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So there I was, just watching the closing credits of Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, waiting for the bafflement and confused disbelief to lift from my mind (hmm, kind of given the general tenor of the review away there – hey ho), when the guy across the aisle from me shouted ‘Is there anything to stay for?’ – meaning, would there be a post-credit sequence trailing a coming attraction? ‘I don’t think they’ve planned that far ahead,’ I said. Having established some sort of relationship, my new acquaintance asked me how familiar I was with the series. I made noncomittal noises and he said, ‘I’ve seen the old one, with… what’s his name…’

Hmm, I thought, could he mean the 1932 version with Boris Karloff? Or perhaps the 1959 one with Christopher Lee? Maybe even the 1971 take with Valerie Leon? (All of which I have inevitably seen.) It seemed pretty unlikely. ‘You mean the 1999 one with Brendan Fraser,’ I said, somewhat resignedly. Yes it was; it turned out he preferred it.

Given it’s not unknown these days for a remake (or, sigh, reboot) to follow only five years after the thing it’s remaking (or rebooting), the nine year gap between the last of the Fraser-starring movies and Kurtzman’s film is actually fairly respectable. The ‘is there a post-credits sequence?’ question is significant, though, for it cuts to the heart of what this new movie is really about: because that’s what movie mega-franchises do these days. (Except this one, apparently.)

Things kick off with a somewhat involved prologue involving crusader knights, the expansion of the London underground, and much other unexpected material. What it all boils down to is the story of Princess Ahmanet, heiress of one of the Egyptian pharaohs (she is played by Sofia Boutella, a game young actress making a bit of a career out of big genre roles in which she becomes almost unrecognisable one way or another). When she is unexpectedly replaced as first in line to the throne, she enters into a pact with the evil god Set and sets about pressing her claim, rather violently. This goes down poorly with the palace staff and she is, according to the voice-over, ‘mummified alive’ (not according to what we see on screen, she’s not, but I digress), stuck in a sarcophagus, and buried ‘far from Egypt’.

Roll on the title card and we find ourselves in modern Iraq, in the company of dodgy treasure hunter and mercenary Nick Morton (Tom Cruise). A careless airstrike from Nick’s associates in the US military reveals the entrance to an ancient tomb complex, into which he ventures with plucky archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis). But is it really a tomb, or actually a prison for an ancient evil? (Clue: it’s not really a tomb.)

Well, having extracted Ahmanet’s sarcophagus, our heroes are flying off somewhere when their plane becomes besieged by crows and Nick’s buddy Chris (Jake Johnson) turns into a murderous zombie (it feels like there’s a lot more zombies than mummies in this movie). No sooner has Nick handed Jenny a parachute and thrown her off the plane than it crashes in England. Of course Nick does not end up splashed across the landscape, but wakes up unscathed in an Oxford morgue (by the way, I feel it incumbent upon me to point out that The Mummy‘s depiction of the traffic system in Oxford city centre leaves a lot to be desired). It transpires that Ahmanet has taken a shine to Nick (that’s nice), and quite fancies using him as the vessel to bring about the embodiment of her patron, the god of evil (maybe not so nice). Can he escape the mummy’s curse, or is he doomed to a fate that’s approximately about as bad as death?

It’s not widely known or talked about these days, but for quite a long while in the early 2000s Tom Cruise was in talks with Marvel about his taking the starring role in Iron Man. Terms could not be agreed, however, Cruise not wanting to make ‘just another superhero movie’ (it’s hard to imagine him committing to the standard Marvel multi-film contract, anyway, or indeed agreeing to be part of an ensemble cast). Since then, however, Cruise has noticed the large trucks full of money going to Robert Downey Jr’s house, and Universal Pictures have noticed the enormous trucks full of money going to the Marvel offices, and their joint desire to grab a slice of that kind of action is what has led us to the new version of The Mummy.

For, yea, this is the opening installment of what we are supposed to call the Dark Universe franchise, presumably because Legendary Pictures already have their Monsterverse (the film series with Godzilla, King Kong, and the others) and this precludes Universal from using the obvious ‘Universal Monsters’ title for their own prospective mega-franchise. At one point Dracula Untold was going to be part of this series, but they have apparently rowed back on the idea, and so it’s The Mummy kicking off the new undertaking (no pun intended).

Quite how this new series is supposed to function I’m really not sure. The thing about superheroes (as in the Marvel and DC film series) and Toho’s daikaiju (in the Monsterverse) is that they have a tradition of bumping into each other and butting heads, whereas all the best-regarded Universal horror films were basically standalones – obviously you have things like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and House of Dracula, but these were pretty much last-gasp efforts, one step away from Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The material feels severely stretched to meet the requirements of the studio – it looks very much like the intention is to retool the classic monsters as occult super-powered anti-heroes.

So is this really a horror film or isn’t it? I would tend to say not, for all that it is saddled with a box office-unfriendly 15 rating in the UK. Sensible studios don’t attempt to make genuine horror blockbusters, because the two forms are largely incompatible, appealing to different sensibilities. Attempting to combine the two is the source of many of The Mummy‘s numerous problems.

On one level this movie wants to be a dark tale about the stirring of ancient, primordial evil, and moral corruption, and the profound ambiguity of the human soul. On another, it wants to be a jolly wise-cracking CGI-driven popcorn movie. I’m not saying it’s absolutely impossible to make a film which manages to reconcile these two ambitions. I’m just saying that The Mummy definitely isn’t it. Every time the darker material shows signs of promise, along comes a big chase sequence or a comedy bit or Tom Cruise sweating ostentatiously and we’re back in vacuous popcorn-land. If the film was the slightest bit knowing or showed any signs of being aware of how outlandish it is, it might function, but Cruise in particular doesn’t seem capable of that kind of wit.

I suppose there are signs of hope for the future, as the linking device for the projected Dark Universe franchise is a gang of enigmatic monster-hunters called the Progenium or the Prodigium or the Perineum (I can’t actually be bothered to check Wikipedia), led by Russell Crowe as Dr Jekyll (I know, I know) – we pay a brief visit to their archives where they appear to have a vampire skull, pickled bits of the creature from the black lagoon, and so on. Crowe actually has the ability to make this stuff work, believe it or not, though he’s much better as Jekyll than Hyde.

And he quite easily blows Tom Cruise off the screen. Probably The Mummy‘s biggest problem is that Tom Cruise simply does not belong in it, at least not in the role he’s been given. Nick Morton is supposed to be a lovable rogue, a scoundrel with the potential to be something better, utterly charming even when he’s doing deeply suspect things. Cruise can’t do charming any more. He goes through the motions energetically, but he just comes across as fake, and rather than loving Nick in spite of my better judgement, I just thought he seemed like a bit of a tool. Cruise can’t really do funny consistently either; for this film to attempt to be a light-hearted adventure is arguably a bad choice, but for it to turn out to be a light-hearted adventure fronted by a leading man with all the comic sparkle of one of Donald Trump’s media consultants contemplating their career prospects is, frankly, disastrous.

This is still a fairly lavish modern blockbuster with all the necessary bits in mostly the right order (though not, as noted, many of what you’d call classic Mummy moments), and Crowe and Boutella are generally pretty good in it. And, as Wonder Woman has recently proven, all it takes is one good installment for this kind of movie series to come to life and start generating real interest and excitement. But The Mummy shows every sign of getting the Dark Universe project off to a flying stop.

 

 

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I look at the news today and it is stuffed to the gills with all sorts of goings on in Washington DC concerning the dismissed FBI director and the British nation holding its breath ahead of its second general election in three years. The embarassment of Trump is something to crack a smile over, I suppose, but I find I can muster little hope for the situation here in the UK. How to take one’s mind off such things? Back to the TV of the 1970s, I suppose; it can usually provide something appropriate to any situation.

It’s easy to demonise a certain type of politician as a heartless, soulless, callous, grasping, self-interested monster – so let’s get on with it. The Devil’s Platform is the seventh episode of the weekly Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, written by Donn Mullally (with, probably, help from David Chase of Sopranos fame), and directed by Allen Baron – the episode first aired in November 1974. Kolchak is a fairly obscure show these days, probably most famous for being the proto-X-Files: every week, old-school Chicago newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) stumbles upon a series of crimes (usually murders) carried out by an otherworldly or supernatural menace, and has to resolve the situation despite the hostility of the authorities and his own boss Vincenzo (played by Simon Oakland).

The episode opens with a senatorial race in full swing in Illinois, with the running being made by little-known newcomer Robert Palmer (Tom Skerritt, probably best known these days for playing Captain Dallas in the original Alien) – although Palmer’s cause has been helped by a string of mysterious deaths. Palmer’s campaign manager has managed to turn up some serious dirt on his man, and is so outraged that he is about to go to the police about it. Not notably concerned by this, it would seem, Palmer steps into an elevator with his soon-to-be-ex-manager – which then crashes thirteen floors to the bottom of the shaft, after a freak failure of the machinery.

Kolchak, as luck would have it, is on the scene to meet Palmer, and joins the first responders when the elevator is opened up. Everyone inside has been killed, but there’s no sign of Palmer – and also in the car is a huge black dog which forces its way past everyone on the scene, knocking over our hero in the process. Kolchak manages to grab the dog’s collar ornament off it, though, which has an interesting pentagram motif.

No-one can seem to find Palmer anywhere, and so Kolchak goes on about his day, unaware that his steps are (literally) being dogged by the chunky canine from the lift disaster. Eventually Vincenzo packs him off to the Palmer residence to try and get a new angle on the story, where he encounters Palmer’s supremely unhelpful wife in one of the episode’s funniest scenes (‘Expletive deleted,’ mutters Kolchak after she gives him the brush-off). On his way back to his car, he is attacked by the black dog, which only seems interested in ripping open his jacket and retrieving the pentagram amulet. Seconds later, Robert Palmer reappears, as unruffled as he was to begin with.

It’s a nicely put together opening act, somewhat more subtle than is usually Kolchak‘s wont, but still managing to put across its main idea effectively – Palmer is a bad ‘un, with the ability to transform himself into an indestructible hellhound, provided he has access to his amulet. Without the amulet, he’s stuck as the dog, hence his not turning up for TV election debates (well, ‘I can’t debate you as I transformed into a dog and unexpectedly can’t change back’ is not the worst excuse for refusing to engage in a debate that we’ve heard recently, is it).

The rest of the episode isn’t quite up to the same standard, and it does struggle to find things that to fill up its middle act with – Palmer ends up doing another couple of murders while Kolchak is trying to persuade Vincenzo to run his story (‘Why does our political expose have to have a dog in it?!?’ wails Vincenzo) and generally figure out what’s going on.

Naturally, Kolchak works it out just in time to confront Palmer within the fifty minute duration of a network drama show: the candidate is, of course, a warlock who has sold his soul to Satan in return for various interesting faculties – as well as being able to turn into the hellhound, he seems able to cause disastrous accidents, and also to have a degree of clairvoyance. Now he is intent on rising to the very top of American politics, where he will no doubt impose his own brand of strong and stable leadership. Or am I getting my nightmarish real-world dystopias jumbled up again? Hmmm.

Few TV shows are quite as formulaic and thinly characterised as Kolchak: The Night Stalker – if anyone started behaving like a real human being it would instantly expose how preposterous the format of this series is – but this is probably the best episode of the weekly series, not least because it departs further from the format than most. The fact that no-one but Kolchak is aware that the deaths are anything other than a series of accidents means the episode omits the routine stuff with Kolchak getting on the nerves of the cop investigating the case, while the scene where Kolchak engages in some cross-talk with a local expert in order to get the information he needs to kill the monster is also missing – he just looks it all up in a book.

More significantly, I think, this is one of the very few Kolchaks to escape the pitfalls of building the story to climax with a tussle between McGavin and some guy in an unconvincing monster suit. The black dog is unsurprisingly quite convincing, given it is realised using (you guessed it) a black dog, and Tom Skerritt underplays Palmer rather effectively – and, by the way, absolutely straight. (One thing Kolchak is normally pretty good at is shifting back and forth between comedy and horror.) The moment when Palmer attempts to recruit Kolchak to his cause, drily listing Carl’s various ambitions and foibles and offering the assistance of his, er, patron, is genuinely creepy and as close to a moment of actual character drama as the series ever gets – Kolchak almost seems swayed for a moment.

Of course, it’s Kolchak, so it’s never going to be perfect – there’s the mid-story muddle I mentioned, plus the resolution of the plot is telegraphed very early on when one of Kolchak and Vincenzo’s co-workers returns from a trip to Rome with a bottle of holy water. There’s also something funny going on with the climax – having had his offer turned down, Palmer decides Kolchak is prime human sacrifice material and goes for him with a dagger – but the sequence appears to have fallen foul of network censors, for it’s been bafflingly edited to the point of incoherence.

Still, it all concludes with the forces of darkness vanquished, and the election left open for a politician with a soul to win. Yeah, the past is a different country, isn’t it? Pass the holy water.

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I’m aware that these little pieces which aspire to inform and educate about films can be a little on the long-winded side. It’s unusual for one of them to come in at less than eight hundred words, and most of them are over a thousand. Is all this verbiage strictly necessary to get my views across? Frankly, I’m not sure: I was at the pictures just today, and as the closing credits started to roll, my companion turned to look at me, and expressed his opinion eloquently and passionately using just one single monosyllabic word of Germanic derivation. Perhaps there is a happy medium to be struck; but on the other hand there’s also the fact that I have many empty hours to contend with and writing single-word film reviews wouldn’t do much to fill the time.

Anyway, the film which moved my friend to such a model of forthright concision was Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, which I think you’ll agree sounds jolly portentous. What dark deal has been struck, and how does it relate to H.R. Giger’s famous acid-blooded extraterrestrial killing machine? Well, um, er. The film has the portentous subtitle Covenant because it’s about a spaceship called the Covenant. Why is the spaceship called Covenant? Because the film needs a portentous subtitle and Alien: Saucy Sue or Alien: Spaceshippy McSpaceshipface just wouldn’t cut it. If this at all gives you the impression that the Alien franchise is showing signs of vanishing up one of its own glistening, biomechanical orifices, well, I commend you for your perspicacity, readers.

Scott’s last visit to this series, 2012’s Prometheus, enjoyed one of the most inescapable advertising campaigns I can remember and was generally hated by people expecting an Alien movie which had, you know, the actual alien in it. Things have been marginally more restrained publicity-wise this time around and it seems to me that a definite effort has been made to keep the fanbase on-side. Certainly the opening movements of the plot mimic those of the original 1979 film very closely: partway through a long-haul deep-space mission, the crew of the spaceship Covenant find themselves unexpectedly awakened, and detect a mysterious signal coming from a nearby planet. The captain (Billy Crudup) decides that they will go and take a look, much to the unease of his second in command (Katherine Waterston). The ship’s android (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion either way.

On arrival on the planet’s surface, the crew are presented with various mysteries, the primary one being a huge, horseshoe-shaped alien spacecraft. Unfortunately, one of the expedition is exposed to an alien life-form which uses his own flesh to gestate a vicious, lethal creature which puts everyone’s lives in danger…

Well, it’s not quite the play-by-play knock-off that I’m probably making it sound like – the relationships between the crew are different, not to mention their characters – Captain Oram is plagued by self-doubt and takes himself just a bit too seriously, for instance. But we are in rather familiar territory, and if you’ve seen the earlier movies you will certainly know the tune even if some of the words have been tweaked.

However, things go off in a new and slightly unexpected direction as the crew of the Covenant encounter David (Fassbender again), another android and apparently the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission, ten years earlier (in case you’re wondering, his body seems to have grown back since the last movie: this is handwaved away rather). The newcomers accept his offer of shelter against the perils of the planet’s ecosystem, but are startled when he takes them to an ancient ruined city built by alien humanoids. What happened to the planet’s original inhabitants? And exactly how has David been passing his time for the last ten years…?

One of the things we discussed while waiting for the movie to start were the similarities and differences between the Alien series and the stellar conflict franchise currently owned by the Disney corporation. Both started in the late 1970s, have dedicated fanbases, have provided many iconic screen moments, and have indulged in some dubious prequelising; you could argue that both ultimately owe an enormous debt to Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune movie. And, I would argue, both of them trade enormously on the reputation and quality of their initial couple of films: personally I didn’t find any of the stellar conflict movies completely satisfying between 1980 and last year (your mileage may differ, obviously), and while everyone seems to like Alien and Aliens, the other films in the franchise are much less loved (and a couple of them have apparently been stricken from the canon). The question in the case of the Alien series is quite simple: what new things can you find for this particular monster to do? Audiences, I suspect, just want more of the same experiences that they had during those two films.

When I eventually prevailed upon my companion to unpack his thoughts on the film a little, he complained that the new film wasn’t ever actually scary or particularly thrilling, and that all the most memorable and interesting bits should have gone into the Blade Runner sequel instead. He couldn’t understand why Ridley Scott had bothered to return to the Alien franchise if (as seemed the case) he had nothing new to bring to it, and even muttered darkly about the director going senile (note to Mr Scott’s lawyers: please don’t sue).

Well, my expectations were lower, I expect, because while I wasn’t tremendously impressed with Covenant, I found it fairly enjoyable for most of its running time. In many ways it’s much more of a direct sequel to Prometheus than I expected. One of the little commented-upon consequences of Prometheus’ release was Guillermo del Toro abandoning his long-cherished desire to film Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, on the grounds that the plot and atmosphere would be just too similar – and the Lovecraftian overtones carry on into Covenant to some extent, with the action taking place in and around cyclopean alien citadels, with terrible secrets of a hostile, impersonal universe coming to light.

That said, they are careful to put some proper aliens into this one, including at least one interesting new variation on the classic beastie. The notion of a whole alien-influenced ecosystem is a fascinating one, but unfortunately not much gone into. The same can really be said for some of the film’s ideas about human teleology and ontology: there are scenes which set up this film as having some grand philosophical ground to cover, but in the end it just devolves into highly familiar running and screaming and shouting. It looks fabulous throughout, and Fassbender gives a brilliant double performance – through the magic of digital effects he gets to do all manner of things to and with himself, and the realisation of this is flawless.

However, this kind of leads us to the stuff about Covenant which I didn’t like, and this is a not inconsiderable matter. If the film-makers want to rewrite the ‘rules’ of the series, that’s their prerogative – the alien life cycle, which used to operate over a period of hours, if not days, is here compressed to a matter of minutes or seconds – but no amount of authorial wriggling can remove the problem that the plot of this movie is built around a reversal that simply doesn’t make sense, in terms of how it’s presented on screen at least. You can also argue that a key plot twist is extremely guessable. I liked much of Alien: Covenant enough to indulge it for most of its running time, but together these things conspired to kick me out of the movie for its final segment.

The film concludes with a relatively short concluding section which seems, again, designed to resonate and chime with fans of the first couple of movies. I suppose it works on some level, but it – along with much of the ‘traditional’ Alien-themed material – almost feels like a contractual obligation in a film which is perhaps at its best tackling the same kind of grand philosophical concepts as Prometheus.

The problem is that Prometheus arguably failed, as an Alien sequel at least. The job of this kind of sequel is essentially to remind you of what a good time you had watching the original film, by restaging it in a slightly modified form. Innovation in a sequel is always a risky proposition and one best done very sparingly. Alien: Covenant works hard to include all the key scenes, concepts, and tropes you might expect from a film in this series, and if the result is something that feels like a karaoke version of one of the original films, with a slightly odd new arrangement of the melody, then I expect that will do the producers very nicely and allow the franchise to trundle on for a good while yet. But the fact remains that, although good-looking and often well-acted, Alien: Covenant is just too incoherent and slavishly derivative a movie to give the audience the same delighted sense of intertwined novelty and familiarity provided by the last stellar conflict prequel. In space, no-one can hear you scream – but in a movie theatre, you can certainly hear the person next to you grumble, and with pretty good reason in this case.

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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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Since the heyday of Roger Corman there has been a pleasing synergy to the fact that horror movies have traditionally offered a reasonably safe route to decent box-office returns on a relatively small budget, thus allowing writers and directors near the beginnings of their careers the chance to make movies about quite challenging and sophisticated ideas, provided they respect the conventions of the genre. The early films of George Romero and David Cronenberg are full of social commentary and metaphorical power, it’s just that this is to some extent obscured by the fact they are apparently just exploitation movies about zombies and parasitic infection.

The question is to what degree the same is true of Julia Ducournau’s Raw, which appears to be an entry into one of horror’s least respectable sub-genres, but clearly has other things to say for itself. Garance Marillier gives a remarkable performance as Justine, a bright young student off to university for the first time. She is studying to be a vet, as is her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf), who’s at the same college as her. Justine has been raised as a staunch vegetarian by her parents, but she is unsettled to discover that Alex seems to have lapsed a little into the ways of meat-eating.

The initiation rituals for new students at the college are extreme and debauched, and include the newcomers having to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Justine demurs, as you would, but without anyone to support her principled stance, and the threat of social ostracism looming, goes ahead and swallows the bunny bits anyway.

Her attempts to come to terms with the new opportunities, threats, and temptations of college life are somewhat complicated by the unexpected way in which her body reacts to eating raw flesh. Initially there is a rather grisly rash, and after this fades Justine finds herself gripped by a strange hunger that drives her to steal meat from the canteen, gnaw on raw chicken straight from the fridge, and even contemplate much darker sources of sustenance…

So, yes, this is the French-language feminist cannibal movie of which you may have heard, and (wait for it) fairly strong meat it is too. Cannibalism may not be your thing at the cinema; I can understand that, I’m not an unconditional fan of this sort of thing myself. It almost goes without saying that this is not a film for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached – there is gore aplenty, and while it is not spectacular it is certainly intense. That said, the film is uncompromising on all fronts – quite graphic sex and other bodily functions also feature – and, to be honest, the sequence which made me squirm the most involved one character giving another a not entirely competent bikini wax.

The fact the film isn’t just about bloody flesh is an indicator that at heart it isn’t, as I had feared, just some piece of heavy-handed agitprop on behalf of militant vegans. There seems to be a lot of this sort of thing doing the rounds at present and I’m not sure I really need to see more of it; I’m aware that from a certain point of view eating meat is ethically indefensible (certainly if you have any dealings with the mainstream meat industry), but, well, I’m told that the human capacity to simultaneously hold numerous mutually incompatible beliefs at the same time is one of the keys to our success as a species, so why not make use of it: animal welfare is a significant issue, but some animals do taste delicious. Inasmuch as the film is actually about vegetarianism, it’s because this is something which initially marks Justine as an outsider and thus makes her socially vulnerable. One of the things the film is about is the demands on young women to conform to certain standards of behaviour, whether they want to or not, and the ugly double standards that are often involved if they try too hard to fit in.

Cannibalism as a metaphor for peer pressure is an interesting approach to take, but Ducournau makes it work, and also makes it clear what a tightrope young women are on at this time in their lives – transgression of any kind can see them ostracised, ridiculed on social media, or worse. The urge to try and disappear must be strong. The director doesn’t hold back in making the student culture of the college just as repellent as anything that Justine’s little eating disorder drives her to (her cannibalistic tendencies are implicitly compared to bulimia at one point), and makes it very clear just how vulnerable an unworldly young woman like her is, surrounded by so many new temptations.

One thing that possibly weakens the film is the way that Ducournau attempts to insert another layer of metaphor, making Justine’s desire for flesh figurative as well as literal: the new world she is plunged into finds her having to contend with feelings for her room-mate (Rabah Nait Oufella) – she becomes jealous, possessive of him, finds these powerful new emotions difficult to deal with. But what does she really want to do to him? Suffice to say the ensuing scenes are powerfully sensual, if not completely comfortable viewing, and the film is strong enough to survive this slightly split focus. It also manages to accommodate a closing scene which largely seems to be there to provide a startling and memorable twist ending, which while not quite feeling like a complete cheat, does feel somewhat like it’s drifted in from a film which is much more of a black comedy than this one.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from Raw, but I was impressed with what I got – in an odd way it does have that clinical, queasy feeling of a very early Cronenberg movie, but the skill with which the director handled picture and soundtrack (Jim Williams’ score is also highly impressive) almost put me in mind of… well, I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways Raw resembles the cannibal horror film that Stanley Kubrick never made. If you only go and see one feminist cannibal horror movie in French this year, Raw should be your choice – always assuming you have the stomach for it.

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