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Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Shelley’

Strange to say, but the right kind of horror movie can sometimes be a very reassuring thing. Sitting down to watch the 1964 Hammer horror The Gorgon, one is at once presented with a succession of familiar names – Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Patrick Troughton, director Terence Fisher – to the accompaniment of an unmistakable James Bernard score, while a gloomy Gothic castle glowers behind the credits. Such is the power of the Hammer brand and the associations of all these things that you just know that, no matter what the merits (or otherwise) of this particular script, the undertaking overall is going to have a bit of quality about it.

THE-GORGON-landscape

And so it proves, more or less. The film potentially finds Hammer a little out of its comfort zone, as the film is set in a remote, German-dominated part of Europe in the early years of the 20th century – but any differences from the classic Transylvanian fairyland setting are entirely cosmetic. We are still in a world of boyish young students carousing with accommodating peasant barmaids, ominous local police chiefs, crusty old professors who are fonts of wisdom and sanity, sinister local authority figures, and castles you shouldn’t be seen dead at after dark (for fear of actually being found dead at, the following morning).

The Gorgon has a slightly awkward structure, opening with young student Bruno discovering to his alarm he has accidentally impregnated his girlfriend Sascha. Off he sets into the night, intent on reassuring her father of his gentlemanly intentions, despite her pleas for him not to go. She ends up following him anyway. The next day, he is found hanged, while her body is taken to the local asylum – well, either it’s her body or an extremely lifelike statue of her…

This draws Bruno’s father, Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), who finds the truth of what happened being covered up by the asylum boss Dr Namaroff (Cushing) and the police chief (Troughton) – Bruno is being fitted up for Sascha’s murder, and the petrification is being quietly forgotten about. Heitz vows to stick around and uncover what really happened, despite the hostility of the locals. But one night something lures him to the local ruined castle where he encounters a hideous, snake-haired creature. Staggering home, he finds himself rapidly turning to stone, so (as you would) quickly jots down a letter to his other son, Paul, explaining just what is going on in quite surprising detail.

The laborious plotting continues with Paul (Richard Pasco) arriving and vowing to discover the truth about his father and brother’s death. At least he has Christopher Lee as his university tutor, who is an expert on this sort of thing. On the other hand, he does find himself distracted by Namaroff’s beautiful assistant (Shelley) – and just why is Namaroff trying to cover up the strange events in the area…?

Viewed objectively, you’d be hard-pushed to seriously argue that The Gorgon was first-rate Hammer horror. There is, as noted, the awkward plotting whereby a string of people get attacked by the titular beastie, each in turn summoning the next investigator/victim: the film threatens to devolve into a string of set-piece Gorgon attacks. There’s also the problem that it’s never really clear who the protagonist of the film is supposed to be – Cushing, when the chips are down, is a bad guy, Goodliffe gets turned to stone by the end of the first act, Lee only really appears towards the end of the film, and Pasco’s character is a bit too weak and passive to be really engaging.

If the movie lacks a strong hero, it also has problems with its beastie as well: the Gorgon itself is a silent, alien malevolence with no voice or agenda of its own beyond petrifying innocent people. The film has swiped a bit of werewolf lore in that the creature spends most of its time lurking inside an unsuspecting human host, only physically taking them over during the full moon. The identity of the Gorgon is never really in doubt – there is a half-hearted attempt at misdirection on the point – but, for whatever reason, the film opts not to give us the scene in which the human host transforms into the creature itself. The monster is female, but – predictably – the story is told almost exclusively from a male perspective.

But above all it’s just clumsily written. We never really learn why Bruno turns up hanging from a tree at the start, and the idea of the lurking Gorgon is dropped out of nowhere into the script (Goodliffe’s character mentions the legend first, before he’s even aware of the string of statuary-related murders in the area). As I suggested, parts of it do verge on high camp (the professor writing a letter while in the process of petrifying, for example).

That said, whenever I feel the temptation to dismiss any of these old Hammer horrors as quaint or corny, I remember watching Plague of the Zombies on a proper cinema screen with modern sound and vision and being genuinely gripped and unsettled by parts of it. I’m not sure the same wouldn’t happen with The Gorgon, too, for those set-piece Gorgon sequences are supremely well-directed, particularly one in which Paul finds himself repeatedly confronted with the monster’s reflection in various surfaces. The conceit that the Gorgon’s petrification doesn’t happen immediately but takes place over a period of time is quite an inspired innovation too.

Even watched on TV, this is a film with a shockingly bleak ending – I suppose the lack of a strong protagonist is something of a plus point here, as it would be even worse if they ended up dead along with nearly every other major character in the film. And it’s hard not to interpret it as being fundamentally misogynistic – the sole major female character is alternately monstrous or under the sway of the various men in the film.

So The Gorgon is not without some qualities of its own, but it remains a hard film to actually like. Perhaps the fact that both Cushing and Lee are cast against type is partly to blame – for whatever reason, neither has quite the presence in the film you might expect, and they don’t share much screen-time, either. Certainly, if you look at the raw material this film had to work with, in terms of performers and idea, you might expect something a little more impressive than the end result. It’s still hard to completely dismiss, though.

 

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There was something of a vogue, a few years ago, for sticking the boot to the big Hollywood studios for making ‘historical’ films in which the history was, um, laughable bunk, and more often than not skewed wildly in favour of America. Now, neither bad history nor bias is what you’d call a recent invention – the latter has been a mainstay of war movies for as long as they’ve been made, but it is a little surprising to find it in films made about wars which concluded many decades ago. Dubious historicity likewise has a lengthy pedigree, but the reasons for it can be more varied.

Which is a roundabout route to what regular readers may find to be a rather familiar topic: a Christopher Lee-fronted Hammer horror movie. This week’s subject is Rasputin, the Mad Monk, a film from Hammer’s mid-Sixties golden era, directed by Don Sharp. I feel obliged to promise at this point that, despite the fact this is intended to be a semi-humorous film review blog, I will not be going for easy laughs by making endless references to the Boney M song on the same subject. (No, no: thank me later.)

Anyway, our story opens deep in the Russian heartlands, which as usual in a Hammer movie bear a striking resemblence to some woodlands out the back of the studio. You can tell we are in Russia because people wear Lenin-style caps and call each other Vasily despite having Somerset accents. Gloom pervades the local inn, as the landlord’s wife is poorly and the local doctor has given up. However, who should stride through the door but Russia’s greatest love machine ahem, a mysterious stranger (Christopher Lee). He is, of course, Rasputin, but we don’t find out his name just yet.

Preferring a boozer with a livelier atmos, Rasputin takes it upon himself to exercise his mystical powers of healing to perk the landlady up a bit, which is the cue for a party, some boozing, and more ethnic folk dancing than is usual in this kind of film. (The copious hair and beard with which Lee has been issued makes it easy for someone else to double for him during the fight and dancing sequences in this movie – although knowing what a legendary polymath Christopher Lee is, he probably did it all himself anyway). When Rasputin gets a bit frisky with the young lady of the establishment, a fight breaks out, and this being a Russian pub (and a Hammer movie), someone gets maimed with a scythe before the big fella can make an escape.

However, he is tracked down to the local monastery, where he is called upon to explain this rather un-monklike behaviour. Rasputin’s answer has a certain logic – if confession is good for the soul, as the abbot is always insisting, then the more impressive the sins that you have to confess, the better. (Yes, I know: Christopher Lee, folk dancing and theological debate in the same movie – sadly the similarities with The Wicker Man pretty much end there.) The abbot is unconvinced, and – pausing only to fearfully ponder the true origin of Rasputin’s unearthly powers – has him slung out of the monastery.

Someone suggests to Rasputin that a man with his schtick could do well at the court of the Tsar, and he heads off to St Petersburg straightaway. It soon transpires his unusual attributes extend far beyond his healing hands, as in the big city he is very soon displaying hollow legs with which to win drinking contests, mesmeric eyes with which to impose his will on others, and… er…. well, let’s just say he’s popular with the ladies too. Chief amongst his conquests is Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady-in-waiting at the court. Rasputin spies a chance to win real power and influence – but his general nuttiness and lack of manners are rubbing the cream of the young Russian gentry (primarily Francis Matthews, Dinsdale Landen, and Richard Pasco) properly up the wrong way, and plans are soon underway to eliminate him…

So, the unusual thing about Rasputin, the Mad Monk is that it’s a movie based on actual historical events which weren’t that long past at the time the film was made (48 years, give or take – bear in mind the film itself is 47 years old now). Christopher Lee himself has described meeting Rasputin’s real-life daughter (who was apparently very complimentary about his performance, which is slightly mind-boggling), and some of the actual conspirators involved in killing Rasputin were still around when the film was made. This explains the ‘No living person is depicted’ disclaimer in the opening credits, and the fact that the film casts loose from anything closely resembling actual history quite enthusiastically. (Despite the fact the real Rasputin’s death occurred in the middle of the First World War, there’s no mention of any such thing going on, for instance.)

With a proper bio-pic apparently not a possibility for legal reasons, you would have thought the sensible option would be to really push the fantasy-horror angle on the story – but Hammer seem to have backed off from this, as well. Initial scythe-maiming aside, there’s no real horror element to this movie until quite close to the end, and what we get instead is a lurid melodrama about Rasputin’s pursuit of power. What’s he going to do with it when he gets it? The film does not elucidate. Why does he want it in the first place? Well, beyond the initial implication that he has been granted strange abilities by the powers of darkness, the film is likewise silent – but it’s pretty clear throughout that Rasputin is a thoroughly bad sort.

Without a proper grounding in fact or fantasy, Rasputin, the Mad Monk constantly threatens to dissolve into vague inconsequentiality, but a few things more than redeem it. First and foremost, this is possibly Christopher Lee’s best bad guy role for Hammer – a heretical assertion, yes, but he gets more to do, with more screentime and more dialogue, than in any of the Dracula movies. Admittedly the harsh shouty voice he opts to deliver all his lines in gets a bit tedious very quickly, but many of the film’s best scenes revolve around Lee remaining silent, letting his body language and  – especially – his eyes do all the work. Much as I admire Christopher Lee, I don’t think he has the same range as a performer as – obvious candidates alert – Peter Cushing or Vincent Price, but in terms of intensity and presence he’s The Man. I don’t think Hammer ever used those qualities quite as well as in this film, as Lee is frequently quite magnetic.

Rasputin, the Mad Monk was shot back to back with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, hence the crossover of sets and personnel between the two films (a frozen moat features prominently in the climax of both, for instance). However, the director is different, and Don Sharp does some interesting things here. There’s not a lot of proper gore in this film, but what there is has a harder edge to it than in other films of this period – the salaciousness is perhaps a touch more explicit, too. Most interesting is a sequence in which a vengeful young man attempts to confront Rasputin in his lair (the Castle Dracula set redressed, of course), which takes place almost completely in darkness, faces and weapons swimming in and out of fragments of light.

This is an interesting and fun movie rather than a really good one – unintended entertainment aplenty can be derived from the film’s total failure to authentically depict the Russian setting and characters, the more satisfying kind from watching Lee do his thing and the very decent performances from everyone else in the cast. Hammer was making all sorts of odd films in the mid Sixties as they tried to extend their brand – this is probably one of the odder ones, but not a bad one and no disgrace to the House.

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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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