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Virtually the first thing you see in Peter Sasdy’s 1971 movie Hands of the Ripper is a Whitechapel street sign, and virtually the first thing you hear is a hearty cry of ‘It’s the Ripper!’ In our day of very possibly over-decompressed storytelling, it is frankly a relief to encounter a film which gets straight to the point with quite such briskness – although the briefness of the film’s running time may also be a factor. Yes, we are back in Victorian London, and Jack the Ripper is fleeing from a mob of angry Londoners. We know it is he, for he is wearing the top hat and cape which has become a kind of visual shorthand for representations of this person – and we should always remember we are discussing a person, not a fictional character – in films.

Well, he may be on the run, but the Ripper still has time to pop in to see his significant other and the child they have apparently produced together: a charming little moppet named Anna who appears to be just about to enter the toddler stage. However, our man has not been keeping his nearest and dearest entirely in the loop when it comes to his leisure activities, and the lady of the house is shocked to discover that Jack the Ripper is, in fact, Jack the Ripper. So, by the flickering light of an open fire, he murders her too, pausing only to kiss his child a tender farewell before vanishing into legend. Cue credits.

(This is by no means a film lacking in merits, but an iron grip on historicity is not one of them, and we may as well get this out of the way. Like many films of this type, Hands of the Ripper takes a kind of impressionistic, cafeteria approach to the Victorian era in general and the Ripper murders in particular. A good fifteen years, at least, elapse during the credits, which – given the Ripper murders occurred in late 1888 – would place most of the film as happening in the early 1900s, possibly in 1903 or 1904.  The one element of the film which chimes with this is a piece of suffragette graffiti demanding votes for women: the rest of it has that generic, late-Victorian aesthetic to it familiar from any number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, and it also seems to be implied that Queen Victoria is still reigning (Her Majesty carked it in 1901). On top of all this is the fact that someone who gets killed midway through this film is called Long Liz, which is surely a reference to a real-life victim of the historical Ripper who had the same nickname. I mention all this not because I think this makes Hands of the Ripper a bad film, but because it surely says something about popular attitudes toward and conceptions of this period of history.)

Years pass, and we find the seventeen-year-old Anna (Angharad Rees) working as the accomplice of fake medium Granny Golding (‘guest star’ Dora Bryan). She is not terribly good at fake spirit voices, but the evening is moderately successful until Golding basically pimps her out to an MP who was at the séance. Ignoring the fact she simply doesn’t want to sleep with him, the MP gives her a piece of glittering jewellery, kisses her, and then attempts to force his attentions on her. Even as Golding has a change of heart and tries to back out of the transaction, something odd happens to Anna, and Granny ends up skewered on a poker driven through a solid wooden door.

As chance would have it, also present at the séance was Doctor John Pritchard (Eric Porter, a fairly big star at the time following the success of the BBC’s The Forsyte Saga), an ambitious and somewhat arrogant psychiatrist. Pritchard is fully aware that Anna very likely killed Golding, but he also believes this is a priceless opportunity to study the psychopathology of murder. Which is just about fair enough, I suppose. Does it justify lying to the police and taking the killer into your own home? I would say not. There is also the curious detail that Pritchard installs Anna in his late wife’s bedroom and instructs her to start wearing his wife’s old clothes. You do not, I suspect, need to be Freud to conclude that, on his part at least, there may be something going on here beyond basic clinical research.

Oh well. You can probably guess much of what happens next: it transpires that Anna’s troubled childhood has left her with an irresistible urge to kill, but only after she sees the reflection of flickering lights and is then kissed. Pritchard eventually figures this out, but not before his new ward has carved a bit of a swathe through the domestic servants, the local prostitutes, and even the royal household. Can Pritchard do anything to free Anna from her condition? Or is she destined to always be the instrument of her father’s homicidal compulsions?

The thing I always say about Ripper movies is that here we are in danger of trivialising the real crimes of a brutal, misogynistic serial murderer, usually for quite dubious motives. Maybe it’s because the film is so clearly detached from reality, with the Ripper himself very much a minor character, that Hands of the Ripper feels less problematic in this regard. Or maybe there is another reason (we shall return to this). In general, though, this is rather good stuff, both as a post-1970 Hammer horror movie and a Hammer Ripper film: the very same year, Hammer also released Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a queasy black joke of a movie, clearly made on a punitively low budget. It’s pushing a point to say that that Hands of the Ripper is lavish (the photographic blow-ups representing the interior of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral are positively primitive), but it has expansive location filming and is well-populated by extras. The story is reasonably interesting, too.

This is still ultimately a rather preposterous melodrama constructed around a series of set-piece killings, and you do have to cut the plotting some slack: as a viewer, you are required to accept that, after fifteen or sixteen wholly innocuous years, Anna finds herself in a succession of situations where her ‘kill reflex’ is triggered half a dozen times in the space of a few days. There’s also the fact that this is another of those films where the male lead is essentially a kind of idiot savant – brilliant, and wholly dedicated to his work, but also with a seemingly boundless capacity for making insanely bad decisions. Such is Dr Pritchard’s devotion to psychiatry that he cheerfully perjures himself, blackmails an MP, and takes someone he suspects of a savage murder into his home. I would say that was quite enough to be going on with, but he also seems determined to keep covering up for Anna as she kills again and again: at one point he appears to contemplate dismembering the corpse of his murdered maid and disposing of the bits. As mentioned, the film seems to imply a certain interest beyond the purely scientific, but come on, Doc, she’s not that cute. This shrink really needs a shrink of his own.

The film seems to take it for granted that the first response of most of the men who meet Anna is to try and get her into bed; it has a salaciously non-judgemental attitude to the London streetwalkers in the supporting cast, too. Obviously this is a film of its time, but there are signs of a definite subtext about how women have their lives screwed up by men. Anna is almost as much a victim of her father as any of the women he killed, and has very little agency – she’s either being escorted about, or pimped out, or being compelled to kill. The same is true for most of the other women in the film. I would hardly call Hands of the Ripper a feminist horror movie, but it’s not as offensively exploitative or chauvinistic as many others I could mention.

I would say, however, that there is a sense in which this is a film which seems to be toying with a slightly more psychological style of horror than was usually Hammer’s wont. The actual psychology in the movie is basically schlock, but the film sticks with it for most of the duration. In the end, though, it seems to opt for a rather less naturalistic rationale – although this is one which has been foreshadowed earlier in the movie, in scenes with a medium and a clairvoyant, and by the superhuman strength Anna exhibits when the red mist is upon her. She is not just conditioned to kill like her father, it really does seem Anna is literally possessed by the spirit of Jack the Ripper. The voice of the Ripper which Anna occasionally hears seems to be an objective phenomenon, capable of being overheard by another character. It takes us back into the realm of supernatural horror which was Hammer’s comfort zone, but the film is none the worse for that.

Perhaps because it is perceived as being the work of Hammer B-team members (although personally I feel that Peter Sasdy made some of the studio’s most interesting films from around this time), Hands of the Ripper has never really enjoyed the same profile as other films starring the big names and belonging to major series. This is a shame, because while this is obviously a film with a few issues, it is also very solidly assembled, with some strong performances and memorable moments. Maybe not a truly great Hammer horror, but certainly one of the more interesting movies with the theme of the Ripper murders.

 

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Well, now, here’s a slightly odd coincidence – just the other day I was writing about the film career of the Hungarian-British director Peter Sasdy, and (in a couple of quite separate venues) about horror films with the disjointed, compelling logic of a bad dream. And then last night I stuck on a random DVD, solely for pleasure, and it turned out to be a bad-dream horror story directed by Peter Sasdy. Either my subconscious mind is rather more on the ball than its conscious equivalent, or a cry of ‘Whoo, spooky!’ is justified.

The tale in question was an episode of Hammer House of Horror, a 1980 anthology series which was very nearly the final gasp of the original incarnation of the legendary British production company. I would never argue that this is either a great TV show or a real example of what makes real Hammer horror movies so special – the TV budget means that the episodes are all set in contemporary times, making it feel somewhat more like an Amicus production, while the desire to sell the show to a US network means the horror and exploitation elements are too often watered down – but quite a few of the famous Hammer names are involved in various capacities, such as Sasdy in this instance.

This episode is entitled Rude Awakening, written by Gerald Savory, and its particular Amicus resemblance is somewhat heightened by the fact it stars that legend amongst British character actors, Denholm Elliott (he had previously played a hack horror writer in The House that Dripped Blood and one of the victims of Tom Baker’s voodoo paintbrush in Vault of Horror, both for Amicus). This is, as far as I’m aware, the only conjunction of Hammer and Denholm Elliott, but the result is one of the series’ more striking episodes.

Elliott plays Norman Shenley, a middle-aged provincial estate-agent whom the actor invests with all the understated seediness he often brought to this kind of part – although calling it understated may be stretching a point, as virtually the first thing we see Norman do is start letching over and groping his secretary, Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge). Norman is having an affair with Lolly, of course, although there is the slight problem that his wife (Pat Heywood) refuses to grant him the divorce he so desperately wants.

Anyway: a man named Rayburn (James Laurenson) appears, claiming to be the executor of a will with a large country house to be disposed of. He would quite like Norman to take a look at the place in his professional capacity, and our man cheerfully agrees. His enthusiasm is only slightly dented when the manor turns out to be a half-decrepit, cobweb-festooned old pile, complete with spooky doors that open seemingly by themselves and wall-to-wall suits of armour. But then a disembodied voice berates Norman for the murder of his wife, and the armour creaks into life to exact retribution on the hapless estate agent…

Who wakes up in a panic, rather annoying his wife in the process. It was all just a bad dream, apparently – but so realistic! Norman can’t get over it, talking to his wife about, and Lolly when he goes in to the office. He’s so obsessed with his odd nocturnal experience that Lolly suggests he drive out to see if the country house really exists. Discovering that he still has the map given to him by Rayburn in his pocket (somehow!), Norman finds the house is not there, but a phone box is. He almost dies when the box threatens to combust around him, spying a tramp who resembles Rayburn while doing so, but then enjoys a somewhat torrid interlude with Lolly (still in the phone box)…

Only to wake up yet again, back in bed with his unimpressed missus. One of the bricks you could throw at Rude Awakening is that the structure of the story becomes rather predictable as the episode progresses – Norman wakes up from his latest nightmare, restarts the day in question, only for events to go off at some odd tangent or other, normally resulting in him meeting an outlandish sticky end. The sticky ends get progressively more outlandish in the course of the episode – never mind being assaulted by animated suits of armour, Norman finds himself executed by undead domestic staff, almost killed when the building he’s in is demolished around him, and (most surreal of all) waking up midway through brain surgery to find himself dead on the operating table.

All good fun, if you like weird, not-especially-horrific horror, but the problem is really that it builds the viewer’s expectations of something really spectacularly surreal at the climax of the episode, and unfortunately it just doesn’t happen. The conclusion is reasonably clever, though, as is the way the script combines several different story types – Rude Awakening goes for, and pretty much achieves the triple by including elements of a recurring nightmare story, a precognitive dream story, and a can’t-tell-dream-from-reality story. It’s clear from early on that something fishy is afoot – Norman doesn’t seem at all surprised to find a dream artefact in his pocket while he’s supposedly awake, to say nothing of the fact that he doesn’t notice Lolly appearing in a different provocative guise in each new iteration of the story – but the resolution, when it comes, is relatively understated. It may be that it is in fact supposed to be blackly comic – after so many fake demises, Norman ends up assuming he’s asleep, which proves to be a serious mistake – but the script is not quite sharp enough for the results to be particularly amusing.

That said, there is, of course, a masterly performance from Denholm Elliott to enjoy, which is the episode’s main treat. Ineffectual and/or seedy men were really his speciality, usually in a supporting capacity, and he is, it almost goes without saying, on fine form here. He keeps you watching even after it’s become quite clear how the episode’s going to function, even if not where it’s going. And Sasdy has fun with the more surreal elements of the story, which are quite different from the stuff of the relatively grounded feature films he made for Hammer. Rude Awakening probably counts as only a minor item on the CV of both men, but it brings a certain style of surreal British horror to the small screen reasonably effectively.

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It comes as a bit of a shock to me to realise that I’ve been a fan of Hammer horror for just about thirty years, my personal satanic baptism following the BBC documentary The Studio That Dripped Blood and the accompanying season of films. What seems almost incredible, though, is the realisation that some of these films were less than twenty years old at the time. It’s impossible to be objective about these things, of course, but it feels like a great cultural chasm separated the early 1970s from the late 1980s in a way that isn’t quite the case when it comes to the late 1990s and nowadays. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that Britain had a viable national film industry in 1970 in a way it doesn’t have now.

One thing I am sure of is that I was technically a bit too young to watch most of these films at the time – although I note that when older Hammer films get revived on the big screen these days, they often get recertified much more leniently (as a 12A rather than an 18, for instance). Well, whatever, I’m sure a steady diet of gore, nudity, and the occult never did me any harm (he says, looking around his tiny rented garret, conveniently forgetting his becalmed career and string of failed relationships). That’s not the same thing as saying all of these movies were actually any good, of course, but sometimes a really iffy Hammer film has fleeting pleasures of its own.

I first saw Jimmy Sangster’s 1971 film Lust for a Vampire at the back end of 1989, and even at the time I remember being rather unimpressed with it. This is another Fine-Style production, the sequel to The Vampire Lovers, and while a few of the supporting cast return, none of the featured players do (and everyone’s playing different characters anyway).

We find ourselves once again in early 19th century Austria – this is one of the comparatively rare Hammer films which is quite specific about its setting – where, to no-one’s particular surprise, the undead are stirring. A cheery, buxom village maid is kidnapped by the evil Count Karnstein (Mike Raven) and used in a dark, gory ritual to resurrect the comely female vampire Carmilla (Yutte Stensgaard, on this occasion), although she spends most of the movie calling herself Mircalla. It’s obviously not made entirely clear, but it seems that Count Karnstein is supposed to be the Man in Black from the previous movie, up to his old tricks again (most of the impact of the character comes from the fact that Raven is being dubbed by Valentine Dyall, which is slightly ironic given Dyall himself famously played the Man in Black on the radio). The resurrection scene is interesting in the way it recalls similar moments from both Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Taste the Blood of Dracula, but the striking thing is how much more explicit the satanic overtones become over the years – another example of standards changing (this trend really culminates with Dracula AD 1972, where Christopher Lee is restored at the climax of a full-fledged Black Mass).

Well, anyway. Next we meet novelistic aristo Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnson), a bit of a charming rogue who’s in the area to research his new novel. The local landlord obligingly delivers a mighty slab of exposition concerning the Karnstein family and their vampiric activities, but this doesn’t stop LeStrange from heading up to Castle Karnstein to have a poke about. What follows is a genuinely atmospheric and slightly eerie sequence as he finds himself stalked by a trio of silent, robed young women, which actually recalls an episode from early in the novel of Dracula itself. This may be the single most effective bit of the movie.

The punchline, of course, is that the girls are actually pupils from the local finishing school, visiting the castle of the vampires on a school trip with their tutor (Ralph Bates). LeStrange swings by the school with them, finds himself engaged by the cornucopia of feminine pulchritude on display, and then absolutely smitten by the arrival of Mircalla as a new pupil. LeStrange promptly wangles himself a job as the school’s new English teacher in order to give Mircalla some real attention. Of course, when the school standards board get wind of this sort of behaviour, he’s bound to get it in the neck – but perhaps he has more pressing concerns to worry about…

Lust for a Vampire isn’t really very much more distinguished than its title suggests, though of course it does give good T&A (well, T, mainly). That said, there are moments which suggest a genuinely interesting film might have been made from Tudor Gates’ script, and it is worth noting that Hammer originally envisaged a movie where Ingrid Pitt reprised her role as Mircalla, Peter Cushing played the creepy school teacher, and Terence Fisher directed. As it turned out, Pitt declined to return (she made Countess Dracula instead), Cushing dropped out very late on due to his wife’s declining health, and Fisher ended up being replaced by Jimmy Sangster. For what it’s worth, Sangster and Bates do the best they can with some slightly rum material, but Stensgaard is definitely not in Ingrid Pitt’s league as an actress. The sense of a bit of a bodged job is just compounded by the producers’ decision (without the knowledge of even the director) to soundtrack the movie’s key love scene with the rather execrable pop song Strange Love.

The film falls down as badly as it does simply due to bad characterisation, poor scripting, and some uninspired performances. The fact that the protagonist is apparently an unprincipled rake who cons his way into a school in order to seduce one of the girls studying there is, well, not the sort of plot development you can imagine featuring in a modern film. It also robs the film of any overriding sense of morality – there’s no Van Helsing figure here, just a lot of people wandering about with extremely poor impulse control (they wheel on a Catholic cardinal, who just happens to be passing, for the climax). That said, it’s a fairly odd school, with much more casual nudity and implied lesbianism than one might expect to find on the curriculum. A stronger script might have made this a bit more excusable, but as it is, the film just comes across as leery.

This time around Mircalla seems a lot more interested in boys than on her initial outing, with the lesbian vampire aspects of the story toned down a bit (apparently at the behest of the BBFC). An awful lot of horror films contain not-very-thinly-veiled metaphors for and about sex, but on this occasion it looks rather like a cigar is just a cigar: you can give a rather sour interpretation to The Vampire Lovers, where lesbianism/vampirism is a scourge which must be stamped out, but in this case? Beyond the revelation that many men like blondes with large breasts, the film doesn’t have much to say for itself – it is purely exploitative in this regard.

Viewed from a modern perspective, there is a lot about Lust for a Vampire which is either creatively or morally suspect. It’s a slightly less iconoclastic vampire movie than its forebear, to be true, but most of the innovation is replaced by either half-baked melodrama or simple prurient exploitation. It entertains as a Hammer horror only really at the most basic level. Ralph Bates later regretted having anything to do with it, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I wouldn’t suggest this film to anyone but a Hammer completist.

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Is it the case that there is a hidden purpose to the universe, communicated to us only subtly and obliquely? Should we draw meaning from apparently random events happening around us every day? Personally I tend to doubt it, but you have to keep an open mind, don’t you. Quite what I am to infer from my DVD rental service sending me two Fine-Style lesbian vampire Hammer horror movies on the spin I’m not entirely sure. It may just be the guys there are going through one of their joined-up-thinking phases (still no sign of Tiptoes though, after five years of waiting).

The big difference between The Vampire Lovers (the first Fine-Style Hammer) and Lust for a Vampire (its sequel), of course, is that the first one is a vehicle for Ingrid Pitt, and the second one, well, isn’t. Ingrid Pitt’s status as one of Hammer’s big names is slightly surprising when you consider she only made two films for them, compared with the dozens featuring Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. This must partly have been due to the decline of the company as the 1970s progressed, but the fact that Pitt apparently had a very unhappy experience making the second of her Hammer movies may also have been a factor. I was surprised and slightly saddened to learn this, as the film in question – Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula, from 1971 – seems to me to be far superior to any of the Fine-Style movies.

Despite appearances, this is not part of the main sequence of Hammer’s Dracula movies, and one suspects the title is mainly there because of its marquee value. (You could argue that there’s a moment in the movie suggesting a shared continuity, but if so the characters are remarkably reluctant to cry vampire, given some of the events of the story.) Instead, it is drawn from the legend of the notorious Hungarian serial killer Elizabeth Bathory, a 17th century noblewoman implicated in the sadistic murder of anything up to six hundred victims (though most credible accounts put the figure much lower). The Hammer version of the story takes a few liberties, to say the least, and focuses on the most lurid aspects of the case.

The film’s setting is a little vague, but the producers have a decent stab at authentically creating somewhere that looks like 16th century Hungary rather than the usual generic 19th century Transylvania. (There are many spectacular hats.) Count Nadasdy has recently passed away, leaving his widow Elizabeth (Pitt) and various family retainers to discover the contents of his will. Elizabeth’s tough-love approach to managing the estate means that peasants are forever running after her carriage screaming ‘Devil woman!’, but I suspect that in medieval Hungary this just counted as strong and stable leadership.

Well, in a commendably brisk and economical bit of exposition, the premise for the film is rapidly established: an unexpected beneficiary of the will is young soldier Imre Toth (Sandor Eles), much to the chagrin of loyal old retainer Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), who had expectations of his own. Amongst these was unfettered access to the Countess herself, who despite her aged condition finds herself rather taken with Imre. Everyone settles down to await the return of the Countess’s teenage daughter (Lesley-Anne Down), whom no-one has seen since she was a small child.

And then the Countess makes an unexpected discovery, when a typical household accident results in the blood of a serving girl being splashed in her face. Say what you like about alpha-hydroxy acids and hydroquinone, it seems that nothing lifts and restores the skin like a decent spray of virgin blood. Revelling in this opportunity to become young and comely again (and with serving girls being easy to come by), Elizabeth decides to impersonate her own daughter (as you would) and let herself be wooed by Imre. But her new beauty regime is a uniquely demanding one, even with the connivance of Dobi and her maid, and how long can she keep her grisly secret?

I was talking about horror movies in a general sort of way, the other day, and I suggested that the less interesting stories of this type are basically just about the threat of something unpleasant happening to you (like being stabbed or tortured to death). The more interesting kind of horror movie concerns itself with a different class of concerns, less immediately visceral but equally universal. It seems to me that Countess Dracula is very much of this type, having such a strong and resonant central theme that I’m slightly surprised this particular story hasn’t been reworked in the forty-plus years since it first appeared.

I might even say that this is a movie which looks stronger and stronger as the years go by, for the simple reason that it is about ageing and how people come to terms with this (or, of course, don’t). For most of us the gradual decline of our bodies and appearance is one of those things that is so inevitable we take it for granted (not that this stops us worrying about it). But, if the opportunity to be young and vital again presented itself, how much would it be worth to us? What would we be prepared to sacrifice?

The movie is very open about the jealousy that the old have of the young, nor does it really shy away from the fact that this often goes hand in hand with desire. Is it socially acceptable to be attracted to someone twenty or more years younger than you? Largely not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Countess Dracula is the best kind of horror film in that it lifts up the rocks under which these uncomfortable truths lurk and examines them in its own, slightly lurid way.

Its main asset is Ingrid Pitt herself. This is a film with a notably good cast (Nigel Green, Maurice Denham, and Peter Jeffrey all feature), but it’s still Pitt’s performance that you remember at the end of it. Not only is she equally convincing as a severe old widow, a vivacious young woman, and an insane crone at various points in the narrative, but she brings genuine emotion and pathos to the character. One of the great innovations of The Vampire Lovers was to imbue its monster with emotions and vulnerabilities – Carmilla behaves and reacts much more like a human being than, say, Christopher Lee as Dracula, who has quite rightly been described as a monolith of pure evil. The same is true of the Countess here – she may be a vicious, manipulative person throughout, but she is not just a cipher or cut-out. She is never really sympathetic, but her motivations are unpleasantly understandable.

Pitt’s performance is the film’s core strength, but it also benefits from a strong set of supporting players and some impressive production designs (sets were inherited from another, slightly more mainstream costume drama). The whole thing looks and feels classy, made more distinctive still by the prominent use of what’s surely a zither on the soundtrack.

In the end, perhaps it’s a bit too classy – or perhaps too economical with the exposition at the start. There’s a definite sense of the film running out of things to say and do well before its somewhat understated climax, and even then it seems to be positioning itself more as a psychological horror movie than one of Hammer’s typical supernatural fantasies. There are not the gallons of Kensington Gore you might expect from Hammer’s take on the Bathory legend, for the film is fairly restrained in this regard – ‘It needed more cruelty, throat slashing, blood hounds, blood!’ was Pitt’s own opinion in later years. The money shot of the film, when it arrives, is much more concerned with Ingrid Pitt’s nudity than it is with the fact she’s supposedly bathing in human blood.

Still, there is much to appreciate here, for all that a little more colour and energy wouldn’t have done it any harm. In the end Countess Dracula is a memorably chilly and slightly uncomfortable film to watch, with a very strong central performance and a compelling metaphor at the heart of the story. A superior film from Hammer’s early 70s output.

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Early in 1995, I think, my local art house cinema ran an extremely short season of vampire movies – if you can call two movies a season, anyway. One of these was Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, which is a very untraditional example of the subgenre – I went to see it and rather liked it, unlike a friend of mine, who admitted she was only interested in vampire movies that were sexy. The other one was – a bit of a curve ball – Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, then about to enjoy its diamond anniversary. I can barely bring myself to admit it, but I passed up this opportunity to enjoy a Hammer horror revival on the big screen – it wouldn’t happen these days, obviously. I’ve no idea if my friend went along to see The Vampire Lovers, but if she did I imagine she would have been well satisfied, for this is definitely intended to be one of the sexy vampire movies.

The story, such as it is, opens in properly Gothic style with a portentous narration from Douglas Wilmer, playing a magnificently bewigged vampire hunter. The vampires in this movie are a weird, almost spiritual menace, though they still sleep in coffins some of the time and are strangely attached to their shrouds. Wilmer has an axe to grind, as his family has already suffered from the attentions of the undead. A predictably comely young bloodsucker shows up (played by Kirsten Lindholm, an extremely attractive young woman in a movie not short on them) only to get her head chopped off almost straight away. So it goes sometimes.

Inasmuch as any of what follows makes rational sense, we may surmise that the rest of the film is set some years later. The first section of the film basically constitutes another prologue, greatly extended this time, telling of how General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) comes to take into his home a mysterious and alluring young woman named Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt). Marcilla becomes very close to the General’s niece Laura (Pippa Steel), which may or may not have something to do with Laura’s sudden and rapid decline and death under mysterious circumstances, accompanied by some rather suggestive nightmares, not to mention vampire bites about the chest region.

It’s perhaps more rewarding to consider The Vampire Lovers as a succession of impressionistic set pieces than as a conventional narrative. It certainly goes some way to excusing repetitiveness of some of the plotting, as all the above essentially starts to happen again, only in the home of an Englishman named Morton (George Cole) – quite what Morton is doing in Austria in the early 19th century is never really established, nor is what language everyone is speaking, but I digress. Morton likewise finds himself taking Marcilla into his home, except now she is going by the name Carmilla. She seems just as keen on the company of Morton’s daughter Emma (Madeline Smith) as she was on Laura, too, despite the misgivings of her governess (Kate O’Mara). Is history about to repeat itself? Will handsome local lad Carl (Jon Finch) realise what’s going on, and will Peter Cushing come back for the climax of the movie?

As you can perhaps tell, narrative rigour is not The Vampire Lovers’ strongest suit, for not only is it rather repetitive, it doesn’t really bother to keep the audience in the picture when it comes to some fairly basic plot elements, such as what’s actually going on. It seems to be the case that Wilmer’s vampire hunting at the start of the film was not that thorough, and at least one (and possibly more) of the beasties has returned, many years later, to ravage the daughters of the local aristocracy. But who is the mother of Marcilla (or Carmilla)? Is she a vampire too? Who, for that matter, is the Man in Black who occasionally pops up to survey Carmilla’s (or Marcilla’s) doings with such evident satisfaction? Both of them disappear out of the film without explanation.

An uncharitable viewer might conclude that the film is less concerned with trivial things like coherent plotting than it is with Ingrid Pitt getting her kit off and sinking her fake fangs into the necks and bosoms of various other cast members (many stories of said fangs falling out and having to be retrieved from the cleavage of Kate O’Mara by enthusiastic prop hands are in circulation). The film is very much a product of its time, an exploitation movie in the truest sense – calculated to fully exploit the more liberal censorship regime which came into force in 1970, by including more explicit nudity and gore than had been possible in previous Hammer horror movies. This is certainly a much more lurid film than anything from the company’s 1960s output.

How much of this new direction was forced upon Hammer by the general decline of the British industry and how much by the film’s producers, Harry Fine and Michael Style, is a bit unclear – another oddity of the film is that it is, uniquely, a co-production between Hammer and American International Pictures (noted makers of some of Vincent Price’s best horror films) – you would have to be a bit imaginative to see this film as a true synthesis of the two company’s styles, though.

Apart from the decision to go in a more brazenly exploitative direction, The Vampire Lovers’ greatest innovation is the casting of Ingrid Pitt in its main role. Pitt is a world away from the typical decorative, fragile Hammer starlet – she has a powerful, mature presence, and is a better actress than you might assume. Of course, she’s quite obviously considerably older than the character she’s meant to be playing, not to mention the young girls upon whom she preys (Pitt was over 30 when she made the movie), but this is excusable in the circumstances: it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

The various scenes of Ingrid Pitt wafting about graveyards in something diaphanous with a plunging neckline have acquired a certain iconic quality of their own, and it’s easy to see why she’s just as much a Hammer icon as Cushing or Christopher Lee, despite only appearing in a couple of films for the company. That said, it’s equally easy to discern a little discomfort on the part of film-makers when it comes to making a film about such a powerful, sexually aggressive woman – in the end, of course, it’s a gaggle of middle-aged men who end her reign of slightly kinky terror, but even before this, it’s strongly implied that Carmilla (etc) is really the pawn of the Man in Black and not nearly as independent a woman as she might seem.

It would be slightly ridiculous to try and claim The Vampire Lovers as some kind of feminist movie, anyway, given it was largely designed to incorporate as much soft-core lesbianism and nudity as Hammer could possibly get away with. These days it seems mostly rather tame, and as a result the shortcomings of the plot are laid as bare as the younger female members of the cast. But there is the reliable pleasure of a Peter Cushing performance to consider, and the perhaps unexpected one of Ingrid Pitt’s performance, too. In the end this is a landmark movie in the history of Hammer horror, regardless of how good or not you think the film actually is.

 

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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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