Posts Tagged ‘horror’

I may be biased, but when I think about horror films from the 1960s, my starting point is always Hammer horror. Never far behind, however, are the Poe pix made by Roger Corman for American International just as Hammer were getting into their stride. These are the closest thing to Hammer that isn’t actually Hammer itself – they have the same costume-drama aesthetic and production values, and the presence of an indisputable class act in the thesping department; almost always Vincent Price.

Other people started trying to copy the Hammer formula fairly quickly, and – it would seem – the same is true of the Price-Corman-Poe films. Twice-Told Tales, directed by Simon Salkow and released in 1963, is some distance from the Hammer style, but it’s still as close to the Poe-pic formula as anything I’ve ever seen. That said, it tries to establish a respectable bit of creative distance by not being a Poe adaptation, but a film version of several stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne (possibly best remembered these days for The Scarlet Letter).

Twice-Told Tales was the name of a collection of Hawthorne short stories; the slightly awkward fact is that only one of the segments of the film is based on a story from that book. Nevertheless, things get off to a jolly start as a pair of skeletal hands open a mouldering old tome of forgotten lore, stopping at the title page of the first story in the film.

This is ‘Dr Heidegger’s Experiment’, which opens with two old friends (Price and Sebastian Cabot) enjoying a pleasant evening together while a storm rages outside. They celebrate their close friendship and look back on their lives – Cabot can’t help wondering how things might have turned out differently if his fiancee Sylvia (Mari Blanchard) hadn’t suddenly died before their wedding, nearly forty years earlier. This is obviously a change, as it’s usually Vincent Price mooning over his dead wife’s picture. (The entrance to Sylvia’s tomb is conveniently located outside the window of Cabot’s parlour, so he can raise a glass to her whenever he likes.)

But a bolt of lighting strikes the tomb and the door opens. Somewhat nervously the two old men venture inside, and discover that Sylvia’s corpse has remained miraculously fresh and uncorrupted by the passage of time. Cabot figures out that this is the result of water with unusual properties dripping onto the coffin. Before you can say ‘secrets of which man was not meant to know’ they are experimenting with the water to restore withered roses to full bloom, and so on. In a matter of minutes Cabot and Price are knocking the stuff back and dispensing with the old-age make-up they’ve both been acting under since the start of the segment.

What a felicitous development! But Cabot just can’t forget about Sylvia. ‘Don’t try and raise the dead!’ wails Price, but to no avail. Needless to say, this violation of the laws of God has terrible consequences for all concerned…

This is a proper piece of gothic horror that could easily be switched with one of the stories from Tales of Terror without anyone noticing. It’s a bit melodramatic and not what you’d call subtle in any department, but it tells its story briskly and well. One of the better anthology horror movie segments that I’ve come across.

The main difference between Twice-Told Tales and the Corman films is that this film seems to have had a rather lavish budget, which mainly seems to have been put towards a more expansive running time: it’s two hours long, which is unusual for a film in a subgenre where ‘get in – tell your story snappily – get out again’ is usually a wise approach.

The next story, ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, certainly takes its time a little. It’s set in Padua, where Giacomo Rappacci (Price again) keeps a rather unusual garden – the main feature is an astonishingly poisonous plant that kills anyone who even goes near it (insects landing on the flowers literally explode in a puff of smoke). All this is in aid of, believe it or not, a fairly extreme example of helicopter parenting – Rappaccini doesn’t want unpleasant men interfering with his lovely daughter (Joyce Taylor, who genuinely is a looker), and has alchemically used infusions from the plant to transform her blood to deadly acid – anyone or anything she touches is instantly poisoned!

Yeah, it’s a bit extreme, but this is 19th-century gothic horror, so what do you expect. Inevitably the daughter falls in love with a strapping young university student who lives next door (he is played by Brett Halsey), but it’s a bit hard to progress your relationship when even holding hands is likely to kill one of the participants. But perhaps he can find a cure…

It’s an interesting story, and the production values are nice, although it does feel like it’s hanging around a bit just to fill time. Once again we are in the realm of the gothic melodrama, but Price can do this stuff in his sleep and he keeps it interesting and enjoyable whenever he’s on screen, and the conclusion of the tale is memorably overwrought.

On to the final segment, based on Hawthorne’s novel ‘The House of Seven Gables’. This one in particular you can imagine H. P. Lovecraft watching and shouting ‘Yeah, baby!’, concerned as it is with curses, ghosts, dark family secrets, a haunted house, illicit romance, and much more in the same vein.

We are in New England in the mid-19th century. Price plays a guy named Gerald, who moves back to his old family home with his sister despite a curse that will supposedly kill him – his creepy sister keeps reminding him of this. The plot is actually somewhat involved and involves Gerald trying to get his hands on treasure, the location of which is known to the last descendant of the man who put the curse on his family. Basically all the gothic staples get an outing, and the film is unusual for being relatively gory for a film of this period – crimson gore pours from the mouths of portraits, the walls shudder and crack and blood gushes out, and someone is despatched by a pick-axe to the head. In the end Price has to act being throttled to death by a disembodied skeletal hand, which he manages with his usual aplomb.

Nothing much wrong with this one, either, although it has the same slightly mannered style as the rest of the film – there’s a touch of this in the very early Hammers, but they quickly dispensed with that in favour of a more visceral quasi-naturalism in many of their performances. You can perhaps see how this film influenced others, relatively obscure though it is – it may look and sound like a rip-off of the Poe pix, but it does have its own identity, and it does try to do things which the Corman films don’t. Certainly the acting, direction and production values are all at least as good as in the average American International production. If you like the Vincent Price Poe movies, then it’s a safe bet you’ll have a good time with this one, as well.

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Ari Aster’s Hereditary, when it came out in 2018, was that unusual thing: a film which clearly announced the arrival of a major talent despite being rather divisive. Many legitimate critics loved it. We (your correspondent, Former Next Desk Colleague, and Olinka) thought it was fairly risible once the credits had finished rolling, but we were all duly impressed by the queasy atmosphere Aster managed to generate. 2019’s Midsommar was genuinely accomplished – Olinka, who is equally passionate about horror movies and psychotherapy, particularly enjoyed it. I haven’t caught up with her for a bit but I imagine she will flip her chips when she eventually sees Aster’s latest film, Beau is Afraid.

The film opens with Beau himself being born (at least, I assume it’s him), which Aster naturally presents as a nightmarishly traumatic experience. (Tone is thus established.) Beau grows up to be Joaquin Phoenix, and a rather nervous and fragile individual. We see him visiting his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), getting a new prescription, and going back to his apartment. Everything seems calculated to create maximum disquiet and unease, from the violent squalor of the neighbourhood to the fact the building is infested with venomous spiders.

Beau is supposed to be about to visit his mother (Patti LuPone), a successful businesswoman, but a series of bizarre events – basically, his keys mysteriously vanish – force him to cancel the trip. From here, things spiral increasingly out of control, involving mobs of aggressive homeless people, and Beau discovering an urgent family situation he needs to travel to address. Naturally, he ends up running out into the street naked and being hit by a truck.

You know, when I do this capsule synopsis thing, what I’m basically trying is to give you a sense of the initial conditions of the film and then a general sense of where the story ends up going. With Beau is Afraid this is tricky, because this is not a film which sticks to a conventional narrative structure and never goes in the direction you expect it to. There’s something almost (and I hesitate to say this) Kubrickian about the way the film takes the form a number of different episodes, each of them quite different, with no particular connection beyond the fact that they happen to Beau and feature a distinctively grotesque sense of humour. It’s like a very unsettling vision-quest, perhaps, a stream of consciousness journey into everything going on in Beau’s head. The only obvious thing I can compare it to is Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, though it is slightly more measured in its madness, probably conserving its stamina for a truly heroic three-hour run-time.

I’m sure I saw an interview with Ari Aster where he said that, after Midsommar, he would have said everything he wanted to say in the horror genre. This may still be the case, and Beau is Afraid is not genuinely intended as an actual horror film. Or maybe he’s just changed his mind. Certainly he has described the new film as a ‘nightmare comedy’ (also as ‘a Jewish Lord of the Rings‘) and it is shot through with that sense of humour I mentioned up the page – black and twisted though it certainly is. But on the other hand, it’s not what you’d call comfortable viewing – it finds your psychic pressure points and kneads at them relentlessly, and at one point there’s an appearance by a psychosexual monster sufficiently gobsmacking it would even give David Cronenberg pause (probably). You can see why it’s been released as counter-programming to Fast X and The Little Mermaid; what’s genuinely surprising is the fact that anyone honestly thought enough people would want to watch a film this extreme to make a $35 million dollar budget viable.

What makes the film particularly confounding is the fact that it’s very difficult to work out on what level it’s supposed to be functioning. Parts of it are relatively naturalistic, parts seem to be set in a sort of version of the ‘real world’ where certain elements have been heightened for dramatic or comic effect, other parts are so fantastical or surreal that – one assumes – at these points the film has to be operating on some sort of symbolic or allegorical level. And it slips back and forth between these modes without fanfare or signposting. You’re expecting some kind of conclusion where everything resets back to a recognisable analogue of the ordinary, naturalistic world. But it never comes, and after a few final swerves through the realms of melodrama, horror and surreal fantasy the film reaches an end. Perhaps the bizarre wrong-footing-ness of the conclusion is part of the intended effect.

However, this is one of those films which isn’t about what you take away; it’s about the experience of watching it – upsetting, visceral, moving, blackly comic. Most of this comes from a typically committed and intense performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who is on-screen for practically the whole three hours non-stop; the film has come out at the wrong time of year and looks likely to lose money, but this aside it’s the kind of performance that gets award attention. Having already made the comic book movie respectable in terms of being award-worthy, could Phoenix do the same for the horror film?

That said, it is Ari Aster who displays once again an almost casual mastery of composition, sound, and general mise-en-scene. ‘I can’t believe the imagination some people have,’ murmured the only other visible audience member at the screening I attended, as we both sat in the theatre trying to process the experience of the preceding three hours. I’m still not entirely sure of what Beau is Afraid is actually supposed to be about – an exercise in experimental surrealism? A depiction of a mind in crisis as seen from the inside? The answer is not clear, and to be honest the film is almost overwhelming – the sheer length and strangeness of it becomes alienating and exhausting some time before the end. It’s a fascinating experience but also a gruelling and possibly disturbing one. It may indeed be a masterpiece, but I don’t feel qualified to say so with certainty. But it’s definitely a tour de force for both director and star.

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As somebody once said, sort of, if you want to get a sense of the upheavals suffered by American society and culture in the 1960s, all you need to do is look at the career of Dennis Hopper. Early Hopper performances often see the actor cast as a nice, well-brought-up American boy, occasionally troubled or acting out (his aspiring neo-Nazi in The Twilight Zone, for instance), but generally someone who is not a menace to society. And then Easy Rider happens and suddenly he seems inextricably part of the counter-culture in perpetuity.

Given this, the idea of Dennis Hopper as a romantic lead can seem a bit weird or counter-intuitive, but this is what happened in his first lead role. This was in a film called Night Tide, directed by Curtis Harrington. Exactly what kind of film Night Tide is, is a bit challenging to pin down, as we shall see – it shifts about across genre boundaries. The title is drawn from a piece of Poe verse, but it’s not much like one of the Vincent Price Poe films that American-International Pictures were in the middle of at the time – nevertheless, AIP distributed the film (one story has it that Roger Corman intervened with the developers of the negative to ensure the thing got finished at all), and it was shown in a double-bill with The Raven (which must have made for a slightly odd experience for the audience).

To the extent that Night Tide is a horror film, it’s one that owes its strongest debt elsewhere. Hopper plays Johnny Drake, a young sailor on shore leave in California. He is by himself, and clearly wistful and lonely as he wanders about a slightly rundown seafront. Eventually Johnny pitches up in a small bar where a jazz group is playing. Also listening to the music is Mora (Linda Lawson), who is likewise by herself.

You sort of begin to wonder what kind of film this is going to be, as Johnny hits on Mora in the clumsiest, neediest of ways, despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to be that into him, even insisting on walking her back to her lodgings. There’s a name for this sort of behaviour and it’s not a word that turns up in connection with most romances. Nevertheless, Mora agrees for him to come back for breakfast in the morning.

The next day everything is sweetness and light, although the breakfast Mora has prepared for Johnny is mackerel, which is not my personal idea of a great start to the day. Suddenly the two of them are walking out together without either seeming to have given the idea much thought – or indeed there being much obvious chemistry. Perhaps it is best to consider Night Tide as some sort of melodramatic fable where some of the usual concerns of characterisation and motivation are not worth worrying about.

Johnny learns that Mora works at an attraction on the seafront, in a sideshow where (with the aid of a fake tail) she pretends to be a mermaid. Her godfather, or so he describes himself, runs the place – he is a retired naval captain named Murdock (Gavin Muir). Murdock claims to have found Mora as an orphaned child on the Greek island of Mykonos, and brought her back to the States to raise. All seems well for the young couple, for a bit at least – but then Johnny starts to see a strange woman in black haunting Mora’s steps, chanting strange incantations in a foreign language, and learns of ominous rumours about the unexplained deaths of her previous two suitors. Finally Murdock admits the awful truth – Mora isn’t just pretending to be a mermaid, she’s an actual siren, fated to lure young men to a watery grave…

The setting of Night Tide is well-observed and atmospheric; the horror-fantasy elements are delicate and ambiguously presented – in the end, it may just be the case that Mora is nothing but a disturbed young woman, subject to the influence of a possessive older man. Or it could be that she really is some sort of supernatural sea creature. You pays your money and you takes your choice – but the overall effect is strikingly reminiscent of the output of the RKO horror unit under Val Lewton, twenty years earlier, even if this is less Cat People and more Octopus Girl.

Still, the mixture of dreamlike, noirish fantasy and more naturalistic sequences is well-handled, and the production is probably wise to follow in Lewton’s footsteps by leaving as much as possible to the imagination – there are a couple of dream-sequences where Johnny imagines Mora first with a fish’s tail, and then transforming into a rubbery kraken-like monster, and these are the only moments where the film is in any danger of feeling camp or cheesy.

This is not a film which is overloaded with incident, so it’s just as well that the direction and incidental detail are as good as they are, and the performances help too. They kind of run the gamut from the earnestly naturalistic (Hopper, and probably Lawson) to the riper and more theatrical (Muir), but again this isn’t necessarily a problem and probably adds to the strange atmosphere of the piece. You can see why Night Tide has become something of a cult movie.

Doing films about actual mermaids (as opposed to people just living under the sea) has a somewhat chequered history – it seems to lend itself more to a sort of rom-com treatment (see Splash and its British antecedents Miranda and Mad About Men), but there has also been the odd full-on horror movie too (there’s a film called Mamula which I believe turned up on the Horror Channel under the title Killer Mermaids). We should also recall the recent kerfuffle over the complexion of the title character in the forthcoming live-action version of The Little Mermaid, and there is also the strange case of whatever-happened-to Empires of the Deep, an aspiring blockbuster with Olga Kurylenko, which has been MIA for about a decade. Given all this, Night Tide is probably somewhere towards the top of the heap, in its own little niche. It’s a weird little film, but quite well-made, and not afraid to assume the audience is intelligent. So there are three reasons at least to appreciate it.

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There are your non-traditional Hammer films and your traditional Hammer films, but the reason anyone talks about Hammer at all is because they made a lot of films that were good, full stop. I read a book on the vampire film genre years ago – it may have been David Skal’s V is for Vampire, if memory serves – in which Hammer Films earned a spot on the strength of the fact it was apparently a vampire film specialist. Really? Of course, there are seven or eight Draculas, plus a few other films in the same sort of territory, but that barely begins to scratch the surface – there are a load of Frankensteins, at least four Mummy-adjacent films, various psychological thrillers, some sci-fi films… and three takes on the Jekyll and Hyde story.

One of these is The Ugly Duckling, a 1959 comedy starring Bernard Bresslaw which need not concern us much. 1971’s Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is probably the one with the higher profile, partly because of the impudence of the concept, but also because it has people like Ralph Bates and Philip Madoc in it, not to mention Martine Beswick of course. The third, 1960’s The Two Faces of Jekyll, seems to me to get somewhat forgotten about – possibly because it’s one of the first wave of Hammer horror films as we usually understand them, and doesn’t entirely fit the template as a result. Like most of those early films, it was directed by Terence Fisher, and it has a couple of really interesting ideas going for it.

The film is set in London in 1874 (some years before Stevenson actually wrote the novella). Straightaway the script gets to work establishing scenario and theme. We meet Dr Jekyll (Paul Massie), a restrained, cerebral man, obsessed with his work – he is seeking to elevate the human condition by allowing people to liberate their higher selves from the clutches of their baser instincts. What could possibly go wrong with that? Well, to get a really good grasp of what the baser instincts are like, Dr Jekyll has come up with a drug which unleashes them from all inhibition, and to prove this transforms a tame and gentle monkey into a fanged menace. The friend he is expositing to makes the reasonable point that a drug having the opposite effect might be more useful. We also learn that Jekyll is a social recluse, which is a bit wearing for his beautiful wife Kitty (Dawn Addams).

Wondering how these two actually got together is virtually obligatory, but Jekyll’s choice of best friend is also a bit puzzling – this is Paul Allen, a scoundrel and rake, played by Christopher Lee (Lee would get his own crack at playing Jekyll in all but name in I Monster, also released in 1971). Allen is always tapping Jekyll to cover his gambling debts, much to Kitty’s apparent disapproval – but when the two are alone together it becomes very clear that Allen and Mrs Jekyll have got a thing going on.

It seems that Mrs Jekyll rather likes being left to her own devices by her husband, for when he reaches out to her she chooses to go off to a dinner party instead. Disconsolate, he shoots up with his drug, and… well, here’s where the story gets interesting, for the middle-aged, dry, bearded Jekyll transforms into the young, suave, clean-shaven Edward Hyde (why he chooses this particular name is not clear) – it’s not entirely unlike the Jerry Lewis spoof from 1963, in which the nerdy professor turns into a parody of Dean Martin.

People complaining that this is a wild deviation from the book are, I suspect, missing the point (I also suspect that they haven’t read the book, because while everyone knows the story hardly anyone has actually gone back to the source). Stevenson himself never gives a detailed description of Mr Hyde’s appearance, merely declaring him to have ‘the Mark of the Beast’ upon him. Most films interpret this by turning Hyde into a sort of barely-human ape; Two Faces is possibly unique (amongst non-genre-fluid Jekyll & Hydes, anyway) for making Hyde a much more superficially appealing but morally degenerate individual. (This was very much in keeping with Fisher’s equally suave takes on Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula.)

Hyde hits the town and ends up at the same nightspot where Kitty Jekyll and Allen have gone to disport themselves. (Also present in a very minor role is Oliver Reed, playing a pimp.) Crucially, neither of them recognise Hyde, thus setting up the film’s other brilliant innovation – Hyde takes rather a fancy to Kitty, and befriends her and Paul. Clearly he is scheming to displace Allen and have an adulterous affair with his own wife. (Of course, he also embarks on a sordid affair with a snake dancer, played by Norma Marler – a Rhodesian-born actress whose very brief career appears to have consisted entirely of Hammer adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde – her only other credit is for The Ugly Duckling.)

Two such good ideas would normally put the film on an easy track to success, but Two Faces does wobble a bit through its middle section, which turns into a slightly lurid melodrama about the interactions of the central trio (or quartet if you count Jekyll and Hyde separately). There’s also the odd question of why Jekyll keeps choosing to turn into Hyde, given he seems shocked and traumatised by the experience every time.

Things pick up towards the end as Hyde cooks up a devilish plan to force Jekyll to go into hiding (as Hyde) by framing him for various nefarious deeds (Christopher Lee is killed by the snake dancer’s pet, not very convincingly, and there are a couple of other murders). The climax is another divergence from most adaptations, as Hyde turns back into Jekyll at the police station and ends the film arrested, rather than dead.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, overall: Paul Massie is very good as Hyde, but quite hammy as Jekyll, and Christopher Lee is as effective as ever. However, the film is notably light on blood and explicit nastiness, certainly compared to other early Hammer horrors – the emphasis is much more on moral corruption and degeneracy than violence and physical jeopardy. This is the earliest Hammer horror that I’m aware of that really leans into the flesh part of the flesh and blood formula, though – there are several leery sequences dwelling on demi-monde dancing girls, and more implied nudity and sexual violence than in the earlier films.

This isn’t a bad film, but it does feel more like it leans towards the costume drama end of the spectrum than horror as such. It certainly lacks the big visual icon of Lee as Dracula or the Creature or the Mummy. It’s understandable that it isn’t remembered as vividly as the other early films  You could imagine Massie going on to have a successful association with the company – you can imagine him playing Meinster in Brides of Dracula or many of those John Richardson Hammer hunk parts – but he never worked with them again and virtually retired from movie acting a couple of years later, meaning this is a rare Hammer film led by a rather obscure performer. Perhaps why the whole film often seems to get forgotten about – it’s a traditional Hammer production, but only just.

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One of the questions you’re left with after watching Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 is that of exactly what kind of film this is, because it doesn’t really fit into any obvious category. Is it a socially-conscious drama? A naturalistic piece of dystopian science fiction? A rather unusual horror film? Certainly there are elements of all three going on.

The film is set in Japan in what looks very much like the present day. Japan, as you may know, is blessed with one of the longest life-expectancies in the developed world and afflicted by a problematically-low birth rate; this has created what used to be referred to as a demographic time bomb, as there will eventually be too many elderly people for the younger generation to take care of effectively. The film imagines a situation where this is causing immense social pressures, with spree killings and hate crimes targeting old people becoming a serious issue.

The response of the authorities is Plan 75, a measure deeply rooted in the Japanese traditions of social responsibility and and self-sacrifice. Anyone aged 75 or older can apply to join a scheme where they report to a facility where their life will be quietly and peacefully brought to an end; in return they will receive a grant of about $1000 as a reward, which they can spend on whatever they like (spa days and beauty treatments are mentioned).

Initially the film deals with a number of plotlines in parallel – a Filippino migrant worker (Stefanie Arianne), badly needing money for her child’s medical care, gets a job working at a Plan 75 facility. A young man (Hayato Isomura), whose job is as a junior administrator for the scheme, discovers his estranged uncle has applied to join it. And, most centrally, there is the story of an old but dignified woman, Mishi (Chieko Baisho) – she has no family, and it is getting harder to make ends meet (the implication is that the government is making it harder for older citizens to keep their jobs, presumably to pressure them towards a Plan 75 application). She wants to be a good citizen, naturally, and everyone from the plan whom she speaks to is so friendly and helpful…

The film is shot with an almost documentary-like reserve and lack of sensationalism, but it makes very clear the kind of soft power being wielded by the authorities: Plan 75, they stress, is entirely voluntary and applicants can withdraw from the process at any time. But at the same time, for an older generation which still broadly trusts the authorities, there is an unspoken sense of expectation – given it is supposedly for the good of society, it is surely selfish for an eligible person not to apply for the plan…?

The whole notion of society is at the heart of Plan 75: its nature, its purpose, what is best for it. What’s happening, of course, is that society is being treated as something separate from the people who comprise it – for if anything else were the case, the good of the elderly would be being considered, and the euthanasia of healthy old people can hardly be said to be in their best interests. Or, to put it another way – while the film is initially very detached and non-judgemental, it eventually makes it horribly clear that what Plan 75 is really about is people deemed to have no value being taken somewhere out of the public gaze and quietly gassed to death.

Through some deft slight-of-hand, Hayakawa contrives it so that the moment of realisation that this is what’s happening hits like a hammer. This is a considerable achievement, given the film is up-front about what Plan 75 involves from the start – there’s no ‘Soylent Green is people!’ twist here. The film lays its cards on the table slowly and carefully as the climax approaches – we learn that Plan 75 workers are encouraged to essentially loot the bodies of expired applicants, to reduce the amount of clothing and other personal items to be disposed of (the images of piles of possessions being rummaged through by workers in uniforms has its own historical resonance), while Isomura’s character is perturbed to learn that one of the private sector partners in the running of the scheme is a company specialising in running landfill sites. And for all that the plan is supposedly voluntary, we learn that the staff who interact with applicants are explicitly told to ensure no-one changes their mind.

The grimmest thing about the film is not that it is about what’s essentially an extermination programme, but the fact that it makes it seem so plausible and convincing. Plan 75’s training sessions and office politics are distressingly mundane: everyone involved seems to have mastered that variety of tunnel vision where they concentrate on the specifics of their job and manage not to think about what they’re actually doing. (As a former civil servant involved with the rationalisation of senior care services in a major UK county, this brought back some disquieting memories.) The treatment of the elderly is a long-standing concern of Japanese films (Ozu’s Tokyo Story dealt with the theme seventy years ago) but one can imagine similar scenes playing out in Europe or North America very easily.

Euthanasia is the hook for this film, but it felt very much to me like there was a broader question being asked here, one about how we treat the elderly in general. Just because we don’t gas them and stick their ashes in a landfill it doesn’t necessarily make us saints – I couldn’t help but remember the treatment of people in care homes during the pandemic, and the supposed ‘let the bodies pile high’ declaration from one of the UK’s foremost national disgraces. People are not very good at accepting their own mortality, and this seems to extend to a reluctance to acknowledge that everybody, one day, will get old – with luck, anyway – even us.

Ageing populations are a real problem and it’s fair to say that Plan 75 doesn’t have an alternative answer to offer. But it does a tremendous job of suggesting that there is no such thing as ‘voluntary’ euthanasia, and that the introduction of such a scheme, rather than saving society, is almost certain to brutalise it and everyone involved. This is not a cheerful film, as you would expect, but a very well-made and profoundly humane one.

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The thing about some classic stories is that there have been so many film versions of them that we seem to have reached a point of creative saturation with them – there just doesn’t seem to be any desire for new ones. Recent films based on reliable old bankers like Tarzan, Robin Hood and King Arthur haven’t really paid the rent, although of course modern sensibilities are probably a bit uncomfortable with a canon which largely revolves around white male heteronormativity.

In other cases, it’s just the original story which has apparently fallen out of favour – spin-offs and derivative works continue to turn up on a regular basis. There hasn’t been a ‘straight’ movie version of Dracula in thirty years, but since then there’s been a spin-off centred on Van Helsing, an attempt at a revisionist origin story, and various low-budget films that haven’t really made an impression. I was about to suggest this was a recent phenomenon, but then of course, as we have recently seen, people were making films about Dracula’s pet dog as long ago as 1977. So the appearance of a film about Dracula’s helpmeet shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

This is Renfield, directed by Chris McKay (who previously did a rather good film about the Lego version of a different sort of bat man). Renfield, for the uninitiated, is a lunatic in Stoker’s original novel; he falls under Dracula’s sway and starts eating insects and spiders (a sort of cargo-cult version of vampirism). In the movies, when he appears at all, he usually gets amalgamated with either Jonathan Harker or Harker’s boss Hawkins. The Hammer film series largely replaced him with a character called Klove, although another character called Ludwig closely resembles the Stoker version.

As you can perhaps imagine, playing Dracula’s insane sidekick gives a performer a certain latitude when it comes to pitching their performance, and some people have gone howlingly over-the-top as a result. Keeping things a bit more under control in the new film is Nicholas Hoult, who is living in present-day New Orleans. He has been in Dracula’s service for nearly a century (there is an elaborate call-back to the Tod Browning version of Dracula) and is currently helping to nurse the Count back to health, if that’s the right word, following his latest near-demise. Dracula is played (and very much not underplayed) by Nicolas Cage.

The main gag of the new film, which is largely a comedy, is that Renfield has taken to going to a support group for people trapped in abusive or controlling relationships, clearly seeing something of his own situation in their problems. Naturally the other people there don’t realise that much of what he says about his boss having the power of life and death over him is literally true. Dracula, on the other hand, is testy and complains that Renfield isn’t doing enough to help him restore his strength – he just wants to prey on some unsuspecting tourists, or nuns, or a bus full of cheerleaders. Male or female cheerleaders, enquires Renfield delicately. ‘Don’t make this a sexual thing,’ scowls the Count.

Meanwhile, ass-kicking traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) is engaged in a one-woman crusade to bring down the Lobos, a powerful crime family responsible for the death of her father. She eventually ticks them off enough for a hit to be ordered on her while she’s in the same restaurant where Renfield is looking for a snack for his master. The hapless thrall is sufficiently impressed by her steely refusal to be intimidated that he ends up saving her life; she inspires him to try and make a change in his situation and break free from Dracula’s control. The Lobos, meanwhile, are looking for Renfield and end up tracking him back to Dracula’s lair. The Count decides this band of ruthless killers may be his kind of people, and proposes an alliance…

It sounds a fairly straightforward story, but to be honest the film wanders about quite a lot in its midsection before rallying near the end. This is about as short as mainstream films get nowadays, at only 90 minutes or so, which means that it never gets slow or dull but also struggles to develop any of its ideas properly. Not that they are tremendously original: the intersection of traditional vampirism and organised crime isn’t a particularly new plot device, while the familiar-in-therapy conceit is exactly the sort of thing that they’ve been doing on What We Do In The Shadows for years now.

For something being pitched as a comedy, Renfield is never as consistently funny as What We Do In The Shadows (the movie or the first few years of the TV show, anyway). What it ends up as is a sort of knockabout action-oriented splatstick with some extremely gory bits and not much subtlety to a lot of the jokes. It may not help that two of the main performers are Awkwafina and Ben Schwartz, neither of whom are synonymous with delicate understatement; Awkwafina’s performance, I have to say, is very possibly not good enough – though she’s saddled with a character who’s two-dimensional at best.

Nicholas Hoult, on the other hand, is very good, and manages to keep his scenes very watchable as usual. But the film only really comes to life – perhaps I should say rises from the coffin? – when Nicolas Cage is on-screen. This is an archetypal Cage performance, operatically over-the-top by any conventional metric, but also containing real wit and depth. And it must be said that Cage makes a tremendous Dracula – the fact that he sort-of resembles both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee obviously helps, but he provides the movie with its only real moments of menace. It would be wonderful – though it probably won’t happen – to see him play the character again in a less-comedic context; as it is, Cage’s turn is by far the best reason to see this film.

When Cage isn’t on, the film is a rather confused mixture of action, broad comedy, and gore, with a variable tone that Nicholas Hoult by himself isn’t quite good enough to salvage. The lengthy and elaborate fight sequences feel like they’ve been transplanted in from a different movie; they’re not bad, they just don’t feel like they belong in what started off looking like a fairly witty spoof of Dracula. But by the end this has turned into something more generic and less rewarding. It has funny moments, and it’s usually visually interesting, but less fighting, more Cage, and more ideas would have made for a much better movie.

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I can still remember the morning when my junior school teacher sat the whole class down, got us to open our books, and announced we were going to write a story. We could write whatever we wanted, as long as we stuck to the title The Haunted House (for boys) or The Fairy Garden (for girls – oh, those pre-woke days). I couldn’t believe this was actually school work – I remember the sense of almost delirious joy and possibility at, after years of copying stuff out, being able to write anything I wanted to. I stayed in at lunchtime (normally a punishment) to write more. Some would say I have never quite stopped writing in the forty-plus years since.

All I can remember about that first exercise in fiction was the end (my best friend came up with a really good idea, which I promptly ripped off), and a bit halfway through when my best friend (who was heavily involved in those early efforts, both as a source of ideas and a character) was wandering around the titular structure when he was attacked by ‘Zoltan, the hound of Dracula’ who I seem to recall left him ‘half-dead’. It was probably a bit optimistic of me to expect the casual reader to know who ‘Zoltan, the hound of Dracula’ actually was, given I didn’t actually explain it, but this small detail reveals two important nuggets of information – firstly, as a small child I was clearly paying far too much information to the horror movie listings in the Radio Times – the TV premiere of the movie Zoltan… Hound of Dracula had clearly left a big impression on me – and secondly, my first ever work of fiction is, in retrospect, possibly the world’s only piece of Zoltan… Hound of Dracula fan fiction. Any serious prospect of a proper writing career was clearly doomed from the outset.

The movie which played such a seminal role in my young life was directed by Albert Band and released in 1977. In the States it was lumbered with the rather less evocative title of Dracula’s Dog, but on the other hand this probably does give you a better sense of what to expect from the film. That said, it does get off to a belting start, with Red Army troops blasting their way into a tomb complex somewhere in Romania. This turns out to be a family crypt of the Dracula dynasty and thus probably not to be messed with. Perhaps inevitably, one man is left on guard while everyone else clears off.

That night, there is subsidence in the tomb, or possibly an earthquake, and two coffins are thrown clear of the vault. The sentry, being an idiot, opens one of them and finds something covered in a blanket with a wooden stake sticking out of it. Because he is a real idiot, he pulls out the stake and then seems to be genuinely surprised when something springs out of the coffin at him. Well, to be fair, he probably wasn’t expecting a dobermann to be in a coffin, but even so. Yes, it is the star of the movie, Zoltan himself, and he makes short work of the idiot guard before managing to open the other coffin and yanking out the stake with his teeth.

In the other coffin is Veidt Smit (Reggie Nalder), a servitor of the Dracula family who is described as a ‘fractional lamia’, whatever that means. Smit is immortal, doesn’t need to drink blood, and seems to have some sort of psychic powers, but is bound to the will of the Draculas (in this movie ‘Dracula’ and ‘vampire’ are used more-or-less interchangeably). But there aren’t any Draculas left, the last of the line having upped stakes and moved to California years ago. Clearly it is up to Smit and Zoltan to visit this man and remind him of his family legacy…

(There’s also a bit where we see Zoltan looking at the tombstone of ‘Igor Dracula’, at which point we are treated to a flashback sequence which serves as his origin story: we see Dracula, thwarted in his attempt to chow down on the lovely daughter of Smit, who was previously an innkeeper – she screams and he runs away, which seems a bit out of character – settling for second best and attacking the innkeeper’s dog Zoltan instead. Dracula does this in bat form, presumably because it would be a bit weird for a grown man to be seen sucking a dobermann. He then recruits Smit as well, on a sort of two-for-one deal, although while Zoltan is apparently a full vampire, or at least a full a vampire as it is possible for a dog to be, Smit is stuck being a ‘fractional lamia’. It does look like Smit is the brains of this team, though, relatively speaking.

When all this happened is not clear – Wikipedia has a stab at 1670, which predates the development of the dobermann as a breed, while ChatGPT is predictably useless and suggests the film is a horror comedy starring Eddie Redmayne as Dracula and Jack Black as his dog. It probably doesn’t really matter. Also obscure is exactly what it means to be a vampire dog – does Zoltan have supercanine strength and speed? If, as per Stoker, Dracula can turn into a dog, does this mean Zoltan can turn into a human being? As this would require the film-makers to display some genuine imagination, it doesn’t happen, of course.)

Anyway, on the trail of Zoltan and Smit is one Inspector Branco (Jose Ferrer, by his own admission solely here for the money), who has got the facts of the situation from the officer commanding the troops at the tomb. She is played by Arlene Martel, who portrayed Spock’s fiancee in the original version of Star Trek, but sadly she only has this one scene. This movie is actually good fodder for our Trekkie cousins – Nalder played the Andorian ambassador in one episode, which the last of the Draculas is played by Michael Pataki, who was a Klingon in the episode with the tribbles.

Pataki plays one Michael Drake, a psychiatrist with a lovely family and a curious selection of family heirlooms he should probably have paid more attention to. He also has a couple of German Shepherds which prove to be significant to the plot. As luck and budget limitations would have it, Drake and his brood, together with the dogs, are about to go off for a short break in their camper, thus allowing the rest of the film to be filmed off in the woods somewhere where it’s less expensive.

As you are perhaps sensing, Zoltan… Hound of Dracula is not a particularly great, or even good, or even (if we’re honest) mediocre movie, overall, and one of the things that make it so poor is the fact it is so glacially paced. Every time anyone gets in their car or RV and drives somewhere, we get a lengthy sequence of them driving along while cheery music plays on the soundtrack, whether this is appropriate or not. You start to anticipate these sequences, but this doesn’t make them any less annoying while they’re in progress.

Zoltan and Smit eventually start to come across as just a bit incompetent, as they spend most of the second half of the movie lurking in the undergrowth near the Drakes’ camper without ever seeming likely to actually make a move on Drake himself. The Drake family dogs start acting weirdly, and other local campers are in serious peril, but that’s all. The film’s most bizarre and provocative moment comes when Zoltan slakes his unholy thirst by drinking the blood of a cute little German Shepherd puppy, which the Drakes bury with all due reverence and sadness. But, of course, the puppy rises from the dead as a vampire, digging itself out of the ground and scampering blithely away while no-one’s looking. The twist at the end of the film is that the vampire German Shepherd puppy is still on the loose somewhere, an idea that screams… well, maybe it just screams.

After a while you get a strong and accurate sense that nothing very exciting or scary is ever going to happen in this movie, despite the best efforts of the dog trainers. Branco turns up (having traded in his homburg for a beret that makes him look like an aging beatnik) and tells Drake what’s happening. Drake, rather improbably, believes him, and the stage is set for… more of the same, really.

In the end it is what it is: a super-low-budget cash-in on the Dracula name, which never really finds something interesting to do with the area of vampire-canine intersection which it has proudly claimed for itself. You could probably do a reasonably interesting film about vampire dogs if you thought about it imaginatively. But no-one here did. Zoltan… Hound of Dracula starts off with glimmers of promise but quickly turns into a heavily-padded piece of unintentional low camp. Seven year old me might have been more generous about it, but – for good or ill – that kid is long gone. Zoltan… Hound of Dracula is still marking his territory on various video-sharing websites, however. Maybe there’s a message there for us all. Or maybe not.

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It’s never a bad idea to have a goal in life, no matter how quixotic, and by the early 1970s it seemed that producer-director Dan Curtis’s aim was to bring a particular flavour of horror to the Great American Viewing Public. By this point he had already been in charge of the gothic horror soap melodrama Dark Shadows for two years, overseen its two big-screen spin-offs, and produced the immensely popular horror TV movie The Night Stalker (this eventually led to the Kolchak TV show, something Curtis was not involved with). In retrospect, the next step must have seemed obvious – another gothic horror TV movie, this one concerning the original night stalker.

The result was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, originally intended for an October 1973 broadcast but eventually arriving in February the following year. Ever since the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s own Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the rights to that name have belonged elsewhere; these days when Curtis’ film shows up it’s usually simply as Dracula (which is not the most distinctive title for a horror movie, I will grant you).

It wasn’t a coincidence that Curtis and Coppola chose the same name – the selling point of both productions was that, supposedly, each was the most faithful adaptation of the novel made up to that point. To oversee the script, Curtis hired Richard Matheson, who’d written the two Kolchak TV movies as part of a long and immensely distinguished career in the horror and SF genres. Is it a ripped-from-the-page take on Stoker’s novel? Well, no, but it gets closer than most (for my money the most faithful Dracula remains the BBC version with Louis Jourdan, which came out a few years after this movie was made).

Virtually everyone knows the premise of Dracula by now; most people probably have a vague idea of the plot. Well-mannered estate agent Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) is packed off to Hungary to assist a local nobleman in the purchase of some property in England, much to the concern of the peasants he meets on the way. (Yes, deviation #1: in this movie it is repeatedly suggested that Dracula is Hungarian, not Romanian!) But the Count himself (Jack Palance) is a gracious enough host, even if the women of his household seem to be taking a permanent walk on the wild side. Dracula takes a special interest in Harker’s photos from home, especially those of his fiancee Mina (Penelope Horner) – ‘Mina’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘winner’ by all concerned, which doesn’t seem right to me, but so it goes.

Dracula heads off to the new house he’s bought in Blighty (deviation #2: Carfax is somewhere in the north, not in London – though no-one ever gets this right), leaving Jonathan to try and survive in Castle Dracula unassisted. Soon enough Mina’s friend Lucy is suffering from a mysterious neck wound and an inexplicable wasting illness. Lucy’s fiance Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward) is worried enough to call in his acquaintance Dr Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport), who quickly figures out that there’s something nasty on the loose near Whitby. Pass the garlic!

If we’re going to be technical about this, I reckon this is about 70% faithful to Bram Stoker, with many of the changes imposed for budgetary reasons – whichever way you cut it, there are quite a few dead wood characters in Dracula, which is why Dr Seward and Quincey usually get the chop, as happens here. Mounting scenes in Victorian London, especially after dark, was clearly also beyond Curtis’ resources, though we get a decent look at the aftermath of the wreck of the Demeter (we see the dead helmsman lashed to the wheel, with a moody-looking Dracula standing on the beach in the background).

Of the remainder, I reckon about 20% comes straight from the first Hammer Dracula – particularly the central partnership of Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood, and also the climax (never mind curtains, the Count needs to get his windows bricked up). The last 10% brings quite a different flavour with it, for it seems to me to be a holdover from The Night Stalker itself – Robert Cobert’s score is virtually identical in many places, for one thing, while this is (I think) one of the very first instances of Dracula being presented as a borderline-supervillain, with superhuman strength and indifference to bullets – again, very much in the same vein as Night Stalker, where the villain strolls through hails of gunfire and throws policemen around like ragdolls. (On the topic of Dracula-as-supervillain: ironically, the Marvel Comics version of Dracula looked rather like Jack Palance for many years, even though that comic book started before this film was made.)

On the other hand, Curtis’ Dracula doesn’t have any of the funky swagger or urgency of The Night Stalker. It’s the kind of film where respect for the source material is in danger of turning into over-reverence. Normally I like my adaptations to be pretty faithful to the original text, but the world is not short on Draculas and it would be nice to have seen a freer take on it from Matheson (writer, let’s not forget, of the seminal I Am Legend). On the other hand, Hammer’s Dracula spent the first half of the 1970s molesting Carnaby Street hippies, hanging out in Millbank Tower, and appearing in kung fu movies, so I suppose that at this point doing a relatively ‘straight’ adaptation was in its way quite radical. Curtis’ movie could certainly be seen as the point at which the pendulum starting swinging back towards the more faithful Draculas of the end of the decade (Werner Herzog’s and John Badham’s, as well as the BBC version).

Nevertheless, there’s a thin line between straight and stiff, and this is a pretty stiff version of the story whichever way you cut it. I think a lot of this is down to the casting – Jack Palance isn’t a terrible Dracula, but he seems grumpy more than actually evil, and he’s a long way from being the charismatic ladykiller of the popular imagination (that said, this conception of the character has little to do with the Stoker text, so it’s not necessarily a problem). Filming in England means a few familiar faces pop up – Sarah Douglas is a bride of Dracula, while John Challis (Herman Boyce in various sitcoms) also gets a walk-on. But Simon Ward makes hardly any impression as Arthur and Nigel Davenport’s Van Helsing is more like some bluff old cove you’ve met down the golf club than a dedicated seeker into dark mysteries and vampire lore.

The 1970s were a boom period for vampire and Dracula movies – there were at least six ‘proper’ Dracula films I can think of without racking my memory, and that’s before we consider things like Count Iorga Vampire and the Blacula films, let alone things like Zoltan, Hound of Dracula. Even if it wasn’t a TV movie, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if the Curtis Dracula got lost in the crowd a bit. It’s not the greatest version of the story, but it’s a worthy one that tries to take it seriously and do it justice. I wish I could find nicer things to say about it, but… it’s just a little bit lacking in fun.

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One of the buzz phrases of our current epoch is ‘nepo baby’, which  everyone seems to be using now they have realised that people with successful parents have a much better chance of being successful themselves. There seems to be a degree of resentment of this, but here in the UK I don’t really feel we have any grounds for grumbling given that the majority of people are fine with our head of state basically getting his job because of who his mum was.

Elsewhere in the world – particularly the fizzing realm of Canadian-Croatian-Hungarian movie co-production – things may be different, but this hasn’t stopped Brandon Cronenberg from making his third film. ‘Brandon who?’ you may be wondering – yes, he is the son of David Cronenberg, but it’s probably worth pointing out he was born after Cronenberg Senior made The Brood and so those homicidal infant monsters were not based on him. I expect.

When you are the son of one of the world’s most celebrated horror movie directors it probably influences any movie career you may have – how could it not? It’s hard to imagine the Cronenberg name on a rom-com or a feelgood film. You probably  wouldn’t watch Cronenberg’s new film Infinity Pool without knowing the director’s name and immediately cry ‘Hey, it’s just like a David Cronenberg film!’ – but on the other hand, it’s not totally different, either. It’s certainly a film which arrives from the outermost reaches of commercial cinema, well beyond the boundaries of conventional good taste.)

Alexander Skarsgard plays James Foster, a marginally successful author enjoying  – sort of – a holiday in the  tourist enclave of Li Tolqa (a presumably Balkan country – it looks like it’s just down the coast from Beszel and/or Ul Qoma) with his much wealthier wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman). The holiday is going only marginally well until Foster meets a couple of fans – architect Alban (Jalil Lespert) and his much younger British wife Gabi (Mia Goth). Soon they are hanging out together as couples who meet on holiday do, and Gabi makes it rather clear that she has a more than friendly interest in Foster (he is relieving himself after a beach barbecue when she appears and, ahem, gives him a hand. This sequence is absolutely on the limit of what you can get away with showing in a respectable movie, in case you were wondering).

Things take a darker turn as, driving home from the barbecue, Foster hits and kills a local. Gabi declares that ‘this is not a civilised country’ and insists they leave the scene of the crime without reporting it (echoes here of The Forgiven from last year). But the Li Tolqan police know their business and soon Foster and his wife find themselves under arrest. Despite the notoriously brutal local justice system, the detective in charge (Thomas Kretcschmann) suggests it is unlikely Foster will be executed: foreigners have the option of paying to use the local custom where convicted criminals can have themselves cloned, the clone then being killed in their presence by their victim’s family. The police station has its own convenient ATM, seemingly just for this purpose.

Naturally Foster makes use of this option, but while Em is horrified by the ritual of the execution (another very graphic scene), Foster’s own response is rather ambivalent. He discovers that Gabi and Alban are members of a rather exclusive club of foreign visitors who have been through the Li Tolqan justice system and developed a taste for watching themselves put to death – not least because this effectively comes hand-in-hand with complete immunity to all the local laws. The possibilities are enticing, assuming Foster can get his head around the moral degeneracy involved…

The Cronenberg name means everyone is treating this is a horror film – and, to be fair, this is one of the most wildly graphic films I have ever seen – but there is a rich vein of disquieting Ballardian satire going on here as well. It’s a film about lots of different things, but one of the main ones is what the jaded hyper-wealthy (and sometimes not so hyper-wealthy) get up to in poorer countries. This isn’t quite a film about the phenomenon of poverty tourism, but the disconnect between different economic castes is certainly in the mix.

To the extent that it is a horror film, Infinity Pool is one that sets out to disturb and repel rather than simply frighten. There’s not much in the way of catharsis here, just a profound sense of angst and fundamental wrongness as Foster is swallowed up by a world where morality simply doesn’t exist and no act is too transgressive. There is extreme sexual content to go with the violence, including an eye-poppingly hallucinogenic orgy sequence that left me in no doubt as to why this film had to be cut in order to be released at all in American cinemas. Parts of the film may look innocuous, but it is really a voyage to the heart of darkness (and various other internal organs too).

Alexander Skarsgard has history making fairly extreme films, of course, and he gives another impressive performance in this one. Co-leading the film is Mia Goth as his guide-temptress-tormentor – Goth is acquiring a reputation as someone to watch in the horror genre, and she commands the screen here, even if she never quite manages to shake the impression she’s playing some sort of perverse wish-fulfilment figure. It’s a tremendous turn and what usually gets called a very striking performance (‘striking’ being film-critic code for when an actress takes all her clothes off at least once in a film).

The film’s mixture of profound disquiet, savage satire and deadpan black comedy (‘Think of it as a souvenir,’ suggests Kretschmann as Skarsgard is handed the ashes of his first clone) is certainly reminiscent of the elder Cronenberg’s most distinctive work, but it’s not quite as simple as that – the cerebral chilliness and sense of detachment are absent, replaced by something more visceral. It feels like the younger Cronenberg wants to plunge in, get some skin in the game, where his father would remain an aloof chronicler. It’s a different approach but one which, in this case at least, gets results. Unsettling and challenging results, but ones which are difficult to forget – this is a movie which does not compromise.

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Joseph Losey was a left-leaning American film director who was blacklisted (supposedly at the behest of Howard Hughes, after he refused to make a film called I Married A Communist), and ended up working in Europe and especially the UK, where he eventually formed a long-lasting and productive relationship with Harold Pinter. His best-remembered films include The Servant and The Go-Between.

Not quite the usual sort of person you’d expect to find directing for Hammer Films, but then the movie he ended up doing isn’t your usual sort of Hammer film. It is The Damned (known in some quarters as These Are The Damned), filmed in 1961 but not released until a couple of years later.

As the film gets underway there is a strange tension between its Hammer and non-Hammer elements – there is a James Bernard score, instantly recognisable as such even though it seems to be in a minor key, but playing over images of rather odd sculptures (courtesy of Elizabeth Frink, who was present for part of the shoot) on a coastal clifftop rather than castles or mountains. And then The Damned seems on the verge of turning into Quadrophenia or Beat Girl, as we find ourselves in the  seaside town of Weymouth in the middle of tourist season, with a very John Barry-ish song called ‘Black Leather’ playing on the soundtrack. A young woman named Joan (Shirley Anne Field) finds her wiles attracting a much older man (B-movie stalwart Macdonald Carey, not that long before he started his three-decade residency on The Days of Our Lives); his name is Simon. However, Joan and Simon walking off together seems to attract the ire of a scooter gang, who proceed to beat him up, seemingly just for kicks. Giving it the beans  in terms of brooding saturnine intensity is Oliver Reed as the gang leader, King (not quite Reed’s first role for Hammer, but a step up); fairly prominent amongst his minions is a young Kenneth Cope.

Simon’s path crosses that of a sculptress, Freya (Viveca Lindfors), who will be living in the area courtesy of her own acquaintance, Bernard (Alexander Knox), a scientist in charge of a hush-hush government project in the area. To be honest this is just a contrivance to bring together two plot strands which would otherwise remain separate for most of the film, but it’s an acceptable one.

Anyway, Joan decides she really does like the look of Simon (one wonders why – he has his own cabin cruiser, but that’s about all) and the two of them run off together, pursued by King and his goons. They eventually make landfall near Freya’s cottage, where they are spotted by one of the bikers and a chase ensues. While trying to climb down the cliffs, they both fall into the sea, followed not long after by King himself.

They recover to find themselves in a cave under the cliffs, being looked after by a group of young children who are all 11 years old. We have already seen that the education of these children – by TV screen – is a central element of Bernard’s project. But who are they? Why is their skin so icy to the touch? And why is Bernard so determined to keep them isolated, seemingly at any cost?

In short, the film seamlessly shifts from looking like a teenage exploitation movie to something more akin to Quatermass or Village of the Damned, although it has a hard edge to it which is totally lacking from Hammer’s costume pictures of this period: the gang violence and ruthless scientific experimentation on young people seems to anticipate A Clockwork Orange, in some ways, too. The film was X-rated in 1963; these days it’s more like a 12, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

I’ve been watching Hammer films for 35 years or so; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Usually they’re very entertaining, one way or another; occasionally shocking; seldom what you’d actually call scary. But The Damned is horrible in a way that no other Hammer horror film matches – not horrible in that it’s badly made (far from it), but horrible in its conception, in its absolute bleakness and nihilism. It finds real-world fear-buttons that velvet-wrapped gothic fantasies never get close to.

The children in the bunker under the cliff are the mutated products of a nuclear accident, and being studied and educated by Bernard and his men. Uniquely in the world, they are completely immune to radiation – in fact, their bodies generate it quite naturally, at levels which are eventually lethal to normal people. Simon and Joan are initially unaware of this, and are shocked to discover them being apparently held prisoner. But Knox has his eye on the bigger picture: he is secure in his absolute certainty that a nuclear holocaust is inevitable, and he is preparing the children for the day when civilisation is destroyed and they inherit an irradiated world in which only they can survive. This idea is put across in a chillingly matter-of-fact way and with complete conviction. It’s not just the situation, but the abandonment of any hope implicit in it – total acceptance and apathy in the face of a looming armageddon.

Bleak doesn’t begin to describe it, in fact, and what actually happens in the third act of the film only compounds it: already feeling the onset of radiation sickness from contact with the children, Simon and the others attempt to help them escape, only for Bernard to send in troops in radiation suits and helicopters to recapture them all. Simon and Joan are allowed to go free, as Bernard already knows they won’t get the chance to tell their story; other witnesses are also ruthlessly eliminated. Bernard reflects that the main regrettable consequence of the whole affair is that the children now know they are bing kept as prisoners. Simon’s yacht, with him and Joan aboard, begins to drift aimlessly; the holidaymakers at Weymouth go about their fun, oblivious to the plaintive cries of the imprisoned children in their subterranean world; the film ends.

Some elements of The Damned have not aged well, particularly the supporting performances and parts of the script (the scenes between Joan and Simon, for example). But the core of the film still has a tremendous power even today – it hits, appropriately enough, like a hammer. These days we may not be quite so conscious of the shadow of the bomb hanging over us, but that shadow still exists; there are enough terrible things we seem happy to put out of sight and out of mind. This is not a comforting film, or a particularly easy one to watch, but it’s still one of the most striking and effective Hammer productions I’ve ever come across, atypical though it clearly is.

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