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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Cushing’

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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If you think of British film companies of the 60s, particularly makers of genre movies, then of course you think of Hammer, then probably Amicus, and perhaps Tigon in third place. It might be quite a long time before you remembered Planet, a much smaller outfit these days best remembered for a couple of Terence Fisher films – Island of Terror, from 1966, and Night of the Big Heat, from 1967. Island of Terror was a moderately successful monster movie, rather let down by ropey monster props and a slightly stuffy tone. Night of the Big Heat (also known by the rather more promising title Island of the Burning Damned) almost looks like an attempt at a remake with these things fixed.

Everything takes place on the island of Fara, which we are told is somewhere off the coast of the UK. The film actually has a very unpromising opening, with no dialogue for ages and no real sense of what’s going on: someone’s radar set explodes in his face, a young woman (Jane Merrow) drives around in her convertible, and a stern-looking man (Christopher Lee) is engaged upon some mysterious experiments involving cameras and mirrors and bits of wood. (One of these scenes turns out not to have happened yet, and is just a teaser for much later on.)

Eventually we get some sense of the set-up here. Key locations on Fara include the weather station and the gravel pits (a useful location for staging mysterious deaths and the climax), but most of the action takes place in the pub, which is run by slab-faced alpha-male novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson). Lodging in the pub is mysterious outsider Dr Hanson (Lee), while constantly propping up the bar is genial GP Dr Stone (‘guest star’ Peter Cushing). New on the scene is Jeff’s latest secretary, Angela (Merrow), who is a bit of a naughty minx: she and Jeff have history together, if you know what I mean, and she’s come to Fara intent on resuming their liaison. A torrid time is in prospect.

Especially torrid given the island is sweltering in the grip of a tremendous, unseasonal heatwave, which is making TV sets and bottles of beer spontaneously explode. (All the men have had ridiculous sweat-patches applied to their shirts by the costume department.) What’s going on? Does it have anything to do with Dr Hanson’s experiments?

Well, sort of. It seems that space probes from Earth have attracted the attention of alien creatures composed of ‘high frequency heat’ and they are using Fara as a beachhead for their invasion of Earth. Anyone who crosses their path – sheep, supporting characters, those old tramps who are such a regular feature of this kind of movie – is rapidly incinerated. Is everyone doomed?

The least you can say for Night of the Big Heat – you know, I do think Island of the Burning Damned is a better title – is that it more or less avoids the key problems that Island of Terror had: the alien monsters are kept off-screen for most of the movie (and the monster props are marginally better when they do appear), and the general tone of the thing is pepped up by some mildly saucy business between Allen and Merrow (not to mention Merrow providing some cheap PG-rated cheesecake thrills). And yet this is still a worse movie than the previous Planet production.

How can this be? Well, firstly, all the stuff about Jeff being unable to keep his hands off Angela, and her scheme to have her way with him, scarcely informs the main plot of the film – it’s filler, basically, and very melodramatic filler too. The characterisation of Angela is, shall we say, problematic: she is a one-dimensional Bad Girl, who functions primarily as a sex object, and she’s the first one to lose it completely as the situation grows increasingly dire. (On the other hand, at least she can type.)

However, at least this makes a vague sort of sense, which is more than you can really say for the alien monster invasion storyline, which starts off as slightly dubious and rapidly becomes very silly indeed; this is the kind of film you can imagine inspiring the Monty Python ‘Sci Fi movie’ sketch. As ever, you are left filled with admiration for Christopher Lee’s ability to treat this kind of material with a gravity and intensity it doesn’t remotely deserve. By the end of the film Lee is participating in expository scenes explaining how the alien invasion has happened which are basically utter gibberish, before running outside to implement his character’s ridiculous plan to see off the invaders (this involves many shots of Lee setting fire to haystacks with a flare pistol), and he genuinely seems to be taking it completely seriously. What a legend. Peter Cushing is, of course, equally good, though not in the film enough – though we do get a marvellous example of Cushing’s wonderful ‘death-spasm’ acting (let’s see Disney’s CGI Cushing do that).

Most of the film is fairly competently made, but the script is so thick-headed that it’s more or less impossible to take seriously as a piece of drama, and it’s not even particularly enjoyable as camp entertainment. Night of the Big Heat came out in 1967, coincidentally the same year as In the Heat of the Night. One of these films is a timeless classic that deservedly won critical acclaim and several Oscars. The other one is a dim-witted B-movie with Jane Merrow in a bikini and aliens defeated by their poor grasp of meteorology. You can kind of see why Planet Film Productions never achieved a higher profile.

 

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For many years it was more or less accepted that the British Film Industry was moribund or had actually expired, some occasional semblence of life being brought to the cadaver through government assistance or co-productions of various kinds. (These days the issue seems a little more clouded, thanks mainly to the degree to which British talent powers many major international films and the notable success of many comedy films and costume dramas). It’s hard to remember that Britain once had a healthy and significant home-grown industry that turned out movies of all kinds in respectable numbers.

These days, if you come across a British movie on TV, there’s a very good chance it belongs to one of the big three franchises that the industry produced: James Bond, the Carry Ons, or Hammer Horror (I suppose the latter is a brand rather than a franchise, but you know what I mean). Bond was always the most Hollywood-style in its approach and tone, but the other two, rather oddly, do quite a good job of showing just how versatile British films could be.

For example, let’s talk about Terence Fisher’s 1958 film The Revenge of Frankenstein, which from the title alone sounds like something pretty schlocky. This film was made the year after the enormous success of Hammer’s first colour Gothic horror, The Curse of Frankenstein, back-to-back with its first Dracula film, so we’re still in at the birth of the very idea of Hammer Horror – which may be why this isn’t quite the film you might expect it to be.

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The film opens with the execution by guillotine of Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing, of course), as featured in the first film – but a nifty retcon reveals that our man switched places with a (presumably rather unwilling) priest at the last second, with the help of a cripple named Karl (Oscar Quitak). Frankenstein sets out to take a terrible revenge on the world which refused to recognise his genius!

Yes, that’s right, he goes into private practice. Three years later, the medical council of the town of Carlsbruck are disgruntled by the success of the brilliant but aloof Dr Stein, who has stolen most of their best-paying patients, as well as doing a lot of work at the hospital for the poor. (The rates of surgical procedures, especially amputations, are soaring.) A delegation is sent to try and get Stein on board.

This has no other effect than to give young Dr Kleve (Francis Matthews, perhaps best known these days as the voice of Captain Scarlet) the chance to clock Stein as the Baron, whom he met several years earlier. Rather than exposing him, Kleve volunteers to become Frankenstein’s new student/assistant, as he sets about his latest exciting project.

Karl is still helping the Baron, and in return Frankenstein has knocked up a new, non-deformed body (Michael Gwynn, perhaps best known these days as Lord Melbury in the first episode of Fawlty Towers), into which he intends to transplant Karl’s brain. Faced with this evidence of his brilliance, how can the world not give Frankenstein the respect which is his due?

As revenge schemes go, it’s one of the most genteel ones out there, and it does involve an impressive amount of community support work. However, as ever, Frankenstein is a bit too keen to overlook some flaws in the plan: post-op, Karl may not be keen to be exhibited as a marvel of transplant surgery, while there is the very small issue of past recipients of this procedure turning into violent cannibals. But that couldn’t happen this time, could it…?

Well, what do you think? Of course it does. The thing is, though, that the censor enjoyed a lot of power back in 1958 and the film is extremely limited in the levels of violence it is permitted to depict, to say nothing of the actual cannibalism. This is left very much implied, with most of the actual work being done by a rather good and pathos-laden performance by Gwynn. Does it completely make up for the fact that Gwynn is the most atypical Frankenstein ‘monster’ in the history of film? I’m not sure. The film works hard to make him tragic as much as horrifying (he gets an odd sort of unrequited romance with a kind-hearted posh girl played by Eunice Gayson, perhaps best known these days as the first of all Bond girls) and his demise arguably occurs a while before the actual climax of the film, which is a bit wrong-footing for the audience.

Then again, the film keeps going off at these odd tangents which aren’t really what you expect from even an early Hammer film. Much of the time this really does resemble a legitimate costume drama more than a horror movie – and not necessarily even a drama. Jimmy Sangster’s script is not short on colourful supporting characters, usually broadly comic in some way – Michael Ripper and Lionel Jeffries come on near the start as a couple of comedy graverobbers, while later on there’s a courting couple who could be the inspiration for the Jim Dale and Angela Douglas characters in Carry On Screaming – and these little vignettes really give the impression you’re watching some sort of weird literary adaptation which keeps erupting into gory surgical mayhem.

A lot of Hammers are a bit minimalist in their dramatis personae – they’re not quite ‘if you’re in shot, you’re in the plot’, but it’s sometimes close to that – but, like I said, this one is an exception, and it’s one which does throw into sharper relief just how class-conscious these films are. All the moral and plot agency is given to the aristocrats and the upper-middle-class characters, the less well-educated and well-spoken ones are just there to be victims or acted upon, or simply comic relief. And, to be fair, amoral monomaniac he may be, but you’d rather spend time with the genteel Baron F than any of the smelly poor people clogging up his hospital.

I’m not sure I’d call The Revenge of Frankenstein a classic Hammer horror, it’s just a bit too odd in its tone and structure for that. But we have to remember that the classic formula was still being conceived when this film was produced, and Hammer probably weren’t even considering the possibility that their future lay largely in making this kind of exploitation film. It almost goes without saying that this film has all the classic Hammer virtues – great costumes, sets, music, and Peter Cushing – but it also looks more like a mainstream movie than most of the others. This may not necessarily make it better, but it certainly makes it distinctive.

 

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Given some of the talent involved and a premise which is pretty solid, you might very well end up settling down to watch Terence Fisher’s Island of Terror (from 1966) with reasonably high expectations. This low-budget British SF film is exactly the kind of thing that people automatically assume is the product of Hammer Films, or perhaps Amicus, but it isn’t: it was made by the obscure Planet Film Productions, whose only other movie of note appears to have been the similarly-themed Night of the Big Heat (which, in some territories, revelled in the much better title of Island of the Burning Damned).

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There’s a touch of burning and possibly some damning in Island of Terror but the film’s focus is really elsewhere. Events unfold on one of those remote little islands off the coast of Ireland, where – mysteriously enough – you can hardly ever see the sea, and everywhere looks like the English countryside just outside Pinewood Studios. Present among the locals is the reclusive Dr Phillips, who is working on a radical new cancer cure along with his team. But just as the credits are rolling, there is a non-specific accident and the soundtrack goes all ominous.

A short time later the local policeman finds himself in search of a missing person, whom he rapidly finds in a deceased and somewhat bemusing condition. The corpse has, to be blunt, gone all floppy, as its entire skeleton seems to have dissolved. The island’s doctor is as baffled as the cop, so he calls in ace pathologist Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) from London.

Cushing gracefully declines the leading man role and passes it on to ace bone disease specialist David West, who’s played by Edward Judd (a serviceable 60s leading man, now rather forgotten). When we first meet West he’s clearly about to get down to it with a former patient (Carole Gray), but he is quite happy to fly off to Ireland with Cushing anyway. The demands of the plot mean that Gray’s character comes along anyway, even though she has no real reason to (possibly she’s a nymphomaniac or obsessed with Judd) and her role is almost exclusively that of a decorative screamer. (Your heart may well sink a bit as minor characters take great care to laboriously explain at great length to the leads how they will be Totally Cut Off On The Remote Island With No Way Of Contacting The Outside World.)

Cushing and Judd visit the lab on the island in search of its facilities, but are startled to discover a load more floppy corpses. Even a floppy dead horse turns up at one point. What can be happening? Well, the boffins soon tumble to the truth, aided by Dr Phillips’ notes and the sighting of some odd creatures in the area. The cancer cure research has gone horribly wrong and created an artificial life-form, a silicon-based predator that exists by dissolving people’s bones and sucking them out. Even more alarming is the fact that, given enough sustenance, the silicate creatures reproduce by splitting into two, effectively doubling their number every six hours. (For some reason the fission process also appears to involve a tin of spaghetti, but this is not much delved into.) Can Judd and Cushing find a solution to the menace of the silicates when the shotguns and petrol bombs of the local Irish farmers prove ineffective? Or will the bone-melting swarm wipe out all vertebrate life on the island?

On paper it sounds like a reasonably solid SF B-movie, which may be the reason why Island of Terror was able to attract a decent cast (Niall McGinnis also appears as the headman of the island). However, as wiser heads than mine have observed, appearing in a monster movie is rather like going on a blind date: often you’ve no idea just what the monster itself is going to look like until you’ve finished doing the actual shooting, by which time you’re in the hands of the special effects team. This wasn’t quite the case with Island of Terror, which uses exclusively practical effects, but I expect when Cushing et al were reading the script and thinking about signing on they didn’t envisage the silicates looking like squashed lumps of rubber with a single rather wobbly pseudopod wafting about in front of them.

Believe it or not, it looks much better in a photo than on film.

Believe it or not, it looks much better in a photo than on film.

It’s not just that Island of Terror has one of the least-impressive, least-threatening monster designs in the history of SF and horror cinema, it’s that the actual monster props are so clearly incapable of doing half the things that the script indicates they should do: they are forever crawling over cars, slithering over the roofs of buildings, and pouncing on people out of trees, and the fact they are very visibly just being pulled along by wires (or, in the case of their arboreal activities, have obviously just been nailed up there) makes the whole thing rather ludicrous.

Bearing this in mind, I’m not sure whether it’s a mistake or not for the rest of the film to take itself quite so seriously. This is a very old-school SF B-movie, with wisdom and salvation to be found in the form of the learned and mature (Judd, supposedly the young genius in the film, was 34 when he made it), and everyone’s mostly quite sober and grave throughout it (Cushing, to be fair, has a go at inserting a little lightness and wit). There’s even a coda sequence which is clearly meant to be ominous and doomy, but just suggests the film-makers were worried the ending wasn’t strong enough. Frankly, they were right: Fisher tries hard to make scenes of Cushing and Judd doing things with radioactive isotopes and injecting cattle tense and exciting, but even he really struggles.

The result of all this, coupled to a decent budget and production values, is that Island of Terror is a decent, reasonably taut monster movie, as long as the monsters themselves aren’t on screen: the moment they appear it becomes, at best, faintly risible. There are obviously many other films which meet that description, but I can’t think of many that go down the practical-prop monster route as full-bloodedly as this one. This is one of those films that starts pretty strongly but inevitably goes downhill as the story is forced to replace a mystery with some form of plot resolution. It’s not quite a bad film – by a whisker – but you’d be forgiven for expecting something slightly less absurd-looking.

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As I’ve said before, probably a number of times, Hammer Horror and I go back quite a few years: one night in the early Summer of 1987, to be precise – I’d give you the exact date, but unfortunately BBC Genome seems to have packed up [It’s working again and the exact date was June 27th 1987, if you must know – A]. ‘The Count and the Baron are back in business!’ promised the trailer for a double bill of Dracula, Prince of Darkness and The Evil of Frankenstein, and what can I say? They had me. They have me still.

That said, while Prince of Darkness is a film I have strong memories of, and which I’ve watched countless times in the intervening years – I might even call it the quintessential Hammer horror film – The Evil of Frankenstein is one I never got back to. I don’t even recall it being on TV that often. Looking at it again now, it’s no worse than a lot of other Hammer Horrors… and yet…

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Freddie Francis directs competently, and with moments of real style too. Things get under way with a spot of – well, it’s not even graverobbing, as someone just leaves a freshly-dead body too close to an open window, from whence it is half-inched by a grave-robber in the employ of Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing, inevitably). However, the locals put two and two together and soon enough the Baron and his surprisingly loyal assistant Hans (Sandor Eles) are forced to go on the run.

Finding himself financially embarrassed, the Baron decides to head home to his ancestral seat at Karlstadt, only to find it has been ransacked. (Frankenstein insists on referring to his castle, which is obviously a castle because it looks like a castle, as a chateau – a touch of pretension, Baron?) Telling Hans the story of what happened here occasions a fairly lengthy flashback to Frankenstein’s most famous experiment, which involves a stitched-together corpse, a big thunderstorm, and some angry villagers. This concludes with the Baron being run out of town and his creation (Kiwi Kingston) being shot off the top of a mountain by a gun-toting mob.

Events start to repeat themselves and Frankenstein and Hans find themselves having to flee, assisted by a deaf-mute gypsy girl (Katy Wild). As luck (and the magic of plot contrivance) would have it, they wind up taking shelter in a cave under a glacier – and who should be frozen into the glacier in a state of perfect preservation but Frankenstein’s old monster?

Old flat-top is duly defrosted and revived, but his brain is stubbornly dormant. Faced with this dilemma, the Baron makes one of the worst decisions of his career (and with a career like his, that’s saying something), recruiting a sideshow hypnotist named Zoltan to use his mental powers on the monster. Zoltan is played by Peter Woodthorpe, a little-remembered actor these days, but responsible for memorable performances as Reg Trotter in Only Fools and Horses and Gollum in various Lord of the Rings adaptations, and here he has a damn good go at stealing the movie from Cushing.

For Zoltan has an agenda of his own, and it involves using the creature to get rich and get even, regardless of the consequences to anyone around him. Have those blazing torches to hand…

This was Hammer’s third Frankenstein film, not that it matters much. This is, I suppose, a bit of a minor landmark for the company, inasmuch as it marks the first time they casually abandon the existing continuity of a series and start over without any explanation. The film totally ignores the established events of The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein, except in the most general way. In parts this feels like a sequel to another film which was never actually made.

Occasioning all this were some legal doings between Hammer and Universal. The two previous Hammer Frankensteins (which, I say again, have absolutely no narrative links with Evil of Frankenstein) had to tread extremely carefully to avoid intruding on the various trademarks connected with Universal’s cycle of Frankenstein movies, specifically Jack Pierce’s make-up design and any references to dark and stormy nights. By this point the two companies had thrashed something out, and all these things were potentially available to Hammer.

Well, it’s a touching tale of corporations coming together for a common good, but I’m not sure it helped this film very much. The really special thing about the 1930s Frankensteins is not the make-up, but the performer inside it, and inside the monster gear in Evil of Frankenstein is a wrestler from New Zealand who’s given virtually nothing to work with. Never mind that it’s not until the closing stages of the film that he gets a chance to show any kind of pathos or personality, the monster make-up itself is just bad: the creature has a head like an Easter Island statue and appears to be made of clay or stone.

Hammer Frankensteins are all about the Baron, anyway, and Cushing gives another impeccable performance, of course. He’s good even when the film around him is slapdash, as it is here: why is this film called The Evil of Frankenstein (or even, according to the title card, The EVIL of Frankenstein)? We are required to take the Baron’s villainy for granted, because he just comes across as a scientist with some fairly radical and uncompromising beliefs, more sinned against than sinning. When he arrives home and finds his family home has been plundered, Cushing makes it a genuinely poignant moment, and whatever misdeeds are done in the course of the story, they seem to be much more Zoltan’s fault than Frankenstein’s.

Indeed, it’s only really in the stuff with Woodthorpe’s brand of grasping, beady-eyed nastiness that the film really comes to life and has anything more to offer than a selection of empty Frankenstein cliches. And even here credulity has to be throttled until it’s comatose: ‘go and punish the burgomaster for me,’ Zoltan instructs the monster (the nature of his beef with the guy is never really established – it feels like something left over from an earlier draft of the script), which duly lumbers off out of the chateau castle, and in the next scene it’s breaking into the burgomaster’s house. How the hell did it know where to go? Did it stop and ask for directions along the way?

To be fair, the film is stuffed with these kinds of odd non sequiturs and rambling diversions: it doesn’t feel a second too short, even with a very modest running time of only about 85 minutes. One almost gets the feeling that the people at Hammer were so delighted at making the deal with Universal, meaning that they didn’t have to come up with another outrageous variation on the Frankenstein story, that they didn’t bother coming up with any real story worth mentioning. The Evil of Frankenstein sort of meanders along without ever really arriving anywhere, saved from utter bad moviedom only by Cushing and Woodthorpe. Looks aren’t everything, and I know now that going 27 years without watching this movie wasn’t exactly a great privation.

 

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Strange to say, but the right kind of horror movie can sometimes be a very reassuring thing. Sitting down to watch the 1964 Hammer horror The Gorgon, one is at once presented with a succession of familiar names – Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Patrick Troughton, director Terence Fisher – to the accompaniment of an unmistakable James Bernard score, while a gloomy Gothic castle glowers behind the credits. Such is the power of the Hammer brand and the associations of all these things that you just know that, no matter what the merits (or otherwise) of this particular script, the undertaking overall is going to have a bit of quality about it.

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And so it proves, more or less. The film potentially finds Hammer a little out of its comfort zone, as the film is set in a remote, German-dominated part of Europe in the early years of the 20th century – but any differences from the classic Transylvanian fairyland setting are entirely cosmetic. We are still in a world of boyish young students carousing with accommodating peasant barmaids, ominous local police chiefs, crusty old professors who are fonts of wisdom and sanity, sinister local authority figures, and castles you shouldn’t be seen dead at after dark (for fear of actually being found dead at, the following morning).

The Gorgon has a slightly awkward structure, opening with young student Bruno discovering to his alarm he has accidentally impregnated his girlfriend Sascha. Off he sets into the night, intent on reassuring her father of his gentlemanly intentions, despite her pleas for him not to go. She ends up following him anyway. The next day, he is found hanged, while her body is taken to the local asylum – well, either it’s her body or an extremely lifelike statue of her…

This draws Bruno’s father, Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), who finds the truth of what happened being covered up by the asylum boss Dr Namaroff (Cushing) and the police chief (Troughton) – Bruno is being fitted up for Sascha’s murder, and the petrification is being quietly forgotten about. Heitz vows to stick around and uncover what really happened, despite the hostility of the locals. But one night something lures him to the local ruined castle where he encounters a hideous, snake-haired creature. Staggering home, he finds himself rapidly turning to stone, so (as you would) quickly jots down a letter to his other son, Paul, explaining just what is going on in quite surprising detail.

The laborious plotting continues with Paul (Richard Pasco) arriving and vowing to discover the truth about his father and brother’s death. At least he has Christopher Lee as his university tutor, who is an expert on this sort of thing. On the other hand, he does find himself distracted by Namaroff’s beautiful assistant (Shelley) – and just why is Namaroff trying to cover up the strange events in the area…?

Viewed objectively, you’d be hard-pushed to seriously argue that The Gorgon was first-rate Hammer horror. There is, as noted, the awkward plotting whereby a string of people get attacked by the titular beastie, each in turn summoning the next investigator/victim: the film threatens to devolve into a string of set-piece Gorgon attacks. There’s also the problem that it’s never really clear who the protagonist of the film is supposed to be – Cushing, when the chips are down, is a bad guy, Goodliffe gets turned to stone by the end of the first act, Lee only really appears towards the end of the film, and Pasco’s character is a bit too weak and passive to be really engaging.

If the movie lacks a strong hero, it also has problems with its beastie as well: the Gorgon itself is a silent, alien malevolence with no voice or agenda of its own beyond petrifying innocent people. The film has swiped a bit of werewolf lore in that the creature spends most of its time lurking inside an unsuspecting human host, only physically taking them over during the full moon. The identity of the Gorgon is never really in doubt – there is a half-hearted attempt at misdirection on the point – but, for whatever reason, the film opts not to give us the scene in which the human host transforms into the creature itself. The monster is female, but – predictably – the story is told almost exclusively from a male perspective.

But above all it’s just clumsily written. We never really learn why Bruno turns up hanging from a tree at the start, and the idea of the lurking Gorgon is dropped out of nowhere into the script (Goodliffe’s character mentions the legend first, before he’s even aware of the string of statuary-related murders in the area). As I suggested, parts of it do verge on high camp (the professor writing a letter while in the process of petrifying, for example).

That said, whenever I feel the temptation to dismiss any of these old Hammer horrors as quaint or corny, I remember watching Plague of the Zombies on a proper cinema screen with modern sound and vision and being genuinely gripped and unsettled by parts of it. I’m not sure the same wouldn’t happen with The Gorgon, too, for those set-piece Gorgon sequences are supremely well-directed, particularly one in which Paul finds himself repeatedly confronted with the monster’s reflection in various surfaces. The conceit that the Gorgon’s petrification doesn’t happen immediately but takes place over a period of time is quite an inspired innovation too.

Even watched on TV, this is a film with a shockingly bleak ending – I suppose the lack of a strong protagonist is something of a plus point here, as it would be even worse if they ended up dead along with nearly every other major character in the film. And it’s hard not to interpret it as being fundamentally misogynistic – the sole major female character is alternately monstrous or under the sway of the various men in the film.

So The Gorgon is not without some qualities of its own, but it remains a hard film to actually like. Perhaps the fact that both Cushing and Lee are cast against type is partly to blame – for whatever reason, neither has quite the presence in the film you might expect, and they don’t share much screen-time, either. Certainly, if you look at the raw material this film had to work with, in terms of performers and idea, you might expect something a little more impressive than the end result. It’s still hard to completely dismiss, though.

 

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When I was but a lad, one of the joys of public holidays and the dog days of summer was the tendency of the TV programmers to fill gaps in the schedule with low-budget SF and fantasy films from the 60s and 70s. (These days you would probably get a programme about antiques or a repeat of the Britain’s Got Talent semi-final, and this is supposed to be progress.) As a lad, I always used to turn up to these things wide-eyed and undemanding, but even so there was a subset of the films which I always suspected weren’t quite up to scratch. These were what my elder male relatives would refer to as ‘Trampas movies’.

At the time I had no idea what they were on about, but now of course I understand this is a reference to the character in the TV show The Virginian played by Doug McClure, and it’s McClure who’s the face of the films I’m talking about: The Land That Time Forgot. The People That Time Forgot. (But not Creatures The World Forgot, a Hammer dinosaur movie which omits to include any dinosaurs.) Warlords of Atlantis. And, in 1976, Kevin Connor’s At The Earth’s Core, perhaps the most perfect time-capsule of mid-70s pop culture imaginable.

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Based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, on this occasion McClure plays David Innes, who with his old mentor Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) is testing their new invention: the Iron Mole, basically a big metal drilling vehicle (the model is, by the way, beautiful). Things inevitably do not go according to plan and the machine goes out of control. The intrepid duo eventually find themselves in a barren wasteland populated by hostile, savage, subhuman creatures. It obviously takes them a while to figure out that they are not in the Welsh countryside (their intended destination) but Pellucidar, a vast subterranean otherworld.

After a somewhat underpowered action sequence with the first of many extraordinary Pellucidarean beasties (most of them realised through the wonders of suitamation), Trampas and Cushing are nabbed by the Sagoths, homuncular thugs intent upon enslaving the local human tribes. Cushing is surprised by the fact that the Sagoths seem to be in charge, declaring that the humans are clearly intellectually superior, but as the only innovation they seem to possess over the Sagoths is their mastery of the bubble-perm hairdo, it’s unclear what he is basing this on (maybe the doc is just speciesist). Present among the slaves is Princess Dia (Caroline Munro, an iconic actress if ever there was one), but things between her and Trampas are not allowed to get soppy.

Everyone is dragged off across the soundstage to the City of the Mahars, the Mahars ruling the roost in Pellucidar. This is literally true as the Mahars look awfully like birds (strictly speaking, awfully like stuntmen in extremely ambitious bird costumes) – Cushing identifies them as ramphorynchi, and as it’s Peter Cushing I would not dream of arguing with him. The Mahars seem to have mesmeric powers (possibly everyone is just knocked into a stupor by the dreadfulness of the monster suits), which they use to dominate the lesser races and be generally gittish to everyone in Pellucidar.

Anyway, soon enough Trampas manages to escape, though not before stumbling upon a scene of the Mahars ravaging some attractive some tribeswomen (cue many gobsmacking shots of the Mahars ‘taking wing’, i.e. swinging inelegantly across the set on the ends of wires). Trampas solemnly swears he will liberate the humans from the oppressive Mahar regime, and then (one can only guess) sack his agent. But first he’s got to rescue the lovely Dia from her captors, Hooja the Sly One and Jubal the Ugly One…

Yes, as you may be able to tell, this script is the work of Milton the Unsubtle One, or Mr Subotsky as he was actually listed on Amicus’ letterhead. The thing about Milton Subotsky is that here we’re talking about someone who had a reasonably successful career as a producer of genre movies, but whose ability as a screenwriter was not, er, always apparent. He seems to have had only the shakiest grasp of either SF or fantasy as genres, though this does result in the charming ‘bit’ recurring in his work where, preparatory to any kind of scientific undertaking, someone solemnly announces that they’re going to ‘check the gyroscope’. Possibly this was just a favourite euphemism in the Subotsky household.

Anyway, the script for At The Earth’s Core is not really what you remember the film for. (Though it’s not a million miles away from that of the more recent, more notorious ERB-adaptation John Carter of Mars.) It just about services in terms of getting the various characters from place to place and inserts to required sequences of mayhem and jeopardy, but it certainly doesn’t linger in the memory and it’s very hard to shake the sense that the whole thing is a bit juvenile: for instance, there are many significant looks exchanged between Trampas and the princess, but never the slightest indication that he has actually got around to checking her gyroscope.

Seemingly sharing this view as to how the movie should be pitched is Peter Cushing, who goes all out as the comedy relief character. Cushing, of course, has a well-deserved reputation as a consummate professional with a near-miraculous ability to lift dodgy movies through sheer force of will. Except here: in this movie he’s just plain bad, the most jaw-droppy-open moment coming with his delivery of the line ‘You can’t mesmerise me, I’m British!’ followed by a comedy cross-eyed gurn.

Doug McClure, on the other hand, actually seems to be taking proceedings seriously, which is rather sweet. He’s really a good leading man for these films – he’s big and inelegant and unsubtle, but then so are they. McClure alone is not a good enough reason to watch this film, and neither is the garish art direction or Mike Vickers’ prog-rocky score. The special effects are striking, as I’ve said, but not really in a good way.

And yet, and yet: by any objective measure, At The Earth’s Core is thorough-goingly terrible, but the fact remains that it’s a hard film to actively dislike, and it was a substantial box-office hit back in those dim pre-Star Wars days. (It was #18 on the UK chart for 1976 – a position held in more recent years by respectable films like The Great Gatsby, War Horse, and Black Swan.) Nothing with this kind of kitsch grandeur is made any more, and so it has a certain charm simply as a period piece. But I would be reluctant to recommend it any more enthusiastically.

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