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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Cushing’

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 serves in terms of getting the various characters from place to place and inserting the 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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I don’t get paid for writing about films, so why do I do it so much? The same reason I do anything else, I suppose: it seems worthwhile in some way or other. Another question which I get asked less often is why I’m so interested in films which are so old and (from a certain point of view) clunky that many people nowadays find them impossible to engage with.

Well – I don’t see the logic in saying that a film is bad just because it’s old; by that reasoning every film ever made is slowly deteriorating in quality all the time. But I do think that old movies offer us a useful perspective on the world at the time in which they were made, especially genre movies, which I generally find a lot more honest.

All of which is preamble to a look at the 1957 version of The Curse of Frankenstein, directed by Terence Fisher – yes, a bit of a mini-Hammer horror season of late. This particular movie comes loaded with significance – Hammer’s first Gothic horror movie, Christopher Lee’s first really striking lead role, the first colour version of this particular story, Lee’s first on-screen pairing with Peter Cushing…

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Cushing, of course, plays Baron Frankenstein himself. The film has an interesting framing device where a priest turns up at the cell where Frankenstein is being held prior to being guillotined for his terrible crimes – not because the Baron is seeking to repent, but because he wants someone to hear how none of it was really his fault…

Well, that’s a marginal claim at best, as we see. The film flashes back to Frankenstein as a youth (played by Melvyn Hayes from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, slightly startlingly), coming into his fortune and hiring his own tutor, Krempe (Robert Urquhart). Frankenstein’s brilliant intellect develops apace, and the investigations of the two men turn, almost inevitably, from conventional medical research to a somewhat darker avenue…

And it’s here, to be honest, that we start to see one of the things that marks Curse out as a product of its time. I was a bit indifferent about the Ken Branagh version of Frankenstein last year, but one thing which that telling does do well is to give Frankenstein some kind of motivation for his researches – why is this man so obsessively fascinated with and compelled to explore the secrets of life and death? Branagh answers this question; Fisher doesn’t. This film is more melodrama than drama, in which the plot dictates the characters’ actions rather than vice versa.

So Frankenstein starts assembling his infamous creation on rather dubious pretexts – mainly because the story demands it, as I said. Krempe is unimpressed and eventually refuses to participate, on the grounds that this experiment is obviously obscene. Perhaps it’s another example of cultural standards changing, or possibly it’s just me, but I wouldn’t say that reanimating a corpse is a ghastly crime against nature, per se – don’t we have defibrillators for just that purpose? Yet the film expects us to share Krempe’s opinion, I think.

The need to ensure this may be why Frankenstein himself, who is initially presented as someone unorthodox and slightly fixated but not actually evil, rapidly and not necessarily plausibly turns into a complete fiend. Needing a brain for his creature, he murders a kindly old professor who is visiting his home (sadly the brain gets damaged in a scuffle with Krempe) – and if that wasn’t enough, it is later revealed he has been up to some seigneurial whoa-ho-ho with the maid (Valerie Gaunt), whom he eventually has to dispose of using the Creature.

It’s a bit of a cliche to say this, but the fundamental difference between the Hammer cycle of Frankenstein movies and the Universal series is in their focus – the main character for Hammer is the Baron, while the Universal films are more about the Creature. This is certainly true here, as Christopher Lee doesn’t get much to do until quite late on (in a famous anecdote, he complained to Cushing about not getting any lines – ‘Count yourself lucky, I’ve read the script’ was Cushing’s reply), and he’s certainly more sinned against than sinning. Cushing’s Frankenstein, on the other hand, is definitely a bad guy.

So my memory has been cheating me, it seems – writing about the much later Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, I observed that Cushing’s Frankenstein was ‘rarely definitively evil’ – well, he certainly is here, originating the character. Possibly I’m letting Cushing’s usual screen persona of decent integrity confuse me, or the actor himself is quietly striving throughout to create a plausible characterisation in parallel with the requirements of the plot.

It all concludes with the usual mayhem, and along the way there are various examples of gleeful nastiness that horrified film critics at the time: severed body parts, acid baths, and a veritable fountain of Kensington Gore when Krempe puts a bullet in the Creature’s head (‘the shot heard round the world’ of horror films, as Mark Gatiss memorably put it a few years ago). This is a film of various creative tensions – first rate actors trying their best with melodramatic schlock, quality costume-drama trappings being laid about a gory B-movie – and perhaps it’s here that the essential magic of the Hammer films is to be found.

Every time I’ve written about one of the ‘first generation’ Hammer horrors in the past – mainly Dracula and The Mummy – I’ve commented, usually negatively, about how polite and well-mannered they were. That’s much less the case with The Curse of Frankenstein – there’s a rich vein of mischievious nastiness going on that still makes it stand out as something unusual, and special: the real origin of the Hammer horror brand, and an enjoyably over-the-top film even today.

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A group of European archaeologists discover the unopened tomb of a famous Egyptian dignitary, and despite the misgivings – and warnings – of some of the locals, they venture within in search of treasure and knowledge. Of course, while everything in the tomb is dead, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s completely inert…

I often talk about how the world’s most predictable movie genre is that of romantic comedy, but on the other hand you could make a fair case that the horror subgenre of walking mummy movies runs it pretty close: it feels like nearly all of them open in just this way, and what follows is often pretty samey too. I am here today to write about the 1959 telling of this particular tale, in Terence Fisher’s The Mummy.

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This is one of the very first Hammer horrors. In the preceding couple of years the studio had scored a couple of big hits with blood-splattered renditions of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, and were cheerfully ploughing their way through every other classic Gothic tale they could lay their hands on (not to mention The Hound of the Baskervilles). The creative personnel involved seem to have come as a job lot – in addition to Fisher as a director, all of these films star Peter Cushing as either the hero or anti-hero, plus Christopher Lee clawing his way to iconhood  in a variety of roles as the heavy of the piece.

This time around Cushing plays Banning, youngest of a trio of archaeologists who discover… oh, well, we’ve covered that bit already, haven’t we? The twist this time is that Cushing has done his leg in and can’t go into the tomb himself so it’s up to his dad to do the peering about and prying into secrets of which man was not meant to know. As you might expect, something mysterious in the tomb sends Banning Senior spectacularly off his nut and he has to be shipped off home, eventually followed by Banning Junior, his uncle, and the various finds he has extracted from the tomb.

Needless to say there is about the scene a suspicious Egyptian character (played on this occasion by George Pastell), who swears vengeance on the despoilers of the tomb, no matter how long it may take. Vengeance ends up taking about three years, mainly because Cushing has blown up the tomb entrance (not an archaeological technique I recall seeing on Time Team very often) and it takes Pastell this long to dig out his partner in retributory mayhem: Kharis, a disgraced former priest placed in the tomb with its occupant (a lady who he had a bit of a thing for, hence the disgrace). Kharis is, of course, played by Christopher Lee, and spends most of his time being tall, menacing, and heavily bandaged. There is a brief flashback to happier times in which Lee actually gets some dialogue, but this still isn’t a particularly demanding role for the great man.

Anyway, Pastell and Lee pursue Cushing and his family back to… well, I didn’t spot anything in the film that really pins down where the majority of it is set. I suppose it could well be the sort of home counties backdrop that’s one of Hammer’s default settings, but on the other hand there are a lot of Irish yokels, Irish policemen, and peat bogs in the area, so it may well be this is supposed to be rural Ireland (just for a change, you know). The Irish yokels and peat bog prove fairly central to the plot, as the former manage to dump Lee’s sarcophagus into the latter early on, with the result that he’s rather more slimy than the traditional conception of a mummy.

Banning Senior is still off his nut and has been incarcerated in the local Home for the Mentally Disordered (I honestly kid you not, it even has a sign outside), and it is here that Lee and Pastell commence their slimy series of salutory strangulations. Being a brilliant investigative scientist, it does not take Cushing too long to work out that something is going on – but will he manage to crack the case before Pastell works his way down the death list to where his name is scratched?

This was, obviously, Hammer’s first crack at doing a mummy movie (they would end up doing several more), and one of their first attempts at doing a Gothic horror film of any description. As I mentioned when writing about the original Hammer Dracula, these very early Hammer horrors are much better-behaved and less lurid than their successors – this one doesn’t have much in the way of Kensington Gore in it (Lee getting his tongue cut out was snipped at the censor’s behest), and the mummy’s pursuit of his beloved is almost entirely chaste as well. In the dual role of Princess Ananka and Cushing’s wife (yes, they are lookee-likees, a pretty remarkable coincidence which the film simply demands that you roll with) is Yvonne Furneaux, who doesn’t get a great deal to do beyond swish her hair back and forth and be carried about by Lee.

I suppose you could argue that the lookee-likee thing is just an inarticulated instance of the reincarnation trope which is a staple of this particular genre. But in every respect this is pretty much a bare-bones take on the story: I suppose the thinking at the time was that simply doing a mummy movie in colour was such a striking innovation that they didn’t have to worry about doing anything new or clever with the actual script, and as a result all we’re left with is a revenge melodrama largely consisting of a series of set-piece mummy attacks.

Christopher Lee, as you’d expect, gives it everything he’s got as the titular monster. To be honest, the part really doesn’t require that much, but Lee insists on giving Kharis little moments of pathos when he’s not strangling people or being stabbed or shot. He and Cushing approach their various physical confrontations with their customary gusto, and – again, as you’d expect – Cushing approaches the role of the misguided archaeologist with his usual commitment and precision. Even here the script verges on the perfunctory – the arc of Banning’s character should be that of an initially arrogant man forced to reconsider his worldview as a result of his confrontation with the dark forces he inadvertantly stirs up – the subtext of this whole genre is essentially ‘Let the past rest in peace’ – but again, the script doesn’t dig into this in any real detail.

The Mummy isn’t actually a bad film, but it is a short one, and perhaps that’s also a factor in how briskly by-the-numbers the script seems to be. This is a movie which covers all the essential elements of a mummy film atmospherically and effectively. It’s just that it barely does anything else.

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As 2013 draws to a close I find myself inadvertantly tying up a couple of loose ends from earlier in the year: or at least making a late addition to both the series of pieces celebrating the centenary of Peter Cushing’s birth (from June this year) and that looking at the work of Nigel Kneale (from September). That it’s also a Hammer movie is a bonus too; though it predates – just! – the studio’s reinvention of itself as the world’s greatest producer of genre and horror movies.

The film in question is Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman from 1957, a rather lurid and hokey title which the film itself either fails to live up to or doesn’t deserve, depending on what your expectations are. Like the Quatermass movies, this started life as a TV play and was then reconstituted as a feature release. It’s not terribly similar to Quatermass in terms of its subject matter, but there are some familiar Kneale themes visible if you look closely for them.

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Proceedings get underway with some appropriately ominous and slightly exotic music, as the credits appear over stock footage of mountain ranges. Being well versed in the ways of Hammer and their, er, limited budgets, I was expecting this to be the precursor to a film shot entirely on sound-stages, but this turned out to be not entirely the case.

Anyway, regardless of where it was filmed, the movie is set in Tibet – or possibly Nepal – where top boffin John Rollason (Peter Cushing) is engaged in a study of the local plantlife, aided by his wife and a junior boffin who’s vaguely comic-reliefy. We learn very quickly that Rollason has promised his wife he’s packed in his hobby of going on dangerous expeditions up mountains, and this lets us know that the movie is obviously going to be about him going on a dangerous expedition up a mountain. So it proves: the head lama of the monastery where Rollason is based makes various ominous comments about his motives and the place of Man in the world, and then some Americans turn up.

Chief American is Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker). Although Cushing is inarguably the star of the film and plays the lead role, the imported American star Tucker gets top billing in both the credits and on the poster: the demands of trying to sell your film in the States, I suppose. Anyway, as has been blatantly obvious since the title of the film came up, Rollason and Friend are both determined to track down – and, possibly, capture – a Yeti, and Friend has kitted out an expedition with that very end in mind.

However, the locals are not keen on this idea, and Cushing starts to have second thoughts too when he learns more of the kind of man he’s teamed up with – a chancer, an adventurer, a con man, and a mercenary, quite willing to take terrible risks or commit questionable acts if it means improving his chances of turning a profit. Things get even worse when they get up in the high valleys, where it becomes apparent the Yeti are more than simple ape-like hominids, and bring their peculiar powers to bear against the expedition…

There’s no denying that even if you discount the black-and-white photography and plummy accents of all the British characters, The Abominable Snowman is still a very mid-50s sort of movie. Looking for the Yeti was topical, back then, for one thing, with British newspapers funding expeditions to track down the beast (following Hillary’s conquest of Everest in 1952 there was almost a sense that the entire region was now British territory). And for all that it has a remote setting and looks on paper like a pulp B-movie creature feature, it has much wider themes. There’s a vein of A-bomb concern and general pessimism about the state of civilisation not very deeply buried and central to the main idea of the film.

General pessimism is more or less what you expect from an original Nigel Kneale screenplay, of course. This film was based on his play The Creature (the title is less pulpy, more ambiguous, and thus much more appropriate), and he rewrote the script himself – and then, apparently, found himself rewritten again by Val Guest, who wasn’t keen on Kneale’s tendency towards speechification. As it is, the film gets its points across fairly concisely, but a sense of a clash of sensibilities persists. For much of the movie it looks like the Yeti themselves are going to remain an elusive, off-camera presence, which would probably help the film’s credentials as a serious piece of work: there’s nothing like a man on lifts in a gorilla suit to make your serious statement look risible, after all. Slightly surprisingly, this decision was apparently Guest’s rather than Kneale’s – Kneale wanted to communicate the true nature of the Yeti through their appearance on-camera during the climax. Well, perhaps this was a nice idea, but for all that the appearance of ‘live’ Yeti is fleeting, it’s still a very qualified success at best.

This is a bit of a shame as in most other departments the film stands up well, given its age and budget. The movie has pretty decent production values, and includes a fair bit of second unit footage actually shot on location up a mountain (though in the Pyrenees rather than the Himalayas). There are occasional issues where second unit stuff filmed during the day is inserted into sequences set at night, but on the whole this is well-integrated and gives the film more of a sense of scale. Any film starring Peter Cushing is never going to have very serious problems in the acting department (though Tucker, to be honest, isn’t very good), and the script holds up quite well too.

The atom-age nihilism and existential angst feel a little dated now, but the structure of the piece is textbook stuff – this may even be another case of Kneale writing the textbook, I’m not sure. Certainly many creature feature tropes are present and correct here – the hostile locals, the capture of a creature-that-isn’t-a-creature, the minor party member who falls under the spell of the quarry, and so on. The integration of more mundane perils into the storyline is neatly done too. It’s just a shame that the actual conclusion of the film feels a little rushed and ambiguous: Rollason returns to the monastery and announces he is now certain that the Yeti do not exist – but is this because he now understands the desperate importance of letting them survive in peace, and is lying to protect them? Or does he genuinely believe it, having been mentally interfered with by the Yeti themselves? As I say, it’s ambiguous, and the script doesn’t flag this up in a way that indicates it’s intentional.

But this is just about the only significant stone I can throw at an otherwise very solid little film. Like I say, it is very dated by modern standards, and the general pessimism and thoughtfulness of the script aren’t things you’re likely to find in a genre movie nowadays. If nothing else it shows that, even before they discovered luridness and Kensington Gore, Hammer were still highly accomplished when it came to making genre movies. The Abominable Snowman is well worth a look if you like brainy 50s B-movies.

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sugar puffs

This post brought to you in association with Sugar Puffs.

I am in the fortunate position of knowing exactly which Peter Cushing film was my first, mainly because it’s the very first film I remember being taken to see at the cinema: it was, of course, the original Star Wars, in which our hero makes a relatively small but nevertheless potent appearance as co-villain Tarkin. The funny thing is that these days I don’t really think of Star Wars as a Peter Cushing movie, mainly because I was aware of it long before I came to appreciate Cushing as a performer.

The same is really true of the second Cushing movie I remember seeing, again at a very young age. This is another example of Peter Cushing lending his considerable powers to a wider pop-cultural phenomenon, and one which has a very special place in my affections. The movie is, of course, Gordon Flemyng’s Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150AD, from 1966. It’s Peter Cushing! It’s Doctor Who! What other movie was I possibly going to review on this, the centenary of Cushing’s birth?

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Recent years have been kind to the standing of the two very-nearly-Amicus movies within the wider world of Doctor Who, with various design elements from the films finding their way into the 21st century version of the show, and – I think – people being a bit more prepared to just relax and enjoy them on their own merits. For a long time, though, they definitely seemed to be frowned upon, if not actually reviled, for the heinous crime of conflicting with the canon of the TV show.

Well, they do, there’s no denying it: Peter Cushing is playing someone actually called Dr Who, and this isn’t exactly an adaptation of the original Dalek Invasion of Earth TV story, either. However, much to my amazement, I recently came across something purporting to be an interview with Cushing from the 70s, in which he proposes his own theory explaining how these movies could still be in continuity with the television series: the Celestial Toymaker turned the Doctor into a human called Doctor Who, and… well, anyway. If this is genuine (which I still doubt), it reveals a depth of knowledge of Doctor Who and interest in its continuity which resonates deeply with me. Mr Cushing, sir: as an actor you have thrilled and entertained me. As a writer and a decent human being you have inspired me. But it’s as a continuity cop that you really take my breath away.

But on with the movie. Whatever the faults of this film, and there are a few, the pre-credits sequence is perfectly crafted: Special Constable Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins) stumbles upon a burglary in progress and is roughed up by one of the thieves as they make their escape. Dazed, and attempting to summon assistance, Tom stumbles into what looks like an ordinary Police Box…

Well, inside he find the gadget-ridden interior of a time machine belonging to Dr Who (Cushing), who is just setting off on a trip to London in the year 2150 (Dr Who can apparently steer his version of the TARDIS, which his TV counterpart was still many years away from in 1966), taking his grand-daughter (Roberta Tovey) and niece (Jill Curzon) with him. However, the London of 2150 is in a right old state – everything has been demolished, except the matte paintings of famous landmarks and the billboards advertising a popular brand of breakfast cereal.

It transpires this is because the planet is now under the management of the universe’s most notorious mobility-challenged aliens, who have used an evil confluence of phone cubicles and hair driers to convert Earthmen into their PVC-clad slaves, the better to pursue their plan to extract the metallic core of the Earth (located just under Luton, apparently). Naturally Dr Who and his friends join up with the local resistance (principally Andrew Keir and Ray Brooks) to put a stop to this.

There’s no getting around this: there is an awful lot in Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150AD that’s practically crying out to be mercilessly mocked. The costume designs are frankly disastrous (the options are either 50s working class chic or head-to-toe PVC), the up-tempo jazz soundtrack borders on the inappropriate, there’s the whole issue of the product placement, there’s the question of how the Daleks managed to conquer the world when their ray guns appear to have an effective range of about fifteen feet, and so on.

In short, it’s all very, very camp, and outside the context of the wider TV series it comes across as silly, bordering on the outright ridiculous. Certainly, when compared to the TV version of this story, all the grimness and sharp edges of the story have vanished, its occasionally-nightmarish atmosphere completely dispelled. The much higher production values of the movie don’t really work in the story’s favour, much reducing its rawness and darkness.

Having said all that… this movie is still a tremendous amount of fun. The Daleks look fabulous, better than they ever did on TV until the 80s at least, and there’s Peter Cushing giving us his take on the Doctor, too. Given that Cushing took the role partly because he wanted to shake off his image as the horror man (shades of William Hartnell!), it’s not really surprising that his performance here is much more mannered than usual: he’s putting on a rather affected voice and acting older (he was 52 when this film was made). I’ve heard his Doctor described as a doddery old gent, but if so he’s no worse than the first Doctor of the TV show. There’s steel here, too, when it’s called for, and also a very charming mercuriality that Hartnell himself could never quite manage.

Even when the film is being monumentally silly, it still entertains. Bernard Cribbins plays most of it fairly straight, but he does get the chance to participate in the awesome food machine sequence. Andrew Keir (who played a surrogate Cushing for Hammer a couple of times, as well as a brilliant Quatermass) appears to think he’s in a serious drama, but still doesn’t come across as ridiculous for doing so.

And it is still fundamentally classic Doctor Who in terms of its imagery, its structure and its plot: there is good versus evil, the merest dash of moral ambiguity, the triumph of wisdom over brute force, and an overwhelming faith in the power of kindness, decency and silliness as a defence against the horrors of the world. I’ll buy that and call it Doctor Who, any day of the week. Peter Cushing was apparently always grateful to have been involved with the world of Doctor Who, even in such a peripheral way. I hope we have finally reached a point where everyone who cares about Doctor Who can be proud of – and indeed celebrate – the fact that we can count an actor as great as Peter Cushing amongst our Doctors.

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You can’t do a Peter Cushing celebration without including a proper Hammer horror movie, and if you’re only going to do one then it should really be a Frankenstein film, the series which – in every sense worth considering – he led for the studio. I have to confess that, much as I love Cushing’s performances, I’m not a particular fan of these films – though I do like Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell – but obviously other opinions are available. For example, let us consider the words of Martin Scorsese, talking ahead of a season of his favourite films in 1987: ‘If I single this one out it’s because here they actually isolate the soul… The implied metaphysics are close to something sublime.’ Yowser.

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Scorsese is referring to 1967’s Frankenstein Created Woman (the title spoofs Roger Vadim’s 1958 movie And God Created Woman), which opens, sublimely, with a low-angle shot of a guillotine. There follows a jolly sequence in which Duncan Lamont plays a nutter who’s being beheaded for murder, something which doesn’t seem to bother him much until his young son Hans turns up. Nevertheless, the sentence is carried out, the father being guillotined in front of the boy. This is really only tangentially connected to the plot, but it’s still a great opening.

One title sequence later (Lamont gets fifth billing, despite already having had his head chopped off), we have skipped forward many years and Hans is now a strapping young man (Robert Webb), which is good, and working as a lab assistant for Baron Frankenstein (Cushing), which is probably more questionable. With the help of Hans and bumbling local doctor Hertz (Thorley Walters), the Baron is taking his peculiar researches in a new direction: rather than creating new life, he is now intent on preserving existing forms of it. To this end he has been putting himself into suspended animation to see what happens to his soul, and Cushing gets a great ‘entrance’ where Webb and Walters have to drag him out of a fridge and defibrillate him back to life.

Inter-film continuity was never really a priority with Hammer, and this film doesn’t really attempt to dovetail with the previous film in the series, The Evil of Frankenstein. Frankenstein is operating under his real name, although he seems short of resources, and he’s not quite the criminal outcast he is in most of the Hammer sequels. He has lost some of the use of his hands, though it’s never specified how (a plot detail which is picked up again in Monster from Hell). He still has a reputation as a sorcerer amongst the local yokels, but he doesn’t have a castle for them to burn down.

Anyway, having been defrosted, the Baron packs Hans off to the local pub to buy some champagne. It turns out that Hans is in love with the landlord’s daughter, Christina (Susan Denberg): one of the slightly difficult aspects of this film is the presentation of Christina as suffering from an unspecified disability, with a scarred face and partial paralysis. This doesn’t bother Hans, though. What does bother him is cruel treatment of his girl by three nasty young rakes, and there are some fisticuffs before the evening is out.

Having run out of cash, the upper-class twits try to rob the pub, but they are discovered by Christina’s dad, so they beat him to death. Unfortunately, all the circumstantial evidence is pointing to Hans and after seeing Christina off on a trip to see a medical specialist (her absence is a plot point), he is hauled in and put on trial. Surprisingly, it turns out that having the notorious Baron Frankenstein and his idiot assistant appear as character witnesses is not an advantage in a court case, and Hans is sentenced to be guillotined too.

Up to this point, Frankenstein has been depicted as a brilliant, obsessive scientist (he’s even invented the nuclear reactor a century early), rather than a bad guy, but his response to learning his assistant is going to be executed is basically to start rubbing his hands and planning what he can do with the body. He has figured out a way to isolate the soul of someone recently deceased (that guy Scorsese knows what he’s on about) and is just looking for a test subject. There is even more good news, for the Baron at least, when an unwitting Christina comes across her boyfriend being beheaded for the murder of her father. This comes as a bit of a shock and she promptly flings herself into the nearest river, her body being delivered to Frankenstein’s lab as well (presumably he has some sort of first-refusal arrangement in place).

I know geniuses see the world differently to the rest of us, but just how detached from reality do you have to be to think that transplanting the soul of your wrongfully-executed assistant into the body of his own lover, after she commits suicide, is in any way a good idea? Nevertheless, that’s what Frankenstein does, taking the opportunity to fix Christina’s various disabilities and blemishes along the way – he also turns her into a blonde (oh, good grief). Little does he suspect that, though seemingly a total amnesiac, the Hans/Christina amalgam retains the young man’s memories of the three real murderers and is intent on exacting a bloody revenge…

(Well… there is the minor issue of it never being explained how Hans knows who the real murderers are. Maybe he’s just killing them because he doesn’t like them.)

Easy, tiger.

Easy, tiger.

Hammer advertised this movie with a series of quite well-known publicity shots featuring Cushing and Denberg in some, er, interesting poses, but to be perfectly honest the film itself is a lot less fun than the photos imply. As I hope I’ve managed to suggest, the plot is a strange mixture of metaphysical science fantasy and brutal revenge melodrama, not really like any of the other Hammer Frankensteins. This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue, but definitely problematic is the fact that the revenge melodrama is definitely what the script seems most interested in. While Frankenstein himself is essential to the plot, he’s never really central to it. Cushing walks off with the movie, as usual, but he feels like a character turn rather than the genuine star. It’s hard to imagine how this could be fixed without totally rethinking the premise of the film, but it’s still a problem, and it may explain why this script apparently hung around for years prior to being made (apparently it was written before the Evil of Frankenstein script, then put on hold when Hammer negotiated the rights to the classic Frankenstein’s Monster makeup from Universal, allowing them to make that film).

Nevertheless, this is a classic golden-age Hammer horror film: possibly formulaic, but it is for the most part a bloody good formula. James Bernard contributes another wonderful score, the character actors get their teeth into their material, the younger members of the cast aren’t too embarrassing, and the production values are relatively lavish. Hammer afficionados will recognise most of the locations from the studio’s other films, but that’s part of their charm and identity.

Still – one really could wish for more Peter Cushing in a Hammer Frankenstein movie, and more of a sense of hubristic transgression in the central premise (the Baron’s experiment does seem weird, but that’s mainly because of the relationship of the two people involved in it). Failing that, even a slightly deeper exploration of the metaphysical foundation of the film might have made for a more satisfying production. As it is, Frankenstein Created Woman yomps along briskly and logically to its conclusion, and Cushing himself is exemplary, but one can never quite shake off the vague sense that this is a movie hobbled by an underpowered script.

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You know, I’ve started to wish I’d planned ahead with this special series of Peter Cushing-related posts – here we are with number three and our hero still hasn’t had a proper leading role yet. Still, at least it’s finally a film, and a Hammer production to boot: from the studio’s heyday, it’s 1965’s She, directed by Robert Day.

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Based on the (according to the credits) ‘Famous Novel’ by H. Rider Haggard, our story opens in a Palestinian nightclub in the aftermath of the First World War, where we meet three English survivors who are looking for a purpose in life. Holly, a former academic, is played by Cushing, his manservant Job is played by Bernard Cribbins, and Leo, the one with juvenile lead written all over him, is played by perennial Hammer hunk John Richardson. While Holly and Job cavort with some belly dancers (the actors appear to be enjoying this, as you would I suppose), Leo is led astray by a mysterious girl named Ustane (Rosenda Monteros).

I feel obliged to point out that not least of the mysteries surrounding Ustane are her accent and ethnic origin. I think she’s supposed to be of vaguely Arabic descent, or possibly Egyptian, but Monteros is of course Mexican (she famously played Horst Bucholz’s love interest in The Magnificent Seven), and her accent basically defies description. That said, if you’re going to worry about roles being given to people of the wrong national ancestry, then She will almost certainly give you an ulcer, as we shall see.

Anyway, Ustane lures Leo off to an encounter with another mysterious woman, Ayesha, who is played by top-billed Ursula Andress (ancestry and accent: Swiss-German). She seems eerily familiar to Leo, and not because he’s seen Dr No. Ayesha gives Leo directions to a fabled lost city where she is in charge and invites him to come on a visit. This is not particularly to the liking of her high priest, Billali, played by Christopher Lee (ancestry: all over the place, accent: unmistakably English). Such is the scramble for prominence at the top of this film – even Richardson, the male lead, only gets fourth billing after Andress, Cushing, and Cribbins – that Lee has to settle for a dignified ‘and’, though he does have rather more than a cameo. (I still think naming a character ‘Billali’ only ten years after the release of Rock Around the Clock was probably a mistake.)

The fact that this is rather a lavish production by Hammer standards is made clear as the movie goes on location in the desert of southern Israel to show Leo, Holly, and Job’s journey to the lost city. It all looks rather impressive, and suggestively reminiscent of another famous 60s movie, but apparently it was not a comfortable shoot for the cast: in his autobiography, Peter Cushing recalls that Richardson contracted dysentery from drinking contaminated water and Cribbins was shot up the fundament by a misplaced pyro during one of the action sequences.

Anyway, la chica Ustane rescues our hero from the perils of the desert (and the special effects) and takes them home to meet her dad, the slave-master of the lost city, played by Andre Morell (ancestry: ooh, I’m not sure, Dutch from the sound of things, accent: sort of vaguely neutral). Unfortunately the slaves try to eat Leo, but before they can tuck in our heroes are whisked off to the city to meet Ayesha formally and have the plot explained to them.

It transpires that Andress is a three-thousand-year-old Egyptian noblewoman. (I know that sounds far-fetched, but I promise you: she really is supposed to be Egyptian.) She and her followers were banished here in ancient times after she jealously murdered her lover. Luckily, a passing desert hermit showed her the secret of immortality and she has been waiting for the reincarnation of her ex to show up ever since. And Leo is he! But will he surrender himself to the power of a woman who, despite her obvious charms, is clearly a bunny-boiler on an epic scale? How will Ayesha react to the thing that Leo and Ustane clearly have going on? And does anyone seriously expect Christopher Lee to appear in this kind of movie without having a go at being the main villain?

She is really a film of two halves – the first half, which really contains all the location stuff, really does a good job of showing the budget off, and one has to wonder if all this yomping about in the desert is actually Hammer’s attempt at knocking off Lawrence of Arabia: Richardson appears to have been styled to resemble Peter O’Toole, there are various long shots of folk on camels, Montero gets an entrance not entirely unlike Omar Sharif’s, and so on. If so, one can’t fault the ambition of the studio, but an epic panorama and a sweeping soundtrack do not a classic make.

The problem is that the rest of the movie is stringently studio-bound – the sets are mostly pretty good, but nevertheless it’s on soundstages – and really not very much happens beyond a lot of slightly abstract discussion. Despite the Hammer name, this isn’t really a horror movie, there’s a slave revolt at the end but you still couldn’t honestly call it an action film, it’s obviously not a serious drama, and yet the central relationship between Andress and Richardson is so underpowered that it doesn’t work as a torrid romance, either. The whole thing is much too well-behaved to work as an exploitation movie of any kind, if we’re honest – in the end it’s just an odd sort of fantasy adventure, more by default than anything else.

It doesn’t really help that the three most obvious charismatic cast members – by which I mean Cushing, Lee, and Cribbins – all get stuck in what are basically supporting roles, with the main plot concerning Richardson and Andress. Neither of them are brilliant actors, if we’re honest – I suppose we must cut Andress some slack because she is being dubbed, after all (insanely, the person dubbing her lines is also doing a Swiss-German accent) – but the script is much to blame as well. It is rather insipid stuff that never really gets going, and in the end one is left wondering exactly what the idea behind this film is – the danger of obsessive passion? The corrupting effects of beauty, immortality, and absolute power? The cyclical nature of history?

In the end I rather suspect She is more about some well-cinematographed bits of desert and Andress in a series of nice frocks than anything else, with the character actors cunningly deployed around the edges to give it some gravitas and charm, which they obviously do. It’s not a great film, or even a particularly fun one, but it’s pretty to look at and hard to actively dislike, despite some very dated racial politics. There aren’t a huge number of non-horror films that you could honestly say were essential Hammer, but She probably qualifies, despite all its weaknesses.

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