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Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

I’m all for people getting a bit evangelical and sharing the things that they love, but even I have to admit there’s usually a time and a place. In recent years I have been regularly amused and bemused by the good folk at the Horror Channel’s attempts to bring Roger Corman’s 1964 version of The Masque of the Red Death to a new audience, mainly by screening it in wildly inappropriate time-slots: 11am during the school holidays, for instance, or eight o’clock on a Sunday morning. Prefacing the movie with the announcement that ‘this film contains scenes which may be unsuitable for younger children’ hardly gets them off the hook; there would be nothing more certain to make me settle down in front of the screen as a younger child than hearing such a disclaimer. (Though it is of course not just this film that gets eccentrically scheduled: The Devil Rides Out has turned up as the Monday matinee in the past, while Quatermass and the Pit was on in the Sunday teatime slot just the other week.)

I suppose you could argue that it’s the ideas, not the visuals, of The Masque of the Red Death that make it the film that it is, and that your average nine-year-old isn’t going to pay much attention to those – I first saw this film as a teenager, and while I was blown away by some of the more fantastical imagery, the film’s musings on good and evil and the fate of the world sort of went over my head. Even then, though, it clearly seemed to me to be by far the best of the Corman-Price cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, which it comes near the end of.

The film is set in late-mediaeval Italy, with the land ravaged by plague. Local despot Prince Prospero (Vincent Price, obviously), making one of his usual trips to terrorise the peasantry, is horrified to see that the dreaded red death has begun to spread amongst the villagers of his domain, and resolves to retire within his castle walls until the disease has run its course. Mainly to pass the time, he takes with him pious young peasant girl Francesca (an 18-year-old Jane Asher, in her pre-cakes Macca’s-girlfriend period); the prospect of destroying her faith in God amuses him (also he plans on having her boyfriend and father fight to the death for the entertainment of his cronies).

Prospero, as you may have been able to gather, is a toweringly nasty piece of work, but in his own way he is equally devout in his beliefs: it’s just that he is a devil-worshipper who believes that God is dead and Satan holds dominion over the world. Cruelty and viciousness are practically religious duties for Prospero, and he has done his best to encourage others in the faith – particularly his lover Juliana (Hazel Court), who is not best pleased when Prospero brings another woman home with him.

Well, Prospero sets about educating Francesca in what he sees as the deeper truths of existence, while at the same time planning for a grand masquerade ball to be held in the castle. Meanwhile, Francesca’s presence has made Juliana contemplate making a deeper commitment to Satanism, while another subplot concerns a dwarf acrobat planning a cunning revenge on another nobleman who has been cruel to his lover. Also occasionally glimpsed is a figure robed and cowled and cowled in crimson, who speaks somewhat cryptically of deliverance and fate. Could it be that Prospero’s dark master will be putting in an appearance at the masque? Or has he inadvertantly summoned up something even worse?

This movie was made in the UK, largely using home-grown talent (as well as Asher, stalwart character performers like Nigel Green, Robert Brown and Patrick Magee appear, with an uncredited John Westbrook doing really excellent work in the title role), which results in a well-played and very good-looking film, even if the slightly garish depiction of mediaeval life is a bit cod-Hollywood (the cinematography was the work of a fairly young Nicolas Roeg).

Historical realism is not really on the agenda, anyway, as this is a much more thoughtful, impressionistic kind of horror film. The slightly facile way to describe Masque of the Red Death is that it looks like the result of a torrid get-together between Ingmar Bergman and the people at Hammer Films (Corman repeatedly delayed production, as he was aware people would assume he was ripping off The Seventh Seal), but the truth is that this film is the product of a slightly different sensibility than the one at Hammer: Hammer were making classy costume dramas which they sold to a youthful audience by the inclusion of elements of gore and fantasy, but Corman mostly eschews fake blood and easy shocks.

Instead, the success of the film comes from a consistently-maintained atmosphere of moral and intellectual decadence, and a strong sense of impending doom as the red death draws closer and closer. Prospero isn’t just evil: he’s clearly having a whale of a time being evil, and it’s this which is as disturbing as anything which happens in the film (and some fairly serious stuff goes down, especially considering this movie was made in 1964).

Much of the work on the script was done by Charles Beaumont, although the illness that would eventually kill him meant he was unable to complete the project. Beaumont is probably best-known for his work as one of the three main writers on the original version of The Twilight Zone, and there’s a very real sense in which Masque of the Red Death almost feels like an extended episode of that series, made in lavish colour. Personifications of abstract ideas stalk the land, characters engage in lengthy discussions about good and evil, there is a killer twist ending. And the dialogue has an extraordinarily poetic quality to it – ‘I want to help save your soul, so you can join me in the glories of hell,’ Prospero tells Francesca, while Juliana later declares ‘I have tasted the beauties of terror.’

It may look a little iffy written down, but delivered by these actors it really sings, and no-one gives a more operatic performance than Vincent Price. No-one, I would say, could have been better suited to this depiction of playful, apparently civilised evil; and Price is a good enough technician to leave the tiniest cracks through which the remains of Prospero’s humanity can be glimpsed – he seems genuinely moved and unsettled by Francesca’s faith, and the film’s big pay-off comes in his great moment of pride and hubris, when he comes to realise there may be limits to his wisdom and understanding after all.

Most of the Corman-Price-Poe films are competent entertainments or amusing diversions, but this one takes the series to a higher level, filled with memorable imagery and striking ideas. In the first rank of Vincent Price’s horror film career, the fact is that I’ve never seen another film quite like this one: if The Masque of the Red Death doesn’t qualify as a classic horror movie, I don’t know what does.

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I think it makes a certain kind of sense to stick to what you’re good at. If so, then I am surprised there has not been more of an outcry about the British film industry’s enthusiasm for making syrupy-soft allegedly life-affirming comedy dramas aimed at old people, fairly insipid rom-coms, and dour costume dramas, for our record in this area is not much better than that of many other nations. No, what we should be producing more of – and I think a target of two or three a year is not unreasonable – is apocalyptic science fiction films, because there was a time when we led the world in films of this kind (well, good ones, anyway). Nowadays we barely even seem to bother: the last proper one I can think of is 28 Days Later, which is not far off being twenty years old (the boom in zombie movies it kick-started is still going, of course: see what I mean, we’re good at this stuff).

Near the top of any stack of British doomsday films is Val Guest’s 1961 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire (NB: title may be figurative). It sounds like a rather excitable B-movie made in the wake of The Day the Earth Stood Still – and there are plenty of these, such as the Italian film The Day the Sky Exploded – but, being a British film, it is made with healthy amounts of thought, restraint, and good old-fashioned phlegm.

The film’s main gimmick, inasmuch as it has one, becomes apparent from the start: in the sequences that frame the story, the black-and-white picture has been tinted ochre, representing the burning heat throughout these scenes. We find journalist Pete Stenning (Edward Judd) wandering through the streets of a near-deserted London: the Thames has virtually dried up in temperatures of over a hundred degrees. Stenning goes into the offices of his newspaper and (his typewriter ink having turned to paste) proceeds to dictate the story of what has befallen the world…

In flashback, we return to more conventional times, with the men (and they are virtually all men) of the press preoccupied with a string of apparently unconnected natural disasters: floods and earthquakes, mostly. Some planes are also reporting navigational problems. Amidst all this news of the Americans and Soviets both having recently tested enormously powerful nuclear weapons at opposite ends of the globe are only a minor item. But all the news seems trivial to Stenning, who is having something of a breakdown – his marriage having ended, he is concerned for the future of his son, and is drinking too much. His job is in peril and it is only the connivance of his friend and colleague Maguire (Leo McKern) that keeps him employed.

The authorities at the air ministry and the meteorological office stonewall any attempts to find out what’s going on, and Stenning’s own enquiries only put him on the wrong side of secretary Jean Craig (Janet Munro). But strange events continue: there is an unheralded, unscheduled lunar eclipse, then a protracted heat-wave. Then a stifling heat-mist blankets much of the world, followed by savage hurricanes and typhoons. Stenning has (almost inevitably) got it together with Jean by this point, and it is from her that he learns the reality of what is really going on – the nuclear tests have toppled the world on its axis, and caused it to shift its orbit, taking it much closer to the sun…

There is a sense in which watching The Day the Earth Caught Fire is like looking back into a very different world, which has now almost vanished. These are the sixties before they really started to swing: the mood is still stolid, post-war, sensible. Most importantly, newspapers are still the dominant media, and most of the film is centred around the offices of Stenning’s rag. Normally when a film focuses on a paper, it’s a fictitious one (unless we’re talking about a based-on-fact movie like The Post); one of the possibly-startling elements of this film is that Stenning works for the Daily Express, an actual newspaper (one guesses that the Express movie critic was rather positive about this film). Even more surprising, the editor of the Express in the film is played (not especially well, it must be said) by Arthur Christiansen, who was the real-world editor of the paper for over twenty years. These days it is customary to dismiss the Daily Express as being one of the more excitably nutty organs of the right-wing media, so there is a degree of cognitive dissonance in seeing its staff portrayed so heroically; a scare story about the Earth falling into the sun would probably qualify as a quite a subdued piece by the paper’s current standards – no doubt it would turn out to be the fault of the EU, or Tony Blair. (An unintentionally funny moment, from a modern perspective, comes when Christiansen declares – even as the fall of civilisation takes a big step closer – ‘We must keep the tone of the paper optimistic!’)

The film is also very much of its time in its concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons – something it shares with another great British film from about ten years earlier, Seven Days to Noon – but it also seems almost prophetic in the way it depicts wide-scale climate change as a result of human foolishness. Everything is rather exaggerated for dramatic effect, naturally, but many chords are struck – the authorities initially refuse to be pinned down on the exact cause of the punishingly hot weather, and the characters seem almost overwhelmed by the immense implications of what is happening in the film. There is also something chillingly plausible about the various reactions as the situation worsens – there are mentions of black market water dealers, severe rationing, outbreaks of typhus in London, and so on.

It’s all handled in a downbeat, naturalistic style which serves to keep the story unsettlingly credible. However, the script (by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz) isn’t quite wall-to-wall doom and despair – woven in there, alongside the main plotline, is the story of Stenning and Jean’s romance, which is equally plausible and smartly written. Edward Judd gets the ‘introducing’ credit in this film; he gives a great leading man’s performance of the kind he would continue to produce in a number of other British SF and fantasy films in the 1960s. Munro inevitably has a rather more secondary role, but she is also appealing and plausible. Leo McKern is saddled with the gravitas-provision and exposition-delivery character part in this film (the kind of thing someone like Paul Giamatti does nowadays), but also manages to find some interesting stuff to work with there. For modern audiences, there’s also a nice moment when a pre-stardom Michael Caine (aged 27) has an uncredited cameo as a police officer: his face is never clearly seen, but that voice is unmistakable.

This is one of those films which is not especially celebrated nowadays, but which seems to me to cast an extremely long shadow – it certainly anticipates several of the effects-driven SF disaster movies that Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have been regularly producing for many years now, but I can also discern something of its tone and imagery in many other pieces of British and American SF – not just films, but also TV shows and even comic books. This is a smart, serious film, even if the print in wide circulation via DVDs and so on diffuses Guest’s original, carefully ambiguous ending to create something a little more hopeful. The Day the Earth Caught Fire isn’t about hope; it’s about anger, and fear, but in that very reserved British way. Not just a great British SF film, but a great British film, full stop.

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If you’re going to do a classic horror movie revival, then the chances are it’s going to happen on Halloween, and this year in particular it feels especially appropriate to disinter a movie by the late George A Romero, who passed away a few months ago. So it was that the main screening last night at the Ultimate Picture Palace (I’m virtually certain the name is intended ironically – if not, someone needs to have a quiet word) was of Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Oh well, you can’t have everything.

Nevertheless, clawing itself a place on the schedule in the teatime slot was, indeed, a showing of Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, although technically this was not Halloween-related: the owner of the UPP has been running a series of her favourite films, just ‘cos, and apparently Night of the Living Dead is one of them. So there you go.

There’s a bit in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood where the hapless director declares that if you want to establish yourself as a commercially-successful film director, the place to start is with a horror movie, as – historically speaking – no other genre has the same kind of budget-to-profit ratio. The long tradition of micro-budget horror movies turning out to be massive money-spinners found one of its greatest expressions with Night of the Living Dead (the fact it in parts resembles one of Ed Wood’s own Z-movies does not seem entirely coincidental, somehow).

Romero was making TV commercials in his native Pittsburgh but wanted to branch out, and this was the result: largely filmed at weekends, funded by members of the production company, and featuring a largely non-professional cast, it is almost the definition of guerrilla film-making – the premise is hardly very original, either, owing various bits of narrative DNA to sources as diverse as I Am Legend (the author of which thought Romero’s movie was ‘kind of cornball’) and Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (Romero thought that employing zombies in your workforce was bad business practice and would inevitably lead to problems).

The movie opens on a Sunday evening in Spring, as siblings Johnny and Barbra (Russell Streiner and Judith O’Dea) visit a rural cemetery to pay their respects at their father’s grave. Barbra finds the place creepy, which Johnny mocks her for, but the joke is soon on him as he is savagely attacked by a total stranger who wanders into the area. Barbra flees, taking refuge in a remote farmhouse not far away.

There she is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a young man who has also been a target for mysterious, random violence. Soon people, or creatures, like the one from the cemetery are clustering outside the house and looking for a way in. Having attempted to fortify the place single-handed, Ben is somewhat disgruntled to learn that another five people have been hiding in the cellar all the time, and a tense atmosphere develops between the different survivors.

TV reports indicate that radiation brought to Earth from space is causing the recently deceased to reanimate and devour the living, and that the safest course of action is to get to a rescue centre where medical support and armed protection is available. But can the group work together long enough to escape from the house, with the numbers of the living dead growing outside?

So, here we are, at an epochal moment in modern culture: the very first zombie apocalypse (even if they’re never actually referred to as zombies, and at the end of the film the authorities seem to have matters well under control). It would be great to be able to report that this is a film which lives up to its place in history, transcending its low-budget Z-movie origins with skill and subtlety.

Alas, that isn’t quite the case: during the screening I was at, the silence was more frequently broken by laughter than cries of alarm or distress, and I could kind of understand why. To a modern audience coming in fresh off the street, Night of the Living Dead doesn’t resemble a great horror movie so much as a parody of bad horror movies, with dubious special effects, sub-professional performances from most of the cast, and somewhat overwrought music and direction.

Apparently, at one point Romero’s intention was to hedge his bets by making a genuine horror-comedy, and to begin with it looks like he is deliberately playing with audience expectations and the tropes of the genre – a young couple drive out into a remote part of the countryside, which is how a thousand cautionary tales begin, but they turn out to be brother and sister, and illicit hanky-panky is the last thing on their minds. The first of the monsters to appear does so quite understatedly, wandering around in the back of shot for some time. Elsewhere Romero seems to be deliberately playing to cliche, with Barbra a stereotypical damsel in distress, unable to cope with the situation – almost to the point where she disappears out of the plot, present but barely participating.

(Seriously, Barbra is absolutely the last person you want to be stuck with in the middle of a zombipocalypse, as she is almost literally useless and rather annoying to boot. Ben certainly seems to find her rather hard work: the biggest laugh at the UPP showing came at the moment where all the sobbing and complaining and general hysteria gets too much and he punches her out.)

You really have to bear in mind that this film was made at a time when American horror movies consisted to a large extent of Vincent Price brooding over his late wife’s portrait, with additional dialogue provided by Edgar Allen Poe. There’s a low-fi rawness about Night of the Living Dead that is wholly new to the genre at this point, and you can almost sense Romero finding his voice as the film goes on: the real drama is not really focused on the ghouls outside, but the fraught relationships between the human characters. The hackneyed stock music cues fade away during the movie’s more exuberant moments of gratuitous nastiness, replaced by pulsing radiophonic growls and shrieks.

However, if Romero was trying to make some kind of satirical statement with Night of the Living Dead, it’s not entirely clear what it is – it’s certainly much less self-evident than the subtext about consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, for instance. Is it on some level about American society at the height of the Vietnam war? Is it about the Civil Rights struggle? It’s genuinely hard to tell – although it is striking that, for most of the film, the fact that the tough, bright and capable male lead is African-American is not commented on at all. Only the nihilistic twist at the very end of the film seems to acquire any additional significance from Duane Jones’ ethnicity.

In the end, Night of the Living Dead is one of those movies which is massively important without actually being especially accomplished – personally, I can appreciate its role in the development of the horror movie, but I think Dawn of the Dead is a technically much superior film in every respect. But context is everything. This clumsy, primitive thing crawled out of the wilds of Pennsylvania nearly fifty years ago, and the virus it was incubating has gone on to become a major part of the cultural landscape. For all its obvious flaws, this remains the index case, and it still retains its power to disturb.

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Sometimes I could almost believe the people at Lovefilm are reading this blog and sitting in judgement upon it. One of the unusual (and, to my mind, rather enjoyable) aspects of my soon-to-be-defunct DVD rental service is the random nature of it – you basically get very little control over what films from your list they decide to send you. Is there some sort of lucky dip system in effect at Lovefilm HQ? Somehow I doubt it, for there have been several occasions when I have received a string of suspiciously similar films in a row. On these occasions I can almost hear a spectral voice saying ‘We enjoyed your review of that last Woody Allen film. Have another one.’ And my thoughts on Tales from the Crypt seem likewise to have earned the approbation of the DVD gods, for landing on my figurative mat this week was another Amicus portmanteau horror movie – the daddy of them all, in the form of Freddie Francis’ 1965 film Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. All I can say is: DVD gods, please send Tiptoes before your service closes down.

Anyway – yes, this is the one with Fluff Freeman and the killer vine. This was the original Amicus portmanteau, and as a result it does feel a little less formulaic than later films in the subgenre. Scripted by Amicus head honcho Milton Subotsky, apparently the film originated in the late 1940s, with the script hanging around for fifteen years or so before it finally went into production – scholars of American horror movies of the mid-40s have suggested that all the segments of House of Horrors are to some extent derivative of other movies and stories from that period, but this is not especially obvious to a modern audience.

The movie opens with a group of men gathering in a train compartment, and you do get a sense almost at once that this isn’t a film completely trapped in the horror ghetto – true, you do have Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee giving their legendary imprimatur to proceedings (although both are somewhat cast against type), but there’s also a very young Donald Sutherland, not to mention all-round entertainer Roy Castle and the disc jockey (and not very good actor) Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman. Something for everyone there, I’m tempted to say.

Anyway, Cushing is playing the enigmatic Dr Schreck (German for ‘terror’, naturally), which allows the actor to have some fun with a peculiar accent, and really go to town with the make-up box: his fake eyebrows suggest a couple of hairy caterpillars are engaged in a courtship ritual on his forehead. When he reveals he’s carrying a set of tarot cards in his luggage, and they have mystical powers to foretell the future and shape destiny, the others are initially doubtful – especially Lee’s snotty art critic. But one by one they consent to have their fortune told…

First up is Werewolf (the segment subtitles leave a little to be desired, if you ask me), a slightly overplotted tale of an architect (Neil McCallum) who returns to his recently-sold family home to do some surveying work for the new owner (Ursula Howells). Soon enough he discovers the coffin of a legendary sorcerer and werewolf, the magnificently named Cosmo Valdemar, walled up in the cellar, and recalls old tales of Valdemar’s undying hatred of his family. Better start melting down the silver crucifix to make bullets, then… but is there something else going on that our man is not aware of?

The least you can say about any of the stories in House of Horrors is that they are atmospherically filmed, and this one is no exception. However, each of them also stands or falls on the strength of its punchline, so to speak, and the question of exactly what’s going on here always seems to me to be a little confused. Or, to put it another way, you don’t really expect to have to work out the plot of an Amicus portmanteau story for yourself. Hey ho.

No such worries in the next one, The Creeping Vine – yes, the time has finally come. One of the distinguishing things about this film is that it’s not about dodgy types receiving their well-earned comeuppance, which is basically the rationale of later films like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave – it’d be a stretch to describe any of the protagonists here as actually wicked, they’re petty or foolish at worst. And yet their fates are uniformly pretty grim. In this case, Fluff Freeman plays a very ordinary bloke who comes back off holiday to find a peculiar vine has sprung up in his garden. The vine violently resists any attempts at pruning, which is enough to prompt Fluff to head off to consult some boffins.

‘I’m pretty good at handling garden tools, I don’t think those shears slipped!’ says Fluff to the experts (I can’t understand why that line has not become one of the most celebrated movie quotes in history). The boffins (Jeremy Kemp and Bernard Lee), who obviously have far too much free time, speculate that rather than being a gardening mishap, this may be evidence of a sentient mutant plant having appeared, and one of them actually moves in with Fluff to investigate.

Well, who’d have guessed it, but the boffins are right, and soon the malevolent vine is strangling family pets and covering the whole house. Bernard Lee brings remarkable gravitas to an uproariously silly story, all the more so given he was apparently so much the worse for drink during most of his scenes that he had to deliver his dialogue sitting down. Fluff, meanwhile, just stands around looking slightly bemused by the whole thing. Very entertaining, but hardly the high-point of the British botanical horror tradition, and once again the ending is just a bit too ambiguous.

Next up is Voodoo, the tale of Roy Castle’s hapless jazz trumpeter (it’s Roy Castle, of course he’s going to have a trumpet), who is sent off for a residency in Haiti along with his band. We’re heading into slightly problematic territory here, with Haiti depicted as a hotbed of black magic and voodoo (Castle’s attempt at a West Indian accent at one point is also rather embarrassing), but the casting of Kenny Lynch allows the film to undercut the stereotypes a little.

Castle is much taken with the music of the local voodoo ceremonies and plans to arrange it for his jazz group, despite the objections of the local houngan, who insists it is ancient and sacred to his god Dhambala. ‘Oh, well, if it’s that old, it’s out of copyright…’ says Castle. Needless to say the playing of the music leads to unfortunate events back in London. A slightly lighter tone to this one, mainly because of Castle’s deft comic performance (hard to imagine first-choice actor Acker Bilk being quite so capable), if (a pattern develops) the climax is a little underpowered.

Christopher Lee’s stuffy art critic consents to have his future told next, and suffice to say it is entitled Disembodied Hand. Lee’s pompous and snobbish character gets involved in a feud with an artist (Michael Gough), which spins out of control. Gough is maimed and commits suicide as a result, but his severed hand is still on the loose and seeking revenge on Lee…

A really good performance from Lee here, who is miles away from his traditional kind of role – here he plays a vain, foolish man who gradually succumbs to terror as the hand’s relentless attempts at vengeance go on, and on, and on. The crawling hand prop is actually rather impressive, given this is not exactly a big-budget film – the hand would go on to have a fairly distinguished career in other Amicus productions, playing one of Richard Greene’s severed hands in Tales from the Crypt, for instance. A strong ending, too, finally.

And so to (spoiler alert) Vampire, in which doctor Donald Sutherland sets up in small town USA with his faintly exotic foreign bride. No sooner have they settled into their new home than mysterious cases of anaemia start cropping up amongst the townsfolk, often accompanied by strange marks on the neck…

I think this is a fairly witty little story, provided you don’t know the twist going into it. Not a great showcase for Sutherland, though, partly because while his character may be a qualified doctor, he’s also depicted as rather a dim bulb, but mainly because Sutherland gets bulldozed off the screen by Max Adrian, here playing the town’s other doctor, one of those actors with a tremendous capacity for stealing scenes.

Then it’s time for the final twist of the framing story. Now, as I’ve observed before, the thing about the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is nearly always the same in all of them, but bearing in mind it would have been new and original on this occasion, I think it’s a reasonably good way of ending the movie.

All in all, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors feels rather less schlocky and threadbare than some of its successors, possibly because it’s not principally based on American horror comic books (as a couple of the other films were). Derivative it may be, but its choice of subject matter is sound – a vampire, a werewolf, a crawling hand, voodoo magic, and a killer plant… again, something for everyone here – and the film has an interesting mixture of styles. The werewolf story is properly gothic, the vine is more of an SF B-movie, the voodoo story is somewhat played for laughs, and so on. This, along with the extraordinarily eclectic and interesting casting, gives the film a real sense of variety and colour. You can see why Amicus and many others have endlessly reused this formula in the years since Dr Terror’s House of Horrors was made, but this film has a touch of class almost all the others lack.

 

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From Russia, With Love is, of course, the James Bond story which concludes with the death of Agent 007, undone by his own hubris, not to mention a spiked toecap covered in nerve poison. Bond crashes to the floor, struggling for breath, and everything fades to black, thus allowing his creator to get rid of a character he’d grown rather bored by.

I refer, of course, to From Russia, With Love the novel, not From Russia With Love the movie, at the conclusion of which James Bond is as unstoppably lively and priapic as ever. (As it turned out, Ian Fleming’s intention to kill Bond off was not followed through in the books, either, and the character went on to feature in several more novels, courtesy of prompt first aid from the French secret service.) There was surely never any intention to retain the ambiguous ending of the book for Terence Young’s 1963 movie version, mainly because one gets a strong sense of the producers realising just how good a thing they might be onto here – there’s an almost cautious quality about Dr No, the film-makers’ message being ‘This is a bit different, we think it’s quite good’, but by the following year they seem much more self-assured: this time round the subtext is ‘This is great, you’re going to love it.’

One thing which I think is too-little commented upon is the way that several of the early Bond movies arguably improve on the plots of the novels on which they are based. I’m not talking about those instances of the two shooting off in wildly different directions – the novel of You Only Live Twice is a dark, introspective tale of the death of the self, while the film concerns Blofeld’s spaceship-gobbling volcano – but those where the movie script adds just another level of complexity and adventure to the story.

I’m thinking of the nuclear bomb angle in Goldfinger (absent from the novel), and the main thrust of the plot in From Russia With Love. Bond himself (Connery, obvs) is absent for nearly the first twenty minutes of the film (well, a lookalike in a Connery mask gets killed right at the start), which concerns the nefarious machinations of SPECTRE, back when the organisation wasn’t run by Bond’s long-lost estranged secret adoptive brother (because the series is so much more gritty and realistic these days). SPECTRE are planning on stealing a top-secret Russian cipher machine and then selling it back to the Kremlin, employing an engagingly labyrinthine scheme dreamt up by a Czech chess grandmaster (Vladek Sheybal). The plan involves traitorous former Russian officer Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a paranoid homicidal maniac (Robert Shaw), a home-made blue movie, a winsome Russian file clerk (Daniela Bianchi), and – of course – British Intelligence’s most libidinous operative.

The late Kevin McClory’s claim to part-ownership of the entire Bond movie franchise, not just Thunderball, was based on the fact that he co-created SPECTRE, which was inserted into movies based on books in which the organisation did not feature. McClory argued that it is the fantasy of SPECTRE which turns the Bond stories from being slightly dour thrillers into something more accessible and fun. SPECTRE doesn’t feature in the novel, which revolves around an attempt by the Russian secret service to take their British opposite numbers down a few pegs, but Blofeld and his team are inserted into the script with great deftness, arguably improving the story a lot. Bond and M assume that this is a Russian plan from the start, while the Russians themselves have no idea what’s going on either. It’s unusual for the audience to be quite so many steps ahead of Bond as they are for much of this movie, and it works rather well in establishing tension, as well as making Bond less of an annoyingly smug superhero.

We’re still not quite in the realm of Bond movies as the theatre of the absurd, either – From Russia With Love is a little bit out there with its depictions of Blofeld and ‘SPECTRE Island’ (just down the coast from Anglesey, no doubt), but most of it is no more ridiculous than the average Jason Bourne movie. The movie is trying to be credible, not incredible, which is why chief heavy Grant (Shaw) isn’t a cartoon character like the movie versions of Oddjob or Tee Hee, and more interesting and plausible as a threat.

That said, you can see the elements of the Bond formula coming into focus with this movie, many of which weren’t there in Dr No: the pre-title sequence, the catchy theme song, the scene in which Bond is kitted out with handy gadgets by Q (not named as such on this debut appearance, and not showing much personality, either), and so on. The rest of it is the usual mixture of glamorous exotic locations, masculine power fantasy, and action set pieces – though it’s telling that the last few action beats of the film are distinctly low-key to the modern eye: a few motorboats catch fire and Bond has a fight with a middle-aged woman. The film certainly feels like it climaxes with the (really well-staged) fight to the death between Bond and Grant.

Connery swaggers through it all with his customary insouciance – in the past I have occasionally observed that I don’t think he’s an actor with a particularly impressive range, but he is always very good at projecting this particular type of character. The rest of the support is pretty good as well. Notable Bond girl trivia includes the fact that Eunice Gayson reappears as Bond’s girl-at-home (I met her once, 40 years after this film was made, and, do you know – she looked completely different), and Martine Beswick (ahhh, Martine Beswick) racks up (if that’s the right term) another Bond appearance as one of the fighting gypsy girls (she is credited as ‘Martin Beswick’ in the titles, which gives a wholly misleading impression).

It’s 2017, and From Russia With Love is closer in time to the end of the First World War than it is to the present day. The Bond films that are made nowadays are different beasts in terms of size, scale, expectations, and tone, but they still owe a huge debt to this film and a few other early 60s Bonds. The film is so much a product of its time that this in itself is a surprise; the fact that it still stands up as one of the very best films in the series is another. But there you go. The Bond series has long since become a legend, and every great legend hides a few mysteries.

 

 

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I know, I know: you go seven years without a single review of an AIP Vincent Price movie, and then three come along in as many months. Blame the lucky dip nature of my DVD rental service (still waiting for Tiptoes, alas) – still, these are AIP Vincent Price movies, so there’s only so disappointed you can legitimately be. This week they sent me The Raven, a 1963 movie directed by (but of course!) Roger Corman, from AIP’s series of Poe movies.

This time around, the movie is based on a poem rather than a work of fiction, but otherwise the formula is wholly intact. Here is a screenplay from the great Richard Matheson. Here is Vincent Price, brooding over his dead wife’s picture. Here is a supporting cast featuring some unexpectedly big names, given the kind of movie that this is. Here are some pretty decent production values. It’s basically rather like an American Hammer movie, except slightly more genteel and with fewer hard edges.

The Raven is set in a rather fantasticalised version of the 16th century (historical accuracy is extremely low on the movie’s list of priorities), with Price playing Erasmus Craven, gentleman, scholar, and magician. Erasmus has withdrawn from the society of his peers and has become a bit of a recluse, partly because he objects to the plotting and scheming of his fellow adepts, and also because it gives him more time to brood over the portrait of his dead wife Lenore (Hazel Court, which may tip you off to the fact that Lenore is not as dead as originally advertised), somewhat to the concern of his lovely daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess).

Then, one dreary midnight, as Erasmus sits, weak and weary, pondering over a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore (oh yes, I know a thing or two about Poe, and also how to Google the text of a poem), a raven turns up, knocking at his window. Erasmus lets the bird in, and, as he is played by Vincent Price in a Roger Corman movie, beseeches the bird thusly – ‘Shall I ever hold again the radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?’ The raven departs from Poe by responding ‘How the hell should I know?’, which pretty much sets the tone for what follows. (Apparently this was a departure from the script, as well as Poe, as Peter Lorre (who voices the bird) was much given to ad libbing on the set.)

It turns out that the raven is actually Erasmus’ fellow magician Adolphus Bedlo (Lorre), who has been magically transformed into a bird following a magical duel with the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Magicians, Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the arch-rival of Erasmus’ dead father. Erasmus is happy to help Bedlo return to human form, but doesn’t want to get mixed up in the squabble between Bedlo and Scarabus – until he mentions that he has seen a woman resembling the supposedly dead Lenore in Scarabus’s castle. Erasmus pooh-poohs this idea, and offers to show Bedlo Lenore’s body, which he keeps in a box in his hallway (‘Where else?’ deadpans Lorre), but he is shocked to see she has been replaced by that of someone else. Desperate to learn the truth, Erasmus agrees to go to Scarabus’s castle with Bedlo, accompanied by his daughter and Bedlo’s son Rexford (John J Nicholson, who could have had a pretty good career if he’d just stuck with low-budget horror movies). Perhaps another clash of magics is on the cards…

The immediately previous movie in the Poe cycle, Tales of Terror, had as its centrepiece The Black Cat, a darkly comic, more than slightly outrageous tale co-starring Price and Lorre, and Corman and Matheson apparently enjoyed making it so much that they decided to have a go at making a full-length movie in a similar vein. Most of The Raven was invented whole-cloth by Richard Matheson, there not being quite enough material in a 108-line poem to sustain a movie even of only 86 minutes. I think it’s really stretching to describe The Raven as an actual horror film, even by the standards of the early 1960s – it’s more of a very tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure, impossible to take seriously.

It does make full use of Price’s ability as a comic actor, of course, and also – I’m tempted to say – his generosity as a performer, as he tends to be outrageously upstaged by Peter Lorre in every scene the two of them share, with Price very much the straight man of the duo (‘I think you need something for the cold,’ Erasmus declares to Bedlo, as the two of them prepare to depart, which prompts his guest to head straight for the drinks cabinet). Boris Karloff’s performance is less showy, but then the sheer understatedness of it is much of the fun. He’s up against it when competing with the other senior members of the cast.

If the overall quality of The Raven‘s cast isn’t quite clear yet, let me put it this way: one of the actors in this movie has received more Oscar nominations for his work than any other man in history. Yes, really. It’s not Price, Lorre, or Karloff, though – playing Lorre’s son, in case you haven’t worked it out, is Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), who turns up in a lot of AIP movies from this period, partly because his father James H Nicholson is the executive producer on them. It’s fair to say that there is not much sign here of the movie legend Nicholson would eventually become – although there’s a sequence where he is briefly possessed by evil magic, and does the same face made famous by The Shining – but he does give a very game performance, dashing about the set in tights, cape, and feathery hat. I doubt this movie was ever very prominent on his showreel, though.

The silliness of much of The Raven doesn’t prevent it from having a more intricate plot than you might expect, nor indeed an unexpectedly sound narrative structure, with a proper character arc for Vincent Price to work his way through. It may be a disposable comedy, but Matheson has clearly taken the writing of it very seriously, which is probably why it still stands up so well today. Corman directs with his usual efficiency, and comes up with at least one outstanding sequence, the final magician’s duel between Erasmus and Scarabus, which in addition to being witty and inventive, even has some pretty decent animated special effects.

I still think The Masque of the Red Death is the zenith of the Corman-Poe series of movies, but it’s a very different kind of film to The Raven, and very definitely a genuine horror-fantasy. The Raven is much more knockabout entertainment, but the strength of the script and particularly the comic performances means there is still a huge amount to enjoy about this movie even today.

 

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If you think of British film companies of the 60s, particularly makers of genre movies, then of course you think of Hammer, then probably Amicus, and perhaps Tigon in third place. It might be quite a long time before you remembered Planet, a much smaller outfit these days best remembered for a couple of Terence Fisher films – Island of Terror, from 1966, and Night of the Big Heat, from 1967. Island of Terror was a moderately successful monster movie, rather let down by ropey monster props and a slightly stuffy tone. Night of the Big Heat (also known by the rather more promising title Island of the Burning Damned) almost looks like an attempt at a remake with these things fixed.

Everything takes place on the island of Fara, which we are told is somewhere off the coast of the UK. The film actually has a very unpromising opening, with no dialogue for ages and no real sense of what’s going on: someone’s radar set explodes in his face, a young woman (Jane Merrow) drives around in her convertible, and a stern-looking man (Christopher Lee) is engaged upon some mysterious experiments involving cameras and mirrors and bits of wood. (One of these scenes turns out not to have happened yet, and is just a teaser for much later on.)

Eventually we get some sense of the set-up here. Key locations on Fara include the weather station and the gravel pits (a useful location for staging mysterious deaths and the climax), but most of the action takes place in the pub, which is run by slab-faced alpha-male novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson). Lodging in the pub is mysterious outsider Dr Hanson (Lee), while constantly propping up the bar is genial GP Dr Stone (‘guest star’ Peter Cushing). New on the scene is Jeff’s latest secretary, Angela (Merrow), who is a bit of a naughty minx: she and Jeff have history together, if you know what I mean, and she’s come to Fara intent on resuming their liaison. A torrid time is in prospect.

Especially torrid given the island is sweltering in the grip of a tremendous, unseasonal heatwave, which is making TV sets and bottles of beer spontaneously explode. (All the men have had ridiculous sweat-patches applied to their shirts by the costume department.) What’s going on? Does it have anything to do with Dr Hanson’s experiments?

Well, sort of. It seems that space probes from Earth have attracted the attention of alien creatures composed of ‘high frequency heat’ and they are using Fara as a beachhead for their invasion of Earth. Anyone who crosses their path – sheep, supporting characters, those old tramps who are such a regular feature of this kind of movie – is rapidly incinerated. Is everyone doomed?

The least you can say for Night of the Big Heat – you know, I do think Island of the Burning Damned is a better title – is that it more or less avoids the key problems that Island of Terror had: the alien monsters are kept off-screen for most of the movie (and the monster props are marginally better when they do appear), and the general tone of the thing is pepped up by some mildly saucy business between Allen and Merrow (not to mention Merrow providing some cheap PG-rated cheesecake thrills). And yet this is still a worse movie than the previous Planet production.

How can this be? Well, firstly, all the stuff about Jeff being unable to keep his hands off Angela, and her scheme to have her way with him, scarcely informs the main plot of the film – it’s filler, basically, and very melodramatic filler too. The characterisation of Angela is, shall we say, problematic: she is a one-dimensional Bad Girl, who functions primarily as a sex object, and she’s the first one to lose it completely as the situation grows increasingly dire. (On the other hand, at least she can type.)

However, at least this makes a vague sort of sense, which is more than you can really say for the alien monster invasion storyline, which starts off as slightly dubious and rapidly becomes very silly indeed; this is the kind of film you can imagine inspiring the Monty Python ‘Sci Fi movie’ sketch. As ever, you are left filled with admiration for Christopher Lee’s ability to treat this kind of material with a gravity and intensity it doesn’t remotely deserve. By the end of the film Lee is participating in expository scenes explaining how the alien invasion has happened which are basically utter gibberish, before running outside to implement his character’s ridiculous plan to see off the invaders (this involves many shots of Lee setting fire to haystacks with a flare pistol), and he genuinely seems to be taking it completely seriously. What a legend. Peter Cushing is, of course, equally good, though not in the film enough – though we do get a marvellous example of Cushing’s wonderful ‘death-spasm’ acting (let’s see Disney’s CGI Cushing do that).

Most of the film is fairly competently made, but the script is so thick-headed that it’s more or less impossible to take seriously as a piece of drama, and it’s not even particularly enjoyable as camp entertainment. Night of the Big Heat came out in 1967, coincidentally the same year as In the Heat of the Night. One of these films is a timeless classic that deservedly won critical acclaim and several Oscars. The other one is a dim-witted B-movie with Jane Merrow in a bikini and aliens defeated by their poor grasp of meteorology. You can kind of see why Planet Film Productions never achieved a higher profile.

 

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