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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Cushing’

I’ve thought for a long time that there’s nothing more comical than a botched attempt at a horror movie, and few things more guaranteed to chill the soul than an inept comedy film. By this logic, then, comedy-horror films are particularly odd beasts, because you have to get both things right, and in the appropriate places, too. Film-makers who attempt to hedge their bets by putting a few funny bits in what’s supposed to be a horror movie are taking a big risk, and when they come a cropper it is frequently spectacular.

On the other hand, when it works, the results are often something quite distinctive, which sort of brings us to the case of Robert Fuest’s 1972 film Dr Phibes Rises Again, a sequel (rather self-evidently) to the previous year’s The Abominable Dr Phibes. Wikipedia lists this movie as a horror film, plain and simple; the IMDB takes a more cautious position and pegs it as ‘comedy, horror’. None of this really does the peculiar tone of the movie justice.

We open with a brief recap of the first film, and the murderous revenge-spree undertaken by the insane genius Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, obviously) – theologian, organist, inventor, and general man of many parts – against the doctors he blamed for the death of his wife (Caroline Munro, not doing a great deal). The film concluded with Phibes eluding the police and putting himself into suspended animation alongside his wife, in preparation for the hour of his return.

And, of course, said hour has now come. The sequel opens with Phibes rising from his sarcophagus, and – just to get things off on the right foot – he proceeds to do a little light dusting around his crypt, before rattling off a few organ arpeggios. As you would. From somewhere or other he summons his glamorous assistant Vulnavia (Valli Kemp, this time around), his plan being to use an ancient map in his possession to find the River of Life which runs through the basement of a secluded Egyptian temple. The River of Life will apparently resurrect Mrs Phibes and give the pair of them eternal life (whether it will allow Dr Phibes to grow a new face is not made clear). However – zounds! – in the years since the first film, Dr Phibes’ house has been demolished and the map stolen.

Luckily the doc knows exactly who would be in the market for a relic like that: Darius Biederbeck (hmm, like that’s a real name), played by Robert Quarry. Biederbeck is also searching for the River of Life – it eventually transpires that he has managed to enormously extend his own life by (presumably) alchemical means, but his means of doing this are almost exhausted. He will soon be departing from London for Egypt, where he will lead an archaeological dig to the hidden temple.

Well, Dr Phibes steals the map back, killing Biederbeck’s servant in the process (lest you think the film has adopted too quotidian a tone, he does so using a basketful of clockwork snakes and a trick telephone), and everyone departs for the valley of the Nile (which is played by southern Spain), with Phibes and Vulnavia leaving a trail of bizarre killings behind them. The police eventually cotton on to the fact that Dr Phibes is back in action, and top detectives/idiots Waverly (John Cater) and Trout (Peter Jeffrey) are dispatched in pursuit.

You could argue with some merit that many of these early-seventies Vincent Price movies are basically just strings of set pieces held together by rather basic plots – watching The Abominable Dr Phibes or Theatre of Blood, it quickly becomes apparent that these movies are about Price having a hit list of victims, which he is going to work his way down in his inimitably outlandish style. Dr Phibes Rises Again does depart from this formula, but only to the extent that Price has another agenda, and just ends up killing people who get in his way. (New characters are written in solely to facilitate the set pieces – John Thaw turns up, gets savaged to death by Phibes’ pet eagle, and is barely mentioned again after the one sequence he appears in.) It is, I suppose, a little more plot-driven, but that would give the impression that the plot, or indeed the film, actually makes sense as a conventional, naturalistic narrative. It does not – and lest that sound like a criticism, I think it was never really intended to, nor is this particularly a problem.

Unlike the first film, the sequel does appear to include a genuine element of mysticism or the supernatural, in that Biederbeck does seem to have achieved a degree of immortality, but even without this, nothing about this film is remotely credible. It’s almost like a rather gory cartoon in which the laws of physics themselves have been suspended for the duration: not only is Phibes able to booby-trap the dashboard of someone’s car so they are sandblasted to a skeleton while driving along, he manages to do so in about five minutes flat. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t all so knowing and tongue-in-cheek: the Price horror movies of this period come closer than most to managing to be funny and scary at exactly the same moment.

That said, while Price and the returning cast members all seem to be in on the joke, some of the others aren’t, which can be problematic. Peter Cushing turns up for one scene (he is credited as a ‘guest star’), which he plays entirely straight; the part isn’t really worthy of him. Interesting to imagine what would have happened if he’d played Biederbeck instead – Robert Quarry had recently appeared in the bad-but-influential Count Yorga movies and was apparently being groomed as a new horror star by AIP, but isn’t remotely in Vincent Price’s league. (Legend has it the two had an acrimonious relationship – when Price came upon Quarry singing in his dressing room, Quarry said ‘You didn’t know I could sing, did you?’, to which Price replied ‘Well, I knew you couldn’t act.’) About the best thing you can say about Quarry’s performance in this film is that he is not actively bad.

Biederbeck is written as such an odd character, and performed so flatly, that it’s hard to tell if he’s genuinely meant to be the hero of the movie or not. As it is, you end up – well, not quite rooting for Phibes, but certainly wanting to see more of him and the ridiculous costumes and death-traps and other gadgets that invariably surround him. There’s a sort of cheery amorality about every aspect of this story, certainly no sense of moral outrage – every death is there to be enjoyed. The ending, with Phibes seemingly triumphant, Biederbeck defeated, and Price giving us a technically anachronistic rendition of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ as he vanishes into shadow, doesn’t feel downbeat or a case of evil ascendant. But then this movie is not much concerned with good or evil, just with its own peculiar style. Perhaps it’s better to consider this film as a collection of individual moments, intended to amuse and distract, rather than as any kind of plausible story. As such, Dr Phibes Rises Again is rather entertaining, always assuming you are on its wavelength.

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Sometimes I could almost believe the people at Lovefilm are reading this blog and sitting in judgement upon it. One of the unusual (and, to my mind, rather enjoyable) aspects of my soon-to-be-defunct DVD rental service is the random nature of it – you basically get very little control over what films from your list they decide to send you. Is there some sort of lucky dip system in effect at Lovefilm HQ? Somehow I doubt it, for there have been several occasions when I have received a string of suspiciously similar films in a row. On these occasions I can almost hear a spectral voice saying ‘We enjoyed your review of that last Woody Allen film. Have another one.’ And my thoughts on Tales from the Crypt seem likewise to have earned the approbation of the DVD gods, for landing on my figurative mat this week was another Amicus portmanteau horror movie – the daddy of them all, in the form of Freddie Francis’ 1965 film Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. All I can say is: DVD gods, please send Tiptoes before your service closes down.

Anyway – yes, this is the one with Fluff Freeman and the killer vine. This was the original Amicus portmanteau, and as a result it does feel a little less formulaic than later films in the subgenre. Scripted by Amicus head honcho Milton Subotsky, apparently the film originated in the late 1940s, with the script hanging around for fifteen years or so before it finally went into production – scholars of American horror movies of the mid-40s have suggested that all the segments of House of Horrors are to some extent derivative of other movies and stories from that period, but this is not especially obvious to a modern audience.

The movie opens with a group of men gathering in a train compartment, and you do get a sense almost at once that this isn’t a film completely trapped in the horror ghetto – true, you do have Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee giving their legendary imprimatur to proceedings (although both are somewhat cast against type), but there’s also a very young Donald Sutherland, not to mention all-round entertainer Roy Castle and the disc jockey (and not very good actor) Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman. Something for everyone there, I’m tempted to say.

Anyway, Cushing is playing the enigmatic Dr Schreck (German for ‘terror’, naturally), which allows the actor to have some fun with a peculiar accent, and really go to town with the make-up box: his fake eyebrows suggest a couple of hairy caterpillars are engaged in a courtship ritual on his forehead. When he reveals he’s carrying a set of tarot cards in his luggage, and they have mystical powers to foretell the future and shape destiny, the others are initially doubtful – especially Lee’s snotty art critic. But one by one they consent to have their fortune told…

First up is Werewolf (the segment subtitles leave a little to be desired, if you ask me), a slightly overplotted tale of an architect (Neil McCallum) who returns to his recently-sold family home to do some surveying work for the new owner (Ursula Howells). Soon enough he discovers the coffin of a legendary sorcerer and werewolf, the magnificently named Cosmo Valdemar, walled up in the cellar, and recalls old tales of Valdemar’s undying hatred of his family. Better start melting down the silver crucifix to make bullets, then… but is there something else going on that our man is not aware of?

The least you can say about any of the stories in House of Horrors is that they are atmospherically filmed, and this one is no exception. However, each of them also stands or falls on the strength of its punchline, so to speak, and the question of exactly what’s going on here always seems to me to be a little confused. Or, to put it another way, you don’t really expect to have to work out the plot of an Amicus portmanteau story for yourself. Hey ho.

No such worries in the next one, The Creeping Vine – yes, the time has finally come. One of the distinguishing things about this film is that it’s not about dodgy types receiving their well-earned comeuppance, which is basically the rationale of later films like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave – it’d be a stretch to describe any of the protagonists here as actually wicked, they’re petty or foolish at worst. And yet their fates are uniformly pretty grim. In this case, Fluff Freeman plays a very ordinary bloke who comes back off holiday to find a peculiar vine has sprung up in his garden. The vine violently resists any attempts at pruning, which is enough to prompt Fluff to head off to consult some boffins.

‘I’m pretty good at handling garden tools, I don’t think those shears slipped!’ says Fluff to the experts (I can’t understand why that line has not become one of the most celebrated movie quotes in history). The boffins (Jeremy Kemp and Bernard Lee), who obviously have far too much free time, speculate that rather than being a gardening mishap, this may be evidence of a sentient mutant plant having appeared, and one of them actually moves in with Fluff to investigate.

Well, who’d have guessed it, but the boffins are right, and soon the malevolent vine is strangling family pets and covering the whole house. Bernard Lee brings remarkable gravitas to an uproariously silly story, all the more so given he was apparently so much the worse for drink during most of his scenes that he had to deliver his dialogue sitting down. Fluff, meanwhile, just stands around looking slightly bemused by the whole thing. Very entertaining, but hardly the high-point of the British botanical horror tradition, and once again the ending is just a bit too ambiguous.

Next up is Voodoo, the tale of Roy Castle’s hapless jazz trumpeter (it’s Roy Castle, of course he’s going to have a trumpet), who is sent off for a residency in Haiti along with his band. We’re heading into slightly problematic territory here, with Haiti depicted as a hotbed of black magic and voodoo (Castle’s attempt at a West Indian accent at one point is also rather embarrassing), but the casting of Kenny Lynch allows the film to undercut the stereotypes a little.

Castle is much taken with the music of the local voodoo ceremonies and plans to arrange it for his jazz group, despite the objections of the local houngan, who insists it is ancient and sacred to his god Dhambala. ‘Oh, well, if it’s that old, it’s out of copyright…’ says Castle. Needless to say the playing of the music leads to unfortunate events back in London. A slightly lighter tone to this one, mainly because of Castle’s deft comic performance (hard to imagine first-choice actor Acker Bilk being quite so capable), if (a pattern develops) the climax is a little underpowered.

Christopher Lee’s stuffy art critic consents to have his future told next, and suffice to say it is entitled Disembodied Hand. Lee’s pompous and snobbish character gets involved in a feud with an artist (Michael Gough), which spins out of control. Gough is maimed and commits suicide as a result, but his severed hand is still on the loose and seeking revenge on Lee…

A really good performance from Lee here, who is miles away from his traditional kind of role – here he plays a vain, foolish man who gradually succumbs to terror as the hand’s relentless attempts at vengeance go on, and on, and on. The crawling hand prop is actually rather impressive, given this is not exactly a big-budget film – the hand would go on to have a fairly distinguished career in other Amicus productions, playing one of Richard Greene’s severed hands in Tales from the Crypt, for instance. A strong ending, too, finally.

And so to (spoiler alert) Vampire, in which doctor Donald Sutherland sets up in small town USA with his faintly exotic foreign bride. No sooner have they settled into their new home than mysterious cases of anaemia start cropping up amongst the townsfolk, often accompanied by strange marks on the neck…

I think this is a fairly witty little story, provided you don’t know the twist going into it. Not a great showcase for Sutherland, though, partly because while his character may be a qualified doctor, he’s also depicted as rather a dim bulb, but mainly because Sutherland gets bulldozed off the screen by Max Adrian, here playing the town’s other doctor, one of those actors with a tremendous capacity for stealing scenes.

Then it’s time for the final twist of the framing story. Now, as I’ve observed before, the thing about the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is nearly always the same in all of them, but bearing in mind it would have been new and original on this occasion, I think it’s a reasonably good way of ending the movie.

All in all, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors feels rather less schlocky and threadbare than some of its successors, possibly because it’s not principally based on American horror comic books (as a couple of the other films were). Derivative it may be, but its choice of subject matter is sound – a vampire, a werewolf, a crawling hand, voodoo magic, and a killer plant… again, something for everyone here – and the film has an interesting mixture of styles. The werewolf story is properly gothic, the vine is more of an SF B-movie, the voodoo story is somewhat played for laughs, and so on. This, along with the extraordinarily eclectic and interesting casting, gives the film a real sense of variety and colour. You can see why Amicus and many others have endlessly reused this formula in the years since Dr Terror’s House of Horrors was made, but this film has a touch of class almost all the others lack.

 

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So, just recently I was writing about the vital contribution to my education which was made by the main commercial channel’s tendency to show endless old genre movies in the middle of the night, back when I was a teenager. Doesn’t happen these days, of course: even old movies are now too expensive, given there are a dozen other channels in the market for content, so the wee small hours are the domain of rip-off phone-in competitions and ultra-cheap home-grown repeats. And, as it happens, just the other day I was writing about the fractured dream-logic of a certain kind of horror movie. There is something oddly satisfying about the way these two themes combine in Freddie Francis’ 1972 film Tales from the Crypt.

Or should that be Milton Subotsky’s Tales from the Crypt? Subotsky is one of the (largely) unsung heroes of low-budget British genre movie-making of the 1960s and 1970s, most frequently through his company Amicus. Amongst other things, Subotsky oversaw the two 1960s movie adaptations of a famous BBC fantasy series the name of which I will not utter here, and the first few Trampas movies (the last one, Warlords of Atlantis, was the work of other hands). But if Subotsky left an indelible mark on the fabric of cinema, it is in the form of the portmanteau horror movies which he oversaw both at Amicus and elsewhere. He was not the first to make this kind of movie – I suspect that credit goes to Dead of Night, made in 1945, and widely credited as the best of the subgenre – but if you stumble across one of these, the chances are it’s one of Milton’s.

Subotsky was not the kind of man to mess with a successful formula, and it must be said that most of these films are rather samey, to the point where they all start to merge together in one’s head after a while. When an Amicus portmanteau comes on the TV, I have to take a moment to work out if this is the one with Fluff Freeman fighting the carnivorous vine, or Tom Baker misusing his voodoo paintbrush, or David Warner contending with a haunted mirror.

Tales from the Crypt is not any of these, in case you were wondering (oh, what delights remain as yet unconsidered by this blog). This one opens in classy style with a bit of Bach’s toccata and fugue on the organ and some shots of a cemetery. Geoffrey Bayldon, soon to appear as a homicidal psychiatrist in the next Amicus portmanteau, Asylum, plays a guide showing a group round the cemetery catacombs. Five of them get separated from the rest, and find themselves in, well, a crypt, with a robed and hooded figure (Ralph Richardson).

One thing about the moribund state of the British film industry in the 1970s, you got some heavyweight actors appearing in slightly suspect material. This is, as the title would indicate to the in-the-know, a fairly low-budget movie based on some disreputable American horror comics – a proper slab of schlock, not to put too fine a point on it. And yet it has Ralph Richardson, an actor from the same bracket as Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, and John Gielgud, and apparently taking it quite seriously. And he is not the only big name to appear.

Well, anyway, each of the five characters appears in their own short tale, revealed to them by the enigmatic Crypt Keeper. But is he showing them their future or their past?

First up is And All Through the House, featuring Joan Collins as an avaricious housewife who is unkind enough as to bash in her husband’s head on Christmas Eve, solely for his life insurance. (Best not to worry too much about finer details of character and motivation, to be perfectly honest.) However, no sooner is the deed done than the news is reporting that a homicidal lunatic has escaped from the local asylum and is on the loose, dressed in a Santa Claus outfit (well, of course). Sure enough, the psycho Santa is soon lurking in Joan’s garden, leaving her with the awkward problem of what to do – she can hardly call the police with her husband’s corpse still on the lounge floor…

Some effective jump scares in this one, I suppose, and it’s an especially camp segment of what’s a rather camp overall. The contrived plotting and particularly fake-looking fake blood (all the Kensington gore in this film is completely the wrong shade of red) just add to the fun, but it’s just as well this is the hors d’oeuvre in this particular collection.

Along next is Reflection of Death, an unusually short segment starring Ian Hendry as a man leaving his wife and children to be with his mistress (this is a sufficiently heinous crime to make you a marked man, and put you in line for spectacularly cruel and unusual punishment, in the odd cosmology of the Amicus portmanteaus). Well, they are driving off to their new life together when there is a car crash, and…

Well, the thing is that this one is so short and so insubstantial that it barely stands up to even a cursory review. If it were any longer it probably wouldn’t work at all – as it is, some slightly gimmicky direction and the re-employment of the ‘endless nightmare’ idea from Dead of Night just about keeps it afloat. You might wish for Ian Hendry to get some more substantial material, but you take what you’re given in this particular genre.

On next is Poetic Justice, in which a grasping, good-for-nothing, rich Tory bastard (Robin Phillips) schemes to ruin the life of a sweet old widowed bin-man (the legend that is Peter Cushing), having his numerous pet dogs taken away by court order, and spreading malicious rumours that, um, he’s a paedophile. What can I say, it was the 1970s, tastes were a bit different back then. Cushing is finally driven to suicide by a load of vindictive Valentine’s cards (the Tory bastard seems to have put an awful lot of effort into writing all the insulting doggerel involved), but his tormentors have failed to realise he has mystical connections beyond the grave. Or something. This is not really made very clear, but suffice to say, one year later, Cushing comes back…

Another textbook example of Peter Cushing deploying his powers to their full extent to lift some rather dubious material. There’s also the added poignancy of the recently-widowed Cushing taking on this role – I couldn’t help noticing that his character’s dead wife has the same name as Cushing’s own partner, and I’d be prepared to bet this wasn’t a coincidence. Sometimes you think you understand just how much this loss defined the last two decades of Peter Cushing’s life, and then sometimes you suspect it’s impossible to fully appreciate that.

Oh well. Onto Wish You Were Here, in which another ruthless Tory type (Richard Greene) finds himself financially embarrassed and on the verge of serious debt, at which point his wife discovers that a mysterious statuette they bought in the Far East has the power to grant three wishes. Any self-respecting viewer will at this point groan ‘Oh, no, not The Monkey’s Paw AGAIN,’ but the movie earns a degree of respect for having the characters also be aware of WW Jacobs’ famous cautionary tale and actively try to avoid making the same mistakes as their counterparts in the story. It doesn’t help them, of course, and the film earns bonus points to go with the respect, for finding inventive ways for their ill-considered wishes to screw them over.

And finally, Blind Alleys, in which yet another callous and greedy Tory type (I’ll say one thing for Tales from the Crypt, it may be campy schlock, but ideologically it’s completely sound) takes on the job of superintendent of an institution for the blind. As our man (played by Nigel Patrick) does not run the place in the most compassionate manner, resentment builds up amongst his charges, led by Patrick Magee (someone else who appears in Asylum). Suffice to say the assembled blind men prove unexpectedly good at DIY and a sticky end is on the cards for someone…

So, the guilty all get punished in suitably outlandish style, and all that remains is for the twist of the frame story to be revealed. I say ‘twist’, because another of the defining features of the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is almost always the same, and hardly difficult to guess if you pay any attention whatsoever to what’s been going on in the film.

I really don’t know about Tales from the Crypt: by any objective standard, it’s really quite a bad movie, with silly stories, obvious twists, and unconvincing fake blood, lifted only a bit by the presence of some properly talented actors. The same could really be said for most of the other, similar films produced by Milton Subotsky. And yet it also manages to be quite marvellously entertaining. If 1970s British horror movies are not your thing, you should probably give it a very wide berth, but if they are – well, you probably already know what to expect. Hardly a great film, but – for some of us – great fun.

 

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Early in 1995, I think, my local art house cinema ran an extremely short season of vampire movies – if you can call two movies a season, anyway. One of these was Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, which is a very untraditional example of the subgenre – I went to see it and rather liked it, unlike a friend of mine, who admitted she was only interested in vampire movies that were sexy. The other one was – a bit of a curve ball – Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, then about to enjoy its diamond anniversary. I can barely bring myself to admit it, but I passed up this opportunity to enjoy a Hammer horror revival on the big screen – it wouldn’t happen these days, obviously. I’ve no idea if my friend went along to see The Vampire Lovers, but if she did I imagine she would have been well satisfied, for this is definitely intended to be one of the sexy vampire movies.

The story, such as it is, opens in properly Gothic style with a portentous narration from Douglas Wilmer, playing a magnificently bewigged vampire hunter. The vampires in this movie are a weird, almost spiritual menace, though they still sleep in coffins some of the time and are strangely attached to their shrouds. Wilmer has an axe to grind, as his family has already suffered from the attentions of the undead. A predictably comely young bloodsucker shows up (played by Kirsten Lindholm, an extremely attractive young woman in a movie not short on them) only to get her head chopped off almost straight away. So it goes sometimes.

Inasmuch as any of what follows makes rational sense, we may surmise that the rest of the film is set some years later. The first section of the film basically constitutes another prologue, greatly extended this time, telling of how General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) comes to take into his home a mysterious and alluring young woman named Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt). Marcilla becomes very close to the General’s niece Laura (Pippa Steel), which may or may not have something to do with Laura’s sudden and rapid decline and death under mysterious circumstances, accompanied by some rather suggestive nightmares, not to mention vampire bites about the chest region.

It’s perhaps more rewarding to consider The Vampire Lovers as a succession of impressionistic set pieces than as a conventional narrative. It certainly goes some way to excusing repetitiveness of some of the plotting, as all the above essentially starts to happen again, only in the home of an Englishman named Morton (George Cole) – quite what Morton is doing in Austria in the early 19th century is never really established, nor is what language everyone is speaking, but I digress. Morton likewise finds himself taking Marcilla into his home, except now she is going by the name Carmilla. She seems just as keen on the company of Morton’s daughter Emma (Madeline Smith) as she was on Laura, too, despite the misgivings of her governess (Kate O’Mara). Is history about to repeat itself? Will handsome local lad Carl (Jon Finch) realise what’s going on, and will Peter Cushing come back for the climax of the movie?

As you can perhaps tell, narrative rigour is not The Vampire Lovers’ strongest suit, for not only is it rather repetitive, it doesn’t really bother to keep the audience in the picture when it comes to some fairly basic plot elements, such as what’s actually going on. It seems to be the case that Wilmer’s vampire hunting at the start of the film was not that thorough, and at least one (and possibly more) of the beasties has returned, many years later, to ravage the daughters of the local aristocracy. But who is the mother of Marcilla (or Carmilla)? Is she a vampire too? Who, for that matter, is the Man in Black who occasionally pops up to survey Carmilla’s (or Marcilla’s) doings with such evident satisfaction? Both of them disappear out of the film without explanation.

An uncharitable viewer might conclude that the film is less concerned with trivial things like coherent plotting than it is with Ingrid Pitt getting her kit off and sinking her fake fangs into the necks and bosoms of various other cast members (many stories of said fangs falling out and having to be retrieved from the cleavage of Kate O’Mara by enthusiastic prop hands are in circulation). The film is very much a product of its time, an exploitation movie in the truest sense – calculated to fully exploit the more liberal censorship regime which came into force in 1970, by including more explicit nudity and gore than had been possible in previous Hammer horror movies. This is certainly a much more lurid film than anything from the company’s 1960s output.

How much of this new direction was forced upon Hammer by the general decline of the British industry and how much by the film’s producers, Harry Fine and Michael Style, is a bit unclear – another oddity of the film is that it is, uniquely, a co-production between Hammer and American International Pictures (noted makers of some of Vincent Price’s best horror films) – you would have to be a bit imaginative to see this film as a true synthesis of the two company’s styles, though.

Apart from the decision to go in a more brazenly exploitative direction, The Vampire Lovers’ greatest innovation is the casting of Ingrid Pitt in its main role. Pitt is a world away from the typical decorative, fragile Hammer starlet – she has a powerful, mature presence, and is a better actress than you might assume. Of course, she’s quite obviously considerably older than the character she’s meant to be playing, not to mention the young girls upon whom she preys (Pitt was over 30 when she made the movie), but this is excusable in the circumstances: it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

The various scenes of Ingrid Pitt wafting about graveyards in something diaphanous with a plunging neckline have acquired a certain iconic quality of their own, and it’s easy to see why she’s just as much a Hammer icon as Cushing or Christopher Lee, despite only appearing in a couple of films for the company. That said, it’s equally easy to discern a little discomfort on the part of film-makers when it comes to making a film about such a powerful, sexually aggressive woman – in the end, of course, it’s a gaggle of middle-aged men who end her reign of slightly kinky terror, but even before this, it’s strongly implied that Carmilla (etc) is really the pawn of the Man in Black and not nearly as independent a woman as she might seem.

It would be slightly ridiculous to try and claim The Vampire Lovers as some kind of feminist movie, anyway, given it was largely designed to incorporate as much soft-core lesbianism and nudity as Hammer could possibly get away with. These days it seems mostly rather tame, and as a result the shortcomings of the plot are laid as bare as the younger female members of the cast. But there is the reliable pleasure of a Peter Cushing performance to consider, and the perhaps unexpected one of Ingrid Pitt’s performance, too. In the end this is a landmark movie in the history of Hammer horror, regardless of how good or not you think the film actually is.

 

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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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