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Posts Tagged ‘Andre Morell’

You so very rarely get a proper double-bill at the cinema these days – nearly twenty years ago when I was a student, they would occasionally show all the Star Treks back to back, or the first three Lethal Weapons (I sat there for seven hours and came out numb from the neck up), and now I think about it there was a marathon showing of the first two Lord of the Rings films ahead of the release of Return of the King, but, really, if you want to have a proper night out along these lines you have keep your eyes open and arrange it yourself.

Which I managed the other night, seeing two movies back-to-back, in the same theatre, in virtually the same seat: an occasion I was happy to refer to as ‘An A to Z of Cinema’, in that the first movie was Woody Allen: a Documentary (there’s your ‘A,’ for Allen) and the second was John Gilling’s 1966 movie The Plague of the Zombies (there’s your… oh, you’re ahead of me). Sadly none of the other Woody fans seemed inclined to stick around for a classic-period Hammer horror movie, and I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me – this isn’t even one of my favourite Hammer films, but beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to seeing these films on the big screen – you could wait forever for them to revive Dracula – Prince of Darkness or Quatermass and the Pit, after all.

The Plague of the Zombies is possibly the only 12A-rated film showing in the UK this year where a walking corpse gets beheaded with a spade. It all kicks off with some groovy drumming from oiled-up extras of African origin, while a mysterious masked figure puts some voodoo ‘fluence on a sleeping young woman (a very maidenly-looking Jacqueline Pearce, many years before her Blake’s 7 pomp). Zombies! Tribal drumming! Voodoo! Crikey, how is Hammer going to afford all the location filming in the Caribbean?

Er, well, by not actually setting the film in Haiti, of course. Hammer eschews this tired old backdrop and opts to tell a story based in that notorious hotbed of voodoo and the undead, Cornwall. Eh? Strap yourselves in – crusty old London-based professor of medicine Sir James Forbes (Andre Morrell) receives a letter from his favourite former pupil, Tompson (Brook Williams). Despite apparently being a brilliant doctor, Tompson, for reasons best known to himself and the demands of the plot, has set up his practice in a remote part of darkest Cornwall. But a strange epidemic is afflicting the local villagers, who would be dying like flies, were it not for the fact that the local flies are actually doing pretty well for themselves in the circumstances. The villagers are mysteriously dying off, anyway.

As Sir James’ dippy daughter (Diane Clare) is best friends with Tompson’s wife (Pearce), she suggests they pop down to Cornwall and see what’s going on. They find a village full of uneasy, frightened people, very much under the control of the local squire (John Carson) and his wild young friends. Clive the squire has sinister sideburns and an icy manner, but more importantly he’s wearing the same costume jewellry as the voodoo cult leader from the opening sequence. Through this one simple costuming decision, Plague of the Zombies blows most of its tension and suspense very early on: now we know who the villain is, and the fact that the movie is called Plague of the Zombies might lead the astute viewer to suspect what’s really going on with Tompson’s mysterious disease outbreak.

All we are really left with is trying to second-guess the mechanics of the plot, and waiting for the actual zombies to turn up. The plot of Plague of the Zombies is a bit exasperating, in that in some ways it is very inventive and tightly written, and genuinely clever. In other ways, however, it is embarrassingly primitive – the story starts to cough and splutter a bit at one point, and so in order to keep it going Morell’s character strolls up to the local vicar and says ‘Would you happen to have any books on witchcraft, and, if so, is it all right if I pop round and read them all?’ (The vicar, it transpires, is very well equipped with this sort of thing, but hasn’t bothered to read any of the books himself.) And the central idea of the movie is quite simply a bit peculiar.

Modern viewers used to movies where the walking dead are the victims and carriers of a viral disease may get a bit of a shock from this film, because the zombies here have all been created using black magic and are under the control of evil Clive the squire. But why? What nefarious scheme can he be up to? Well, I’ll tell you: tin mining. Under evil Clive’s mansion is a lucrative vein of tin he wants to exploit, but the villagers are not keen on the dodgy safety conditions. Evil Clive has taken their declaration that ‘We’d rather die than go down your mine’ a bit too literally and is using the zombies to run the place. Tin mining? Is that it? Yes, I’m afraid so.

Well – the plot also demands that evil Clive also attempt to turn Jacqueline Pearce and Diane Clare into zombies, for reasons which are not explored. Does he honestly imagine these delicate young ladies will make a good addition to the workforce down t’pit? Or does he have other, kinkier things in mind for their resurrected flesh? Quite properly, for this is still only 1966, evil Clive’s stranger peccadilloes are left to the imagination.

(And, by the way, someone watching at the time thought evil Clive’s plan was rubbish too: George Romero saw this movie and wondered what would happen if the zombies got out of control and started running loose, and decided that might be a good idea for a movie… and the rest is history, which may mean The Plague of the Zombies is the most influential movie Hammer has ever made.)

The undead spend most of their time tin mining in this movie and really aren’t on screen very much, which is a shame as the Hammer zombies are a striking bunch – grey-skinned, blank-eyed and wrapped in sack-cloth. You want to see much more of them but instead you just get lots of evil Clive being evil, until the end, at which point there’s a sort of industrial accident and the zombies revolt against their master. Which just leads one to conclude that zombies aren’t much better as employees than actual Cornish people, except that there’s less backchat and the smell is probably worse.

I think the lack of actual zombie action may be one of the reasons why this film isn’t better known than it is. The lack of a big Hammer name may be partly responsible, too – though members of the Hammer rep company are present (Michael Ripper gets some good stuff as the local plod), and the whole thing is unmistakeably a Hammer production – evil Clive’s mansion looks suspiciously like the Castle Dracula set redressed yet again, which must have been fun for contemporary audiences: this movie was released in a double-bill with Dracula – Prince of Darkness. (This film was itself shot back-to-back with The Reptile, which was released in a double-bill with Prince of Darkness‘ back-to-back partner, Rasputin, the Mad Monk – what bliss it must have been, to be young in such days as those.)

Andre Morell also turns up in plenty of Hammer movies, usually in supporting or character roles, but this is probably his best part for the company, and he’s very good in it – you can imagine Peter Cushing playing the role, but where Cushing would be smooth and mercurial, Morell is bluff and steely and it really works. Sir James is a take-charge kind of guy, not above grave-robbing, house-breaking, or stabbing someone who’s upset him in the throat (the last is a little startling), and he’s much more likeable than Tompson or his daughter, both of whom are a bit wet and much prone to put-your-hands-to-your-face-and-look-away-in-anguished-horror acting. John Carson does his best with a really thankless task as evil Clive and his sideburns.

I have, as usual, been somewhat facetious about The Plague of the Zombies, but – and very much to my surprise – even 46 years on from its original release, parts of this film still really deliver on the big screen. The saturated colours, a typically lush and evocative James Bernard score, and Gillings’ direction all combine to generate genuine energy. There’s a set piece scene where Pearce rises from the grave, followed by the appearance of a pack of other zombies, which has a horrible, delirious quality that honestly gave me shivers. It’s very easy to dismiss Hammer horrors as safe, cosy, dated pieces of camp – but some of the old dark energy still remains, only needing a proper print and a big-screen revival to conjure it back into existence. And if this is true of an only-okay Hammer movie like The Plague of the Zombies, it’s tantalising to imagine what it would be like to watch a really great one, back on the big screen where it belongs…

(At which point I discovered that, as part of the same season, the same cinema was hosting a for-one-night-only revival of, not just one of my favourite Hammers, but one of my favourite films of any kind, Quatermass and the Pit. Wonderful news!

Except for the fact I’m unavoidably sixty miles out of town that night.

Bugger.)

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If you’re going to adapt one of those timeless old literary classics that’s already had nearly a dozen versions of it done already, a difficult balancing act awaits you: how to make your interpretation distinctive and memorable without departing too far from the original text? And yes, on reflection I would say that inserting airship battles into a piece of classic literature probably does count as going too far.

Not so easy to adjudicate upon is Terence Fisher’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which appears to be the first colour Sherlock Holmes movie and the first to feature Peter Cushing as the great detective. Andre Morell plays Doctor Watson while third-billed as Sir Henry Baskerville is none other than Christopher Lee.

Peter Cushing? Christopher Lee? Terence Fisher? Well, yes, this is a Hammer Films production. Given the generally high production values and strong performances routinely found in Hammer projects you would expect this to be a good fit for the studio, and this turns out to be the case, more or less.

The plot is pretty much what you would expect – family curse, blah blah, gigantic hound, blah blah, don’t go onto the moor, blah blah – but with a few notable tweaks and changes made to it. Rather than opening with Sherlock Holmes’ teapot, as is traditional, it launches straight into quite a long prologue sequence involving all sorts of historical naughtiness at Baskerville Hall and the origins of the curse. This establishes a morbid and slightly overwrought tone which continues through the rest of the movie.

Also added to Conan Doyle’s original story are a killer tarantula, collapsing mineshafts, congenital deformity, blood sacrifices and even an element of class warfare. The last of these is potentially the most interesting but unfortunately it seems to have been something of an afterthought and isn’t really dwelt upon.

I’m probably making this sound like a deeply unfaithful and disrespectful take on a much-loved tale, but all-in-all it does stay relatively faithful to the novel. Steps are taken to fix what’s arguably the main problem with The Hound of the Baskervilles as a Sherlock Holmes story – i.e, the fact that Holmes doesn’t appear for a long section in the middle of the book – but this is subtly done and surely understandable. And, ultimately, the movie turns out to be much more faithful to the book than it at one point appears likely to – the script works hard (maybe a bit too hard) to mislead the audience as to the identity of the killer, and the first time I saw it I did actually wonder if the movie was going to wrong-foot the audience by actually making somebody different responsible for the murders.

But no. All is roughly as Conan Doyle conceived it, with the notable exception of the love interest in the book turning out to be an insane accomplice with a peculiar Spanish accent in the movie. To be honest Fisher’s movie is full of these cheerfully over-the-top flourishes. Peter Cushing does his usual stalwart work but is an extremely theatrical Holmes, a hyperactive thinking machine (perhaps a little too genteel in places). As Watson, Andre Morell is firmly in the usual tradition of how these characters are presented – which is to say, a couple of decades older than the people Conan Doyle was writing about – although rather more the reliable man of action than the buffoonish foil one commonly encounters.

The casting of Christopher Lee as Sir Henry means that the script has to find something for him to do – he’s a fairly colourless and passive figure in the novel. The option they go for is to build him up as the romantic lead, which would make perfect sense but for two things – firstly, the decision (previously mentioned) to make the female lead a bad ‘un results in this plotline going off at an unexpected tangent, and secondly – well, it’s Christopher Lee, isn’t it?

Make no mistake, I yield to no-one in my respect for Christopher Lee and the marvellous work he has done throughout his career. But I still would never have cast him as the juvenile lead as they do here. Magisterial authority is something he does better than anyone, but romantic vulnerability? This is not really Lee’s department and he does seem a bit miscast.

I would also have said that his presence builds up this movie’s Hammer credentials to the point where expectations are likely to become unrealistic. But then again, the movie does itself few favours in this department – quite apart from all the other personnel involved, the opening titles are extremely Hammerish, and Baskerville Hall, to the initiated, is very obviously the set of Castle Dracula after some redressing. James Bernard’s score even brazenly recycles some of the most memorable music cues from the climax of the previous year’s Dracula adaptation. 

Is this, then, an attempt to do The Hound of the Baskervilles as a Hammer horror? I’m not sure this is a fair question, as back in 1959 no-one would have talked about ‘Hammer horror’ in quite such a casual way – the studio had had a few big hits with various Gothic adaptations and remakes, but had yet to specialise either in exploitation movies generally or horror films in particular. This is certainly an attempt at another adaptation in the same style as The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, with the same director and stars, but it’s somehow a less vivid and engaging one.

Perhaps this is actually because it’s relatively faithful to the original book, which you could hardly say of either of the earlier movies just mentioned. Thus constrained, Fisher’s movie struggles make story and atmosphere mesh in a wholly satisfying way – perhaps this story just wasn’t made for Hammer after all. Conan Doyle’s stories, though not straitlaced by any means, were wholesome, freewheeling entertainment without the fervid charge of the works of Stoker and Shelley. As a result, trying to make that charge explicit – which is, surely, what the best Hammer movies do – seems strangely futile and the result is a film which is at best an entertaining curiosity and at worst actually slightly silly.

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