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Posts Tagged ‘Jimmy Sangster’

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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So, it’s 1970, and you’re an award-winning and iconic British movie studio whose horror movies have come to define the genre for a generation. Unfortunately, critics have started to get a little harsh and audiences aren’t quite turning up in the numbers they once did. What are you to do?

Well, funnily enough, Hammer Films found themselves in that exact situation, and the option they went for was to reboot both of their main series for a younger, hipper crowd. First out of the blocks was Jimmy Sangster’s The Horror of Frankenstein, which dropped any pretence of continuity with the previous five Hammer Frankensteins.

So we’re back with the Baron (here played by Ralph Bates) at the start of his career as a student and then a mad scientist. Already having murdered his father to further his career, Victor Frankenstein sets about creating a hideous patchwork monster, a travesty of man… and so on. I think we’re all familiar with the main thrust of this story, and this film adds nothing to it in terms of actual plot twists. The monster himself is embodied by a pre-Darth Vader Dave Prowse, while filling up the necessary Hammer-glamour slots are Veronica Carlson as the good girl and Kate O’Mara as the bad one.

It sounds a bit formulaic, but you would be wrong in thinking this film makes no demands of its audience. It does. Mainly when it comes to the suspension of their disbelief. Very early on, there is the following exchange –

Old Baron: ‘It’s not natural for a boy of your age to be so interested in all this scientific twaddle!’

Young Frankenstein: ‘It’s no less natural than a man of your age being interested in a sixteen-year-old housemaid!’

– which on paper doesn’t sound unreasonable, but the fact that both Victor and the housemaid are visibly in their thirties doesn’t help the film in any way. The production values are up to the usual high standard for a Hammer film, but it’s slapdash in virtually every other department. Supposedly set in Austria (with stock footage of somewhere appropriately Alpine turning up for establishing shots of Castle Frankenstein), the local church appears to be in the Borehamwood area, and Frankenstein’s housekeeper has an accent from somewhere on the Ireland-Somerset border. Historical realism, particularly when it comes to things like class distinctions, isn’t even a factor.

Instead, Sangster seems to think the way to entice a younger crowd is to channel the spirit of late-period Carry On films and other softcore comedies (not that there’s any of your actual nudity in this movie). The first fruit of Frankenstein’s researches is a severed arm that gives the V-sign to order, for example, and the Baron himself seems as obsessive a womaniser as he is a scientist – none of which is strictly relevant to the plot.

And in including all of this stuff, the essential things you actually want from a Frankenstein movie get pushed aside. This story should be about obsession, and hubris, and arrogance. When Frankenstein’s first major success comes from resuscitating a deceased tortoise, it sort of lacks the blasphemous energy the film really requires. And rather than being a misguided obsessive, he’s an out-and-out ruthless bastard from the opening scene, with no real reason for this being presented. One way or another he murders half-a-dozen people in the course of the film, including his best friend, his father, and his mistress, and we’re never given any sense of why he feels so strongly about his work that he’s driven to do this, or how he can function the rest of the time if his brain works that way.

(Three of the murders occur following an exchange along the following lines –

Soon-to-be-victim: ‘You’re an evil man, Baron Frankenstein! I have proof and I’m going to the police about it!’

Frankenstein: ‘Very well, you have that right. But before you do that, would you like to come down into my dark and mysterious cellar all alone with me and my dangerous scientific equipment?’

Soon-to-be-victim: ‘Er – yes, all right.’

– which is jaw-droppingly lazy scripting.)

What’s worst of all is that there’s no sense of transgressiveness or moral outrage anywhere in this film, almost as if the viewer is supposed to empathise with someone who appears to be a complete psychopath. The resolution of the film – there isn’t an actual climax – has a disgruntled-looking Baron experiencing an admittedly major setback, but otherwise with his health, wealth, and freedom fully intact. There’s no sense of real punishment or the moral order being restored.

What makes this even more irritating is that, very rarely, the film stops trying to be arch and fashionable and takes itself seriously, and in these moments we get glimpses of what a fantastic performance Ralph Bates could have given if he’d had a decent script. Groomed by Hammer as a successor to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Bates appeared in a number of movies, most of which were sabotaged by weak scripts or low budgets. But his performance as the obsessive title character in Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde shows just how good he could be, given the right material. Someone like Lee or Cushing, might, possibly, have had the sheer charisma and wit to make this film work, but Bates seems to be trying to play a ridiculous character straight (his first words to the monster are ‘How do you do?’) and he just can’t carry it off.

Aside from those brief flashes of could-have-been, there’s not much else to get excited about in Horror of Frankenstein – even Kate O’Mara’s extraordinary wardrobe loses its fascination quite rapidly. Dennis Price has a cameo as the local grave robber and displays the sort of droll wit that the rest of the film is sorely lacking in, while Veronica Carlson has the most elaborate hairstyles this side of the planet Naboo, but the rest is extremely forgettable.

So, it’s 1972, and you’re an award-winning and iconic British movie studio whose attempt to reboot its Frankenstein series with a new continuity and a new actor turned out to be a bit of a disaster. What are you going to do?

Easy peasy. You sack Ralph Bates, re-hire Peter Cushing and go back to the old continuity…

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