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Posts Tagged ‘Hammer’

For many years it was more or less accepted that the British Film Industry was moribund or had actually expired, some occasional semblence of life being brought to the cadaver through government assistance or co-productions of various kinds. (These days the issue seems a little more clouded, thanks mainly to the degree to which British talent powers many major international films and the notable success of many comedy films and costume dramas). It’s hard to remember that Britain once had a healthy and significant home-grown industry that turned out movies of all kinds in respectable numbers.

These days, if you come across a British movie on TV, there’s a very good chance it belongs to one of the big three franchises that the industry produced: James Bond, the Carry Ons, or Hammer Horror (I suppose the latter is a brand rather than a franchise, but you know what I mean). Bond was always the most Hollywood-style in its approach and tone, but the other two, rather oddly, do quite a good job of showing just how versatile British films could be.

For example, let’s talk about Terence Fisher’s 1958 film The Revenge of Frankenstein, which from the title alone sounds like something pretty schlocky. This film was made the year after the enormous success of Hammer’s first colour Gothic horror, The Curse of Frankenstein, back-to-back with its first Dracula film, so we’re still in at the birth of the very idea of Hammer Horror – which may be why this isn’t quite the film you might expect it to be.

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The film opens with the execution by guillotine of Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing, of course), as featured in the first film – but a nifty retcon reveals that our man switched places with a (presumably rather unwilling) priest at the last second, with the help of a cripple named Karl (Oscar Quitak). Frankenstein sets out to take a terrible revenge on the world which refused to recognise his genius!

Yes, that’s right, he goes into private practice. Three years later, the medical council of the town of Carlsbruck are disgruntled by the success of the brilliant but aloof Dr Stein, who has stolen most of their best-paying patients, as well as doing a lot of work at the hospital for the poor. (The rates of surgical procedures, especially amputations, are soaring.) A delegation is sent to try and get Stein on board.

This has no other effect than to give young Dr Kleve (Francis Matthews, perhaps best known these days as the voice of Captain Scarlet) the chance to clock Stein as the Baron, whom he met several years earlier. Rather than exposing him, Kleve volunteers to become Frankenstein’s new student/assistant, as he sets about his latest exciting project.

Karl is still helping the Baron, and in return Frankenstein has knocked up a new, non-deformed body (Michael Gwynn, perhaps best known these days as Lord Melbury in the first episode of Fawlty Towers), into which he intends to transplant Karl’s brain. Faced with this evidence of his brilliance, how can the world not give Frankenstein the respect which is his due?

As revenge schemes go, it’s one of the most genteel ones out there, and it does involve an impressive amount of community support work. However, as ever, Frankenstein is a bit too keen to overlook some flaws in the plan: post-op, Karl may not be keen to be exhibited as a marvel of transplant surgery, while there is the very small issue of past recipients of this procedure turning into violent cannibals. But that couldn’t happen this time, could it…?

Well, what do you think? Of course it does. The thing is, though, that the censor enjoyed a lot of power back in 1958 and the film is extremely limited in the levels of violence it is permitted to depict, to say nothing of the actual cannibalism. This is left very much implied, with most of the actual work being done by a rather good and pathos-laden performance by Gwynn. Does it completely make up for the fact that Gwynn is the most atypical Frankenstein ‘monster’ in the history of film? I’m not sure. The film works hard to make him tragic as much as horrifying (he gets an odd sort of unrequited romance with a kind-hearted posh girl played by Eunice Gayson, perhaps best known these days as the first of all Bond girls) and his demise arguably occurs a while before the actual climax of the film, which is a bit wrong-footing for the audience.

Then again, the film keeps going off at these odd tangents which aren’t really what you expect from even an early Hammer film. Much of the time this really does resemble a legitimate costume drama more than a horror movie – and not necessarily even a drama. Jimmy Sangster’s script is not short on colourful supporting characters, usually broadly comic in some way – Michael Ripper and Lionel Jeffries come on near the start as a couple of comedy graverobbers, while later on there’s a courting couple who could be the inspiration for the Jim Dale and Angela Douglas characters in Carry On Screaming – and these little vignettes really give the impression you’re watching some sort of weird literary adaptation which keeps erupting into gory surgical mayhem.

A lot of Hammers are a bit minimalist in their dramatis personae – they’re not quite ‘if you’re in shot, you’re in the plot’, but it’s sometimes close to that – but, like I said, this one is an exception, and it’s one which does throw into sharper relief just how class-conscious these films are. All the moral and plot agency is given to the aristocrats and the upper-middle-class characters, the less well-educated and well-spoken ones are just there to be victims or acted upon, or simply comic relief. And, to be fair, amoral monomaniac he may be, but you’d rather spend time with the genteel Baron F than any of the smelly poor people clogging up his hospital.

I’m not sure I’d call The Revenge of Frankenstein a classic Hammer horror, it’s just a bit too odd in its tone and structure for that. But we have to remember that the classic formula was still being conceived when this film was produced, and Hammer probably weren’t even considering the possibility that their future lay largely in making this kind of exploitation film. It almost goes without saying that this film has all the classic Hammer virtues – great costumes, sets, music, and Peter Cushing – but it also looks more like a mainstream movie than most of the others. This may not necessarily make it better, but it certainly makes it distinctive.

 

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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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As I’ve said before, probably a number of times, Hammer Horror and I go back quite a few years: one night in the early Summer of 1987, to be precise – I’d give you the exact date, but unfortunately BBC Genome seems to have packed up [It’s working again and the exact date was June 27th 1987, if you must know – A]. ‘The Count and the Baron are back in business!’ promised the trailer for a double bill of Dracula, Prince of Darkness and The Evil of Frankenstein, and what can I say? They had me. They have me still.

That said, while Prince of Darkness is a film I have strong memories of, and which I’ve watched countless times in the intervening years – I might even call it the quintessential Hammer horror film – The Evil of Frankenstein is one I never got back to. I don’t even recall it being on TV that often. Looking at it again now, it’s no worse than a lot of other Hammer Horrors… and yet…

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Freddie Francis directs competently, and with moments of real style too. Things get under way with a spot of – well, it’s not even graverobbing, as someone just leaves a freshly-dead body too close to an open window, from whence it is half-inched by a grave-robber in the employ of Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing, inevitably). However, the locals put two and two together and soon enough the Baron and his surprisingly loyal assistant Hans (Sandor Eles) are forced to go on the run.

Finding himself financially embarrassed, the Baron decides to head home to his ancestral seat at Karlstadt, only to find it has been ransacked. (Frankenstein insists on referring to his castle, which is obviously a castle because it looks like a castle, as a chateau – a touch of pretension, Baron?) Telling Hans the story of what happened here occasions a fairly lengthy flashback to Frankenstein’s most famous experiment, which involves a stitched-together corpse, a big thunderstorm, and some angry villagers. This concludes with the Baron being run out of town and his creation (Kiwi Kingston) being shot off the top of a mountain by a gun-toting mob.

Events start to repeat themselves and Frankenstein and Hans find themselves having to flee, assisted by a deaf-mute gypsy girl (Katy Wild). As luck (and the magic of plot contrivance) would have it, they wind up taking shelter in a cave under a glacier – and who should be frozen into the glacier in a state of perfect preservation but Frankenstein’s old monster?

Old flat-top is duly defrosted and revived, but his brain is stubbornly dormant. Faced with this dilemma, the Baron makes one of the worst decisions of his career (and with a career like his, that’s saying something), recruiting a sideshow hypnotist named Zoltan to use his mental powers on the monster. Zoltan is played by Peter Woodthorpe, a little-remembered actor these days, but responsible for memorable performances as Reg Trotter in Only Fools and Horses and Gollum in various Lord of the Rings adaptations, and here he has a damn good go at stealing the movie from Cushing.

For Zoltan has an agenda of his own, and it involves using the creature to get rich and get even, regardless of the consequences to anyone around him. Have those blazing torches to hand…

This was Hammer’s third Frankenstein film, not that it matters much. This is, I suppose, a bit of a minor landmark for the company, inasmuch as it marks the first time they casually abandon the existing continuity of a series and start over without any explanation. The film totally ignores the established events of The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein, except in the most general way. In parts this feels like a sequel to another film which was never actually made.

Occasioning all this were some legal doings between Hammer and Universal. The two previous Hammer Frankensteins (which, I say again, have absolutely no narrative links with Evil of Frankenstein) had to tread extremely carefully to avoid intruding on the various trademarks connected with Universal’s cycle of Frankenstein movies, specifically Jack Pierce’s make-up design and any references to dark and stormy nights. By this point the two companies had thrashed something out, and all these things were potentially available to Hammer.

Well, it’s a touching tale of corporations coming together for a common good, but I’m not sure it helped this film very much. The really special thing about the 1930s Frankensteins is not the make-up, but the performer inside it, and inside the monster gear in Evil of Frankenstein is a wrestler from New Zealand who’s given virtually nothing to work with. Never mind that it’s not until the closing stages of the film that he gets a chance to show any kind of pathos or personality, the monster make-up itself is just bad: the creature has a head like an Easter Island statue and appears to be made of clay or stone.

Hammer Frankensteins are all about the Baron, anyway, and Cushing gives another impeccable performance, of course. He’s good even when the film around him is slapdash, as it is here: why is this film called The Evil of Frankenstein (or even, according to the title card, The EVIL of Frankenstein)? We are required to take the Baron’s villainy for granted, because he just comes across as a scientist with some fairly radical and uncompromising beliefs, more sinned against than sinning. When he arrives home and finds his family home has been plundered, Cushing makes it a genuinely poignant moment, and whatever misdeeds are done in the course of the story, they seem to be much more Zoltan’s fault than Frankenstein’s.

Indeed, it’s only really in the stuff with Woodthorpe’s brand of grasping, beady-eyed nastiness that the film really comes to life and has anything more to offer than a selection of empty Frankenstein cliches. And even here credulity has to be throttled until it’s comatose: ‘go and punish the burgomaster for me,’ Zoltan instructs the monster (the nature of his beef with the guy is never really established – it feels like something left over from an earlier draft of the script), which duly lumbers off out of the chateau castle, and in the next scene it’s breaking into the burgomaster’s house. How the hell did it know where to go? Did it stop and ask for directions along the way?

To be fair, the film is stuffed with these kinds of odd non sequiturs and rambling diversions: it doesn’t feel a second too short, even with a very modest running time of only about 85 minutes. One almost gets the feeling that the people at Hammer were so delighted at making the deal with Universal, meaning that they didn’t have to come up with another outrageous variation on the Frankenstein story, that they didn’t bother coming up with any real story worth mentioning. The Evil of Frankenstein sort of meanders along without ever really arriving anywhere, saved from utter bad moviedom only by Cushing and Woodthorpe. Looks aren’t everything, and I know now that going 27 years without watching this movie wasn’t exactly a great privation.

 

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Once again I find my deep affection for the Hammer Horror brand luring me into seeing a movie I might not have entertained the idea of seeing were it made by anyone else. On this occasion the film in question is The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, directed by Tom Harper. 2012’s The Woman in Black was a massive popular success, easily becoming Hammer Films’ biggest ever hit (although I suspect adjusting for inflation might give the crown back to a Cushing and/or Lee movie), something most likely due to the presence in the lead role of Daniel Radcliffe. Taking on the formidable task of fronting this Radcliffe-free follow-up is Phoebe Fox.

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The film opens in 1941, at the height of the blitz, with Londoners nightly subjected to terrifying air-raids. As a result, the children of the city are being evacuated to safer locations. One small group of them is in the custody of Eve Parkins (Fox) and her fierce superior Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory), and together they make the journey to a remote coastal village and the derelict mansion which will be their new home. However, what nobody is aware of is the fact that the house has long held another occupant, someone who has her own particular interest in the wellbeing of young children…

Soon enough the Woman in Black is walking again, her attention firmly fixed on Eve’s young charges. But is this her usual mindless rage, or is there another factor at work? And can Eve solve the mystery before all of them are beyond help?

I think it’s technically more accurate to describe Angel of Death as a follow-up to The Woman in Black rather than an actual sequel: none of the same performers are involved (even the title character has been recast), the period and plot are entirely different, and while there are various visual references to the first film, you don’t need to have seen it to follow what’s going on here. This is hardly surprising, as the conclusion of the first one was hardly sequel-friendly.

In fact, with hindsight it’s easy to see that coming up with a properly satisfying story for this film must have been a bit of a challenge, as the Woman in Black is not the most promising character to develop a series of films around. Once you know her back-story and understand she’s an indestructible, infanticidal monomaniac, there aren’t many places left to go with her beyond simple atmospherics and mechanical jump-scares. Angel of Death‘s main problem is that this is the level on which it is obliged to operate.

Original author Susan Hill has been drafted in to provide a story for this sequel, and even she has been obliged to tinker with her creation’s modus operandi in order to make the story work: rather than simply being fixated on murdering the evacuees, the Woman in Black on this occasion opts to go in for a little moral chastisement with regard to Eve Parkins’ own character (going into detail would necessitate spoilers). It’s a peculiar twist, to my mind reminiscent of the presentation of Dracula as an avenging force of darkness in Taste the Blood of Dracula, and to my mind it’s not necessarily an improvement – but, as I say, they didn’t really have much option if they wanted to avoid a simple retread of the first one.

This is not to say that I think The Woman in Black: Angel of Death deserves the generally unfriendly reviews it has received. Despite having its certification bumped to a 15 rather than the first film’s 12 (I suspect the absence of the juvenile-friendly Radcliffe may be responsible for this), this seemed to me to be rather less frightening than the first film – long sequences of female protagonists wandering around deserted houses in their nighties and waving lanterns about have become a bit of a genre cliche, and you’re always pretty sure of when a scary bit is on the way, which inevitably reduces the impact of those jump scares. To be fair, Harper contrives the odd impressive moment – doors slam, toys quiver and shadows swirl as the Woman in Black manifests properly for the first time – and this is clearly a film which has had some money thrown at it, but the script doesn’t quite have it where it counts.

This is a shame, as the film is at least well-played: Phoebe Fox is an engaging, soulful presence, and there’s a decent turn by Jeremy Irvine as an airman who takes a shine to her. Helen McCrory is predictably reliable in the only other major role, while supporting them all is Adrian Rawlins (who had his own very memorable encounter with a different incarnation of the Woman, once upon a time).

There really isn’t anything much particularly wrong with The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, beyond perhaps a certain tropeyness, except for the problem that it simply isn’t that scary. Unfortunately, for a horror movie – and especially a ghost story – that’s a serious issue. You can sense Hammer angling to keep their options open for future appearances, but even the closing twist of this film feels predictable and rather perfunctory. This is a very long way from being the worst follow-up or sequel in Hammer’s considerable back catalogue (I wrote about The Vengeance of She just the other day, as it happens), but I really think this particular spectre has come to the end of the road.

 

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It’s quite common, when people make their start-of-year lists of the films they’re anticipating mostly keenly, for these things to be heavily loaded with sequels, follow-ups, and remakes – generally, there seems to be a lot more excitement about Age of Ultron than Jupiter Ascending, for instance. Sequels are respectable, at least with studio bean-counters. They have money thrown at them and are often planned well before the initial film comes out.

It was not always thus. There was a time when the follow-up was a slightly disreputable beast, and those that got made generally had to work with rather lower budgets and less impressive material, with correspondingly less stellar results. Such is definitely the case with The Vengeance of She, a Hammer sequel released in 1968.

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Directed by Cliff Owen, this movie is set fifty years on from the original She (i.e., the late 60s, when it was made) and mainly concerns the travails of Carol (Olinka Berova), a young woman from somewhere in Europe (she claims to be ‘from Scandinavia’, but no-one seems very convinced by this, mainly due to Berova’s Czech accent). As the movie opens, Carol is wandering south through Europe, driven by impulses she doesn’t fully understand, and – it seems – subject to harassment by virtually every man she meets.

The movie indeed opens with an episode of spurious and rather iffy Fem Jeop, with Berova discovering the perils of lone hitch-hiking, which concludes with her assailant managing to run himself over. Following this, things take a more Mediterranean bent, as Carol ends up on the slightly pokey yacht of a shady millionaire (Colin Blakely), which appears to be crewed exclusively by fringe figures from British telefantasy – the captain is George Sewell from UFO, while the first mate is firebrand producer and general grumpy-trousers Derrick Sherwin, in what must have been one of his final acting roles before becoming script editor on Doctor Who.

Anyway, everyone soon realises that Carol has got issues: she has bad dreams and is obsessed with travelling south, for some reason. This is because she has had the ‘fluence put on her by a cabal of sorcerers in the fabled lost city of Kuma, which has really gone downhill since the 1965 film.

The back-story here gets a bit tangled. In charge of Kuma in the late 60s is Kallikrates (Hammer hunk and jammy git John Richardson), an immortal in a dodgy costume, who is awaiting the reincarnation of his lost love Ayesha. The implication seems to be that Kallikrates is really the Leo character from the first film, who in the intervening time has lost his original identity – they’re both played by Richardson, for one thing, although his haircut is radically different this time – but this isn’t gone into. Basically, Kallikrates has hired the sorcerers to find his girlfriend’s reincarnation so they can be together again, in return for which he will tell their not-at-all-sinister leader (Derek Godfrey) the secret of immortality.

Well, Carol eventually arrives in north Africa and heads for Kuma, but in pursuit of her is a psychiatrist friend of the millionaire, who has taken a bit of a shine to her. (The psychiatrist is played by Edward Judd.) Will he be able to save her? Will the evil sorcerers learn the secret of eternal life? And, perhaps most importantly, is Carol really the reincarnation of Ursula Andress…?

I’ve said some pretty lukewarm things about the original She in the past, but one thing guaranteed to make it look like a classic is watching this sequel to it. All the problems which She has – a less-than-powerful central performance, an unengaging plot which takes forever to get going, zero chemistry between the romantic leads, and so on – recur here, but with the additional issue that this film was, relatively speaking, made on the cheap.

Oh, okay – they did do all the location filming in Spain, I’ll grant you that, and it does fill in for north Africa surprisingly well. But for something which is supposed to be a grand romantic adventure, everything looks depressingly washed-out and mundane, and totally lacking in glamour. There’s a reasonably lengthy sequence on the yacht, which is – I presume – supposed to conjure up the excitement of the international luxury lifestyle, but it’s just dull, and you wonder if it’s there to serve any purpose other than padding out the film to a frankly overlong 100 minutes.

The same is true of most of the other exploits Carol wanders into on her way to Kuma, beset by lechers and unconvincing back-projection every step of the way. The most bemusing of these, for the savvy viewer, is her encounter with a benevolent scholar and magician who tries (unsuccessfully) to aid her against the evil sorcerers. Again, it feels very much like filler, except for the fact that the guy is played by Andre Morell. Morell was, confusingly, in the original She, of course, but here he seems to be playing a totally unconnected character. Given these films are actually about reincarnation and the same faces reappearing throughout history, reusing an actor this way is a bit of a mis-step, but a relatively minor one.

(And if we’re going to be super-critical about this film’s links with the other one – a spoiler approacheth – what’s going on with the ending? Kallikrates has his immortality revoked and instantly reverts to a raddled skeleton, which crumbles into dust. If he really is meant to be Leo from She, then he would quite possibly still have been alive in 1968, albeit at the age of 80 or so, and time catching up with him might not have been so instantly and spectacularly fatal. But I digress.)

The original She hugely benefited from lavish production values and a strong cast of charismatic performers, which just about compensated for its other weaknesses. Vengeance of She is much more slipshod by comparison, which means that the problems with the story are thrown into sharper relief. And like the original, it’s a fantasy film in which very little that’s actually fantastical happens – there’s hardly any horror, not much in the way of action, nothing really dramatic to speak of, just people talking near-gibberish to each other very earnestly, other people wandering the landscape, and a slightly turgid romance. You can make a reasonable movie out of this sort of material, but you need to have style, ideas, and the money to put them into practice. Vengeance of She has none of the above – and, by the way, it doesn’t even have any vengeance in it worth mentioning. One for the bottom drawer.

 

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Horror movies are a slightly culty genre as a whole, and within that genre the movies made by Hammer have a very healthy cult following of their own. Even so, some of these films have a particularly dedicated following far out of proportion to their profile or financial success – which makes them cult movies made by a cult studio within a cult genre. Cultiness cubed! Is this even possible? Well, anyway: one such film is Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (this is one of those films where no-one seems able to agree on how to punctuate the title), made in 1972 but only released a couple of years later (a fate which befell a few late-period Hammers). The only way to describe Captain Kronos is as ‘different’ (well, Sir Christopher Lee has gone on record as saying it was ‘the worst film Hammer ever made’, which surely only suggests he hasn’t seen Prehistoric Women, to name but one). I’ve always really liked it; it’s one of the very few Hammers that I recorded off the TV and kept, back when commercial VHS releases were beyond my pocket. (Happily the copyright holders have made it freely available to view over a popular video-sharing website.)

kronos

Our story opens in the tiny village of Durward, somewhere in central Europe in the 18th century (according to the trailer, anyway: the film is typically vague about this, but we’re definitely in the heart of Hammerland). Durward is a tiny little place, as you’d expect from a very low-budget film, and its young people are living in fear: a dark figure has begun preying on the rosy-cheeked young maidens of the village, reducing them to raddled old hags who peg out from old age almost on the spot.

Luckily, local doctor Marcus (John Carson) knows someone who may be able to help, calling in his old army buddy Captain Kronos (Horst Janson, but dubbed – bizarrely retaining a German accent – by Julian Holloway) and his sidekick, hunchbacked professor Hieronymous Grost (John Cater). Kronos and Grost are professional vampire hunters and are quickly on the case, assisted by a young gypsy girl they’ve picked up on their travels (Caroline Munro, in probably her best role for Hammer). But, given the wide variety of vampires apparently on the loose in Hammerland, the question is not just one of finding the beast, but working out exactly how to kill it, too…

As I say, for a long time Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter was a very obscure film, but its profile does seem to be rising: a novelisation was released a few years ago (the 39-year gap between film and book may constitute something of a record) and when Midsomer Murders did their Hammer-pastiche episode a while ago, it was two of the stars of this film that they recruited.

I think one of the reasons for its obscurity was that in many ways it inverts the traditional horror formula. It occurs to me that, structurally, the traditional monster or vampire movie has a lot in common with the classic superhero film, in that you’re waiting for the set-piece sequences where the central character appears and starts doing their thing, whatever that may be: these moments are pretty widely spread in the early part of the film, but slowly get more substantial until the climax rolls around. The main difference is that superhero films are invariably focused on and named after the protagonist, while horror movies tend to much more about the antagonist. When you get what’s purporting to be a horror, or horror-themed movie, but which is named after the hero, it’s usually a sign that you’re really in for much more of an action-adventure caper.

This is a rule-of-thumb I’ve just made up, but it holds true of Van Helsing, Solomon Kane, and Captain Kronos too. The film’s emphasis on action and colour over suspense and atmosphere probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the film is a product of the same creative team responsible for The Avengers and The New Avengers (it has been widely commented that Captain Kronos, which is relatively light on gore and nudity for a late-period Hammer, often looks more like a feature-length TV pilot than a proper movie). Certainly the film has some of the freewheeling style and offbeat humour of The Avengers, with an equally quirky hero – there’s a touch of the Man With No Names about Kronos, who smokes cheroots made of ‘Chinese herbs’ (yeah, right) and carries a samurai sword as well as a cavalry sabre.

Clemens directs with a huge amount of invention and energy, if not much subtlety: flowers wither with the passing of the vampire and the shadow of a crucifix warps as one attacks a young girl in a church. To be honest, he’s making a huge amount of the ‘vampire lore’ in this movie up out of whole cloth – different kinds of vampires attack and can only be destroyed in different ways, vampires have a resuscitating effect on the corpses of toads, and so on – but this is done with enough conviction and imagination to be convincing.

It’s almost enough to stop you noticing the clearly tiny budget on which the film was made – the village of Durward only appears to contain one family, who are progressively wiped out by the vampire as the film goes on (the script doesn’t play this for black comedy, which almost comes as a surprise). If the film is short on peasants, it sometimes seems a little short on plot too: the need for incident results in a large number of set-piece vampire attacks, which get a little repetitive, and a rather preposterous western-pastiche sequence in which a mysterious stranger hires Ian Hendry (who looks vaguely embarrassed to be participating) to pick a fight with Kronos down the local pub. Hendry’s dying-acting is extremely funny, but you have to be paying really close attention to note that the mysterious stranger is actually the villain’s butler (the viewer is bombarded with red herrings as to the vampire’s identity, but there’s never much doubt that the trail is going to lead to the door of the local aristos), rather than just some random bloke.

In the end, everything is resolved with a cameo from Wanda Ventham, a near-enough continuity reference to the Karnstein family from other early 70s Hammer vampire films, and a rather spiffy sword-fight between Kronos and the villain. The villain is played by William Hobbs, for many years the doyen of cinema fight choreographers (other works include the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers, Excalibur, and Musical Chairs Game of Thrones) and so this duel is significantly better than you might expect from a low-budget genre movie. Kronos rides off into the sunset, heading for new adventures which never actually materialised.

How much the box-office failure of Captain Kronos was a result of poor distribution, and how much down to the quality of the film itself is a little difficult to say for certain. Perhaps a film as distinctive and strange as this one, with its peculiar juxtaposition of swashbuckling action, vampire horror, and deadpan black humour, was always going to struggle to find a mass audience. At least it seems to be more appreciated now. I could not honestly describe Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter as a classic Hammer horror, but it is still a hugely entertaining film.

 

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I have felt for a long time that there is a strange and not immediately obvious connection between horror stories and comedies – that these two genres in particular share a common link. They are defined, primarily, not by a particular setting or subject matter, as with most others, but by the response they are aiming to produce in the audience. Perhaps then it isn’t so surprising that the ideas for many comedies, when written down on paper, sound shocking and not really the stuff of humour, while the premises of many horror movies seem equally laughable.

Indeed, I’ve always said that there’s nothing more horrific than a bad comedy and nothing more laughable than a bad horror film. (Perhaps this is why comedy-horror is such a difficult beast to get right.) Perhaps sailing closer to the wind in this department than most is Roy Ward Baker’s 1971 Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which really does sound like a joke (and actually started life as one, if you believe the anecdotes about this movie’s genesis).

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This movie finds Hammer back in fog-bound Victorian London, albeit one which is clearly being realised on a budget stretched to breaking point. The streetwalkers are living in terror of the activities of the murderous Ripper, a crazed killer who inflicts oddly precise mutilations on his victims’ bodies. Perhaps brilliant young scientist Doctor Jekyll (Ralph Bates) can shed some light on the matter?

Obligingly, Dr Jekyll tells his strange tale through the wonders of flashback and narration. Working on the universal panacea of a comprehensive antivirus (don’t worry, this is just a McGuffin), he is dismayed to realise that life is literally too short for him to see his researches through to fruition: it will take many decades to complete the project. This is not enough to dissuade a mad scientist in a Hammer movie, of course, and he starts to investigate the possibilities of extending the human lifespan.

The mechanism he eventually settles upon involves – and I promise you, the actual film really doesn’t seem quite as ridiculous as this sounds – female hormones, apparently because women don’t go bald, or something. Procuring the necessaries from the local mortuary attendant (a droll extended cameo from Philip Madoc), he first succeeds in massively extending the life of a fly, even if the male insect does appear to start laying eggs as a side-effect. Not to be deterred, Jekyll presses on, even if a shortage down the morgue requires him to retain the dubious services of the grave-robbers Burke and Hare.

Soon enough the scene everyone’s been waiting for arrives and Jekyll swills down the potion himself. Cue a lot of staggering about and gurning from Ralph Bates and a genuinely clever shot where he appears to turn into Martine Beswick without the use of either cuts or dissolves: I suspect this was done with mirrors, but anyway. It’s Martine Beswick! Hurrah! The film has been fairly salacious so far but creeps still further in the direction of the nudge-nudge-heh-heh joke, as the very first thing sister Hyde does on arrival is cop a proper feel of herself in front of a mirror.

Hyde is initially the secondary persona, but this changes as Jekyll finds himself running short on, er, supplies again, and is forced – after some fairly brisk moral soul-searching – to procure them himself by putting on a cape and top hat and going out into Whitechapel after dark with a big knife. But as the police close in, Jekyll realises he needs a better disguise for his bloody activities, and what better disguise than the body of a woman?

But Hyde, unleashed, turns out to be very much her own woman, with her own priorities and her own desires. The two personalities rapidly become locked in a curious metaphysical battle, with various confused members of the family upstairs involved too. And all the time the police continue to hunt for the Ripper, whoever he (or she) is…

As I say, written down, the plot of this film makes it sound like a much trashier proposition than it actually is – or, perhaps, the production of the film does a good job of masking most of the trashiness. Given the tiny budget, Victorian London is convincingly evoked, and the sets and costumes are as classy as you would expect from any Hammer horror. The performances, too, are pretty good, even if some of the supporting turns are a little over-ripe. The script (from telefantasy legend Brian Clemens) does a decent job of selling a fairly outlandish idea.

That said, this film has a harder, darker edge than the horror movies from Hammer’s golden age five years previously, and there’s that lurid, salacious quality to parts of the film as well. It always feels in a hurry to get to the flesh and blood sequences, which is why it feels a little strange that the gore is relatively restrained and Martine Beswick only has two very brief nude scenes. Possibly Roy Ward Baker, a quality director, couldn’t bring himself to go all-out in this particular area. Certainly he does an impressive job, including some clever, witty juxtapositions – a sequence of Jekyll at work with his knife is intercut with close-ups of a butcher gutting a rabbit, for instance.

I suppose Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde qualifies as a very, very early example of the sort of Victoriana-mashup which has become increasingly popular in recent years: here we have Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, and Burke and Hare all lumped into the same narrative. It’s hard to shake the impression that, on some level, the whole thing is intended as a sick, black joke, and this may be why some of the plotting and characterisation hasn’t been approached as rigorously as one might have hoped for.

For instance, Jekyll does come to the conclusion that the benefits of his work morally justify him going out and carving up prostitutes very quickly, for all that he does so on sound utilitarian grounds. This compromises the character, and when the drama focuses on the conflict between Jekyll and Hyde, it’s can’t really be framed as good vs evil – both of them are murderers, after all. Both Bates and Beswick give very serious, committed performances, and it’s a shame that Beswick in particular doesn’t get quite enough to do – the whole Jekyll vs Hyde angle doesn’t appear until very late on in the film, and the director apparently later regretted not exploring the whole gender-related split-personality angle in more detail. There’s also a bit of an issue that the film feels like it’s lacking a third act: the climax feels like it comes out of nowhere in a rather arbitrary way.

So, not the most typical of Hammer films, with only Bates present from the usual rep company, and a distinctly different tone and emphasis. But it is definitely a memorable one – even if that is, perhaps, for the wrong reasons. The idea of Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde sounds like a joke, and perhaps the biggest failing of this film is that, to some extent, it treats it like one: a black, deadpan joke, but a joke nevertheless.

 

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