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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Lee’

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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Oh blog, have I been neglecting you? I fear so. (Friends have even taken to asking me if I’ve been on holiday, so unaccustomed are they to my not rattling on about everything under the sun.) Well, what can I say, real life has intruded somewhat, plus what I have been up to has not been very immediately bloggable. (Though my thoughts on the incredibly obscure topic of Five-Room-Dungeon Design as Applied to Superhero RPGs may yet be forthcoming.)

One of the things that led friends to assume I was overworked/on holiday/dead was the absence of any comment on the recent passing of Sir Christopher Lee. It felt very appropriate that the departure of this iconic figure received such significant coverage across the media – it seemed as if everyone had their own story to pass on or retell, many of them not even connected to his remarkable film career. One almost gets the impression Christopher Lee’s real life, especially his wartime experiences, was the really incredible thing about him: meeting the assassins of Rasputin as a child, serving with the special forces, getting the King of Sweden’s blessing for his marriage, becoming a late-in-life heavy metal star – the list goes on and on.

Needless to say, I never had the pleasure of meeting Sir Christopher Lee, though I should mention that this is largely Peter Jackson’s fault. I went to two SF Conventions in 2002 and 2003, partly because it was strongly rumoured that Lee would be making a surprise appearance at some point in the festivities. However, the con dates coincided in both cases with the dates of reshoots on the last two Lord of the Rings films and instead of hanging out with me, the great man was off being Saruman on the other side of the world. It was a significant disappointment (even if I did get the consolation prize of hanging out very informally with Simon Pegg).

So, of course I will be doing a Christopher Lee film to mark his recent departure from this plane of existence – but one of the things which has slowed this down has been trying to find an appropriate film to look at. As I write, Christopher Lee is the most-tagged actor on the blog, with 25 appearances (obviously it will have gone up to 26 by the time you read this), one ahead even of Jason Statham on 24, and it’s a little difficult to think of a major Lee performance that I haven’t already looked at: The Curse of Frankenstein, nearly all the Hammer Draculas, Rasputin, The Devil Rides Out, The Wicker Man, The Man with the Golden Gun, Attack of the Clones, his films as Saruman… I’ve written about them all (more than once, in some cases), along with lesser works like Horror Express. What’s left? I know he was personally very proud of Jinnah, but I don’t have ready access to it, and while I do have Revenge of the Sith (of course) he hardly plays a significant role in it.

Which kind of restricts us to a minor work, I’m afraid. If only I had The Satanic Rite of Dracula to hand – an appropriately final appearance as the Count, plus another teaming with Peter Cushing – but I don’t. So I find myself revisiting a film I haven’t watched since 1989, the DVD of which has languished in the depths of the Ultimate Hammer box set since I bought it: Peter Sykes’ 1976 adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s occult thriller To the Devil a Daughter.

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I suppose there is a sort of appropriacy in covering this final classic Hammer horror film, with Lee in his last major role for the studio, but it’s still a film I find it very difficult to find positive things to say about. It’s certainly a horror movie, but is it really what we all mean by a Hammer horror? I’m not sure.

Lee plays Father Michael Rayner, a Catholic priest who, at the top of the film, is excommunicated for unspecified heretical beliefs. Twenty years later, as things get going in earnest, he is overseeing the departure of a young girl named Catherine (Nastassja Kinski) from a convent in Germany, ahead of her arrival in England for an occasion of great moment.

However, Catherine’s father (Denholm Elliott) knows full well that something unspeakable is on the cards and recruits American occult writer John Verney (Richard Widmark) to look after her on her arrival in the country. Very soon Verney’s involvement comes to the attention of Rayner, who is well aware that this could derail his plan to use Catherine to create an avatar of the demon Astaroth, and so he sets about using all his powers of black magic to lure her back into his clutches…

My understanding is that, on release, To the Devil a Daughter was Hammer’s biggest hit in years (co-production deals and the fact the company was already deeply in hock meant not much of the money actually reached them), and by all accounts significant English directors like Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg were considered to direct it. It certainly feels a world apart from what I would call a traditional Hammer horror – there is a very different sensibility involved here. Rather than being filmed on luridly-dressed sets and in the woodland round the back of the studio, To the Devil a Daughter has a drab, naturalistic style, with much of it shot on location and even abroad.

This change of pace extends to the way the film is plotted and written: most Hammer movies are very up-front about the nature of whatever’s going on, with a wholly matter-of-fact approach to the characters and their relationships. This one, however, opts for more of a sense of brooding unease and menace, prior to the moments of explicit horror that it: we’re not initially told exactly what Rayner’s plan is for Catherine, nor indeed what her father tells Verney to bring him into the story. I suppose it’s arguably a more sophisticated and mature form of storytelling, provided it’s done properly – here, it’s sometimes unclear exactly what’s going on and why, although this may be due to the fact that the script was still a work-in-progress well into principal photography.

Certainly the main thrust of the plot is very straightforward, with much of the film’s flavour and depth – such as it is – coming from a fairly complex back-story, some of it revealed via flashback, and a number of set-piece sequences which are… how can I put it? ‘Implicitly gory’ is one way, ‘disgusting to the point of obscenity’ might be another. Deeply, deeply nasty things happen in this movie – some sequences are simply sordid, and it’s only the magisterial presence of a full-power Lee that redeems them to some extent. By modern standards, the making of this film involved some pretty questionable practices, too, even if (under British law at the time) it was apparently perfectly legal to require a fourteen-year-old actress to do a full-frontal nude scene.

I had thought that a quarter-century and a moderately altered perspective might lead me to reappraise To the Devil a Daughter, but apparently not. Lee is at the height of his powers, of course, and there’s an impressive supporting cast including Honor Blackman, Anthony Valentine and the utterly reliable Denholm Elliott. But Richard Widmark is a stolid protagonist at best (Hammer’s run of importing American leads and having them turn out to be horrible presences on set apparently continued) and the film just feels pedestrian and seedy, devoid of the colour and character you’d expect from a Hammer film. Set against all this, the weak ending (a product of post-production jigging about) doesn’t register as a particular problem. In terms of making films about black magic and Satanism, To the Devil a Daughter is probably a more sensible and authentic film than The Devil Rides Out (surely its closest cousin in the Hammer canon), but it’s massively less enjoyable to watch.

Christopher Lee simply disappears into thin air at the end of it, gone without a trace. In reality, of course, his legacy is rather more monumental. If this film is very far from being one of his best, at least he himself shows every sign of giving it his total commitment. One would expect no less: that, amongst many other reasons, is why he was so beloved and will be so missed.

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It almost goes without saying that the trilogy of Hobbit movies has, outside of the confines of the hardcore Jackson-Tolkien axis fanbase at least, had less of a cultural impact than the Lord of the Rings films they are so clearly meant to emulate. Not, I suspect, that the bean-counters at Warners, New Line and MGM will be overly worried: it’s hard to be too upset about a ten-digit box office return, after all. Perhaps there has just been something a bit too openly mercenary about the way in which a slight and quirky children’s story has been pulled about and bloated to enable just that same return. Nevertheless, I suspect that the final episode, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, will earn itself some goodwill, especially from those of us who have been along for the ride all the way since December 2001, when Jackson released his first film set in Middle-Earth (one which this film dovetails with perfectly, as you might expect).

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Viewers of the last film may be somewhat discombobulated to see that the menace of saurian psychopath Smaug is dealt with practically before the credits have finished rolling, leaving the uninitiated to wonder exactly what’s going to happen for the next two and a bit hours. Well, here is where the story of The Hobbit takes the darker and more cynical turn that sets it apart from most children’s literature.

With the dragon dead, claimants to his vast hoard of treasure start coming out of the woodwork with astounding speed. Already on the scene and in possession are Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his dwarves, but Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the people of Laketown quite reasonably want some recompense for having their homes incinerated, while the King of the Elves (Lee Pace) also has a few outstanding debts he wants clearing up. Unfortunately, all the gold seems to be going to Thorin’s head, with the result that everything seems to be on the verge of turning nasty…

Even worse, also bearing down on Smaug’s former residence are not one but two armies of Orcs in the service of Sauron, who recognises the strategic location of the dragon’s former lair. With Bilbo (Martin Freeman) unable to make Thorin see sense, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) still a prisoner in Dol Guldur, and inter-species relations rapidly turning hostile, the future for Middle-Earth looks bleak…

It is true that in the past I have occasionally been a bit lukewarm about earlier installments of the Hobbit series, mainly for the reasons touched upon earlier. Well, what’s done is done, and one may as well just enjoy the rich stew of elements Peter Jackson brings to the table for this final offering. The appetiser (I warn you now, this metaphor is going to be horribly overstretched) is Smaug’s devastating visit to Laketown, with which the director serves notice that he’s going to start with the sound-and-fury knob turned up to ten and only get louder and bolder (not just overstretched but somewhat mixed as well, it would seem). Another early treat is a sequence in which Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Sylvester McCoy show up like Middle-Earth’s answer to the Avengers: and it really is glorious to see Lee, at the age of 92, getting one more moment of scene-stealing awesomeness to add to one of the most distinguished careers imaginable.

There are few longeurs early on in the film, but these really just mark the director carefully getting his ducks in a row for the second half of the film, which really and honestly does live up to its title: the titular clash dominates the movie, and feels like it goes on for hours. Peter Jackson is at his most uninhibited here, and it really is his conception of The Hobbit that we see, rather than Tolkien’s. In fact, it’s tempting to view this film as really a summation and celebration of everything that has made Jackson’s realisation of the Professor’s work so very memorable and justifiably beloved.

True, there is some very questionable comic-relief, some disconcerting stunt casting – Billy Connolly’s voice is instantly recognisable even when he’s covered in prosthetics – and some of his amendments to Tolkien really don’t ring true – a dwarf shouting ‘You buggers!’ at the Orc hordes I can just about accept, but another telling a comrade ‘I’ve got this’? I think not. A seeming cameo appearance by the Sandworms of Dune is just peculiar. And, of course, parts of it are cringemakingly sentimental, verging on the schmaltzy.

But set against this we have all those sweeping helicopter shots of tiny figures in epic landscapes, the stirring crash-bang-wallop of the panoramic battle scenes, the endless invention of those intricately choreographed action sequences, the sheer thought and attention to detail that’s gone into making Middle-Earth feel like a real place. He even manages to take performers not perhaps noted for their dramatic range, and invest them with a certain presence and charisma: and if this means giving Landy Bloom another load of outrageous fight scenes like something out of a computer game, so be it.

You could probably argue that somewhere in all the chaos and frenzy, Tolkien gets lost completely, and also that for a book called The Hobbit, Bilbo himself actually gets sidelined for long stretches of the movie. But, looking back over the last thirteen years and the assorted wonders he has treated us to, Peter Jackson has earned the right to indulge himself just a little, especially at Christmas (and who’d have thought it – I seem to be getting a little sentimental myself in my old age). No-one has ever made this kind of fantasy film as well as Peter Jackson, and I think it will be many years before we see its like again. It may not be the greatest film he’s ever made, but it’s a very fitting conclusion to his work in this milieu, and a terrifically entertaining ride.

 

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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.

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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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I don’t get paid for writing about films, so why do I do it so much? The same reason I do anything else, I suppose: it seems worthwhile in some way or other. Another question which I get asked less often is why I’m so interested in films which are so old and (from a certain point of view) clunky that many people nowadays find them impossible to engage with.

Well – I don’t see the logic in saying that a film is bad just because it’s old; by that reasoning every film ever made is slowly deteriorating in quality all the time. But I do think that old movies offer us a useful perspective on the world at the time in which they were made, especially genre movies, which I generally find a lot more honest.

All of which is preamble to a look at the 1957 version of The Curse of Frankenstein, directed by Terence Fisher – yes, a bit of a mini-Hammer horror season of late. This particular movie comes loaded with significance – Hammer’s first Gothic horror movie, Christopher Lee’s first really striking lead role, the first colour version of this particular story, Lee’s first on-screen pairing with Peter Cushing…

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Cushing, of course, plays Baron Frankenstein himself. The film has an interesting framing device where a priest turns up at the cell where Frankenstein is being held prior to being guillotined for his terrible crimes – not because the Baron is seeking to repent, but because he wants someone to hear how none of it was really his fault…

Well, that’s a marginal claim at best, as we see. The film flashes back to Frankenstein as a youth (played by Melvyn Hayes from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, slightly startlingly), coming into his fortune and hiring his own tutor, Krempe (Robert Urquhart). Frankenstein’s brilliant intellect develops apace, and the investigations of the two men turn, almost inevitably, from conventional medical research to a somewhat darker avenue…

And it’s here, to be honest, that we start to see one of the things that marks Curse out as a product of its time. I was a bit indifferent about the Ken Branagh version of Frankenstein last year, but one thing which that telling does do well is to give Frankenstein some kind of motivation for his researches – why is this man so obsessively fascinated with and compelled to explore the secrets of life and death? Branagh answers this question; Fisher doesn’t. This film is more melodrama than drama, in which the plot dictates the characters’ actions rather than vice versa.

So Frankenstein starts assembling his infamous creation on rather dubious pretexts – mainly because the story demands it, as I said. Krempe is unimpressed and eventually refuses to participate, on the grounds that this experiment is obviously obscene. Perhaps it’s another example of cultural standards changing, or possibly it’s just me, but I wouldn’t say that reanimating a corpse is a ghastly crime against nature, per se – don’t we have defibrillators for just that purpose? Yet the film expects us to share Krempe’s opinion, I think.

The need to ensure this may be why Frankenstein himself, who is initially presented as someone unorthodox and slightly fixated but not actually evil, rapidly and not necessarily plausibly turns into a complete fiend. Needing a brain for his creature, he murders a kindly old professor who is visiting his home (sadly the brain gets damaged in a scuffle with Krempe) – and if that wasn’t enough, it is later revealed he has been up to some seigneurial whoa-ho-ho with the maid (Valerie Gaunt), whom he eventually has to dispose of using the Creature.

It’s a bit of a cliche to say this, but the fundamental difference between the Hammer cycle of Frankenstein movies and the Universal series is in their focus – the main character for Hammer is the Baron, while the Universal films are more about the Creature. This is certainly true here, as Christopher Lee doesn’t get much to do until quite late on (in a famous anecdote, he complained to Cushing about not getting any lines – ‘Count yourself lucky, I’ve read the script’ was Cushing’s reply), and he’s certainly more sinned against than sinning. Cushing’s Frankenstein, on the other hand, is definitely a bad guy.

So my memory has been cheating me, it seems – writing about the much later Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, I observed that Cushing’s Frankenstein was ‘rarely definitively evil’ – well, he certainly is here, originating the character. Possibly I’m letting Cushing’s usual screen persona of decent integrity confuse me, or the actor himself is quietly striving throughout to create a plausible characterisation in parallel with the requirements of the plot.

It all concludes with the usual mayhem, and along the way there are various examples of gleeful nastiness that horrified film critics at the time: severed body parts, acid baths, and a veritable fountain of Kensington Gore when Krempe puts a bullet in the Creature’s head (‘the shot heard round the world’ of horror films, as Mark Gatiss memorably put it a few years ago). This is a film of various creative tensions – first rate actors trying their best with melodramatic schlock, quality costume-drama trappings being laid about a gory B-movie – and perhaps it’s here that the essential magic of the Hammer films is to be found.

Every time I’ve written about one of the ‘first generation’ Hammer horrors in the past – mainly Dracula and The Mummy – I’ve commented, usually negatively, about how polite and well-mannered they were. That’s much less the case with The Curse of Frankenstein – there’s a rich vein of mischievious nastiness going on that still makes it stand out as something unusual, and special: the real origin of the Hammer horror brand, and an enjoyably over-the-top film even today.

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A group of European archaeologists discover the unopened tomb of a famous Egyptian dignitary, and despite the misgivings – and warnings – of some of the locals, they venture within in search of treasure and knowledge. Of course, while everything in the tomb is dead, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s completely inert…

I often talk about how the world’s most predictable movie genre is that of romantic comedy, but on the other hand you could make a fair case that the horror subgenre of walking mummy movies runs it pretty close: it feels like nearly all of them open in just this way, and what follows is often pretty samey too. I am here today to write about the 1959 telling of this particular tale, in Terence Fisher’s The Mummy.

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This is one of the very first Hammer horrors. In the preceding couple of years the studio had scored a couple of big hits with blood-splattered renditions of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, and were cheerfully ploughing their way through every other classic Gothic tale they could lay their hands on (not to mention The Hound of the Baskervilles). The creative personnel involved seem to have come as a job lot – in addition to Fisher as a director, all of these films star Peter Cushing as either the hero or anti-hero, plus Christopher Lee clawing his way to iconhood  in a variety of roles as the heavy of the piece.

This time around Cushing plays Banning, youngest of a trio of archaeologists who discover… oh, well, we’ve covered that bit already, haven’t we? The twist this time is that Cushing has done his leg in and can’t go into the tomb himself so it’s up to his dad to do the peering about and prying into secrets of which man was not meant to know. As you might expect, something mysterious in the tomb sends Banning Senior spectacularly off his nut and he has to be shipped off home, eventually followed by Banning Junior, his uncle, and the various finds he has extracted from the tomb.

Needless to say there is about the scene a suspicious Egyptian character (played on this occasion by George Pastell), who swears vengeance on the despoilers of the tomb, no matter how long it may take. Vengeance ends up taking about three years, mainly because Cushing has blown up the tomb entrance (not an archaeological technique I recall seeing on Time Team very often) and it takes Pastell this long to dig out his partner in retributory mayhem: Kharis, a disgraced former priest placed in the tomb with its occupant (a lady who he had a bit of a thing for, hence the disgrace). Kharis is, of course, played by Christopher Lee, and spends most of his time being tall, menacing, and heavily bandaged. There is a brief flashback to happier times in which Lee actually gets some dialogue, but this still isn’t a particularly demanding role for the great man.

Anyway, Pastell and Lee pursue Cushing and his family back to… well, I didn’t spot anything in the film that really pins down where the majority of it is set. I suppose it could well be the sort of home counties backdrop that’s one of Hammer’s default settings, but on the other hand there are a lot of Irish yokels, Irish policemen, and peat bogs in the area, so it may well be this is supposed to be rural Ireland (just for a change, you know). The Irish yokels and peat bog prove fairly central to the plot, as the former manage to dump Lee’s sarcophagus into the latter early on, with the result that he’s rather more slimy than the traditional conception of a mummy.

Banning Senior is still off his nut and has been incarcerated in the local Home for the Mentally Disordered (I honestly kid you not, it even has a sign outside), and it is here that Lee and Pastell commence their slimy series of salutory strangulations. Being a brilliant investigative scientist, it does not take Cushing too long to work out that something is going on – but will he manage to crack the case before Pastell works his way down the death list to where his name is scratched?

This was, obviously, Hammer’s first crack at doing a mummy movie (they would end up doing several more), and one of their first attempts at doing a Gothic horror film of any description. As I mentioned when writing about the original Hammer Dracula, these very early Hammer horrors are much better-behaved and less lurid than their successors – this one doesn’t have much in the way of Kensington Gore in it (Lee getting his tongue cut out was snipped at the censor’s behest), and the mummy’s pursuit of his beloved is almost entirely chaste as well. In the dual role of Princess Ananka and Cushing’s wife (yes, they are lookee-likees, a pretty remarkable coincidence which the film simply demands that you roll with) is Yvonne Furneaux, who doesn’t get a great deal to do beyond swish her hair back and forth and be carried about by Lee.

I suppose you could argue that the lookee-likee thing is just an inarticulated instance of the reincarnation trope which is a staple of this particular genre. But in every respect this is pretty much a bare-bones take on the story: I suppose the thinking at the time was that simply doing a mummy movie in colour was such a striking innovation that they didn’t have to worry about doing anything new or clever with the actual script, and as a result all we’re left with is a revenge melodrama largely consisting of a series of set-piece mummy attacks.

Christopher Lee, as you’d expect, gives it everything he’s got as the titular monster. To be honest, the part really doesn’t require that much, but Lee insists on giving Kharis little moments of pathos when he’s not strangling people or being stabbed or shot. He and Cushing approach their various physical confrontations with their customary gusto, and – again, as you’d expect – Cushing approaches the role of the misguided archaeologist with his usual commitment and precision. Even here the script verges on the perfunctory – the arc of Banning’s character should be that of an initially arrogant man forced to reconsider his worldview as a result of his confrontation with the dark forces he inadvertantly stirs up – the subtext of this whole genre is essentially ‘Let the past rest in peace’ – but again, the script doesn’t dig into this in any real detail.

The Mummy isn’t actually a bad film, but it is a short one, and perhaps that’s also a factor in how briskly by-the-numbers the script seems to be. This is a movie which covers all the essential elements of a mummy film atmospherically and effectively. It’s just that it barely does anything else.

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Something of a charming tradition is beginning to develop at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford – towards the end of October last year, the cinema hosted a personal appearance by the director Robin Hardy along with a showing of his most recent film, The Wicker Tree. This year, Hardy was not present in person, but – one is tempted to say – more than making up for this is the appearance of a welcome re-release for a restored print of the director’s 1973 masterpiece, The Wicker Man.

Wicker-Man-Final-Cut-poster

This is not the first time I have written about Hardy or The Wicker Man, and apologies to long-term readers who may be experiencing a disagreeable sense of having been here before several times. But look on the bright side: I wasn’t able to get tickets to a recent showing of Singalonga Wicker Man, rather to my regret, so the world was spared my thoughts on that particular extravaganza (Hardy was going to be present for that one; God knows what he made of it all).

Hardy’s film is justly celebrated, and – as mentioned – I have already reviewed the original 1973 cut of the film. The version showing at the Phoenix this week makes no substantial changes to the story. As ever, it concerns Howie (Edward Woodward), a fiercely devout, somewhat pompous and rather self-righteous policeman called to a remote Scottish island by a report of a missing child. He is appalled by what he sees as the licentiousness and degeneracy he sees everywhere amongst the islanders – they are pagans, and their community leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee – of course it’s Christopher Lee!) is very articulate in defence of their paganism. A series of clues leads Howie to develop a terrible suspicion as to the likely fate of the missing girl – a suspicion which proves to be very accurate, and yet at the same time wholly false in every important aspect…

This is, I think, the third version of The Wicker Man I have seen (and the second on the big screen). I recall another restoration broadcast on British TV at the end of 2001 which reinserted a number of scenes on the mainland featuring John Hallam’s scenes as a colleague of Howie’s. Those are missing from the Final Cut version, which begins with Howie attending a church service (this adds a welcome touch of ironic symmetry, as it means the film opens and closes with him singing the same hymn) – also gone, rather regrettably to my mind, is the tongue-in-cheek caption expressing gratitude to Lord Summerisle for allowing permission to film on his island.

The Final Cut is not substantially different to the original short version, which remains the iteration of the film most widely in circulation. The two main changes are the reinsertion of another musical number accompanying the initiation of young islander, which brings forward the first appearance of Christopher Lee quite substantially and gives him a memorable speech about the virtuousness of animals as compared to humans, and the reorganisation of a number of scenes so Britt Ekland’s naked song-and-dance routine occurs at the end of the second act of the film rather than near the beginning. Believe it or not, this gives the thematic importance of the naked dancing rather more clarity and makes it feel less gratuitous (no matter what point in the film it’s moved to, though, it’s still odds-on that this is the moment at which an unsuspecting elderly relative will walk in while you’re watching the movie).

The changes may be small, but they have a considerable effect on the impression made by the movie – it’s very difficult to summon up much enthusiasm for the short version once you’ve seen any other. What they reinforce, confirming that the makers of Singalonga Wicker Man have been rather astute, is just how crucial the music and the songs of the film are in creating a sense of the rich, bizarre, alien culture of the Summerisle people. This, I think, is where the film gets its eerie, peculiar power from – the queasy lurch one experiences upon the realisation that this society may look virtually indistinguishable from our own, but its ethics and principles and essential nature are something wholly different and – to an outsider – deeply disturbing.

Hardy’s achievement is partly in generating this sense of a real place, but also in treading an incredibly narrow tightrope. It becomes obvious quite early on that something is afoot amongst the islanders and that Howie is being led around by the nose – and given he’s so pompous, priggish, prudish, and inflexible, it would be all too easy for the audience to lose any sense of sympathy or identification with him. It’s to Hardy’s credit, and that of screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and (of course) Edward Woodward, that this never completely happens and Howie’s eventual tribulations retain their considerable power to disturb.

When I spoke to Robin Hardy last year he was rather dismissive of the various outlandish plans of Wicker enthusiasts to recover the rest of the original negative – digging up sections of the motorway for which it was used as landfill, for example – and so it may be that this really is the definitive version of the film available to us (if not necessarily the longest). Well, any version of The Wicker Man is an unquestionable masterpiece, it’s just a question of how flawed that masterpiece is. The Final Cut is the best version I’ve seen of one of my favourite movies: one to relish and revisit regularly – if not every Halloween, then certainly every May Day.

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