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I expect there is not much of a family resemblance between myself and any of my great-grandparents, none of whom I could honestly tell you very much about. So it probably shouldn’t be very surprising that the archetypal modern zombie film, exponents of which have been lurching all over the pop-cultural landscape on a regular basis for nearly two decades now, should have very little in common with the first films to cover this same kind of material. The watershed moment in the history of zombie cinema came when George Romero saw Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies in 1966 or 1967 and pondered what would happen if the undead workforce in that film got out of control. (The result was, of course, Night of the Living Dead.) Prior to this point, zombie films were mostly steeped in the lore of the culture that created the legend – namely, that of the Caribbean and the voodoo religion practised by the plantation workers there.

The award for first ever zombie film is usually given to White Zombie, from 1932, which seems to have a mixed critical reputation, and was followed by a sequel, Revolt of the Zombies, which seems to be unanimously agreed to be awful. Still in the same milieu, but enjoying rather more acclaim, is Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, made in 1943 and another product of RKO’s horror film unit under the leadership of Val Lewton.

It almost goes without saying that this American movie, made in 1943, seems completely oblivious of the war gripping most of the world at the time it was made. Frances Dee plays Betsy Connell,  a nurse who as the film opens is resident in a chilly-looking Canada. However, a change is on the cards as she is hired to go and live on the remote Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. One of the plantation owners there, Paul Holland (Tom Conway), needs a nurse to care for his wife, who has been struck down by a strange affliction that has left her unable to speak and with no will of her own. Betsy is initially quite impressed by the beauty of her surroundings, but Paul is quick to disabuse her of any romantic thoughts she may be having – ‘There’s no beauty here, only death and decay… everything good dies here!’ he declares, which hardly constitutes making the new hire feel comfortable.

Betsy rapidly realises that there are tensions between Holland and his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), and possibly even between the men and their mother (Edith Barrett): Rand has a drink problem, for one thing, which Holland seems disinclined to do anything about. Clues to the reasons for this come when Frances overhears a local calypso singer (credited as ‘Sir Lancelot’) singing a scurrilous ditty about Holland’s wife having an affair with Rand. You would not have thought the calypso to be a musical style which particularly leant itself to the delivery of ominous exposition, but the effect here is striking, particularly when Lancelot bears gravely down on Dee, strumming and calypsoing all the while.

Things get a bit melodramatic as Betsy decides that, for no comprehensible reason whatsoever, she has fallen in love with Holland, and selflessly resolves to see if his wife can be cured (the wife is played by Christine Gordon, by the way, who gets no dialogue and just has to waft eerily about the place in a white dress). When modern medical science fails, Betsy looks further afield, having become somewhat fascinated by the local tales of voodoo and the ceaseless drumming that drifts through the island night…

As mentioned, this is about as unlike a modern zombie movie as you can get, stylistically at least: the film was apparently inspired by a factual magazine article written by one Inez Wallace (the mind does boggle somewhat). However, the initial script was heavily rewritten, not least by Val Lewton himself, and one of the changes was to base the story on (of all things) the plot of Jane Eyre. There you go: the role of the Bronte sisters in the evolution of modern horror laid bare (to say nothing of the fact that this film is a great deal better than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so eat your heart out, Jane Austen).

To be honest, the similarities between I Walked with a Zombie and Jane Eyre don’t extend much beyond the basic premise of the story – Betsy is obviously Jane, Holland is Rochester, and the mad woman in the attic is replaced by one of the living dead – but this remains a classy, thoughtful movie. The real strength is in the atmosphere of the piece, which is powerful and well-maintained throughout. There are many effective sequences, not the least of them the one in which Betsy leads Holland’s wife through the night to a voodoo gathering, encountering the disquieting figure of a man who may be an actual zombie along the way.

This is only the second product of Lewton’s tenure at the RKO horror unit (after Cat People) but already you can make out some themes developing: both films are essentially melodramas, built around an interesting female protagonist, and both couple rich atmospheres to a finely-judged sense of ambiguity. There is little in the way of explicit horror, no cack-handed make-up, and it always feels as if the possibility that there is no supernatural element to the events of the film remains on the table, so much is implied or left suggestive.

Is Mrs Holland indeed a genuine zombie, or simply the victim of an infection which has affected her nervous system? If she is one of the walking dead, how did she get that way? The questions slowly accumulate and while the film certainly seems to have its own ideas about what is happening, it doesn’t attempt to impose them on the viewer, except perhaps at the very end. The defining characteristic of the horror genre is surely nothing to do with setting, style or subject matter, but the effect the film has on the viewer, and the success of I Walked with a Zombie comes not from its characterisation or plotting, but the disquieting atmosphere the film generates and sustains. This probably counts as a very atypical zombie film by any modern standard, but it is still an impressive movie.

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It strikes me that there are very many worse job titles to have than ‘head of horror unit’. Holding this post was the fortunate position that the writer and producer Val Lewton found himself in in the early 1940s, when he was working for the American film studio RKO. The job only came with three provisos: all the films Lewton oversaw had to be no longer than 75 minutes, they had to cost less than $150,000, and they had to use titles provided to Lewton by his bosses. Call those strictures? That just sounds like fun to me.

The films Lewton ended up producing may not have packed quite the same cultural wallop as the horror cycle which Universal was midway through at the same time, but they do have a certain style and class which most of the later Universal movies are really lacking in. They are, in general, artier and more subtle, with less reliance on special effects and make-up to do their thing. In some ways, though, Lewton’s work has been just as influential as those other movies, name recognition or not.

The first fruit of the horror unit under Lewton was the 1942 movie Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur. Cats are, not surprisingly, something of a motif in this film, which opens at the zoo. (This is one of those odd American films from the early 1940s which stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the fact it was made in the middle of a global war.) Just outside the panther cage, we are witness to a meet-cute between well-to-do marine designer Oliver Reed (a name which is a little more snigger-worthy now than it was at the time), who is played by Kent Smith, and illustrator Irena Dubrovna, played by Simone Simon. Irena is supposedly Serbian, which the French Simon opts to indicate by doing a sort of generic European accent.

Well, Reed and Irena hit it off, and sure enough she is soon telling him stories of her charming homeland, much of which seems to have been inhabited by devil-worshipping witches with the power to turn into savage big cats when they got riled (perfectly ordinary first date conversation fodder, if you ask me). The romance proceeds swimmingly, possibly because Oliver seems permanently distracted and doesn’t notice things like the entire population of a pet shop going into a terrified frenzy the moment Irena walks through the door. Soon enough (because, after all, the whole movie has to be finished in under 75 minutes) they are engaged, which is a heavy blow for Oliver’s assistant Alice (Jane Randolph), who bears a not-especially-secret torch for him.

The only problem is that Irena is convinced that the blood of the ancient cat-women flows through her own veins, and if her darker side is roused – by, say, her new husband kissing her or doing something even more intimate – she will turn into a cat and rip his head off. I think it is fair to say that few marriages would prosper under such circumstances. At Alice’s suggestion, Irena is sent to frankly dubious psychiatrist Dr Judd (Tom Conway) – but can this really do any good? And how will Irena’s growing jealousy of Oliver and Alice’s obvious closeness manifest itself?

Cat People did well enough to earn a sequel and a remake (made by Paul Schrader in 1982, with Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell), and it is usually assured of at least a mention in any serious discussion of the development of the craft of the horror movie. (This is due to the fact it introduced a couple of tropes to the genre – ‘The Walk’, represented by the scene in which Randolph is stalked through a park by something unseen but malevolent, and ‘The Bus’, in which tension is suddenly defused by a ‘false alarm’ moment (the air brakes of said vehicle sound momentarily like the hiss of a cat).) So you would expect this to be a superior and classy horror film.

Superior and classy it certainly is, but I’m just not sure if it really works as a horror movie for a modern audience. Parts of Cat People have not aged well, if we’re honest, and it is if anything too refined and ambiguous to really meet the standards of the genre. The briefness of the movie results in it only having four significant characters. Irena is an interesting attempt at creating a genuinely ambiguous character – she is initially quite sympathetic, an impression which is gradually dispelled as the story progresses. However, Judd turns out to be an arrogant tool, and unprofessional to the point of complete sleaziness as well. I’m still not sure if he’s less sympathetic than Oliver himself, who comes across as bland and self-satisfied. He obviously has a good job, women are falling all over him, and at one point Kent Smith is required to bewail the fact that never in his life has he ever really felt unhappy before. This sort of thing is not guaranteed to get the audience on-side with a character. Only Alice comes across as someone you’d generally want to spend time with – she’s the kind of plucky character who’d get called a brick in a British film – and you do wonder what she’s doing falling uselessly in love with someone like Oliver Reed.

Still, coming across dodgy handling of female characters is par for the course with this kind of old movie, and it does not take a psychology graduate to recognise that this is a film with a somewhat dubious subtext. Lurking within some women, it seems to be suggesting, is a savage, out of control beast, prone to vicious fits of jealousy. Irena isn’t afflicted with her curse in the course of the story in the way that Lon Chaney Jr is in The Wolf Man; she was born with it, intrinsically compromised. You could argue it is about the male fear of female desire, a very characteristic psycho-sexual undertone for this kind of film, and one which is handled reasonably subtly.

All this has to build up to something, though, and it’s here that the film may fall down for modern audiences. Jane Randolph’s initial encounters with something unseen but hostile are well-mounted, but – with some justification – you are expectating some kind of money shot before the end of the film. Imagine a werewolf movie where you not only never got to see the transformation, you barely got to see the beastie – many viewers would be crying foul, I think. And that is essentially what happens here.

You can certainly understand Lewton and Tourneur’s preference for subtlety and implication over hiring one of the Westmore family to glue cat ears onto Simone Simon, but the end of the film still slightly feels like it isn’t delivering in terms of solid scares and dramatic resolution. There are clearly significant and symbolically important things going on, but it still feels like it is being just a bit too subtle and understated for its own good. Nevertheless, Cat People is a very competently-made movie with an unusual degree of psychological depth for the early forties; it may not much look like the modern definition of a horror movie, but you can see why it is still remembered today.

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If you knew where to look, over the Christmas and New Year just gone there was something of an embarrassment of riches in terms of adaptations of Dracula: the (unfairly obscure, if you ask me) 1968 ITV version with Denholm Elliott turned up on Talking Pictures TV just before the holidays properly got going, the original Hammer Dracula from 1958 materialised on the Horror Channel late on Christmas night itself, while forming one of the main planks of the BBC’s New Year scheduling was a brand new take on the story, from the team behind Sherlock. You can see why this would seem like a logical and even obvious fit: another one of the most famous characters to come out of popular Victorian literature, the subject of many previous adaptations, yet one which has not been the subject of major attention in quite a few years. This is before we even consider co-writer Mark Gatiss’ well-documented love of the macabre and morbid.

Recently, here or hereabouts, I have devoted some attention to the question of just how faithful literary adaptations should try to be, with the conclusions that you should at least try to bring the essence of the original to the screen, but still be wary of slavish faithfulness. When it comes to Dracula, however, things are more complicated: there is the Dracula everyone knows and expects, and then there is Stoker’s actual novel, which is a distinctly different beast. The former is derived from the latter, but as it has found its way into each new medium – theatre, cinema, TV – it has shifted, changed, acquired new imagery and resonances. Which is the ‘real’ Dracula? The well-known, iconic one, familiar to the point of contemptibility, or the actual source novel, something much odder and more surprising?

Moffat and Gatiss’ Dracula very nearly starts out looking like they’re going to do the novel ‘straight’, with young Englishman Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) turning up at Castle Dracula in 1897, intent on concluding some business with the reclusive count who occupies it. I would imagine that those in the viewing audience not familiar with Stoker (almost certainly the majority) were probably somewhat thrown by the initial conceit that Dracula first appears as an old man, who gradually rejuvenates himself by gorging on human blood (Harker’s, in this case). But it is the audience as well as Harker who may be being lulled into a false sense of security, for soon enough the story departs from the novel and becomes a Contemporary BBC Drama rather than a Prestige Costume Production.

You know the sort of thing I mean, I suspect: 19th century Budapest is required to be as diverse as 21st century London, because for some reason an adaptation of a book first published in 1897 has to be representative of the present day. Given the track record of these writers, I suppose we must be grateful that they decided to leave Dracula himself as a man – it’s got to the point where I accept the presence of a female Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) as just one of those inevitable modern things.

Then again, where does the boundary lie between making creative choices in adapting the book and simply messing it about in order to satisfy the omnipresent modern sensibility? In this case it is genuinely a little difficult to tell. Certainly they soon abandon the narrative of the novel in all but the broadest sense, resulting in something instantly recognisable as a Steven Moffat script: conjurer’s performance and sketch show in equal measure, all about the big set piece and the clever reveal, with things like logic and cohesion only of a secondary importance (and maybe not even that). The result is a series that varie hugely from episode to episode, and even within them – the final third of the first installment abruptly departs from the book and becomes about Dracula attempting to get into a convent. The second episode riffs on events left implied by Stoker himself, turning into a very odd inversion of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, while the third…

I understand the third episode has proved controversial and even a touch divisive, mainly because of the way it uproots the story so dramatically from its origins. Personally I saw it coming, although this may be because I was keeping tabs on this production and heard rumours to the effect that the writers considered the entire canon of Dracula movies and so on fair game as source material: even the early 70s Hammer films, which are a curious mixed bag, and which certainly seem to be the main inspiration here.

Personally I found it was only in the third episode that the new Dracula found its feet as something more than an extended series of winks at the camera from the writers. There is something genuinely intriguing and exciting about unleashing a character from Victorian fiction into such a modern milieu: there are certainly many more possibilities than the series managed to explore in the not much more than an hour available to handle the ‘Dracula in the present day’ section of the story. Dracula is a lens through which you can find a new perspective on many things: attitudes to sex, to death, to race and immigration, and so on. Using it to present a five-hundred-year-old warlord’s responses to modern society is in the best traditions of adapting Dracula. It honestly felt like a genuine shame that all the present-day material was crammed into the final third of the series; I would rather have seen much more of it in modern dress (Stoker chose to set his novel in the present day (as he saw it), so it does make sense for adaptations to do the same – though there is a problem with this, which we shall come to).

So I found this Dracula to be a bit of a curate’s egg, perhaps a bit too knowing to really satisfy. It notably dodged addressing the issue affecting any present-day Dracula – our whole conception of the vampire as an archetype is informed and perhaps defined by the popular image of Dracula (the caped aristocrat, vulnerable to crucifixes and sunlight). Had Stoker not written the book, that concept would be hugely different, if it even existed. Or, to give a more specific example: at one point in the final episode, Dracula sends someone a text including the vampire emoji, which is based on the image of Bela Lugosi-as-Dracula. But where did that emoji come from, in a world where Dracula is a real person?

But onto the good things, not least of which is the sheer fact that this was the BBC spending millions of poinds on a genuine piece of prime-time horror. Obviously this was a lavish production, with capable direction and some good supporting performances. I particularly enjoyed Mark Gatiss’ typically droll turn as Renfield, as you might expect, and also Claes Bang’s performance as Dracula himself (a very shrewd piece of casting: an experienced, mature actor with obvious charisma, but also essentially unknown to Anglophone audiences). Bang managed to find the menace and horror in the character even when the script required not much more than glib flippancy. One preview suggested that Bang was channelling Roger Moore’s James Bond, which was not unfair but overlooks the real similarities between Dracula and Bond: both are homicidal ladykillers (sometimes literally) who enjoy the finer things in life, and seem able to turn their hands to just about anything with remarkable success. Hardly anyone apart from Christopher Lee has played Dracula more than once (which may be why Lee remains so connected with the role), but it would be good to see Claes Bang given another outing.

Of course, it may be that Moffat and Gatiss feel that they’ve given their version of the story now. Certainly the ending, while possibly a little anticlimactic, had a sense of finality about it, resolving Dracula as a character. Perhaps in the end this is the most distinctive thing about their take: they attempt to dig into Dracula and find out what makes him work as a genuine character, rather than simply treating him as a monolithic icon of evil surrounded by various arcane traditions and ‘rules’. Whatever you may make of the results, I think the attempt is worthy of credit, even if whatever praise it receives must be somewhat qualified.

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You have to admire the nerve shown by the producers of Mystery and Imagination in doing adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula in the same year, especially when the year in question was 1968. If that wasn’t quite the point of peak Hammer Horror, it was certainly thereabouts: the company released Dracula Has Risen From the Grave that year, while it was also the off-year between Frankenstein Created Woman and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Beyond the marquee value of the names of these two most well-known Gothic novels, one wonders if there was any further motivation for doing them – some puritanical impulse to strip them of their Hammer trappings and restore them to their place as Classic Literature, perhaps?

There have been a fearful number of Frankensteins and a dreadful number of Draculas down the years, so the same question applies to the Mystery version of Dracula as to their Frankenstein – how to justify it? What makes it a worthwhile addition to the canon? Doing it as a largely studio-bound, black-and-white video-taped production also brings with it a set of additional challenges. Perhaps because of this, this hardly qualifies as an attempt at doing the novel faithfully – but there is a certain fidelity to Stoker, as we shall see.

The play (directed by Patrick Dromgoole) opens in an asylum somewhere in the Whitby area, where a mysterious inmate (the actor Corin Redgrave in a fright wig) is pleading for water from the attendants. But this is just a ruse, and the madman breaks free from his straitjacket and crashes a party being held upstairs by the proprietor, Dr Seward (James Maxwell). Present are local grande dame Mrs Weston (Joan Hickson) and her strikingly nubile daughter Lucy (Susan George). Less nubile and more noble is another guest, an exiled Eastern European aristocrat who has recently arrived in the area – Count Dracula!

Dracula is played by Denholm Elliott, who would normally seem to be cast against type, were it not that Dracula here is to some extent written against type. Eloquent, bearded, and occasionally wearing dark glasses, such is Elliott’s charisma that his sway over weaker-willed locals seems entirely understandable. The madman is packed off to his cell and Dracula continues to charm his hosts, especially Lucy. Seward remains somewhat sceptical about this new figure on the local scene.

However, the mystery of the lunatic deepens with the appearance of Mina Harker (Suzanne Neve), whose husband Jonathan has disappeared while on a business trip to Transylvania to visit Castle Dracula. Seward has called in his old mentor Doctor Van Helsing (Bernard Archard) to consult, and it transpires that the madman in the asylum is indeed Harker, left unhinged by his experiences abroad (there is a brief, filmed flashback to the goings-on at the castle, and very evocative it is too). But why does Harker call Dracula ‘Master’? Why does Dracula profess not to know who the inmate is? And could it all have anything to do with Lucy suddenly coming down with a bad case of anaemia?

As you can perhaps surmise, Charles Graham’s adaptation performs brisk, reasonable surgery on the sprawling source novel, limiting the setting almost entirely to Whitby and the time period to a few nights. (You do miss the London scenes a bit, to say nothing of Transylvania, but the budget is clearly demandingly limited.) The roles of Renfield and Harker are combined, which makes a certain sense as Harker rarely gets anything interesting to do, while Quincey and Arthur are dropped from the story entirely; I have to confess I didn’t miss them at all.

So it’s a cut-down Dracula but still a surprisingly effective one. What we are left with is a potent brew of graveyards, sex, and outraged Victorian sensibilities, so you could certainly argue that the essentials of the story have certainly survived. This could never have been as lavishly lurid as one of the Christopher Lee movies Hammer were doing at the time, but then for all their definite pleasures those films are so often a kind of schlock pantomime. Bereft of eye-catching production values, this version of Dracula is obliged to dig down into the text and actually engage with it in order to work.

But does it succeed? It is certainly a strikingly different version of this much-told fable. Elliott is certainly a very distinctive Dracula, employing his legendary scene-stealing abilities to full effect. You can imagine Christopher Lee grinding his fake teeth in fury as Dracula is actually given dialogue drawn from Stoker’s novel to deliver, which Elliott does with predictable aplomb. Whether the decision to give him rat-like incisor teeth rather than the traditional canine fangs is justified is probably a question of personal taste; the way that Dracula summons up his mesmeric powers by basically just screwing up his eyes and squinting at people is the only real element of Elliott’s performance which definitely feels a bit dud.

You would expect him to have a formidable opponent in the form of Bernard Archard: an actor capable of being mesmeric himself, given the right script and direction. Here, though, Van Helsing’s fake beard is the least of his problems. Rather than the smooth, unflappable savant that Peter Cushing invariably played, Archard’s Van Helsing is a bit rough around the edges and eminently flappable. The play decides to stick with Van Helsing being Dutch, but the good doctor’s battle against the undead is nothing compared to Archard’s struggle to get the accent right. We end up with another one of those vocal Grand Tours: Van Helsing may start off coming from Amsterdam, but at various points in the play he seems to be a native of Pontypool before finally settling on being from somewhere near Karachi. But on the whole Archard is quite acceptable despite this.

The play is mostly well-performed, anyway, especially by Susan George and Suzanne Neve. It is they in particular who make you realise just how bland and inappropriately bloodless most of the sex in the Hammer Dracula movies feels: the women tend to do a lot of limp sighing before quietly yielding to Christopher Lee. Here, there is a genuine erotic charge to the scenes between Dracula and his victims: in this sense at least, the play is a lot more explicit about the nature of the metaphor, for all that it contains no nudity and relatively little gore. The women are given real agency, too: Lucy is clearly dead keen on having a fling with their new neighbour, while Mina likewise seems almost to be an active participant, consciously choosing to become undead.

It all builds up to a final semi-twist in the tale – I say semi-twist because it is so understated, or perhaps just slightly fluffed by the script and direction, that it’s not entirely clear whether this is an intentional thing or not. It’s certainly not enough to spoil one of the better adaptations of Dracula that I have seen. Most attempts just take the premise and ditch as much of the plot as they feel they can get away with, but this one does seem to be making a genuine effort. It keeps enough of the traditional trappings to be recognisable and familiar, but isn’t afraid to try new and different things – even when being new and different means going back to the original book. A worthwhile piece of vampirology.

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Arriving back on a high-number channel like something out of the dark age (a previous one, not the current one), it’s Mystery and Imagination, an anthology series adapting classic horror and supernatural stories. This series was made from 1966 to 1970, so it comes as relatively little surprise to learn that most of the episodes have been junked, with only the last couple of series still surviving. Still, there is some interesting stuff here, such as the series’ take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This was originally shown in November 1968 and directed by someone billing himself as Voytek (which sounds a little pretentious until you learn his real name was Wojciech Roman Pawel Jerzy Szendzikowski, at which point it starts to seem like an eminently sensible idea).

There have, obviously, been very many adaptations of Frankenstein over the years, and this is before we even contemplate the colossal influence the novel has exerted on the science-fiction genre of which some would argue it was the main inaugurator. The question is, how do you make your own version of it stand out from the rest of the crowd? The obvious answer is also a very strange one: do the story from the actual novel, as it has never actually been properly attempted.

Well, the Mystery and Imagination adaptation isn’t exactly this, but it does come closer than most. All the material on the ice sheet at the North Pole has been cut, no doubt for budgetary reasons, but Victor Frankenstein is a relatively youthful student in early 19th century Geneva, not a baron with his own castle. Frankenstein is played by Ian Holm, whom I would suggest is not the most obvious choice for the role, but as he is Ian Holm he gives a strong performance (or set of performances; stay tuned). As he is supposedly a student of philosophy, the medical faculty can’t quite figure out why he is always lurking near the post mortem slabs, but the play quite sensibly doesn’t hang around and quickly confirms that Frankenstein has his own hubristic little project in mind.

Shelley, wisely, does not go into detail as to how Frankenstein achieves the thing he is most notorious for, but the play is sort of obliged to, and here we do find some of the stock features of Frankenstein-as-it-is-popularly-perceived starting to appear: Frankenstein acquires a hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (played by Ron Pember), who obligingly robs graves for him. No-one is attempting to do a Swiss-German accent, thankfully, but it is still slightly odd to hear the cor-blimey-guv’nor deliver of the members of the lower orders – then again, this is practically a genre convention of Hammer Horror films, so one should not cavill too much about it here.

Soon enough the lightning crackles (another inheritance from Hollywood Frankensteins) and Frankenstein’s creation twitches into life. (He is billed as ‘The Being’, rather than ‘Monster’ or ‘Creature’.) As the bandages come off, two things rapidly become apparent – firstly, the play’s fidelity to the novel is going to be moderate, at best, for rather than the almost-beautiful giant that Shelley describes, the Being is another patchwork man, heavily stitched together. He is also a bit on the short side, for the second thing to become apparent is that someone in the production has had a Big Idea: the Being is also going to be played by Ian Holm.

While the viewer is still digesting this, the play continues with its somewhat mediated take on the events of the novel. I have to say that there does seem to be some merit to this approach, as there are elements of Frankenstein which frankly strain credulity to the limit – most obviously, the sequence where the Creature learns to speak and read by hiding in a shed and spying on a peasant family living in the hovel next door. Nevertheless, the bit with the Creature and the blind man is one of the things everyone has come to expect, and they duly do it here.

With this out of the way, the play continues to be relatively faithful to the book, up to a point: the murders of William (known here as Wilhelm) and Justine are retained, and the Being does make its usual demand of Frankenstein that he provide it with a female counterpart – although they don’t set this part of the story in the Orkneys. The big question is, with the frame story concerning Captain Walton cut, how are they going to conclude the story?

Well, the ending isn’t awful, but then nor is it fantastic, either. This seems to me to be a reasonable description of Mystery and Imagination‘s take on Frankenstein as a whole. You can tell it’s a fairly lavish production by the standards of 1960s TV, with a reasonable amount of filming included, and Voytek’s direction is capable. You do get a sense that they really did want to do the book by-the-book, but the budget just wasn’t there for all the stuff with sailing ships at the North Pole, and that they may also have had half an eye on meeting audience expectations – hence the scarred, bandaged Being and the use of elements from other adaptations.

Then again, there is the oddity of the double-up casting of Holm as both Frankenstein and Being. You kind of have to have a Big Idea if you’re going to do Frankenstein nowadays – sometimes the big idea can be interesting (exploring the story’s connection with Romanticism), but all too often it turns out to be dreadful (turning the Creature into a superhero, or making Igor the hunchback the main character). The big idea here at least has the virtue of virtually guaranteeing the Being has a strong level of articulacy and agency within the story – the story is, after all, ultimately about the relationship between these two characters, and by turning one of them into a mute brute you lose most of the potential for subtlety and thoughtfulness inherent in that. I suppose that in the end it does work and has a certain power to it, for it certainly plays up the notion of Frankenstein playing God, making his creation in his own image. Holm’s performance as the Being is okay, although the script requires him to go from being icily articulate to sounding like someone recovering from a stroke seemingly at random.

Unfortunately the double-up casting is about the only really distinctive thing about this version of Frankenstein. It’s well-made and well-performed, but it feels like the story is being treated as a rather grisly costume drama rather than a genuine piece of horror or science-fiction. It could use a few more ideas, and a bit more willingness to explore them. Its very respectfulness towards the source makes it a little too cautious to completely succeed.

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The film buyers at the UK branch of the Horror Channel have been busy again: this month’s bunch of ‘channel premieres’ even includes a lot of films you could unequivocally describe as belonging to the horror genre, which isn’t always the case. (They are only allowed to show actual horror movies and TV shows after 9pm at night, which leaves the question of what to put on for the other thirteen hours every day that the channel is transmitting. Much of this time feels like it’s filled with commercials for incontinence-concealing underwear – which you might think was an appropriate fit for what’s theoretically the scariest channel on TV, but it doesn’t quite feel that way – while most of the rest of it is occupied with repeats of different versions of Star Trek, unsuccessful-when-new shows like seaQuest and Space: 1999, and drecky Sci Fi channel movies with names like Megaconda and Annihilation: Earth.) This month they have picked up two of the Child’s Play sequels (definitely horror) and Tower Block (yet another low-budget British horror film). There also seems to have been a job lot of John Carpenter movies on offer, for they are also showing Starman (really much more of an SF romance) and his version of Village of the Damned (originally released in 1995).

Of course, John Carpenter is one of those people who deserves a regular slot on the Horror Channel (I would say the same about George Romero and Terence Fisher, amongst others), even though he is one of those people who… well, I’m not going to say he did his career backwards, because in the time-honoured fashion he started off with a brilliant film-school project (which, he acknowledged, did perhaps not look quite so brilliant as an actual movie), then did a low-budget horror film which turned out to be a money spinner, and so on. The thing is that after a few years of producing generally effective movies like The Fog and Escape from New York, he made The Thing: quite possibly one of his best films, but a major disappointment at the box office. Something seems to have gone horribly wrong at this point, for one can only describe his career post-The Thing in terms of managed decline: occasional flashes of inspiration, but a lot of unimaginative, undisciplined hack-work as well.

Still, his name carries enough clout to make it above the title of most of his movies (they are named on screen as John Carpenter’s…) and I suppose there remains the faint possibility of him actually making another really good movie at some point. People probably thought this about Village of the Damned, back in 1995, too. Like The Thing, this is an example of Carpenter giving his own take on a well-remembered film from years past – in this case, the 1960 movie of the same name, directed by Wolf Rilla.

The film opens with various panoramic shots of… well, here’s the thing. The movie is called, obviously, Village of the Damned, but the story has been transplanted to Northern California. Do they even have villages there? Is the term in common use? Because Midwich, as presented here, certainly looks more like a small town than anything else (we should probably not really dwell on whether Midwich is an authentic Californian place name). Anyway, various panoramic shots of the sea and the town, accompanied by what’s intended to be an eerie whispering sound. The implication is obviously that an unearthly force is swooping down onto the place. Unfortunately, despite the sound of the whispering, the noise of the helicopter which took these shots is still quite audible on the soundtrack, making the film seem clumsy right from the start.

The other versions of this story basically start in media res, but Carpenter opts to introduce a few characters before it all kicks off: so we meet stalwart town doctor Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve), schoolteacher Jill (Linda Kozlowski), town preacher Reverend George (Mark Hamill), and various others. It’s a lovely day for the school fete, although Alan, like Jill’s husband, has to drive out of town for a bit. While he is out of Midwich, something very strange happens as everyone simultaneously faints – even the pets and the local cattle. The effect seems strictly localised, but the authorities are somewhat flummoxed as hazmat suits and respirators give no protection. One of the first people to encounter the barrier was Jill’s husband, who crashed his truck and died as a result. This sort of weirdness in the mid-1990s obviously occasions a visit by black-clad government operatives, and on this occasion they are represented by Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley) as a doctor from the CDC.

After six hours or so the knockout effect lifts and the town seems to go back to normal (for the most part: there has been some collateral damage someone collapsed onto the barbecue at the fete, although seems to have been included so Carpenter can include a grisly ‘shock’ moment). The really weird thing only becomes apparent a few weeks later, when Chaffee learns he is about to become a father. That’s good news, isn’t it? Well, the doc is not so sure, as lots of other women having been showing up at his surgery in the early stages of pregnancy, including one who is pretty sure she’s a virgin and another who has not been active in that capacity for over a year. All the conceptions seem to date back to the day of the blackout.

In the end there are ten mystery pregnancies (down on the sixty or so in the novel, but I guess there were budgetary concerns) and all the women give birth simultaneously in a hastily converted barn. There are nine live births, with the other child being whisked off sharpish by a shocked-looking Dr Verner (needless to say there is another reveal later on concerning this). The children of the blackout grow quickly, and appear eerily similar, with silver hair. They seem remarkably composed for children, and always seem to get their own way. But then some people just can’t resist kids, especially when they have glowing eyes and psychic powers…

I have written before of my love of John Wyndham’s work, especially the ‘big four’ novels of which The Midwich Cuckoos is one. It is, at heart, a story about a very unusual alien invasion – or, at the very least, an alien visitation. However, Wyndham studiously avoids giving easy answers as to quite what the agenda of the force behind the alien births is, preferring to explore his usual themes of the co-existence (or not) of different forms of consciousness, and the ethics of survival. He disguises all this in a very English and understated story of life in a country village, with – initially at least – a lot of ambiguity as to exactly what is going on. (The Children look a little exotic, but they don’t wear platinum wigs and their eyes don’t light up; they can project their will onto others, but don’t actually read minds.)

The 1960 version of the film is less understated and more straightforward: Wyndham’s narrator vanishes from the story, the number of children is reduced, and they are given the mind-reading power which facilitates a more dramatic ending to the story. The script overseen by Carpenter is really a progression of the same process of simplification, with the additional factor that his reputation primarily as the director of horror movies seems to have pushed the film further in this direction: the story is punctuated by a number of ‘shock’ moments (like the one with the barbecue), but their impact feels oddly muted – even when the film goes into full ‘horror mode’, as in the sequence where Alley is compelled to dissect herself alive, it’s oddly anodyne and lacking in the visceral impact you’d expect. In the end the film is thumpingly unsubtle without ever being much fun. (Carpenter has defended this by saying a movie with a budget of over $10 million can’t be as extreme as one made for less money, as it needs a wider audience to be financially successful.)

What makes this especially odd is that John Carpenter is on record as an admirer of the book and the original film, and was apparently trying hard to resist attempts to alter the basis of the story. The plot point that other parts of the world also hosted similar colonies of unearthly children is stressed here in a way that it wasn’t in 1960, nor in the novel (at least, not to the same extent). Yet there are still changes, some of them more interesting than others. The Children seem pair-bonded, and the death of one of the infants means her intended partner grows up more susceptible to human emotion (this doesn’t go anywhere especially interesting). One thing Carpenter has to contend with that Wyndham didn’t is Roe v Wade, and the film does have to address the question of why the recipients of these strange pregnancies don’t at least consider playing it safe and having terminations. In the end the suggestion is that they are compelled not to by the same force which implanted them, which is probably the neatest available option.

In the end the film just doesn’t quite work, as most of Wyndham’s ideas and the atmosphere of his book have slipped away, to be replaced by undercooked shock moments and a fixation on the imagery from the 1960 film. To be fair, the cast do their best with it – one point of historical distinction I wish the film didn’t possess is that it was the last film Christopher Reeve made before the accident which left him paralysed. He does the best he can with the George Sanders role from the original, but it does feel like a journeyman performance. The same can be said for most of the acting here – the child acting is just about acceptable, but no-one really manages to do much with the thin material they’re assigned. Of them all, Linda Kozlowski probably comes off best, but this is not really saying much.

This is a fairly typical late-period John Carpenter movie, in that there are moments of visual interest but it never really takes flight as a movie – there is no subtlety and few ideas, just a collection of genre tropes being recycled. It brings me no pleasure to say this, but the sense of a burnt-out talent trading on past glories is difficult to escape. Far from a great movie, but – sadly – this is pretty much the case when it comes to a screen adaptation of John Wyndham.

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We tend to think of cinema as an essentially modern art form – Terry Gilliam presented a TV series on the birth of the medium entitled The Last Machine – something quite different from the other visual arts like painting and sculpture. Great paintings and statues go back into the mists of time, usually hundreds of years, whereas most people tend to dismiss any film which is more than half a century old as unacceptably primitive. As time progresses we may have to change our perceptions on this topic. Unless the direst of predictions about the future of civilisation come to pass, a day will come in which people will look at the classic films of two or three centuries earlier, just as we look at the art of the Renaissance and other periods from long before living memory.

There are already films which have passed beyond living memory – I don’t just mean the legions of lost films, known only by their names and descriptions, although there are certainly enough of them. I mean films where everyone involved in their making has moved on to whatever comes next. Realistically, this probably includes nearly everything made since about 1940, by which point commercial cinema was already a quarter of a century old. The oldest of films do seem to come from an oddly different world, their difference and strangeness only heightened by the different sensibility that often shaped them and the differences in production methods.

Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s The Golem was first released in 1920. Just to suggest the lengths of time involved, this places it almost equidistant between the present day (as I type, anyway) and the Peterloo massacre. It is closer in time to the deaths of Lord Byron and Beethoven, to name but two events, than it is to the present day. Perhaps one is getting carried away by the peculiar, medieval qualities of the story, but it does feel like a strange relic of a lost age. The irony, of course – and perhaps our first inkling that maybe things haven’t changed quite as much as we might imagine – is that The Golem isn’t exactly The Golem. Rather, it is effectively Golem 3, final film in a loose trilogy.

Survival rates amongst films of the 1920s being as they are, the original Golem from 1915 and the spin-off The Golem and the Dancing Girl have both been lost, and the title of The Golem has now passed to the second sequel, which was originally released as Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World). (You can see why people would opt for a less unwieldy title.) Even the 1920 version of Golem was a lost film for some time, eventually being reconstructed from various alternate versions of the negative which survived piecemeal in different locations.

One stroke of luck is that the 1920 version of The Golem is – in the modern vernacular – a prequel to the original film, which had a contemporary setting and concerned the title character being unearthed in the modern era. As the subtitle suggests, this is an origin story, set in the middle ages. The implication is that the story unfolds in Prague, which is the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor (portrayed here by Otto Gebuhr). As the story starts, the Emperor issues a decree announcing that the Jews of Prague are to be expelled from their ghetto, causing understandable consternation amongst them.

One of the community leaders, Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck), has seen this coming (he is the local astrologer and expert in arcana), and requests an audience with the Emperor so he can try to talk him out of his decision. In order to have a little more leverage at the coming meeting, Loew sets about crafting a massive human figure out of clay. His plan is to use magic of a questionable hue to animate this being, known as a Golem – if nothing else it will be nice to have another pair of hands about the place. (The situation is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the Emperor’s envoy, Florian (Lothar Muthel), instantly takes a fancy to Loew’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) and commences to woo her, assiduously but discreetly.)

Well, the rite is performed and the Golem comes to life (the creature is portrayed by Paul Wegener himself), although his initial trips down to the shops are a marginal success at best. The Emperor and the royal court are duly impressed and a bit alarmed when the Rabbi turns up to see them with the Golem in tow, but when the creature saves the Emperor’s life the grateful ruler agrees to think again about his edict expelling the Jews.

All seems well, until Loew discovers an ominous warning that the Golem’s initial helpfulness may not last, and the dark magic that animated it will lead to it eventually becoming malevolent. Bearing this in mind, the Rabbi ‘deactivates’ it. All seems well, and he goes off to a service of thanksgiving for the survival of the community. But then his assistant (Ernst Deutsch) discovers what has been going on between Florian and Miriam, and angrily reanimates the Golem, telling it to get rid of the amorous nobleman…

You can probably guess what happens next, because despite the fact that its production values, pacing, and performance style are wildly different from those in modern movies, this is still very recognisably the progenitor of a noble dynasty of fantasy and SF movies – the similarities to Frankenstein are particularly pronounced, and there’s a scene near the end where the Golem encounters a small child with some flowers which faintly anticipates one from the famous James Whale version of the story. If this film is less successful, it’s possibly because Wegener’s performance as the Golem is considerably less nuanced than Karloff’s would later be – the lumbering about is acceptable, but there’s a lot of eye-popping and pouting which is pretty much guaranteed to get laughs from a modern audience (a lot of the more, er, expressive acting in The Golem has the same effect).

The themes of hubris are less pronounced, however, and Rabbi Loew remains a sympathetic figure despite his role in creating the Golem and his dealings with dark powers. It’s probably a coincidence that for two weeks in a row the Weimar movie season has shown gloomy fantasies about people forced into deals with dark forces in exchange for different kinds of power, but The Golem does acquire a strange historical irony considering the plot is ultimately driven by anti-semitism. The Jewish characters in the movie are sympathetic, as noted, but at the same time everyone takes it for granted that the Rabbi has various mystical powers at his disposal. The movie itself hardly seems anti-semitic, but the depiction of Judaism is probably not one a director could get away with nowadays.

In the end The Golem is another fairly entertaining movie – I would say there is probably a bit too much blather near the start, and not enough rampaging and carnage at the end (by the standards of a modern horror movie it is almost absurdly innocuous). Obviously it is of great historical interest, for both cinema in general and genre movies in particular: not the biggest or the best monster movie ever made, but probably the earliest that’s still with us. Worth seeing if only for that reason; not just because it is so different, but also because much of it is so recognisable.

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