplenty during some of the scenes in the bunker (the survivors have android servitors who are good for a few laughs). It even edges over towards being a full-blown exploitation movie at some points – Merry Anders and Delores Wells get a lengthy and entirely gratuitous implied-nude scene together, which is as visually striking as anything else in the movie (albeit for slightly different reasons). So it’s not as if the film’s ultimate spiral off into implacable weirdness is a complete surprise.

It’s not surprising that this is the kind of film that would inspire some of its viewers: quite apart from being remade only three years later under the title Journey to the Center of Time, it also supposedly inspired the TV series The Time Tunnel. And it seems to me that the basic idea of time travellers arriving in a devastated future to discover survivors desperately trying to build a rocket to escape hostile mutants – well, it sounds very much like that 2007 episode of Dr Who with Derek Jacobi in it to me (but what would I know, it’s not like I’m a fan or anything). Regardless of all that, this is a consistently inventive and interesting film, made with real skill and intelligence and an understanding of how to tell a story visually. Well worth watching if vintage sci-fi movies are your thing.

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The internet is full of things which serve pretty much no purpose whatsoever – given you’re visiting this blog, it’s a safe bet you’ve already worked that out – and one of these is Lists of Great Remakes. Looking at a few of these, one thing that struck me was the fact that at least one of them regularly had the compilers saying ‘We’re not saying this film is better than the original, but…’ – if it’s not at least as good as the first one, it’s probably not a great remake, though I will concede my logic there is not entirely watertight. Another was the number of remakes which are, um, not actually remakes, but new adaptations of the same source material. By this I mean – well, this year’s Batman film isn’t really a remake of the 1989 Batman film, or Batman Begins, or the 1966 film – it’s just a new film based on the same comic strip. In the same way, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing goes back to the original story in ways just not available to the makers of the Hawks/Nyby version.

Taking this (admittedly quite strict) definition of ‘remake’ immediately hacks back the field considerably and reveals that good films based on other original films are fairly thin on the ground – there’s the first The Magnificent Seven (actually, there are a few decent remakes of Kurosawa’s classic original), of course, and The Departed (maybe transferring a story from one culture to another helps, but – fond as I am of it – it doesn’t seem to have helped push Khoon Khoon over the line into the great movie enclosure). On the other hand, there are quite a few ‘stealth’ remakes – most people don’t realise that Scarface was a remake of a film from the 1930s. And similarly eclipsed in the public consciousness is the original version of The Little Shop of Horrors, made in 1960.

It’s probably because the remake is a fairly lavish, polished production, with some great performances and songs, while the original is bordering on Z-movie status, made on a tiny fraction of a pittance in two days on sets left standing by a movie called A Bucket of Blood. Overseeing all of this was Roger Corman, something of whose career trajectory you can perhaps discern if I reveal that by this point he was five years into producing-directing, and this was his twenty-sixth film. (Some of these projects included Viking Women and the Sea Serpent, Teenage Caveman, Attack of the Crab Monsters and She Gods of Shark Reef, which should also give you a sense of just what a key figure he is in the history of the genres which make up so much of this blog.)

At the time, Corman was going through a rather startling career transition and was on the verge of beginning a sequence of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, mostly starring Vincent Price, which are still well-regarded today. Watching The Little Shop of Horrors today, you do get the sense of talent at work, but perhaps not the kind of talent that might eventually lead to a film like The Masque of the Red Death.

The movie is set in then-contemporary New York, mostly in the florist’s shop of the money-conscious Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles). Helping out around the place are the sweet Audrey (Jackie Joseph) and the well-meaning but useless Seymour (Jonathan Haze). (Also frequently hanging around is a customer, played by Dick Miller, who’s there mainly because he likes to eat the flowers.) Seymour is on the verge of losing his job, but manages to cling on by telling Mushnick of a new plant he has managed to breed, supposedly the cross-fertilisation of a sunflower and a Venus Flytrap.

The new plant indeed succeeds in luring in the punters, but Seymour is a bit dismayed to learn firstly that it can talk, and secondly that it feeds on blood. There’s only so much a man can be expected to do in this sort of situation, and a despondent Seymour goes out for a walk where he idly accidentally kills someone by causing them to be hit by a train. Still, at least he has the wherewithal to recognise an opportunity when it comes along, and he feeds what’s left of the corpse to the plant, which he has by this point christened Audrey Jr. But the more he feeds it, the more it grows, and sooner or later someone’s going to notice something wrong…

There’s a number of ways you can go with a story like this, and Corman decides to go for black comedy, verging on farce in places – there’s also an element of parody going on, as the detectives investigating the string of disappearances, Joe Fink and Frank Stoolie, are based on Friday and Smith from the TV show Dragnet. Mostly this is pretty frantic, verging on the absurd – it sort of resembles something like an early Mel Brooks film, or something youthful and silly from Woody Allen, admittedly with a big dollop of the macabre mixed into it. You can see why some distributors were a bit worried that the film was anti-Semitic, or at least appeared that way.

These days the film is mostly remembered as the source of the musical version (with no definite article), filmed by Frank Oz in 1986. Its only other point of interest to a normal person, I suspect, is the presence in a small role of Jack Nicholson (only his fourth appearance on film), as a masochistic dental patient named Wilbur Force. Suffice to say this is not the kind of performance to make the unwary observer predict that twelve Oscar nominations lay in Nicholson’s future, but it just goes to show you never can tell. (Anyone coming to this film from the musical may expect the dentist subplot to be more prominent than is actually the case.)

And in the end it’s… well, it’s an extremely low-budget film, made in a hurry just to maximise the return on an investment, apparently filmed rather in the manner of a TV sitcom. But while it looks cheap, it doesn’t feel rushed, exactly – the script (which credited screenwriter Charles B Griffith apparently worked out the plot for with Corman and the actress Sally Kellerman) is solid structurally and often very funny. It’s on the short side, but it feels like it’s as long as it needs to be. Considering what it is, this is actually a quite proficient and entertaining movie.

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It must count as some sort of achievement if you enter the world of feature-film making, complete one movie – which then turns out to be cult favourite – and then retire, never to be seen again. It’s probably not quite as impressive as the career of someone like Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg, but it’s something. Such is the claim to fame of one Herk Harvey, and the film which he imparted to the world in 1962 was the unceasingly creepy Carnival of Souls.

The poster is vibrant and lurid, but the film itself is much more reserved, being shot in black-and-white for an obviously low budget; it’s also clear that many of the roles are being played by non-professional performers. The story begins with a group of young women out for a drive together; they encounter a similar group of young men, one thing leads to another and before you know it they are having a race along the local back roads. You know how it goes: it’s all great fun until someone’s car falls off a bridge into the river, imperilling the lives of all involved (though particularly the girls, as they’re the ones in the water).

A swift current and turbid water leads the authorities overseeing the rescue attempt to conclude that the car may never be recovered – but one of the young women turns up anyway. Her name is Mary, and she is played by Candace Hilligoss, who, like Harvey, is really only remembered for this film. Mary, it seems, is has a degree in being a church organist, and is not about to let a small matter like her involvement in a fatal crash get in the way of her career. She has recently managed to land a job at a church in Salt Lake City (I had no idea that being a church organist qualified as an actual career, but there you go), and shortly afterwards drives over there to begin her duties.

However, and here perhaps some of the influences on the film become apparent, things become a little unsettling for Mary: an abandoned resort on the shore of the Great Salt Lake captures her attention, while disquieting phantom figures appear around her as she drives (the most prominent of them is played by an uncredited Harvey himself). Her car radio won’t stop playing creepy organ music – though as Carnival of Souls‘ soundtrack is wall-to-wall organ music, this perhaps isn’t immediately obvious.

Even after she arrives in Salt Lake City, the influence of the abandoned resort refuses to fade, and she continues to see pallid, ghoulish figures – even though others around her don’t. Her neighbour (Sidney Berger) complains that she seems cold and distant, though as he spends most of his time persistently hitting on her perhaps we should not give his complaints too much weight. But always there is the resort; always there is the haunting organ music; always the silent ghouls. Is she losing her mind, or cursed – or is the truth something much worse?

Carnival of Souls has built up an impressive reputation as a cult favourite, as noted – something which is perhaps due to, rather than despite, the fact that the film remained a little-seen obscurity for the first quarter-century after its initial (very limited) release. (I remember reading an interview with one noted UK horror author, commenting on how he’d first seen it in his youth, been profoundly disturbed by it, and later shelled out a considerable sum for a dub copy he saw advertised in the back of (if memory serves) Fangoria magazine.) Carnival of Souls has always been in the public domain, so its resurgence in the internet age shouldn’t really come as a surprise – at least, it shouldn’t if the film is any good.

But is it any good? I think so: while there is a theatrical, melodramatic quality to some of the dialogue scenes (Mary’s very awkward date with her neighbour, for example) and some of the scares are heavily telegraphed (the moment when it turns out Mary hasn’t been sharing her troubles with her doctor, but someone rather more disquieting), the eerie atmosphere of the film is well handled and pervasive. The way in which the narrative fragments from something quite naturalistic into the broken echo of a recurring nightmare is also impressively handled – watching some of these old horror movies, you often get a lot of subtle weirdness filling up the first half or two thirds of the film, before the more striking (and expensive) visual shocks and set pieces get wheeled out at the end. However, watching Carnival of Souls it gradually becomes apparent that subtle, understated creepiness is basically all the film is trading in, which needs a bit of a mental adjustment: some of the concluding images – the ghouls rising from the water, the dancers in the ballroom, Mary being pursued across the salt flats – work extremely well and need no qualification or excuse.

On the other hand, you could certainly argue that Carnival of Souls may not so much be a good movie, as one which reminds you of other good movies that you may have come across in the past. This is what I mean when I say the influences on the film are often very clear, given this is a low-budget black and white horror film about a young woman driving across the desert and being troubled by what seem to be the walking dead. The history of horror cinema does not require there to be a missing link or a transitional step between Psycho and Night of the Living Dead – however, if there was such a need, it’s hard to imagine a film which could fill that role more admirably than this one. That said, what’s perhaps most striking and familiar about the film is the way in which it resembles an episode of The Twilight Zone blown up to (just about) feature length proportions. There’s one episode in particular which has essentially the same premise, although it’s developed here in considerably more detail. The concluding revelation has become a bit of a cliche after decades of regular employment, so it’s unlikely to prove a genuine twist or shock.

Well, there’s no shame in building on someone else’s idea, especially when you do it as effectively as happens here. Carnival of Souls remains a creepy little film – and perhaps it is the case that the film is distinguished not just by what it achieves, but also for the fact it manages to do so with such limited resources. Herk Harvey and Candace Hilligoss both deserve all the praise they have received over the years, for this is a great example of how to make a strikingly effective horror movie for virtually no money.

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Whenever I look at vintage movies from those parts of the world where democracy was not, at the time, prevailing, the temptation is firstly to try and parse the film for giveaway signs of a political subtext and agenda, and secondly to see if I can make out any signs of the production having been influenced by something closer to home. Sometimes this is so obvious that you would have to not be paying attention to miss it, as is surely the case with the North Korean Communist Godzilla pastiche, Pulgasari; the appearance of a number of Soviet-made space operas in the late seventies and early eighties indicates a reaction to the success of George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, too.

But then sometimes… you see something which looks like a western movie of a certain kind, and feels like a western movie of a certain kind, but you’re still not entirely sure if it’s just a coincidence or not. Such is the case with Viy, a 1967 Soviet movie based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol. The thing about Soviet films is that they tend to be, if not exactly openly didactic, then powered along by a certain lumbering worthiness – it’s never just about crowd-pleasing entertainment with these guys. You would expect this to preclude certain genres entirely, and to a point you would be right – Europe and America got in on the ground floor as far as horror movies are concerned, making them from the dawn of cinema onwards, but the Soviet Union never officially released a horror film until this one. So it has a definite curiosity value if nothing else.

Viy‘s English title is generally accepted to be Spirit of Evil, which certainly fits. The film was directed by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov – who, the credits take pains to assure us, are both graduates of the Institute of Advanced Film Directing. Well, that’s good to know. After appropriately ominous cobweb-shrouded titles, we find ourselves outside a seminary in Ye Olde Russia, where the rector is in the process of dismissing his rather high-spirited young charges for a holiday.

We follow three of them as they head home, across country, inevitably getting lost in the dark. Happening upon a small farmhouse, they prevail upon the old woman who owns it to let them stay for the night. All seems well until one of them, the theologian Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov), is – not to put too fine a word on it – assaulted by the crone, despite his protestations. (The fact the old woman is played by a man (Nikolai Kutuzov) just adds to the weirdness of the moment.) Eventually the old woman mounts Khoma like a horse, and he finds himself carrying her across the countryside – and then across the sky, as the two of them take flight! There is a surreal, nightmarish quality to this whole sequence which announces to the audience that whatever the differences in the Soviet approach to horror movie-making, Viy at least is worthy of attention.

As dawn is breaking, Khoma and the witch – for such she must surely be – return to the ground, at which point Khoma, being a well-trained and quick-witted theology student, attempts to bash her head in with a big stick, only stopping when the witch assumes the much more agreeable form of Natalya Varley, a young Romanian starlet. Khoma’s limits have clearly been reached and he flees back to the seminary.

It’s enough to make a theologian give up rambling, but Khoma’s travails have only just begun. The rector informs him that a wealthy local sotnik (basically a land-owner) has requested that Khoma – specifically, asking for him by name – come and recite prayers over the body of his daughter for three nights, the girl having recently been found beaten to death. Now you may be putting two and two together here, but Khoma does not, and agrees to do as he is requested (possibly with one eye on a big reward). So off Khoma trots to the sotnik’s estate, getting to know the locals along the way. He is a bit disconcerted that his host has ordered he be locked in the chapel with the corpse for the three nights he will be performing his priestly duties, but this is nothing to his alarm when it turns out that the dead girl is – yes, you’ve guessed it – the spitting image of the younger form of the witch that he killed…

Suffice to say that if this had been an American movie and made a few years later, ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ would have been suitable soundtrack material. But it wasn’t, and I doubt the Soviets were ever really into Kris Kristofferson anyway. The meat of the movie is the three nights Khoma finds himself locked in with the corpse (or not) of the witch, and the various happenings which take place, but the script makes fairly big demands of the audience – a modern audience, anyway – by holding all of these back to the second half of the film. Viy is only just over 75 minutes long, but even so; take out the opening sequence with the witch and this is a horror movie with no horror in it for over half its length.

As noted, though, the stuff with the witch’s initial attack is probably intriguing enough to make most casual viewers stick around throughout all the atmosphere- and character-establishing material with Khoma and his journey, and it’s during this section of the film that one is most struck by the striking resemblance between Viy and many Hammer horror movies of the same period – Hammer actually did a couple of films specifically set in what would later become parts of the USSR, and they and Viy could have exchanged sets and costumes without anyone actually noticing (I should say that Viy seems to have been a slightly more lavish undertaking than the typical Hammer production-line job). Then again, Viy is a movie with a historical setting, based on classic literature, which is how the house of horror got started too; perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised.

The big difference is that Viy almost totally eschews the gory, more exploitative elements which made Hammer’s films so disreputable at the time they were being made – instead, it opts for a sustained atmosphere of eerieness and unease, that feeling of being trapped in a nightmare creeping back again and again. The surreality of Khoma’s experiences – which grow progressively more extreme and grotesque – is suggested with the help of some genuinely impressive special effects, some of which are probably better than anything in an equivalent western film of the period. There’s even the odd ‘how on Earth did they do that?’ moment, which is always the sign of an impressive gag.

I suppose you could argue there is a vague subtext about the fallibility of the church – Khoma is far from an exemplar of anything – but on the whole this does seem to have been a faithful attempt at bringing a story from th pre-Soviet period to the screen. It’s no more genuinely scary than most 60s horror films of this type, but it does have that pervasive atmosphere of rising strangeness and the climax is honestly worth the wait. As noted, you wouldn’t expect what was effectively the state studio of the USSR to have made any horror movies at all; the fact that Mosfilm produced something as distinctive and classy as Viy is a real but very pleasant surprise.

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