Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Keir’

One last piece of oddball Arthuriana to close out this particular thread for the time being – not just something I sought out as part of my general research in this area, but a TV show I would actively have watched regardless of the situation, mainly because I have fond memories of its original broadcast back in the summer of 1988. The show is called The One Game, written by John Brown and directed by Mike Vardy, and it resurfaced last year on Armed Forces TV (of all places) before that channel vanished from the EPG (a real shame as it was something of a treasure-trove for slightly culty shows from the 1980s and 1990s).

The show’s setting is very much of the 1980s and it probably constitutes another entry into the yuppie-in-peril genre which was briefly popular at the time. Our main character is Nick Thorne (Stephen Dillane), a successful entrepreneur with a fairly abrasive personal style. He has made a fortune out of computer games through his company, Sorcerer, even if this has come at the cost of his marriage breaking up. (Playing his ex-wife is Pippa Haywood, who must have been making a ton of residuals from AFTV at one point last year – it was also showing Chimera (where she’s a dodgy geneticist) and The Brittas Empire (where she’s the main character’s wife).)

But trouble is brewing, as a shadowy figure from Nick’s past has resurfaced – his former friend and mentor Magnus (Patrick Malahide). It was Magnus’ genius as a designer of games that got Nick started, but Nick discarded Magnus and his ideals when material success arrived, eventually having him committed. But now he is back, determined to destroy Nick – or at least teach him a lesson. His method of doing this is something called the One Game, a ‘reality game’ a bit like a cross between an escape room and LARPing (a very similar concept shows up in movies like The Game and Game Night – the titles are a bit of a giveaway). Magnus hires someone to hack into Nick’s accounts and steal all his money just before he’s due to pay all the people he licenses games from, leaving him only a few days to complete the game and – in theory – rescue his company…

Just for a bit of variety, there are some other storylines going on as well – for added motivation, Magnus has kidnapped Nick’s ex-wife, so we get to see her various attempts to escape (she also gives Magnus someone to talk to). Meanwhile, Nick’s financial advisor (David Mallinson) is doing his best to put together a rescue package to stop the company going bankrupt, which involves apparoaching combative tycoon Lord Maine (a nice role for the great Andrew Keir), a man who treats business as a substitute for war.

You’re probably thinking that this doesn’t sound especially Arthurian, and on paper it isn’t, but when you actually watch the thing it is clearly part of a lineage of shows camping out on the borderline between realistic drama and fantasy – ‘non-naturalistic drama’ is as good a name as any for this sort of thing, I suppose. The opening credits depict characters and scenes in the style of an illustrated medieval manuscript, while (to quote Wikipedia) ‘Welsh-sounding gibberish’ is sung over the top of it. Many of the various challenges flung into Nick’s path have a partly or wholly medieval feel to them – motorbike jousting, for instance, or broadsword fighting.

However, the main giveaway comes partway through the first episode, where the hacker Magnus has hired decides to increase his profit margin by robbing him at knifepoint. Magnus calmly puts his hands up, wiggles his fingers – and the knife vanishes from his assailant’s hand and appears in his own. (Achieved via a very neat practical effect, in case you were wondering.) This comes just after it is revealed that one of the passwords to get into Nick’s accounts is ‘Wizards’, reversed. Magnus is, it is implied, a genuine wizard; one of his allies is named Fay (played by the very easy on the eye Kate McKenzie).

The makers of the series have confirmed that the starting point for the story was ‘what if King Arthur, having achieved the throne, told Merlin to get lost?’, which is a moderately interesting idea – and why not do it as a story set in the present-day computer games industry? There is potential here for the exploration of some interesting ideas, not least the loss of innocence involved in the games industry becoming more successful and corporate – it’s revealed that, back in the 1970s, a young Nick was running a Friendly Local Games store where everyone sat around reading Tolkien and (probably) playing white-box Dungeons and Dragons – a slight oddity to the series is that actual table-top role-playing games are never referenced, mentioned, or even alluded to, which may be because of the Satanic Panic, but then again may be down to something else entirely.

The problem is that we never get a sense that young, poor Nick was in any way a better man than successful, selfish present-day Nick, nor that the process of losing nearly everything and undergoing the various ordeals of the game does much to help him reform as a character. The show is strong on visual impact and quirkiness but the characterisation is clumsy and sluggish, to say the least. Most of the plot is quite linear – Nick goes through the motions of playing one game after another – but it all gets a bit obscure at the end, when it is revealed Nick didn’t just have Magnus put away, there was an incident with a drowning or a near-drowning which he also needs to take responsibility for…

In the end it comes across not entirely unlike a medieval-themed homage to Theatre of Blood, with Malahide in the Vincent Price role, getting his own back through the different games Nick is forced to play. It doesn’t have that film’s style or sense of humour; it’s all played very seriously indeed. Like I say, it’s all very late-1980s. As an earnest teenager I found it quite captivating (the lack of genuine fantasy shows on TV at the time probably also helped its cause) – coming back to it these days, it’s a marginally competent drama which isn’t nearly as stylish or impactful as it seems to think it is. Some good bits, but probably not enough to be worth watching if you don’t have fond memories from the original broadcast.

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Let us conduct a small thought experiment in which I ask you to think of words which might reasonably be expected to occur in the title of a horror movie with an ancient Egyptian theme, and then try to guess what you come up with. ‘Mummy’ is kind of a no-brainer; I expect that ‘Tomb’, ‘Curse’, ‘Blood’ and ‘Ghost’ would also be in with a good chance of making the top ten. Of course, should you actually happen across a movie with a title like Curse of the Mummy’s Ghost, it probably means you’re in for something thoroughly undistinguished. The alternative possibility is that you’ve actually found something much less traditional which has had a very generic title slapped on it by nervous executives.

This is what happened in the case of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, a 1971 Hammer movie directed (mostly) by Seth Holt, with uncredited work also done by Hammer top banana Michael Carreras. This is one of many adaptations that have been done over the years of the novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, written by Dracula author Bram Stoker (so you can understand Hammer’s interest in the property). However, that title doesn’t really scream lurid horror in the way the company probably wanted, and it’s very easy to imagine various men in suits sitting around the boardroom table shuffling bits of paper about with words like ‘Tomb’ and ‘Blood’ on them until they came up with a title that struck the right note.

(Note how they manage to get Valerie Leon’s bust onto the same poster *twice*.)

The right note it may strike, but it still does nothing to communicate the style or tone of the movie, which is a bit different from that of the traditional mummy movie. Things get underway with a sort of low-budget cosmic zoom, over which a wibbly-wobbly Valerie Leon is superimposed, having some sort of nightmare. (I feel I should make clear that it is the shot of Leon which is wibbly-wobbly, not that I am doing a puerile gag about the actress herself being particularly wibbly-wobbly. Although, having said that, the first thing that catches your eye in a veritable iron grip is Leon’s spectacular decolletage, which is so prominently featured throughout the movie it practically deserves its own billing in the credits.)

The cosmic zoom resolves in what turns out to be ancient Egypt (realised on a soundstage at Elstree), where a bunch of priests are up to no good in the tomb of a beautiful woman (the camera duly pans up Leon’s torso, for – lo! – it is she again). Leon’s hand gets chopped off and thrown to the local wild dogs, something gets poured up her nose – just a typical day in the land of the Pharaohs I guess. However, as the priests leave there is a sudden sandstorm, which concludes with them all sprawled on the ground with their throats ripped out, while the severed hand is crawling back into the tomb. (Hammer’s crawling hand is, all things considered, less of a trouper than the one Amicus regularly employed, and has less screentime in the movie than you might expect.)

What any of this means takes a while to become clear – one of the merits of this movie is that it’s not afraid to take its time when it comes to the exposition. It transpires that Leon has a dual role, as both the woman in the tomb, Tera, and someone in the present day, named Margaret Fuchs (yes, I know. Please, please, let’s really not go there). Margaret is the daughter of distinguished Egyptologist Professor Fuchs (Andrew Keir, not for the first time in his career playing the Peter Cushing role), and approaching a significant birthday, apparently (the film hedges its bets by staying a bit vague about this). He gives her a ring we have previously seen on the crawling hand’s finger, there are various other weird and ominous occurrences.

It turns out that Fuchs was the leader of an expedition which dug up Tera’s tomb, finding the body of the woman to be in eerily perfect condition. It also becomes apparent that Mrs Fuchs died in childbirth at exactly the same moment her husband first saw Tera’s body. This would count as a fairly heavy hint to most people, but not the prof. Rather against the preferences of the rest of the expedition, he has – somehow – managed to bring Tera’s body back to England without anyone noticing, and installed her in a replica of the tomb he has had built in the very spacious cellar of his home. Well, you’ve got to have a hobby, I suppose. The rest of the expedition have gone their separate ways, each hanging on to one of Tera’s sacred relics.

When something regrettable befalls Fuchs in the cellar, leaving him bedridden and unable to speak, his old colleague Corbeck (James Villiers) abandons his hobby of stalking the family and provides the necessary exposition. It seems that Tera’s astral being has been hanging around all this time waiting to resume possession of her body, which they can bring about provided the sacred relics are gathered together and the appropriate incantations intoned (in English) over her corpse.

Of course, it’s round about this point that the film starts to become thoroughly unravelled: why would anyone other than a lunatic want to assist with the resurrection of someone apparently so evil their name has been scoured from the history books? Margaret mainly seems to go along with the scheme because the script requires that she does. It’s not quite the case that people do baffling things for no reason whatsoever, but this element of the plot could certainly use more work. The same could be said for the rest of what’s going on here. Is Margaret supposed to be the reincarnation of Tera? (It’s a common enough trope in mummy movies.) If so, how does that square with them trying to resurrect Tera in her original body? It is all a bit bemusing.

Mind you, there are many unintentionally puzzling things going on in this movie, not least of which is when it’s supposed to be set. The obvious setting for this kind of film is the 1920s, and indeed Margaret’s boyfriend drives a vintage car of some sort; the various scenes of the expedition entering the tomb certainly have a twenties sort of vibe to them – but Leon’s costumes as Margaret are those of someone from the early 1970s. Again, one is slightly bemused. I can’t help but recall the insightful observation that Carry On films are always much more fun when they’re done in period costume; the same is true of Hammer horror movies, of course.

Valerie Leon did six Carry On films, which is a respectable total (or at least as respectable as Carry On films get), not to mention a couple of Bond films; this is her only major role for Hammer. As Hammer glamour girls go, this performance is in the upper bracket – there’s not much actually wrong with it, and Leon does give the part a curiously vulnerable, wistful edge (though this may be the result of the camera constantly panning down onto her chest any time it is in shot). She makes as good an impression as anyone, although it must be said this is not one of those Hammer movies which is lifted by the acting.

Any discussion of why brings us to the curious case of the curse of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. As mentioned, the film was originally set to headline Peter Cushing as Professor Fuchs, but a day into shooting he was forced to drop out due to the terminal illness of his wife; Andrew Keir was recruited to fill in at virtually no notice. I think Keir gives one of his usual solid performances, but Leon’s considered opinion is merely that he was ‘perfectly adequate’, which I’m pretty sure qualifies as faint praise. (Making up the rest of the cast are the usual sort of recognisable faces – character performers like James Cossins and Hugh Burden, the odd surprising appearance by someone fallen on hard times (George Coulouris, on this occasion), and someone young who was never seen again, in this case Mark Edwards as Leon’s love interest.)

Quite apart from losing Cushing, the film lost its actual director Seth Holt five weeks into a six week shoot, when he died of a heart attack literally on set. Carreras finished the movie, despite complaining that Holt’s footage was simply incoherent: whether he was right or not, there is at least one bit which simply doesn’t work – a character supposedly dies in a car crash, but it is painfully obvious that the car is standing still throughout the entire sequence.

One wonders whether a version of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb with the full participation of Peter Cushing and Seth Holt would have been a better movie. There is certainly potential here: the set-piece killings do almost anticipate The Omen in some ways, and the film does benefit, I think, from not including all the weary old cliches of the mummy movies that preceded it: most obviously, there is a near-total absence of the famous image of the bandage-wrapped figure stumbling about. The closest the film comes is in the final moments, and here it may even be intended as a knowing piece of self-parody, or subversion of the form – however, the rest of it is so bereft of this kind of wit that this seems rather unlikely. Mostly it just feels like a film going through the motions: there is a lot of Kensington Gore, a little bit of nudity (Leon employed a body double), some dubious hocus-pocus and an attempt at doing something different with the ending that somehow ends up lacking in impact. Not the most rewarding of movies, but Hammer fans should find it passes the time fairly agreeably.

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sugar puffs

This post brought to you in association with Sugar Puffs.

I am in the fortunate position of knowing exactly which Peter Cushing film was my first, mainly because it’s the very first film I remember being taken to see at the cinema: it was, of course, the original Star Wars, in which our hero makes a relatively small but nevertheless potent appearance as co-villain Tarkin. The funny thing is that these days I don’t really think of Star Wars as a Peter Cushing movie, mainly because I was aware of it long before I came to appreciate Cushing as a performer.

The same is really true of the second Cushing movie I remember seeing, again at a very young age. This is another example of Peter Cushing lending his considerable powers to a wider pop-cultural phenomenon, and one which has a very special place in my affections. The movie is, of course, Gordon Flemyng’s Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150AD, from 1966. It’s Peter Cushing! It’s Doctor Who! What other movie was I possibly going to review on this, the centenary of Cushing’s birth?


Recent years have been kind to the standing of the two very-nearly-Amicus movies within the wider world of Doctor Who, with various design elements from the films finding their way into the 21st century version of the show, and – I think – people being a bit more prepared to just relax and enjoy them on their own merits. For a long time, though, they definitely seemed to be frowned upon, if not actually reviled, for the heinous crime of conflicting with the canon of the TV show.

Well, they do, there’s no denying it: Peter Cushing is playing someone actually called Dr Who, and this isn’t exactly an adaptation of the original Dalek Invasion of Earth TV story, either. However, much to my amazement, I recently came across something purporting to be an interview with Cushing from the 70s, in which he proposes his own theory explaining how these movies could still be in continuity with the television series: the Celestial Toymaker turned the Doctor into a human called Doctor Who, and… well, anyway. If this is genuine (which I still doubt), it reveals a depth of knowledge of Doctor Who and interest in its continuity which resonates deeply with me. Mr Cushing, sir: as an actor you have thrilled and entertained me. As a writer and a decent human being you have inspired me. But it’s as a continuity cop that you really take my breath away.

But on with the movie. Whatever the faults of this film, and there are a few, the pre-credits sequence is perfectly crafted: Special Constable Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins) stumbles upon a burglary in progress and is roughed up by one of the thieves as they make their escape. Dazed, and attempting to summon assistance, Tom stumbles into what looks like an ordinary Police Box…

Well, inside he find the gadget-ridden interior of a time machine belonging to Dr Who (Cushing), who is just setting off on a trip to London in the year 2150 (Dr Who can apparently steer his version of the TARDIS, which his TV counterpart was still many years away from in 1966), taking his grand-daughter (Roberta Tovey) and niece (Jill Curzon) with him. However, the London of 2150 is in a right old state – everything has been demolished, except the matte paintings of famous landmarks and the billboards advertising a popular brand of breakfast cereal.

It transpires this is because the planet is now under the management of the universe’s most notorious mobility-challenged aliens, who have used an evil confluence of phone cubicles and hair driers to convert Earthmen into their PVC-clad slaves, the better to pursue their plan to extract the metallic core of the Earth (located just under Luton, apparently). Naturally Dr Who and his friends join up with the local resistance (principally Andrew Keir and Ray Brooks) to put a stop to this.

There’s no getting around this: there is an awful lot in Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150AD that’s practically crying out to be mercilessly mocked. The costume designs are frankly disastrous (the options are either 50s working class chic or head-to-toe PVC), the up-tempo jazz soundtrack borders on the inappropriate, there’s the whole issue of the product placement, there’s the question of how the Daleks managed to conquer the world when their ray guns appear to have an effective range of about fifteen feet, and so on.

In short, it’s all very, very camp, and outside the context of the wider TV series it comes across as silly, bordering on the outright ridiculous. Certainly, when compared to the TV version of this story, all the grimness and sharp edges of the story have vanished, its occasionally-nightmarish atmosphere completely dispelled. The much higher production values of the movie don’t really work in the story’s favour, much reducing its rawness and darkness.

Having said all that… this movie is still a tremendous amount of fun. The Daleks look fabulous, better than they ever did on TV until the 80s at least, and there’s Peter Cushing giving us his take on the Doctor, too. Given that Cushing took the role partly because he wanted to shake off his image as the horror man (shades of William Hartnell!), it’s not really surprising that his performance here is much more mannered than usual: he’s putting on a rather affected voice and acting older (he was 52 when this film was made). I’ve heard his Doctor described as a doddery old gent, but if so he’s no worse than the first Doctor of the TV show. There’s steel here, too, when it’s called for, and also a very charming mercuriality that Hartnell himself could never quite manage.

Even when the film is being monumentally silly, it still entertains. Bernard Cribbins plays most of it fairly straight, but he does get the chance to participate in the awesome food machine sequence. Andrew Keir (who played a surrogate Cushing for Hammer a couple of times, as well as a brilliant Quatermass) appears to think he’s in a serious drama, but still doesn’t come across as ridiculous for doing so.

And it is still fundamentally classic Doctor Who in terms of its imagery, its structure and its plot: there is good versus evil, the merest dash of moral ambiguity, the triumph of wisdom over brute force, and an overwhelming faith in the power of kindness, decency and silliness as a defence against the horrors of the world. I’ll buy that and call it Doctor Who, any day of the week. Peter Cushing was apparently always grateful to have been involved with the world of Doctor Who, even in such a peripheral way. I hope we have finally reached a point where everyone who cares about Doctor Who can be proud of – and indeed celebrate – the fact that we can count an actor as great as Peter Cushing amongst our Doctors.

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Warning: may contain spoilers for the Boudicca Rebellion of 60AD.

‘See the accursed blood rites of the Iceni! See men roasted alive in the cage of Hell! As barbarism and passions inflame a pagan pleasure empire! See the occult terrors of the Druids! As the Roman lash tries to tame the will of a golden goddess!’

Gotta love those mid-Sixties Hammer trailer scripts. We are here, as you may have guessed, to discuss Don Chaffey’s 1967 offering The Viking Queen, from the studio’s peak period when they were wandering quite a long way from their horror and fantasy heartlands. The Viking Queen certainly isn’t either of those – it appears to be Hammer’s crack at doing a sword-and-sandal epic, with more than a dash of the dodgy exploitation movie about it.

Oh well. Our story unfolds in the Roman Empire of the first century, where the subject races are apparently kept in their place solely by stentorian voice-overs and stock footage from other, bigger-budget films. The nicer parts of Britain are currently under the joint rule of local king Priam (yes, I know, we’ll come back to this) and visiting Governor-General Justinian (Don Murray), whose accent suggests he’s come not from Rome but somewhere in California.

Priam snuffs it, following a King Lear-ish scene in which he decides to leave his kingdom to middle daughter Salina (Carita), whose own accent suggests she has recently arrived from Helsinki. The local chief Druid (an almost uncannily bad performance from Donald Houston) prophesies she will wield a sword and that the land will run with blood, but everyone ignores him (perhaps they are hoping he will be cut out of the movie at the editing stage). Justinian and the new Queen strike up a close relationship and, following a spot of recreational charioteering which concludes with them both falling in the river, find that shared possession of dubious accents really can be the basis of romance.

Needless to say, the Druids don’t like the planned wedding of the Queen of the Iceni to the Roman Governor, and nor does Justinian’s brutal second-in-command Octavian (Andrew Keir) – any historians watching the movie will probably also have strenuous objections to make, but it’s just too late, guys. With Justinian’s permission Salina really turns the screws when it comes to taxing the local rich merchants (you could get away with this sort of redistribution of wealth pre-Thatcher), which prompts them to cook up a plan with Octavian to get Justinian off the scene for a bit so normal service can be resumed.

As you might expect, Octavian gets a bit carried away with his reign of terror and before you can say ‘At least One Million Years BC had Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs to soften the impact of the terrible historical accuracy’, Salina and the Britons are painting themselves blue and fixing scythes to their chariots, preparatory to a rebellion against the Romans…

There’s a persistent story that, at one point in The Viking Queen, a Roman soldier comes on wearing a wrist-watch, and that this is fairly indicative of the film’s grasp of historical fact. I, like a few others, have looked for this anachronistic chronometer and been unable to find it – so it may in fact be an apocryphal anachronistic chronometer. Nevertheless, there’s a sense in which it’s quite surprising how much of the general background of the Iceni revolt this film gets broadly correct. Character names and relationships have been changed, but the politics of the story and the progress of the uprising are clearly based on what actually happened (though we don’t get to see London razed to the ground).

However, when it comes to the particulars, the movie energetically gets things wrong with a consistency that’s awe-inspiring, if slightly painful. The Druids, not content with being uniformly badly played, are depicted as worshipping Greek gods. Half the Britons look like medieval serfs, while the rest appear to be cavemen – and while the Druids predict that Salina will ‘wear armour’, the outfit she eventually chooses to go into battle in resembles a fancy dress costume rejected by Jordan on the grounds of excessive tackiness. We have already heard that the king of the Iceni is named Priam – add to this the fact he has subjects named Fergus, Nigel and Osiris and you get an overwhelming sense of a scriptwriter with zero feel for this setting.

Having said that, this movie could just about work as a piece of fluffy, slightly naughty fun, if you were able to buy into the central romance. But you can’t. Carita is just one of a long line of thickly-accented buxom Nordic glamour-pusses imported by Hammer for this kind of role and she brings nothing to the movie but hair, legs, and cleavage. You would expect that a veteran performer like Don Murray would do better, but the fact he’s the only American in the movie is very intrusive, and the screenplay – which never really gives him much to do – increasingly sidelines him. Towards the end he mainly spends a lot of time staring around him in aghast horror, but this may just be a result of finally having read the script. (Murray’s next outing as a governor having to deal with a slave uprising would end less well for him.)

Not all is rotten in The Viking Queen‘s acting department, though, as this film features a number of actors who always seem to make a point of doing the best they can whatever the quality of the script. Most prominent is Andrew Keir, making the most of a rare role as a villain: he’s easily the most convincing character in the movie. Patrick Troughton does his usual sterling work as a British courtier – this was Troughton’s last film for a while as immediately after he went off to do some job or other at the BBC for three years. Niall McGinnis has a smaller role as one of Justinian’s assistants and makes the most of it.

After you’ve been watching The Viking Queen for a while, you become grateful for whatever crumbs you can find, because while the production values are adequate they’re certainly no more than that. The action sequences are hardly lavish, but at least the scenery is nice (County Wicklow in Ireland stands in for Norfolk). Time and again you get the sense of ambition being thwarted by a lack of resources (numbers of extras, leading actresses who can act, supporting artists of the right ethnicity – there’s a horribly obvious example of a woman in blackface (rather more than face, actually) amongst Octavian’s harem). But the problems nearly all start with the script. The Viking Queen would really like to be an epic, romantic tragedy, but its budget can’t run to epic and the romance doesn’t remotely convince. As a result, rather than a tragedy it just comes across as a piece of absurd camp – highly entertaining if approached in the right spirit, but utterly impossible to take seriously.

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I nearly didn’t write this. I sat down and watched Quatermass and the Pit (1967) last night, but not specifically with an eye to reviewing it – this is one of those films I sit down and view simply for pleasure at least once every couple of years, and I find it always, always rewards me. But then – with the return of the Hammer brand imminent – I read yet another article discussing the Hammer movies of old, with particular reference to how kitsch and camp they are.

Well – maybe some of them come across that way now, and possibly some of them were made with tongue sliding into cheek, but Quatermass and the Pit isn’t amongst that number. This is a story told absolutely straight, absolutely seriously. It opens with workmen engaged upon an extension of the London tube system discovering astonishingly ancient fossil human skulls as they dig. But the scientific investigation of the site has to be suspended when the dig uncovers what everyone assumes to be an unexploded bomb from the second world war – but what no-one can explain is how the projectile and the fossil relics appear to have been buried at exactly the same time. On the scene almost by accident is rocket engineer and British SF icon Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), who is more prepared than anyone else to think the impossible. But even he is initially reluctant to accept evidence that the dig site’s history of ghost sightings and paranormal phenomena is linked to the thing in the pit…

The story unfolds lucidly and logically, managing to fuse strong SF ideas with classic horror imagery along the way. And it grows in scale, from a simple, if unsettling mystery, to a climax in which London itself is virtually laid waste and the future direction of human development is at stake. The tone throughout is defiantly naturalistic, as are the performances. Alongside Hammer stalwarts Keir and Barbara Shelley are James Donald and Julian Glover, and they pitch it perfectly, directed by the recently-departed Roy Ward Baker.

I was all set to pass over a more detailed look at Nigel Kneale’s script, on the grounds that it’s all been said before and better, but I suppose there is just a chance that someone reading this may not be familiar with his work, so here goes. It seems to me than in addition to being a visionary and a major figure in UK drama from the 50s onwards, Kneale was a misanthrope. Even on those occasions when his scripts conclude with a happy ending and calamity averted, one still gets the sense that the darker side of human nature has been thrown into unflattering focus, and the price of survival is a deeper understanding of our own essential evil.

The other major theme of Kneale’s later work is the use of classic Gothic tropes and structures to tell explicitly SF-themed stories – or, to put it another way, the use of SF rationales to ground Gothic horror stories. Quatermass and the Pit is about an eruption of ancient, demonic evil into the modern world, culminating in the malign possession of an entire city – but it’s also about the legacy of an attempt at a colonisation of prehistoric Earth by insectoid Martians. The two readings mesh seamlessly, and – tying into Kneale’s view of humanity – include a bleak metaphor and explanation for our self-destructiveness and viciousness to one another.

‘We’ve found the problem. The system had a few bugs in it.’

One thing I’ve never seen written about this movie in the past is the way it echoes the work of another very famous 20th century horror writer, H P Lovecraft. (Kneale would probably have abominated such a comparison.) But to me Lovecraft’s cosmic horror stories seem motivated by a deep discomfort with the ramifications of the discoveries of modern science, with humanity little more than evolved apes in a soulless and unguided universe. There seems to be a similar disquiet about our origins in Quatermass and the Pit, and while Kneale’s Old Ones are Martian insects rather than Lovecraft’s extravagant obscenities, they have something of the same baleful aura.

Cor, this has got a bit deep and heavy, hasn’t it? I have to say that if any of the classic Hammer movies deserve it, it’s this one, not just the best SF movie the studio ever produced, but quite possibly also the best movie overall. Quite simply an essential watch.

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Well, folks, good news and bad news to report. The good news is that Thunderball was on yesterday afternoon, and I have successfully resisted the urge to write a single word about it (except to say that… no. Resist), although some might say the Bond-related content on this blog is far too skewed towards Roger Moore and a dash of the Milkman is desperately needed. The bad news is that, for various financial reasons, I didn’t see the preview of Let Me In after all (I had a choice of going to that or the kick-off meeting of the Oxford NaNoWriMo group), so my thoughts on that are going to have to wait for a bit.
The NaNoWriMo meeting was fun and motivating, anyway, and it looks like there will be some wargaming this week should anybody still be interested in that. Did some browsing in Waterstones – they seem to be doing a special currently on the 1001 X You Must Y series. As the front coverof 1001 Movies You Must See was a still from Avatar, any faith I had in its authority vanished almost at once.

Probably not appearing in 1001 Movies You Must See is Dracula – Prince of Darkness, a 1966 movie which I’d like to write a bit about for a number of reasons. Firstly, of course, it’s vaguely appropriate given today’s Halloween. Secondly, it’s a Hammer production from the studio’s golden age, and given the company’s sort-of resurrection is upon us it seems appropriate to refresh our memories of what it used to be about.

This was Hammer’s second proper Dracula movie (i.e. the big D’s actually in it) and opens with a recap of the first’s climax, wherein the Lord of the Undead (Christopher Lee, of course) is blasted into ashes by Dr van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Ten years later, the simple villagers of the Carpathians are still dwelling in the shadow of the vampire, despite the best efforts of local abbot Sandor (Andrew Keir) to persuade them it’s all over. Oblivious to all this are the Kents, two English tourists and their wives who are touring the district. Before you know it, they’re ignoring every piece of advice they’ve been given and are spending the night at Castle Dracula. This would be fine were it not for the fact that Dracula’s devoted butler Klove (a deadpan performance by Philip Latham) has spent the intervening time collecting together all the little ashy bits, and is only awaiting a good old splash of the red stuff to trigger his master’s resurrection.

Of course, all this takes quite a while, and it’s nearly halfway through before the title character puts in an appearance. Christopher Lee gets rather less screen time than most of his co-stars and remains mute throughout (the reasons for this are disputed). As such one can’t help but think that the movie isn’t making the best use of its greatest asset. He retains a massive presence whenever he appears, but it’s an unrefined and unfocussed presence: all power, no finesse.

And if you have Christopher Lee playing your bad guy, then there’s really only one man up to the task of playing your hero – and unfortunately he was off making Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 when this film was in production. Any Cushing-Lee movie, even one of the low budget foreign ones, has a special kind of magic to it that their solo outings always struggle to match, and this occasion is no exception.

Things aren’t really helped by a script which, while always strong on atmosphere, faffs around a lot even after Dracula’s resurrection. It picks up once the action leaves the castle and the surviving Kents take refuge within Sandor’s monastery, but we’re into the final act by this point. That’s not to say that this movie is bad by any means – Andrew Keir is the next best thing to Cushing any way you cut it, and can effortlessly carry the exposition in this kind of film. There’s also a rather good performance by Barbara Shelley, who goes from repressed and chilly housewife to lascivious predator as the film progresses. Thorley Walters plays the Hammer version of Renfield, and is memorable in a small part. (Keir aside, all the good guys in this film are a bit bland and forgettable. The bad guys are much more fun.)

Andrew Keir and Barbara Shelley prepare to get all Freudian.

I’ve said before that it sometimes feels as if I’ve been watching this movie on a loop ever since 1987. I certainly don’t feel that’s been any great loss, even if this is one of those weird instances of a film being a classic (and if Dracula – Prince of Darkness isn’t classic Hammer horror, I don’t know what is) without necessarily being especially accomplished. If nothing else, it’s better than every Dracula film Hammer made afterwards, even the ones with Peter Cushing in them, so it must be doing something right.

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